BEN RUTTEN has an idea how it will look, but he still isn't sure. Either way, fitting all of Essendon's midfielders into one on-ball unit is a problem he's happy to have.
When Rutten first arrived at Essendon at the end of 2018 as an assistant coach, the Bombers had just recruited Dylan Shiel as their midfield messiah. But beneath the surface the club still had work to do to compete with the best midfields in the game.
Now, as the Bombers' new senior coach eyes a surprise finals berth in his first season at the helm, Rutten is faced with the question of how he is going to use his midfielders once they're all available.
Darcy Parish, finally thrust into an overdue midfield stay this season, has become one of the leading midfielders in the AFL, a clearance king who dominates in the centre square and around the ground. But he has done so since Shiel (knee) and young recruit Jye Caldwell (hamstring), who were both preferred to him as centre-square options in the first fortnight of the season, have been out injured.
But with Shiel back for Sunday's clash with Greater Western Sydney and Caldwell eyeing a return in coming weeks, Rutten's midfield is brimming with options. Andrew McGrath is still some time off in his recovery from a knee injury, but Kyle Langford might be back next week after a slight hamstring strain. So how does Rutten expect to manoeuvre the magnets to get the most out of each of his midfielders?
"It's probably not definitive [how it looks], I just want to get them all back available and playing their best footy. I think they've all got enough flexibility in their game," he said this week.
"The midfield is a bigger thing now than three players. There's wings, there's half-forwards, there's half-backs all involved in that midfield transition and stoppages. The game has evolved and we need to make sure our guys and we are evolving with that.
"That's certainly the strength of all those guys. Langford can play as more of a key forward as well, he can play on the wing, he can play on-ball. (Jake) Stringer has some flexibility, we know Darcy can play forward and hit the scoreboard, so we do have some flexibility there but we haven't been able to see it with all those guys fit and healthy yet this season.
"I've got some ideas on what it might look like, but I'm also open to seeing how that evolves and how they can work it out. Hopefully we get to a situation where we're able to work through and whoever is having the most impact in certain positions we're able to adjust and ensure all our guys are playing to their strengths."
At full capacity, Essendon's list of midfielders is long and varied: there's Zach Merrett, Parish, McGrath, Langford, Shiel, Caldwell and Stringer, while Archie Perkins has also been handed centre-square experience this season. Nik Cox, Brayden Ham, Will Snelling, Devon Smith and last week's debutant Sam Durham have all been used on the wing at stages as well.
It is an order that bats far deeper than when Rutten first landed at Tullamarine hoping to build a core group of runners similar to what he had seen take the Tigers to premiership glory as a Richmond assistant.
A reliance at that point was placed upon Dyson Heppell and Brendon Goddard through the midfield, with Heppell moved to half-back this season in one of Rutten's positional moves that have helped rejuvenate the Bombers. Smith, Shiel and Stringer were also on board the Bombers by then, with Merrett, David Myers and David Zaharakis also midfield mainstays, but the leaps taken by Parish, McGrath and Langford since have given the Bombers a new edge.
Last year the Bombers unsuccessfully tried to poach Western Bulldogs star Josh Dunkley out of the Kennel to spearhead their midfield. But Rutten's riches around the ball have powered his side to finals contention with five games left to play in 2021, leaving it interestingly placed about whether Essendon again goes to the trade table or backs its own to keep rising.