Carlton has a bit of a conundrum on their hands.
They have too many on-ballers and not enough centre bounce opportunities to share around.
On the weekend, Sam Petrevski-Seton finally returned to some semblance of a midfield role for the Blues and played his best game of the year.
This was only possible because he was substituted on for a midfielder, Paddy Dow.
Petrevski-Seton had been dropped following 18 months of indifferent form in the back half and one week back on the wing.
The former top-10 draft pick looked engaged, hit the contest hard and had 14 disposals playing essentially half of the game.
He only attended three centre bounces, but it was still a prominent midfield role that reinvigorated him.
The man he replaced in Dow has found himself in a similar boat.
Almost David Teague’s first move when he took over as caretaker coach was to push Dow out of the centre square, returning the roles to Marc Murphy and Ed Curnow.
Another former top-10 pick, he started the season mostly playing across half-forward and pushing into the midfield on occasion.
Dow was dropped to the VFL, where he starred in his one full game, playing primarily on-ball.
It looked like he was set to translate that form to AFL level against Essendon, winning three clearances early in the game before a poke in the eye ended his afternoon.
Will Setterfield is another inside midfielder who was forced to play out of his comfort zone on the wing before being omitted earlier in the year.
He returned to the VFL and has had two successive best on ground performances playing, you guessed it, at the coalface.
These are three top-10 draft picks who will have to lead the Carlton midfield group at some stage and all three find their careers at the crossroads because they haven’t found a role in the team.
This is because the Blues run a very simple midfield at AFL level. Patrick Cripps, Ed Curnow and Sam Walsh attend somewhere between 75 and 85 per cent of centre bounces, and the rest ration the remaining 20 per cent.
This is why a player like David Cuningham, who has played the best footy of his career at AFL level on-ball, has been in and out of the side for three years as he struggles to impact at half-forward.
Cuningham’s last fortnight has been strong, coinciding with a return to the team and a return to the midfield. He attended 13 of 38 centre bounces against the Bombers, winning 25 disposals, three clearances and five inside 50s.
To sum everything up, Carlton has constructed a list of on-ballers and hasn’t yet worked out how to satiate them all.
We haven’t even mentioned Matthew Kennedy, Liam Stocker, Brodie Kemp, Zac Fisher and Jack Martin.
Carlton has clearly stamped Kennedy as a depth player, Stocker has been thrust into the Petrevski-Seton backline development position, Kemp is still returning from a long-term injury, Fisher was moved out of the midfield and into the forward line and Jack Martin has found a home at half-forward.
Then there’s Zac Williams, who the Blues have brought in with the purpose of making him a midfielder.
Williams has missed games with injury and suspension this season, but has mostly been the third or fourth wheel on-ball when he has been out there.
While he hasn’t set the world on fire, he offers a point of difference with his speed.
Most AFL teams use roughly seven midfielders, ruckmen aside, on-ball per game.
There are exceptions to this of course. Essendon used just four against Carlton: Darcy Parish, Jake Stringer, Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath.
Then there’s a team like Hawthorn that used nine on the weekend: Tom Mitchell, James Worpel, James Cousins, Finn Maginness, Jarman Impey, Liam Shiels, Tom Phillips and Jack Gunston.
Meanwhile Richmond debuted Riley Collier-Dawkins and immediately threw him in at 70 per cent of their centre bounces.
Against the Bombers, Carlton used seven players, with Cripps, Curnow and Walsh hoarding the majority, Cuningham sitting at 13, Dow had seven early before being subbed and then Lachie Fogarty and Petrevski-Seton were rotated through sparingly.
In the short term, the Carlton coaching staff may have determined that this is their best grouping.
Cripps and Walsh speak for themselves and Curnow is an accumulator who is often used in tagging roles – like what we saw against Zach Merrett last Sunday.
Curnow wins enough of the ball, though his use of it isn’t as crisp as the likes of Petrevski-Seton, Fogarty, Williams or Cuningham and he doesn’t have the breakaway speed at stoppages.
The question for the Blues may be whether they sacrifice some of Curnow’s steady on-ball output in order to increase the opportunities for these younger midfielders, who one day will need to carry the load.
Given how prominent Dow was early in the Essendon game, it’s possible that may have been their plan on the weekend before his injury.
Carlton has their one-two punch on-ball with Cripps and Walsh, but must work out what it’s next grouping looks like.
They have quite a few players to choose from and there is proof a few of them struggle at AFL level when used elsewhere.
Whatever they do decide, it could see players stuck in the VFL or playing out of position and potentially making them pieces come the trade period.
Carlton never landed the ‘big fish’ on-baller like Stephen Coniglio or Dylan Shiel. Had they, their midfield rotations would likely be simpler to sort.
They must continue to use 2021 to work out what their most effective grouping is and who will be utilised long term.
The Blues have a daunting two weeks against the Bulldogs and Demons coming up. Two settled, deep midfield groups.
They will likely learn a lot about their own midfield unit across the next fortnight.