Deemonic Presence: Why Melbourne Are Set For Years Of Contention

You know a team is creating something special when the masses turn on them.

The story of the Demons was truly magical in 2021 – their 5th placed finish in 2018 was their first finals appearance in 10 seasons and was subsequently followed by a significant drop-off to 17th in 2019, then 9th in 2020.

Rising to the very top of the league took almost everyone by surprise, yet it might’ve actually happened sooner had it not been for the scrambling adjustments made to accommodate for the need to play a season in the first year of a pandemic.

This team was built to be fitter than everyone else and possess such a commitment to two-way running that it would drive the opposition into the ground. Strong defensive structures to be able to accommodate for the constant variance in Demon numbers in the back 50 and forwards that can push up the ground is all part of the package.

2019 saw too much change in the team and too big an adjustment in what was being asked. They were ready in 2020, but shorter quarters brought the field closer together and fitness was hardly the differentiating factor it would be in full games. 

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Right now, just like Richmond five years ago, which followed teams like Hawthorn, Geelong and Brisbane, the Demons are clearly the most feared team in the competition.

People want to criticise crowd numbers, just like they want to criticise media performances of players they found entertaining when Melbourne was average, because the team is simply too good on the field.

After 5 rounds, they’re undefeated and have barely operated at anything more than about 70%. They’ve conceded the fewest points but have been a rather middling team offensively among the current projected finalists and have only ramped up the incredible attacking ball movement in small bursts.

Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by dynastical teams in recent memory that affects our judgement – between 2013 and 2020, 2 teams won 6 of the available 8 flags.

Yet, our judgement should be trusted to know a long-term powerhouse when we see it. The Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership felt like a miracle ride, while the Eagles won in what was probably Richmond’s best season.

Neither of those teams felt like they’d regularly be favourites for the flag, nor did they have that intangible aura about them that made them seem infallible, even when hiccups arose.

The old adage that defence wins premierships is entirely applicable to what makes a dynasty and defines the Demons.

Of course, the easiest metric to look at is points conceded and while Melbourne has led that for the last 15 months, it doesn’t encapsulate the true essence of the phrase.

Melbourne’s commitment to defence all over the ground as part of their fitness buy-in is what separates them from everyone else.

Only decimal placings are preventing them from topping the tackles inside 50 count again, averaging 11.2 per game, down from 12.4 last year.

Even when the tackles aren’t laid, the pressure acts are suffocating for the opposition.

Melbourne’s opposition are once again committing the most turnovers in the league, averaging 75.8, while the disposal efficiency of these players continues to be amongst the league’s worst – trends identical to those of peak Richmond.

Last season, Melbourne conceded 7.6 marks inside 50 per game, 1.2 clear of the next best team at depriving these opportunities. Through 5 games, this has dropped to just 7 per game, 1.8 clear of the Saints.

Another parallel with the peak Tigers is that both teams rank in the 4-6 range for inside 50s conceded, while both are top-five for clearances conceded.

The Demons have two of the league’s very best clearance players but the ability to line up on the defensive side of the opponent at stoppages is the most effective stance for the team’s whole-ground pressure.

With the ability for players in advanced positions to push back into defence to provide support, it doesn’t bother the group to concede a few more inside 50s, as the numbers indicate teams cannot hit up targets and generally bomb it in. We can link the miserly numbers of marks inside 50 conceded with the fact the Demons clearly average the most intercepts per game.

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Offensively, they rank among the league leaders for disposals, inside 50s and clearly lead in metres gained. The Demons find targets close to goal easily and have an aerial ascendancy that is matched by the ground-level work of Kysaiah Pickett, Charlie Spargo and Alex Neal-Bullen.

Ed Langdon is the poster-child of hard-working wingmen in both directions, but we must not overlook the efforts of James Jordon opposite him and the spaces he fills in transition.

The most formidable aspect of this Melbourne group is the strength in every position, with no clear deficiency and no passengers.

Luke Jackson’s development means there will always be a third threat in attack with no let-off in the ruck.

There are a huge number of flankers and midfielders that can rotate, while the defenders are at the peak of their powers.

Perhaps most indicative of a true dynastical team is the fact that there is no drop-off with injuries.

Without Jake Lever and Harrison Petty, Adam Tomlinson and Joel Smith were above average. No Ben Brown? Sam Weideman has established himself as a target. Christian Salem is a vital user in the attacking scheme, but Jake Bowey has been just as good in the role.

If Oliver or Petracca were to miss, Luke Dunstan is ready to step in, as are Sparrow, Harmes and Neal-Bullen.

At times this season, we’ve seen teams push Melbourne.

The Bulldogs kicked 8 unanswered goals in Round 1. Quick and clean ball movement carved the Demons up defensively, moving the ball too quickly for midfielders to push back. For a good half-hour, the Bulldogs’ pressure was manic and deprived Melbourne of easy, get-out options.

Similarly, the Suns were the team in the best position to win against the Demons and that was built on quick ball movement.

In Round 2, the Suns averaged just 5 disposals per inside 50 and won the inside 50 count, insanely efficient numbers.

It was the most recent example of the Demons being under constant defensive pressure, but they forced a lot of rushed possessions from the Suns and were able to restrict how effective the inside 50s were.

The defensive efforts up the ground allowed Melbourne to dictate many of the Suns’ entries and it lead to huge intercept numbers for Bowey (16), Tomlinson (10), May (8), Rivers (7) and Langdon (6).

It’s why the Demons are so well set up going forward. The structure is rock solid, the group is young enough for years of relevance and they’re fitter than anyone else.

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To beat them, they need to be outworked, or a team’s fitness needs to match its directness in ball movement. The moment you overpossess against the Demons, you’re cooked.

It’s why teams like Brisbane and Sydney are significant contenders in 2022. The Suns play the right way to match up well as do Richmond, Geelong and at times Fremantle.

Yet for as long as the Demons’ players are this fit and committed, they deserve constant favouritism for the long-term and will win most games they play in.

Love them once, hate them forever, Melbourne has become a team destined for great, long-term relevance and success.

The Dee dynasty has well and truly set in.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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