ESSENDON wants its growing midfield group to be versatile next year as the Bombers look to get former Giant Dylan Shiel back to his best form.
Shiel was injured in round two this year and missed 15 games after knee surgery, with his absence opening up more prominent midfield time for Darcy Parish, who elevated his game to claim his first Therabody All-Australian jumper.
The 28-year-old Shiel, who crossed to the Bombers on a seven-year deal at the end of 2018, returned for the final six games of the season to a different midfield unit than he left, with Parish and Jake Stringer occupying far more centre-square time.
Essendon coach Ben Rutten said Shiel's injury had meant pre-season plans to spend more time in attack had been put on hold.
"Dylan's such a professional and has such lofty standards because of the footy he's played in the past and he missed four months of footy. For the large part of that he was in a brace and pretty heavily restricted from a training point of view so there's no doubt the season didn't go to plan for him," Rutten told AFL.com.au.
"In the pre-season he spent a little bit more time with our forward group just to continue to evolve and grow his game and add more flexibility for us as a group which he was really receptive to. He trained it really well and we were seeing improvements in his game every week there so it was a real shame that in round two he copped that injury.
"Getting his way back into the team I thought he certainly played an important role for us in the back-end of that season but it's really difficult to have the impact that you want to have consistently at that time of year [after a long injury]. There's no question about that. Dylan is really motivated and keen to have a strong pre-season."
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Parish (701 disposals) and teammate Zach Merrett (725), who was also an All-Australian this season, combined to tally more than 1400 disposals across Essendon's season to spearhead its midfield, with Stringer's explosive streak also on show in a dynamic campaign.
The Bombers have built a wider group of midfield options, including Andrew McGrath, Kyle Langford, Shiel and Jye Caldwell, who was brought back from his hamstring layoff for the elimination final against the Bulldogs.
Archie Perkins also spent time through there in his debut season, with first-year wingmen Nik Cox and Sam Durham complementing the run of Brayden Ham and forward/midfield time of Will Snelling and Devon Smith.
Rutten said for the Bombers to build on their development again in 2022, the midfield group needed to continue to grow familiarity.
"I think we've got a really good scope and depth throughout that midfield area and certainly this year Parish, Merrett, Langford and McGrath, to some degree, had some opportunity to build some cohesion. But that's something we talk about with our progression next year," Rutten said.
"There's some guys in there who haven't played a lot of footy this year for us so there is going to be some evolution and cohesion that needs to be built amongst that midfield group. When I say midfield, I'm talking about half-forwards and half-backs as well.
"I kind of see those roles being really similar and all having a big impact in how we move the ball and how we defend. They're the sorts of areas which I'm really excited about with the progression and growth that we've got but it's going to take some hard work, some training and some good commitment from our players and coaches."