Footy Fix: The Saints were ten times as rubbish as the Dogs were last week – and it’s worth working out why


Amid all the hysteria and gnashing of teeth that accompanies any team following a particular galling loss, it’s worth remembering at all times that our game has an unmatched capacity to be very, very funny.

How else would you describe a team and a coach in the gun all week, with rumours of player discontent running rife and suggestions even the captain and perhaps that club’s greatest player ever might not be all that happy, with their leading goalkicker and best midfielder absent, winning anyway by 10 goals in a manner that felt like double that in dominance?

How else could you explain such a wretched, insipid display from a team which had a week prior nearly pinched four points off one of the premiership favourites, one which for 15 months had been far from spectacular but at least a litmus test that made their opposition earn every point and every win?

Thursday night at Marvel Stadium through up a score of imponderables like this, but the one I’ve settled on is this: St Kilda put on a masterclass in how not to play the Western Bulldogs. And if the resultant belting alleviates some measure of pressure on Luke Beveridge, then it should by all rights be amplified on Ross Lyon, a coach who this sort of result just doesn’t happen to and who suddenly seems to be facing a myriad of problems with a team that last year was good enough to finish sixth.

The numbers alone are putrid. To lose the disposal count by 75 and yet finish with nearly double the amount of clangers – 74 to 38 for those counting at home – is either an indictment on the Saints’ disposal or a perfect reflection of their inability to put any sort of pressure on a side that famously wilts when it applies.

As someone who watched every sorry moment, I’m confident it was both.

Riley Garcia and Rhylee West celebrate a Bulldogs goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It seems Lyon and the Saints weren’t paying close attention to how Essendon had shredded the Bulldogs last Friday night: with damaging ball movement slicing through the corridor, a ferocious attack on the ball at every contest, relentless pressure on every kick no matter where it came from and a refusal to allow the Dogs to retain possession with easy marks and disposal chains.

So what did the Saints do? Refuse to give a moment’s notice of Bailey Dale all evening, who racked up disposals and, pressure-free, produced the sort of high-quality, high-quantity game that was a hallmark of his All-Australian season and pretty much hasn’t been seen since. The critics will now question all the harder why Dale was made the Dogs’ sub against the Bombers, and the question of how and why he was able to play so brilliantly when the first five rounds were so mediocre will be lost to the mists of time.

Dale’s six inside 50s, pushing up from half-back and many caused by marking hacked Saints’ kicks under pressure out of defensive 50 only to fall out of the frying pan and into the fire, were the second-most on the ground. As patchy as his form has been of late, that’s not a number you can expect to get away with without being cut up.

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It wasn’t just Dale, either: his 39-disposals, 15-mark game was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the Saints’ looseness was concerned. As a whole, the Bulldogs had a staggering 148 marks, all but 15 contested, which is the most any team has conceded all year. The Saints, a high-marking team themselves that loves to possess the ball, had exactly half that.

The stats are damning, and the eye test backs it up: the Bulldogs were given as easy a time switching the ball from one side to the other, a notable Beveridge trick, as at any time since at least 2021. It helped their cause that when they committed to moving the ball laterally they did so with speed, playing on from backwards marks and spreading quickly to find outlet targets on the opposite wing, but the space to do that was something simply not afforded by Essendon last week.

By quarter time, five of the Bulldogs’ seven goals had come from intercept possession chains, winning the ball back via a Saints blunder, either a poorly executed kick forwards or just losing a one-on-one contest (both of which happened with frequency) and then looking to move the ball with a pace reminiscent of the Dogs at their best.

That only seven of 18 of these chains by quarter time had resulted in an inside 50 tells you a bit about how wide open and vulnerable a previously watertight Saints’ defence was left by this speedy, unpressured ball movement: with Aaron Naughton in fine form overhead, Cody Weightman lethal at ground level and Rory Lobb and Sam Darcy providing an excellent aerial contest on nearly every occasion and keeping Saints’ intercept duo Callum Wilkie and Josh Battle occupied, it meant a Dogs team that often lacks menace moving forward consistently found avenues to goal.


— AFL (@AFL) April 18, 2024

The Saints likewise had no answers for the Dogs’ intercept marking, for which the Bombers had provided a blueprint on how to stop: link by handball from clearances rather than blasting long wherever possible, bring high balls to ground and ensure Liam Jones, Buku Khamis and Ed Richards had hands full with sizeable opponents at all times.

Sure, St Kilda were missing Max King, but the Bombers lacked Peter Wright and made it work: yet Liam Jones far too easily handled Anthony Caminiti, running off him at will to impact contests, while aside from three goals in the last quarter with the game already gone Tim Membrey was a non-factor. For the Dogs to finish with 20 intercept marks where last week they were reduced to eight is yet more evidence the Saints simply didn’t come to challenge them in their areas of vulnerability.

That stat is all the more galling when you consider Richards played as Liberatore’s on-ball replacement for much of the night – as an aside, that’s some seriously ballsy coaching by Beveridge to bring in two fully fledged on-ballers at VFL level in James Harmes and Riley Garcia and shift one of their few competent defenders into centre bounces regardless – and that Jones had just one himself.

Most of those intercept marks went into Dale’s hands, who finished with six, at least two-thirds from being perfectly positioned under the hacked balls outside defensive 50 the Saints bombed out aimlessly time and time again, never learning from their mistakes.

