Footy Fix: The Dees have a massive Christian Petracca problem – there’s only one of him


In Round 2 of last season, Jeremy Cameron took on Carlton at the MCG and nearly beat them singlehandedly.

Fast forward a year and six weeks, and it was another modern great fighting a lone hand against an overwhelming Blues assault at footy’s Mecca – and Christian Petracca managed to will his team seven points closer than even Cameron managed.

Superlatives don’t really do justice to Petracca’s performance, after quarter time especially. He was the only Demon who looked any chance of making anything happen inside 50 as a miserly Blues defence tightened the screws on the 2021 premiers’ most glaring weakness; then, in the second half, he turned distributor, setting up two goals and by and large having a hand in everything the Dees did to surge their way back into the match – while still hitting the scoreboard himself.

Petracca didn’t just lead the Dees for marks inside 50: he took four of them, one fewer than the rest of the team managed combined. Too smart and quick on the lead and strong enough to put whichever poor sod was defending him off balance to allow for precious metres of space, he put the rest of Melbourne’s forwards, who barely fired a shot – and when they did, it was mostly because Petracca found the ammo, loaded the gun and clicked the safety off – to shame.

And despite spending 84 per cent of his time inside 50 from the second half onwards, he still finished behind only Jack Viney and Tom Sparrow for inside 50s on the ground: he was peerless for score involvements and goal assists, the two most important stats of them all besides the ones on the scoreboard – which, by the way, he did with five goals (I probably should have led with that fact).

Even after he spent significant chunks of time in attack throughout 2023, this was a significantly different role for Petracca than we’ve seen from him before: only twice since the start of 2021 has he had fewer disposals in a match than his 21 in the ultimate quality over quantity performance.

Absolute desperation as Petracca kicks his fourth!#AFLBluesDees

— AFL (@AFL) May 9, 2024

Scoreless until midway through the second term and bereft of answers, Simon Goodwin’s last throw at the stumps was to switch his superstar permanently into attack. And it nearly won them a game they had absolutely no right to win.

It was, put simply, the best individual game I’ve seen this season, and as close as a player has surely ever come to winning a match off their own boot without actually pulling it off.

The problem for the Demons is that it’s not quite as simple as making Petracca a permanent forward once again; because rarely has Melbourne’s midfield looked as vulnerable as it did without him on Thursday night.

The Blues piled on five goals from centre bounces against the Demons – a staggering amount on its own, but even more so when considering that heading into this weekend, Melbourne were dead last in the league at conceding points from any stoppage.

While it’s out of date, a month ago the Dees were also third-last in the league for average points conceded per centre bounce against, according to this brilliantly insightful ABC article. And considering the Blues, one of the teams better than them in mid-April, have become increasingly leaky in that regard in recent weeks, that figure might well have grown even stronger before being smashed to smithereens on Thursday night.

This year, Petracca has attended 63 per cent of Melbourne’s centre bounces, with him, Max Gawn, Jack Viney and Clayton Oliver by and large the midfield combination, with Tom Sparrow chipping in when one of them has a spell.

It was Alex Neal-Bullen who took over Petracca’s role on-ball after he went forward, and while his stats are impressive, particularly his 12 tackles and five clearances, it’s a spot he’s unaccustomed to, attending just 56 centre bounces since the start of 2021 and only four in the first eight rounds of 2024; and at key moments, their stoppage structure fell apart.

The most obvious example is the first centre bounce of the last term: Neal-Bullen finds himself guarding Sam Walsh on the Dees’ attacking side of the stoppage.

The Dees start with a good set-up: Clayton Oliver is the defensive sweeper, set up in front of the centre circle to thwart a quick break forward. Walsh is the danger, and the Blues love to feed the ball out the back of centre bounces where he can run past, win a handball receive from a George Hewett or Patrick Cripps, and surge forward.

