If you don’t get what you want with a paintbrush, use your fists instead. And vice versa. This is what Marcus Bontempelli has taught me.
Football is part art, part violence, part artful violence. There are moments of beauty, of subtlety, deftness and timing, and moments of brutality, collision, and hurt. Somehow, Bontempelli is all of these moments.
He is one of the game’s most cerebral players, and also one of its most physically imposing. What has always made him special is not his brain or his size, but the impossible combination of the two. He makes everyone else look small and slow around him, as content to crush someone and rise above them as he is to sidestep them. Like a more indie Dustin Martin, he is a genius at navigating tight quarters, but the genius is almost cheapened by the fact that the slick navigation often feels totally unnecessary because he could just plough over someone like he was driving a truck instead of ice skating around them as he prefers to.
In the past, Bontempelli seemed more comfortable being a genius. Playing in the midfield, with more space, more moving parts, more decisions, the ground was a larger canvas to paint on. But now, spending more time in the forward line, Bontempelli has become the most refined brawler in the game.
He can rely on being smarter than his opponent, but he can also lean on just being a much more powerful man than they are. He is the same height and weight as Nick Riewoldt, but with the dexterity of a small midfielder. Playing closer to goal, with the ground suddenly shorter and the aims of the game much more immediate – get ball, kick a goal – Bontempelli’s physicality and aerial ability are being weaponised like never before.
He tormented Brisbane on Saturday evening, finishing about three inches shy of a five-goal haul. He won the game with his goal-kicking anyway, accuracy finally honed by the death, booting two in the last quarter to ensure the result. It was a match that seemed to be slipping away – and the Bulldogs season surely would have slipped away with it – and then Bontempelli clutched onto it and pulled it back from the cliff’s edge. He did it with strength.
There were still, of course, the moments of delicate exquisiteness: an opposite foot kick under pressure that hit Jack Redpath for a shot on goal, a final quarter opposite hand handball somehow finding Jack MacRae. How the latter found its target in perfect stride, how it was even released in the first place, and how it followed the trajectory it took from the angle it was fired from, will always elude me.
The Bulldogs appeared headed for the quintessential hangover season, but Bontempelli helped sober them up, and now his brilliance is making fans deliriously drunk again.
This has always been an imperfect team, and this year, even in their best games, the imperfections have become much more apparent. There is some chance that the tenth best player on GWS’s list is better than the second best player on the Bulldogs’ list (Jack MacRae, for mine).
But the best player across both lists, by a street, plays for the Bulldogs. That is the starting point of hope for the Dogs on Friday night, and for the nights left in this season and those to come.