The Bombers have been a contrasting and confusing side this season. They’re ranked first in the competition for tackles, but 16th in contested possessions. The side sits at second in the league for centre clearances, but dead last for stoppage clearances. They average the second-most goals per match, but have won just two games and languish in 15th on the ladder.
Jake Stringer has had a lot to do with the good, and very little to do with the bad. In his absence, Essendon will be missing its midfield bull and two-time leading goal-kicker. The numbers behind Stringer’s value show there is major cause for concern at Bomberland without their star.
Under Ben Rutten, the Bombers have improved from the 12th best-tackling side in 2020 to first in 2021. They’re leading the top of the table Demons, who are second in tackles, by 31 across the first eight rounds (before the commencement of round nine).
Last year’s minor premiers, Port Adelaide, also led the competition in tackles. Ken Hinkley’s side applied immense pressure around the ball which helped it to a preliminary final birth in 2020. However, the Power were also first in the league for contested possessions. They beat their opposition to the ball more than any other team, but also attacked their opponents’ ball carriers when they didn’t have it. The Power was the team to beat in 2020’s regular season because of their ability to win the footy in the contest and off their opponents.
This is Essendon’s cause for concern in 2021; Ben Rutten’s side has been second to the ball too often. The Bombers accumulate 132.5 contested possessions per game which ranks them a lowly 16th in the competition, ahead of the struggling Hawks and Kangaroos only.
Jake Stringer: Centre clearance specialist
Against bigger bodies, the small midfield trio of Darcy Parish, Andy McGrath, and Zach Merrett struggle to get their hands to the ball first. In round eight, Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper helped to win the contested possession count 135-117 for GWS. This was despite Shane Mumford losing the hit-out battle to second-choice ruckman Andrew Phillips 28-36.
Rutten has praised his side for its attack on the man around the contest and ability to restrict ball movement but knows winning the contested ball isn’t always going to be possible with his midfielders on the park.
“I think on the whole, on the season, our tackling, and our pressure and our stuff around the ball has been really good,” Rutten stated.
“It’s a bit of a combination between where we’re turning the ball over and how well we are set up behind the ball defensively. There’s a fair bit that goes into that but that’s part of that consistency that we’re trying to build. At the moment when we don’t have momentum… we’re leaking too many goals and too big a scores.”
Jake Stringer was Essendon’s answer to its contested possession problem. The big-bodied forward has played as a centre clearance specialist since Anzac Day, where he attended a team-high 27 centre bounces.
He had an immediate impact in the Essendon on-ball brigade. The side is averaging the second-most centre clearances per game despite its alarming contested possession differential. Only the star-studded Western Bulldogs average more centre clearances than the Dons.
In round five when Stringer was playing forward, the Bombers were beaten in the centre clearances 13-9. Since then, they have won it 18-13 and 21-13 in his two full games as a midfielder. Half of his 12 disposals per match are contested, and he is winning a career-high 2.3 centre clearances per match.
The sharp juxtaposition of Essendon comes with its alarming stoppage clearance numbers. While being second in the competition for centre clearances, Rutten’s men are dead last in stoppage clearances, averaging just 18.3 per game which is nine less than the league-leading Cats.
More AFL News
These numbers correlate with Stringer’s involvement. Once he has attended the centre bounce, he charges forward, forcing his midfield opponent to follow him into their backline where he creates a mismatch. If his opponent doesn’t run back with him, it creates confusion as opposition defences work out who is picking up the dynamic forward.
As a result, Stringer isn’t involved in stoppages around the ground (averaging just 0.4 stoppage clearances per game), and the smaller Essendon midfielders have struggled to compensate.
Rutten is scratching his head as he tries to remedy his side without Jake Stringer but has thrown out two names that may fit into his role.
“It’s a shame about Jakey,” Rutten admitted.
“We’ve got Kyle Langford, who we’ve been playing a little bit more on the wing. He’s got the flexibility in his game to be able to play forward or inside as well.
“We really liked Matt Guelfi’s game, as well, coming on as the sub. He’s played predominantly down back for us when he’s played AFL. He played a bit more forward and wing [when he came on last week] so we like what he did there as well.
“We know a real strength of ‘Guelfs’ is his flexibility; he can play in multiple positions and that’s why he came on and had a real impact in the game, I thought.”
Translating inside 50 dominance
Jake Stringer is still a dynamic forward first and foremost. That’s where his absence will be felt most for the Dons. For a side lacking cohesion between its midfielders and forwards, taking away its leading goal-kicker in two of the last three seasons further disrupts Rutten’s plans.
The Bombers average the second-most goals per game and have recorded consecutive games of 60 or more inside 50s.
Moving the ball quickly has translated to high-scoring games, but also led to intercepts in dangerous areas. They’ve ended up losing both matches in 100-point shootouts.
Rutten admitted his side’s turnovers were costly, but they were occurring for multiple reasons. Some of that can be addressed in the now, but there is also an element of
“Sometimes it’s the ball carrier’s decision making, and where he’s kicking the ball. It’s probably linked in with our turnovers,” Rutten said.
“Part of that is also our forward line, building their chemistry and cohesion. Similar to our backline line – Peter Wright’s in there, Cale Hooker’s down there as a permanent forward as well now.
“I think we’re always striving for that connection and that consistency going inside 50, [which] is that something that we haven’t quite had in the last few weeks. It’s certainly something that will get better over time. But there’s also some things we can do straight away to get an impact.
“We’re pretty confident we can make some inroads in that fairly quickly.”
Without Jake Stringer up forward or through the centre bounces, Essendon has been a side lacking in key categories this year. There is opportunity for players to step up, but history shows his value to the Dons is challenging to replace.