FOR ALL the heart and grunt the Western Bulldogs show around the midfield, the story of the second straight elimination finals loss feels the same. There were no off-ball antics this time and the Dogs at least showed fight, but they were outmuscled by St Kilda. The key position posts were addressed in last year's off-season, but it feels like that again might need a review.
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Mitch Wallis' move to become a permanent forward has been a masterstroke. His strength in one-on-one contests and his ability to never go missing as a medium-sized forward has given the Dogs a new look inside 50. At times, the Dogs have actually looked at their best when they only have one tall forward available and play Wallis as a lead-up option out of the goalsquare. His 25-goal season was far and away the best of any Bulldog.
Josh Bruce's whole season will be looked at as a lost opportunity. The key forward managed just 14 goals for the whole year, with six of those coming in one game. He went goalless in nine of 17 games and looked a total shadow of himself. That's not to say he didn't add positive contributions with how he flew for contests and opened up the game for others, but Bruce was meant to be the man to elevate the Dogs to a top-four level team. Instead, the Dogs now must figure out why their forward line was so dysfunctional in 2020 after being a juggernaut just a year earlier.
Caleb Daniel thoroughly deserved his spot in the All-Australian team after a devastating year setting up the play off the half-back line. For a player who has been remarkably consistent across his career, it wasn't a particular jump in any statistical area that elevated his year above other players. But the eye test is always in Daniel's favour. He executes passes that other players simply cannot and makes it look easy at the same time. Surprise packet Laitham Vandermeer probably wasn't on many Bulldogs fans' radar as a player who could become crucial to the side at the start of the year. His speed and ability to finish off chances up forward was sorely lacking as he sat out the elimination final with a hamstring injury.
What happened to the Bailey Dale who kicked 20 goals across six games in the back-end of 2019? Injuries hampered Dale, but the flair and creativity he showed in 2019 just simply wasn't there this year. Seven goals from nine games doesn't earn him a pass mark.
The six-goal haul from Aaron Naughton against the Crows was a throwback to the key forwards from the 80s and 90s. The leading out from the goalsquare, mullet sailing in the wind and best of all – six goals from six kicks.
The last 10 minutes of the elimination final loss to St Kilda will sting all summer long. The Dogs had plenty of chances to score but squandered them, but that doesn't take away from the fact that St Kilda was the better side for the bulk of the day.
How should they approach list management?
The draft looks like a straightforward proposition with key forward Jamarra Ugle-Hagan a no-brainer through their Next Generation Academy, while intercepting defender Cody Raak could join a little later on if they're interested in a long-term Easton Wood replacement. St Kilda's Jack Lonie, Gold Coast's Darcy MacPherson and Richmond's Jack Higgins should be of interest if the Bulldogs are ready to improve the revolving door of small forwards. To get some currency, it might be mutually beneficial for both the club and key forward Josh Schache to explore the trade market after a year stuck on the outer. Tough calls also need to be made on veterans Matt Suckling, Jackson Trengove and Taylor Duryea, who are all without contracts for 2021.
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Early call for 2021
A home final is the minimum goal for the Bulldogs in 2021, but it's hard to see the internal improvement shooting them any higher than sixth.
B-. No matter how many positional changes Luke Beveridge tried to make, the Dogs just couldn't find reliable avenues to goal often enough. The year earns a pass, but not a whole lot more than that.