IN 2023 Melbourne began as the hunted.
Reining premiers and seemingly unbeatable across the first half of the home and away season, the Demons were regularly setting new AFLW records.
Most consecutive wins, highest average score across and home and away season, the first joint AFLW leading goalkickers. It looked like they were on track to become the first club to win back-to-back AFLW premierships.
But then some cracks started to form. While on the surface Melbourne still looked like a pace-setter, areas of vulnerability started to become more obvious to upcoming opponents. Big enough vulnerabilities that the side would eventually become the second team in AFLW history to be knocked out of finals in straight sets.
In round six, Adelaide showed the rest of the competition that the Demons were beatable, and provided a blueprint just how to do it. From there, it simply became about whether opposition sides could maintain the rage for long enough throughout games to snag the win.
The loss to Adelaide, where Melbourne was at full strength except for the absence of Paxy Paxman, was a high-pressure environment that exposed the Demons' midfield and its unwillingness to be accountable to their direct opponents.
While Melbourne seemed to be back on track the following week with a 70-point win over West Coast, it didn't dominate what would go on to be the 17th-placed side in the way one might expect. The Eagles held Melbourne goalless through the second quarter – something only Adelaide had been able to do to that point.
A win over North Melbourne in round eight felt significant, with the Demons registering their biggest win over their local rivals and quelling the impact of star player Jasmine Garner. But in the process, they were able to kick just 37 points – their lowest score of the season to date.
Such a heavy focus on trying to defend powerful teams had started to impact their own ability to transition the ball and score.
This was in part due to a Melbourne defensive system that wanted to use its smalls to gain possession and start attacking chains, but could be broken down when forced to defend strong individual players in one-on-ones.
Meanwhile, midfields started to acknowledge that vice-captain Tyla Hanks was the main playmaker for the Demons through the middle. Shut her – and specifically, her forward handball out of congestion – down, and Melbourne's ball movement becomes stunted.
Not only this, compared to other elite midfield groups, Melbourne's is somewhat undersized. Hanks, standing at 157cm, Eliza West (162cm), and Olivia Purcell (161cm) are generally the first starters at the source for the side, with support typically coming from Shelley Heath (160cm), Paxman (170cm) and Lily Mithen (159cm).
This gave opposition midfields a chance to create physical battles at the contest, disrupting efficient exits from stoppage and, again, stunting the Demons' dangerous attacking ball movement that was once such a feature of their game.
Ultimately this led the highest scoring side the competition had ever seen to kick just two goals across a nine-quarter stretch from halftime against Brisbane in round 10 through to the third quarter in Sunday's semi final loss to Geelong.
While some injury issues certainly had an impact – Tayla Harris missed a three-game stretch from rounds seven to nine, Sarah Lampard was out of action from round eight, and Casey Sherriff sat out the finals series with a fractured arm – Melbourne is a club that has prided itself on system over personnel.
But once the blueprint to break down that system was shown in that round six game, the Demons began leaning on big individual performances to remain in touch. Eden Zanker's five goals against the Crows meant the margin was just 10 points despite being soundly outplayed.
Alyssa Bannan's five goals against West Coast blew the game out to that 70-point win rather than a regulation six-goal win. Paxman's 27-disposal, one-goal performance against Fremantle in round nine wrestled back momentum in her side's favour as the visitors threatened an upset.
As they reached finals, however, and were tasked with battling the best sides in the competition in consecutive weeks, the Demons' reliance on individual brilliance to prop up the system became unsustainable.
Limiting the impact of Hanks in the middle, double-teaming Zanker out of the goalsquare, and forcing Libby Birch to battle it out in a one-on-one for extended periods of games made each line that little bit weaker. And once those cracks had been opened up, strong sides like Brisbane, North Melbourne, and Geelong were able to walk through them to get games going their way.
Ultimately that saw Melbourne bundled out of finals in straight sets, leaving the program with a fire burning to atone next year. With lessons seared into their memories to become more battle-hardened for the 2024 season.
But a positive for the competition, however, is the increasing number of challengers at the top of the table. Challengers who will have watched both Melbourne's high and low points this season to themselves get better.