By Ollie Nash
A fourth quarter fade out cost the Blues against GWS. Photo: Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/Getty Images
Carlton will not be playing finals in season 2020. If I was to say that in any of the last four seasons you wouldn’t be surprised. However, after a competitive year, the top eight was well within reach for the Blues.
In the last two rounds against Collingwood and GWS, their season was in their hands. Win both, and finals is almost locked in, win at least one and they give themselves a chance. Two heartbreaking losses after being in control for both matches is what they presented though.
It’s post round 14 against the Pies that I want to discuss though. The aftermath of their loss proved that the narrative of an AFL football team can change in one quarter. That’s how quickly it can go from good to bad or vice versa.
Carlton went from borderline favourites against Collingwood and a finals threat, to their season being written off, and the young players development being questioned. That’s how quickly it can change.
On the other side of the coin, in the same round, in the first half of Essendon and Hawthorn, the Dons season was over, and their list was doomed. Fast forward to the end of the game after a 52-point turnaround and an unlikely win, and the Bombers were back in finals contention and Joe Daniher needed a 10-year contract extension.
Did the Blues miss an opportunity? Of course. They were in control for three quarters of both games. However, what that game and this season has proved is that they are still young and they are still learning, but they will get there. You can’t beat the Cats in Geelong, who had won 35 of their last 41 games at home at the time, and not be on the right track.
Carlton's win over Geelong in round three was one of the upsets of the year. Photo: AAP: Dylan Burns
Footy commentators, particularly Kane Cornes, questioned the Blues development of their young players, especially their high draft picks. I couldn’t agree less. Maybe stats don’t prove it, but watch a game like last night, where Harry McKay took three contested marks, the most on the ground, and then tell me he hasn’t improved.
Carlton have a great core of young key position players and supporting cast. This is the first year they’ve become competitive. Try and make an immediate impact when you’re getting belted every week as they have for the last couple of years, it’s hard. So many of these guys are still growing into who they will become on the field, so we can’t jump on them just yet.
Cornes questioned whether individual young players had improved year on year. I think it’s clear that they have in 2020. They’ve won six games already, one less than 2019, and they have three games to go. They are on track to win more matches, in a shortened year. So, while stats may not say they have improved, watch a game and then tell me that they haven’t. These young players are growing, they are more comfortable on the field, playing a game-plan effectively and not getting blown-out every week. Patrick Cripps is having a bad year, and they’re still in finals contention. That proves to me that everyone has improved that 10 to 15 percent, and the team as a whole is reaping the rewards. Watch a game and you’ll see it too.
What Carlton are missing is some midfield help. They have the other pieces, as I am going to discuss, but midfield depth is what they are missing.
Look at the graphic below and you’ll see what I mean. The Carlton spine is set. They’ve been able to challenge and beat some of the top sides this season, and they still have Charlie Curnow and Caleb Marchbank to come into the side.
Weitering and Marchbank are going to be the key backs of the future. Weitering is in All-Australian form, and Marchbank has shown in his 48 games that he can make an immediate impact when he returns from injury. For the meantime Liam Jones is a handy replacement, but there is also a case to play all three of them in the coming years, with Marchbank being slightly undersized.
In the ruck, Marc Pittonet and Tom De Koning have shown plenty in their short AFL careers to date. The latter especially has a bright future. The list of players to jump over Nic Naitanui for a clear ruck tap is short, but De Koning is one of them.
Up forward is where it’s most promising for Carlton. Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay will set up camp in the forward 50 for the next 10 years. Yes, Curnow has missed a lot of footy in the last two seasons, but we know what he is capable of. For his career, he averages nearly a goal and a half per game, and almost two contested marks. McKay has been inconsistent to start his career, but is very similar in these statistical areas. At the age they are, to be doing these things in a bad team is promising. Put them in a good team with more experience under their belts and these numbers only increase.
Mitch McGovern is the ideal third tall, like a Brody Mihocek type. A lot has been said about McGovern’s contract and if he is worth it. Everyone seems to forget that he played this exact role at Adelaide and was celebrated for it, because they were challenging for a flag. He doesn’t rack up many possessions but is a matchup nightmare and impactful. Look no further than Gary Rohan at Geelong. Praised for his role at a premiership contender, I wonder how he would be judged if he was at Carlton? McGovern’s numbers are down slightly at Carlton, but he competes in the air, tackles at ground level and uses the ball well. Not much else you can ask of your forward that is playing undersized. Did they pay overs for him? Yes, but you have to do that to get these guys to move.
The problem with these key position players is that they do take longer to develop and can be inconsistent, which we’ve seen this season, so Carlton fans need to be patient. Too often we’re expecting them to be at the top of their game four years into their career. Some do, however it’s a very small percentage that do so. 26, 27, 28 and onwards is usually when a key forward reaches their prime.
The supporting cast is pretty set at the moment. This group seems settled in their roles, so now we can watch them grow as a unit. When a team starts to improve, the individual growth isn’t as important, it’s their role in the team that matters. Are Jake Kolodjashnij and Jed Bews improving year on year? I don’t think so. But they’re vitally important to the Cats’ success. That’s the level that guys like Zac Fisher, Tom Williamson and Sam Petrevski-Seton need to get to. The graphic below outlines the likely starters down either end, but there’s plenty of guys in the sheds that will step up too.
The midfield is where they need the most help and this is where I think they can take themselves over the hump from an average team to a top eight team. Patrick Cripps and Sam Walsh are the guys locked in to lead the midfield group for the foreseeable future. From there, they need to bring in some elite talent to help out the remaining core. Ed Curnow, Jack Newnes, Will Setterfield and Paddy Dow are good AFL players, but they need a lesser role.
Off-season movement is important for Carlton. If they can pick up one or two star midfielders, then all it does is take pressure off everyone else. Cripps doesn’t have to shoulder the burden and the supporting cast don’t need to play out of their skin every week.
Brad Crouch, Zac Williams and Andrew Gaff are the three players that stand out to me in the upcoming free agency period. Crouch and Williams will become restricted free agents, while Gaff will be unrestricted. At the end of 2021, Rory Laird (restricted), Cam Guthrie (unrestricted), Dom Sheed (restricted) and Marcus Bontempelli (restricted) will all be available. These seven players are what Carlton need in the middle. The ability to win it inside, but the pace and skill on the outside too.
Patrick Cripps and Sam Walsh will be Carlton's leaders in the midfield for the future. Photos: AAP/Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Two of these guys makes the difference this year for Carlton. One probably would have even been enough. Two losses by three points or less. A second quarter fade out against the Hawks after kicking the first five goals of the game. Then last round against the Pies where they failed to register a goal after halftime while the game was in their hands. Help in the midfield wins them three of those games and the narrative is a lot different for the Blues.
Let’s not forget the man at the top, David Teague, who was responsible for Adelaide’s offensive game plan from 2015 to 2017. All the goals in the goal square from Josh Jenkins from slick ball movement up the field was thanks to Teague. In those three years, they were knocked out in a semi-final in 2015 and 2016, then made the Grand Final in 2017.
That was with an already established list. Watch Carlton, and you can see glimpses of that game plan. It’s not the finished product but it is there and it’s working for long stretches. What the Blues and we as fans need to do is be patient. Watch the existing core grow over the next three to four years with some added polish in the midfield, and greener pastures will be on the horizon for Carlton.
Cover Photo: AAP - Richard Wainwright