Neal-Bullen has this covered, but he errs at the crucial moment: he abandons his spot and Walsh when he sees Hewett shrug clear of a Jack Viney tackle, despite the fact the presence of Oliver and Gawn ahead of him means there’s not much he can do with it in that situation other than try and bang it long.

By charging at Hewett, an opening presents: the Blue jumps to get his hands free of the impending tackle, and tries to handball over his head where he knows Walsh will be. A second ago, that wasn’t an option if Neal-Bullen had held his ground.

The handball isn’t great, but with Walsh in space, Viney has felt the need to join Neal-Bullen in tackling Hewett, and while they succeed in disrupting the pass, it leaves Cripps, Viney’s man, free to gather the ball.

He doesn’t end up giving to Walsh, but Neal-Bullen errs here again: his desperate lunge to try and lay a tackle is easily sidestepped by the Carlton skipper, who gains a few metres and wobbles a kick off the left boot forward.

What leads to a Blues goal isn’t Neal-Bullen’s fault directly, but more the result of Viney and Oliver being scrambled by what I think is the change of roles that Petracca’s move forward has created: they seem to view their job now as being primary ball-winners, rather than one of them being defensively minded and having Petracca as the attacking option.

Because it’s Cripps who again gets a disposal mere moments later, having led Viney to the ball, and pumps it inside 50: a few seconds after that, Hewett gets his own handball receive in front of goal, his nominal opponent Oliver nowhere in sight, and with Neal-Bullen’s despairing lunge in vain, snaps through the goal that would prove to be enough.

It’s worth noting that there wasn’t a direct corollary with Petracca moving forward and the Dees becoming vulnerable from centre bounces – two of the Blues’ goals from the restart came with him in there. But both carried caveats – one came from Marc Pittonet taking the ball out of the ruck and booting it forward, which Petracca could do little about, and the other came from the baffling decision to have Kysaiah Pickett stand Sam Walsh at the bounce, after which he ran around with no regard for paying the Blues’ best midfielder any attention whatsoever as he twice won key disposals in the chain that led to a Jack Martin mark inside 50 and goal.

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Petracca the forward has so many things going for it: he has the natural instincts of a forward with his leading patterns, he’s a beautiful user of the ball when given time and space, both things he gets more of when taking uncontested marks at half-forward rather than bursting from stoppages with three guys hanging off him; and he’s the perfect beast to unleash on a forward 50 stoppage to give the opposition’s on-ball brigade a hell of a difficult job reorganising.

“It’d just be nice to make something from nothing here. Somebody hitting it at pace…”

And like clockwork, Christian Petracca pounces!#AFLBluesDees

— 7AFL (@7AFL) May 9, 2024

Plus, it makes sure every single one of his disposals is as impactful as possible, as Richmond so famously did with Dustin Martin during their three-flag dynasty.

But there are some caveats. While it’s easier kicking for goal from set shots than on the run, his history of poor accuracy makes 5.1 nights unlikelier than 3.2 or even 2.3 outings, neither of which would have left me and everyone else gushing about his outstanding display. At the same time, a big part of why it worked so well against the Blues was that it caught them out as having no real plan to stop him in attack – if he plays in that position permanently and rival clubs do their homework, the good ones will have a system or a quality opponent with a far better chance of keeping him in check.

All that, plus the risk the Dees run by taking him out of the key midfield role he’s occupied since 2020. Long term, there’s no reason it can’t work with a different set-up in there, but it’s not something that can gel overnight unless Neal-Bullen is secretly the second coming of Robbie Gray; and with the Dees supposedly smack bang in their premiership window and Gawn and Viney both on the wrong side of 30, it’s a hell of a bold gambit.

So far:

Christian Petracca: 2.1 (13)
Melbourne: 2.1 (13)#AFLBluesDees

— 7AFL (@7AFL) May 9, 2024

It’s just a shame for the Demons that there aren’t two Christian Petraccas; if they had one spare, then they’d REALLY be in business.

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