The Western Bulldogs appeared in all sorts of trouble when they were picked apart by St Kilda in Round 2.
They had months to dwell on their alarmingly disappointing loss to Collingwood all the way back in March which was their first game since their Elimination Final capitulation at the hands of GWS last September. Despite all that time to work it out, it seemed as though nothing had changed.
Fast forward three weeks and things are very different for the Bulldogs who have strung together three impressive victories over GWS, Sydney and North Melbourne and are now seen as legitimate contenders.
Comparing some numbers from that run of three defeats to their most recent sparkling form, there are a few obvious elements as to why the Dogs are back in winning form.
Looking at it broadly, getting your hands on the ball would have to be the most important part of the game. Without the football, you can’t really do much.
Breaking it down more comprehensively, Luke Beveridge’s side has turned that aspect of their game around, going from -163 disposals (over the three losses) to +116 for the past three wins.
Contested possessions have risen from -83 to +31, and although clearances are only at +4, they were -28, so narrowing that massive gap has been vital as it at least gives you the chance to get your hands on the ball first.
As a result of winning the footy more frequently, the inside 50s count has improved from -59 to +19, which subsequently makes it more accessible to score and much easier to defend given the ball is down the other end more often.
The Dogs kicked just 138 points and conceded 287 during their ‘funk’ for a result of -149. The last three weeks they’ve kicked 211 and conceded a measly 110 at a differential of +101. An enormous turnaround.
This in turn has seen their disposals per goal numbers fall dramatically. From their overuse of 140 disposals per goal over three games (versus their opponent’s 75) to a much more economical 91 (opponent 175) is compelling. Getting the ball more has made it possible to use it more efficiently and obviously, score more heavily.
But for all of that to be the case, it all comes down to one word: intent.
It’s quite plain to see and the first person picked with that in mind is Tom Liberatore.
Since he returned to the side in Round 3, things have changed massively due to the way he attacks the ball and intends to make something happen when he’s near it. He is second for clearances since his return (behind Marcus Bontempelli and Jackson Macrae only) and equal second with ‘Bont’ and behind Macrae for contested possessions.
Liberatore has helped the team significantly but done it in a slightly different style, which is his lot in life. He has spent a lot of time across half-forward or on the wing, while the Dogs have mainly gone with Bailey Smith at centre bounces next to Bontempelli and Macrae in the absence of Josh Dunkley.
Somewhat surprisingly, he’s rarely been at centre stoppages but pushes into midfield after the fact and gets busy at stoppages around the ground.
Some Dogs supporters say that although captain Bontempelli will be one of the best few Bulldogs of all-time, it would be ‘Libba’s’ name that is the one first placed on the magnet board right now.
To get the ball in the first instance you need to have intent and Liberatore has got that in spades. Others around him are obviously taking note.
Beveridge has also settled his weekly team selection after some strange choices which raised eyebrows.
Having Easton Wood back from injury is a bonus while bringing in Toby McLean and Zaine Cordy and blooding Laitham Vandermeer has been met with plenty of positivity. Patrick Lipinski is also back in the side despite being dropped after the Saints loss when one of the team’s best and with Lachie Hunter available again following his drink-driving sanction, the starting 22 is only about to get stronger.
To assist what’s happening through the middle and forward of centre, the Dogs currently own the most cohesive defensive unit in the competition which has shipped scores of just 33, 39 and 38 in the last three outings.
Beveridge spoke glowingly of the Dogs’ defensive unit consisting of Alex Keath, Jason Johannisen, Wood, Cordy, Hayden Crozier, Bailey Williams and Caleb Daniel after the Roos win.
“It’s the third week in a row that we’ve kept an opposition side under 40 points,” he told reporters.
“We needed to make some adjustments with our defence. Not just our back six but what we were doing around the footy. I think our back six, or back seven, were just outstanding.
“There’s some chemistry down there at the moment which is promising for us.”
There are a few areas of the Bulldogs’ game that they’ve changed for the good and with this formula of intent mixed with defensive structure, they’ll be a tricky side to break down in 2020.
Next on the agenda is Carlton at Metricon Stadium on Sunday which provides another chance to strut their stuff, gain further momentum and put forward their case in this strange old season of ebbs and flows.