As Essendon turned up the pressure on their incompetence hose and pointed it towards the flickering flame of their season, Brendon Goddard sat down on the MCG turf with his legs stretched out like a child in kindergarten.
Goddard had just inexplicably given up a holding the ball free kick inside defensive 50, mowed down by Jack Gunston, except it wasn’t really a ‘mowing down’, it was more a ‘Brendon Goddard ran straight towards Jack Gunston and forgot to do anything with the ball’ type of scenario.
Gunston goaled, midway the third term, and the flood gates opened. A dreadful arm-wrestle that Essendon were narrowly winning quickly became the set of Boogie Nights – with Hawthorn the 1970s and Essendon the 1980s.
There was little fight, little noise, as the Bombers dropped to 2-5, with games against Geelong and Richmond and away to GWS and West Coast looming in their next six weeks. Goddard seated on the turf was the image that resonated most – a fiery veteran infamous for his fire now relaxing on the ground, not emotional in the slightest, just resigned, nonplussed – almost bemused by it all.
As the Hawks piled on the goals, it became clear that Essendon weren’t going to do anything about it. Nor, in their current capacity, were they going to even be able to do anything about it.
The Worsfold Bombers have always been an oddly constructed team – heavy on key position talent and expert ball users by foot, with glaring holes in the departments of physicality and, most importantly, the entire midfield.
It’s not just the lack of pedigree in the middle of the ground – it’s the complete, utter lack of force. The Bombers are incapable of playing with fury at the point of attack. They always seem to be physically overwhelmed, which makes sense when you realise that none of Zach Merrett, Dyson Heppell, Darcy Parish, Devon Smith, David Zaharakis or Travis Colyer are heavier than 82kg.
Somehow, last season Essendon got away with its midfield shortcomings, by almost exorcising the midfield from the game. They set up so well and the moved the ball so quickly and incisively by foot out of defence that they played from half-back to half-forward. They applied pressure to the midfield wound, stemming the bleeding there, then lived on the counter, a capable defence absorbing entries then slingshotting the ball to a devastating forward line.
Now, all that’s left is a malfunctioning forward line, a broken defence, and a still shit midfield. The defence is under siege and seems to reach a breaking point in the second half of games regularly. The degree to which the team seems to miss James Kelly is disturbing.
The rhythm of last year’s ball movement by foot is gone, replaced by a depressed medley of bleak handballs. The forward line doesn’t apply any pressure and can’t keep the ball locked in. The dynamism of last year’s attack was built primarily on the power and stature of Joe Daniher and the pace and savvy of Orazio Fantasia. Both are injured, and the forward line is dead, led now by the memory of Jake Stringer.
Nothing makes sense. Where last season they were decisive, now Essendon will take a mark in the corridor in an advantage situation, slowly go back on the mark and chip wide to the wing. Each possession exists in its own sad universe, connected to nothing – one expertly weighted Zach Merrett kick to a teammate leads only to stagnation afterwards; a quick, bulleted Michael Hurley handball out of defence finds someone in space who has nowhere to go.
The Bombers have enough young or prime-age talent that this is not hopeless. They will be better this year than they’ve shown, and they will be better next year. But right now, this team isn’t good at anything – their great weakness finally exposed, with no strengths left to cover it up.