The key reason why the Dees are a fake contender – and how they can become a genuine one


Melbourne’s complete reliance on Clayton Oliver has them positioned as a fake contender and Oliver finding form will completely transform this accidental top-four team.

Over the next two weeks, Melbourne plays a couple of genuine flag threats – the undefeated Geelong and a Carlton team that looks ominous, while being the most injury-riddled team in the comp.

To date, the Demons haven’t been tested all that much. They lost to Sydney in the opening round, but that’s hardly a measuring stick sort of performance. If you classify the Power as a good team, then that was an important win for Melbourne. On the other hand, the Lions by all metrics have not been a good team and they made the Demons look second-rate.

It’s an interesting spot for Melbourne. The answer is most certainly that their current spot on the ladder doesn’t reflect their actual performance, but that really makes this club the most dangerous playing group in the league.
Only a couple of things are really going right for them in 2024: their defence continues to be absolutely stellar, and Max Gawn could be on the podium for the Brownlow Medal at this early stage.

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They’ve got the best defence in the league, marginally ahead of Geelong and comfortably ahead of everyone else. They’re conceding scoring shots less frequently per inside 50 and it’s predominately driven by the aerial work of Steven May, Jake Lever and the aforementioned Gawn.

At ground level, Blake Howes has taken lesser roles but is locking down effectively, perhaps more so than even Judd McVee, while Tom McDonald’s ability to read the play has been helpful.

Stepping up on the big stage, Max Gawn. ????

Extended Highlights ???? |

— Melbourne Demons (@melbournefc) April 26, 2024

Their opponents are the league’s most inaccurate, but that doesn’t stop them from being the best defensive unit in the league given how difficult it is to score against them. At times there’s an element of luck to it, there’s also some credit warranted for the Demons forcing difficult shots. That’s about where all the positives end for the Demons.

Offensively and through the midfield, there’s an argument that can be made to suggest this team couldn’t be playing much worse. They’re conceding six more inside 50s and 16 more marks per game to start the season than they did in 2023.

The Demons were last year’s turnover kings, forcing their opponents to commit an average of 77.4 turnovers per game. That’s down to 65.9. They themselves averaged the most inside 50s in each of the past two seasons for a combined average of around 57.5 per game. In 2024, they’re down to 13th, averaging 50.1. Naturally, their otherwise above-average marks and tackles inside 50 have dropped to bottom-four ranks.

It’s hard to put it all on one player, but if the start to season 2024 hasn’t shown that Clayton Oliver is by far and away the Demons’ most important midfielder, then not much else will. Oliver is the heartbeat of this Melbourne team and despite at his best being treated as one of the league’s best players, it’s underrated just how vital he is to the way they function as a team.

“I actually loved watching him…I always admired him growing up”.

Clayton Oliver got over to an injured Jacob Hopper tonight – he explains the backstory to the moment. #AFLTigersDees

— 7AFL (@7AFL) April 24, 2024

The 26-year-old does the work of almost two players in the middle, which frees his teammates up. In years gone by, Oliver rates elite for tackles and pressure, he’s the leading pressure player in both attack and defence for the team, he’s their best clearance player and wins the most contested ball, and he’s their best midfield interceptor.

Put simply, in normal seasons, Oliver is the club’s hardest worker bar none. His efforts mean that Christian Petracca can float around the ground and be an offensive hub, or be the beneficiary of some defensive half tackles and marks after his star teammate grinds the opposition into the ground.

Jack Viney had his best season with Oliver by his side in 2023 as the secondary contested beast who was free to have an impact offensively.

Oliver allowed for younger teammates like Tom Sparrow, Kysaiah Pickett, and even Alex Neal-Bullen to thrive around contested situations that he himself forced. Sparrow and Neal-Bullen are putting up great numbers in 2024 and Kade Chandler has taken strong leaps forward with his pressure game, but it’s just not the same.

The truth is Clayton Oliver hasn’t even reached a level that could be classified as the worst form of his career up until 2023. Of course, there are reasons for this and ultimately, the hope is that he can at least recapture something in the second half of this season, because his team needs it.

Clayton Oliver. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

He’s averaging nearly four fewer tackles, eight fewer pressure acts, 1.5 fewer marks and two fewer clearances per game than last year; where he was ranked elite for all these and the aforementioned offensive and defensive statistics, he’s down to average across the board.

His inefficiencies which are typically masked by the overwhelming number of positives in his game are now sticking out and it’s affecting everything. Petracca’s trying to take some of the load and is posting career-bests in contested numbers, but it’s affected his ability to impact offensively and defensively. He’s been relegated to inside beast and he can’t break the shackles to consistently separate from the contests.

Viney too, his pressure numbers are otherworldly at the minute, but again, it’s all he can do. He isn’t as well-equipped as Oliver is at being a multi-faceted midfielder and all that defensive work is simply weighing him down in other areas.

Sparrow’s getting his midfield opportunity and has been good, but not influential. Ed Langdon’s trying to impose himself more body-wise but it’s impacting the effectiveness of his defensive running. The wings have been a strength for the Demons in restricting opposition inside 50s. Without Oliver’s efforts, they’re leaking inside 50s like a sieve. It’s why we can commend the efforts of Neal-Bullen and Chandler in trying to fill the void but their tackling should be used in the forward half more, but they simply cannot.

Max Gawn’s the one holding it all together currently, he’s running around the ground like a madman, impacting both aerially and at ground level, but relying on the skipper as an ageing ruckman – that’s fraught with danger. All this isn’t to say that the Demons don’t have other issues. Obviously offensively, they still don’t have the right mix.

Petracca’s absence from there is painful, plus every single one of their forwards bar Pickett are rated below average for marks inside 50, which hasn’t been an issue previously.

CP5 racking up the assists in 2024 ???????? Must be the basketball background.#DemonSpirit

— Melbourne Demons (@melbournefc) April 29, 2024

When Shane McAdam is ready to return, the new recruit from Adelaide, that’ll help improve literally all the attacking talent at the Demons. The 28-year-old demands attention and is one of the league’s premier offensive aerial threats despite being a medium-sized forward and we can expect an uptick in production upon his inclusion.

But for as well as the defence and skipper are currently playing, and for as well positioned as the Demons are at five wins and two losses, the midfield is currently underperforming to a concerning degree and needs its crown jewel to find something.

Clayton Oliver had a tough offseason and there are many reasons for his rough start to the season. He has been the reason for all of the team’s success in recent seasons and without him, the team looks lost. Coach Simon Goodwin either needs to keep tinkering and find something, or hope that the 26-year-old finds something.

Without Oliver at his best, the Demons are fake contenders that could face another year without a finals win if they don’t solve their midfield issue.

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