That is vintage Bailey Dale ????#AFLSaintsDogs

— AFL (@AFL) April 18, 2024

At stoppages, too, the Saints had every reason to feel confident in besting the Bulldogs, especially after a far less imposing Bombers on-ball brigade had torn the Dogs asunder. Instead, they were 22-15 down in clearances to half time before saving some face following that, and an even more ghastly 11-4 at centre bounces.

What was noticeable about the Saints was a telling lack of structure bordering on chaos: the Bombers showed up the Dogs a week ago by holding space around disputed balls, backing their teammates to win it in and under, and then moving from inside to out at rapid pace to leave a Bulldogs midfield light on leg speed all at sea.

The Saints had no problems getting hands on the ball in close – by quarter time, they were up 13-5 in first possessions following ruck contests. The issue was what happened next: unable to get the ball into the open, where Bradley Hill, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera and Jack Sinclair’s pace could have troubled the Dogs, the Saints invited tackles, lost control of the ball, and let a Dogs team that had learned from the hiding the Bombers gave them cut them apart in the clearance count.

A Liberatore-less Dogs midfield seemed ripe for the picking when it came to contested ball; yet Macrae, starved of opportunities in the first month of the season, slotted into that role and returned to the elite level everyone knows he can produce. Only Adam Treloar, who is quietly having an outstanding season, finished with more clearances (nine) than Macrae’s five, while his ten contested possessions were behind only Treloar and Marcus Bontempelli (13 apiece).

Rowan Marshall, so superb against GWS, took until the third quarter to try and use his strength advantage over Tim English in the same way as Todd Goldstein and Sam Draper outbodied the reigning All-Australian ruckman; there was nothing remotely as brutal handed to English on Thursday night compared to last week. Confidence duly renewed, English clutched nine marks and moved nimbly around the ground like at his best, while fighting Marshall to a draw at the clearances: the Saint’s two for the night a far cry from the whopping number he accumulated against the Giants.

A few miskicks earlier tonight from Bont… he saved up all of his skill for this absolute beauty ????

???? Watch #AFLSaintsDogs LIVE on Ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 18, 2024

The introduction of Richards to the midfield group added an unpredictability to the way the Dogs moved the ball forward, especially with Dale, Taylor Duryea, Jason Johannisen and Bailey Williams given licence to push up from half-back whenever the ball was won, driving it deep inside 50 and pressing up whenever the ball was inside to keep it locked in as best they could.

That’s worth mentioning because the Saints had one plan all night: similarly to Homer Simpson’s story idea for Poochie, they tried to get the ball in Bradley Hill’s hands whenever it was already there.

Hill had a fine game, with his 31 disposals more than any other Saint, but the Dogs defended him differently, and better, than how the Giants had done the week before. Their first port of call as Hill ran by and earned another handball receive was to corral him from the front, rather than attempt to chase him from behind.

It was a strategy that meant risks aplenty, often leaving a Saint or two free ahead of the ball, but it was enough to repeatedly stop Hill’s momentum in his tracks, taking his game-breaking pace out as a factor for large portions and putting the onus on him to hit a target ahead of the ball, or retreat and try another tack laterally.

The result was that Hill, despite 22 of his touches coming from at least the back of the centre square or beyond, only had five inside 50s, down on the seven he had against the Giants. The extra few seconds, and less impactful kicking, that came from his need to pass laterally to a Ryan Byrnes or a Cooper Sharman instead of trying to spot up a target himself was manna from heaven for a Dogs backline which needs all the time it can get to organise itself.

It’s a weird plan in any event to be so reliant on one player for your run and carry, especially since Hill is far from the only Saint with a combination of pace and elite foot skills. Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera had just eight of his 19 disposals disposals from farther than the back of the centre square, penning him in and ensuring his beautiful kicking had minimal impact and was constantly pressured; ditto Jack Sinclair, who doesn’t look a patch on the dual reigning All-Australian half-back that he is.

Lastly, but perhaps most damningly, it’s not rocket science to curb Naughton in attack: he is among the game’s best key forwards when given a run and jump at the ball, but has shown time and time again he struggles when the ball is sat on his head and he’s forced to jostle against a similarly matched key back to try and wrestle a contested grab.

The Saints… gave him leading lanes aplenty, let him run and jump for high balls all night, and the Dogs were good enough to make them pay heavily for it. And just for good measure, Naughton, statistically one of the three worst kicks for goal in the AFL since the start of 2021, banged on six goals straight.

Six goals for Aaron Naughton!#AFLSaintsDogs

— AFL (@AFL) April 18, 2024

The Bulldogs, for all their talent, are not a difficult team to beat: you don’t give up five-goal leads as repeatedly as they have over the last 24 months, nor concede as many runs of majors about they do, without there being pretty obvious blueprints to take them down.

It would have been one thing for the Saints to identify these plans and be let down in execution: instead, they let the Dogs run riot playing exactly the way they wanted to play, and learned the hard way that a team scorched by a week of criticism can blow a game apart if left unchecked.

A goal after the siren prevented this from being Ross Lyon’s worst ever defeat as St Kilda coach on the scoreboard; but it’s impossible to remember a more debilitating, ugly loss under his tutelage.

The positive? Just as it was foolish to overreact to one bad game for the Bulldogs last week, so too would it be foolhardy to expect the Saints not to bounce back from their worst performance in years. For now, at least, the blowtorch should be tempered until they have a chance to write the many, many wrongs of Thursday night’s ghasty display.

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