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Essendon season review: MVP, surprise packet, low point, final grade

Essendon's season ended in the elimination final at the hands of West Coast. All pictures: AFL Photos - AFL,Tag-Analysis,Season reviews,Essendon Bombers
Essendon's season ended in the elimination final at the hands of West Coast. All pictures: AFL Photos
In a nutshell

Essendon's poor start to the season again saw the Bombers treading a fine line in the second half of the year before scraping into the finals. They claimed nine wins from their last 14 home and away games to finish in eighth position, but were unable to cause any damage in the finals, being belted by West Coast in the elimination final.

What we said in the pre-season

This reporter tipped Essendon to finish sixth on the ladder, with recruit Dylan Shiel expected to be a big difference in the Bombers' rise back into premiership contention. However, the gap between the best sides and Essendon was still stark: the Bombers still couldn't beat Collingwood, Richmond, West Coast and Geelong, and were thrashed by Greater Western Sydney in round one.

What worked

The half-back line 
Essendon has the most ballistic, brilliant half-back line in the competition with speedy duo Adam Saad and Conor McKenna. The pair's pace sets up Essendon's slingshot ball movement and has become a key way the Bombers generate scores.

More midfield time for Darcy Parish 
The Bombers have spent time playing Parish as a half-forward in his early years at the club, and left him out for round one, but he showed this year he is a genuine ball-winning midfielder. He averaged 21 disposals and had a breakout patch in the middle of the season, including a 31-disposal effort and two-goal game against Carlton in round 11.

 

Winning close games 
Essendon won five out of seven games decided by 10 or fewer points, making it a strong side in close games. Four of those came in a five-week stretch, when the Bombers won tight contests with Greater Western Sydney, Sydney, North Melbourne and Gold Coast, and also travelled to Adelaide and beat the Crows during that patch.

What failed

Getting Joe Daniher's body right 
Daniher returned after missing nearly all of last year with a groin injury to succumb to the same issue after just four games this year, forcing him into surgery. He has yet to completely commit to playing at Essendon next year after his 'casual' match-up with Swans boss Tom Harley during the season. 

Finding consistency 
The Bombers talk plenty about being a more consistent side. But it's hard to see much evidence of it after another up-and-down season where you could never really know what they were going to produce any given week.

Breaking the drought 
Essendon managed to get back into the top eight for the first time since 2017, but was again thrashed in a final. It was their fifth straight elimination final loss – all have been disasters for different reasons – and they still haven't won a final since 2004. The Bombers are right in saying they don't have a monkey on their back. It's actually a gorilla. 

Overall rating

C+

Some credit goes to the Bombers for not giving up after their 3-5 opening to the season but a middling finish on the ladder and then a poor exit from the finals means their mediocre year doesn't warrant too many plaudits. 

The coach

John Worsfold has been under immense scrutiny and had to defend his job at different stages of the season. The club has now publicly committed to keeping him on for 2020, which is the final season of his contract. Worsfold has now had a full list at his disposal for three seasons since the write-off of 2016, so finals success is a must for next year.

MVP

Jake Stringer: He was Essendon's most important player this season, particularly given the long absence of Daniher. Stringer kicked 33 goals from 19 games, with hamstring niggles forcing him out at stages across the year. He led the Bombers' goalkicking for the second straight season since joining the club from the Bulldogs.

Surprise packet

Mason Redman: The defender had endured a tough run with injury before this season, managing just five games in his first three seasons at Essendon. But he settled into the Essendon backline with aplomb this year, adding pace, grunt and sharp kicking skills.

Get excited

Aaron Francis: One of the few positives to come out of Essendon's elimination final drubbing was the performance of Francis, who had 20 disposals and nine marks against the Eagles in the back half and was impressive. Essendon still needs him to re-sign, but if he does he needs to be a backline mainstay next year.

Disappointment

Orazio Fantasia: The 23-year-old battled a hip injury in the second half of the season that will require surgery. It limited his output in what was overall a quieter year for the small forward. He kicked 20 goals from 15 games and eight of those came in two games. Essendon needs him at his best because he brings crucial speed and class.

Best win

Round 17: Essendon 12.14 (86) def North Melbourne 12.9 (81)

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti led Essendon to an amazing comeback against the Roos. In the last 30 seconds, McDonald-Tipungwuti snapped an amazing goal from the pocket to help Essendon to a five-point win. It was his fourth goal of the game.

INDICATIVE DRAFT ORDER Dons, Dogs locked in, Giants' double win

Best individual performance

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti: Round four v Brisbane

The electric small forward certainly provided his fair share of highlights this year. But round four was the best game of his time in the red and black, booting a career-best seven goals from 20 disposals in Essendon's strong win over the Lions.

Low point

Nothing comes close to the round 21 embarrassment at the hands of the Western Bulldogs. Essendon kicked the opening goal 20 seconds into the game and then didn't kick another for the next 108 minutes as the Dogs piled on 21 unanswered goals. The 104-point defeat nearly derailed the Bombers' finals hopes.

Bombers fans vented their anger after the dismal loss to the Bulldogs. 

The big questions

How do they take the next step? 
Getting Devon Smith back from the knee injury that saw him miss most of 2019 will be important, as will Daniher, should he stick with his contract for next year. But the Bombers must get more out of more players to contend. 

Do they need to change their game plan? 
Essendon plays a frenetic, thrilling brand of football. But the question has been raised about its susceptibilities in September, when games naturally get more congested and contested and the corridor gets shut down. It will be interesting to see if Essendon forsakes some of the dash for a style proven in the finals, with incoming assistant Blake Caracella's influence to be something to keep an eye on.

Who steps up? 
The Bombers need some growth from within. Who is it going to be? Can Jordan Ridley be a senior regular? Will Kobe Mutch and Brayden Ham overtake other wingmen? Does Sam Draper become a No.1 ruckman? Will Brandon Zerk-Thatcher force his way into the back half?

Season in a movie title

Up in the Air. A film about uncertain futures in a changing world. There can be few guarantees about the Bombers in 2020 after another finals failing.

 

Who's done?

Retirements: Mark Baguley, Matt Dea, David Myers

Delistings: N/A

Unsigned free agents: Zac Clarke, Michael Hartley, Mitch Brown, Will Snelling 

WHO'S HANGING UP THE BOOTS? Your club's retirements and delistings

How should they approach trade and draft period?

Creatively, because they don't have many options. They have already traded away their first-round pick for this year (in the Shiel deal last year), so would likely have to lose someone of value to bring something – or someone – in. Gold Coast's Jack Martin is a possibility but others appear ahead in the battle for him. Another ruckman and a big-bodied midfielder should be front of mind. 

Early call for 2020

The expectation for Essendon internally has to be about pushing for the top four. The Bombers might not have the superstars of other clubs, but there is enough quality players on the list to be better than the past two years have shown.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs