Will the Bombers be brave enough to unleash their ‘run and gun’ style?
Essendon’s weakness remains their strength, which is what makes them such a conundrum as they attempt to win their first final since 2004. If Adam Saad, Conor McKenna and Andrew McGrath are given room to run off half-back, then the Bombers move the ball quickly into a forward line that relies on Jake Stringer, Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti for impact, with talls Shaun McKernan and Mitch Brown solid rather than spectacular. For them to get that space, the Bombers must be brave enough to kick on angles into the middle, drawing their Eagles opponents towards them to create loose players up the ground. This requires a brave heart and good skills. They have found that tough against good teams, only scoring an average of 63.4 points against top-eight teams this season. Only Gold Coast scored fewer points on average against this year’s finalists.
Can Josh Kennedy find form?
The dual Coleman medallist has taken just three marks in his past four games as he battles to recapture the form that made him one of this era’s leading forwards. Having just turned 32, Kennedy’s best is probably behind him, but he needs to lift on his recent performances for West Coast to be a realistic flag chance. His biggest opportunity will come against the Bombers, with Cale Hooker underdone and Michael Hurley battling a shoulder injury. If he kicks three or four goals and puts enormous pressure on Essendon’s defenders, then the Eagles will not only win, they will take momentum into the semi-final. Even if he doesn’t kick goals, he needs to be present in the contest in threatening fashion to give the Eagles’ fleet of crumbers at his feet a chance to do their work.
Are Essendon able to apply pressure around the ball?
Essendon’s contested possession count has only dropped below 130 six times this season, but it’s managed to sit under that number in their past four games. They may have been able to blame injuries, but that excuse won’t cut it in a do-or-die final where their only realistic chance of winning is to hit the Eagles with a fiery brand of football. Tom Bellchambers needs to set a tone against an underdone Nic Naitanui if he wants to be rated as a genuine ruckman, while they could do worse than throwing Patrick Ambrose in the midfield early to ensure pressure on the opposition’s ball carrier. Ambrose’s job on Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe was instrumental in the round 22 win over the Dockers, and he could make sure that either Elliot Yeo or Luke Shuey know they are alive. A meek and mild Essendon will depart quickly, but one that displays controlled aggression will leave with respect and potentially a famous win.
How will John Worsfold respond?
It’s hard to remember a coach’s position being under so much scrutiny leading into a finals series, but that is the reality for Worsfold, who has led the team into two finals in four seasons, winning 12 and losing 10 games in each home-and-away season since he guided the club through 2016 when 10 key players on the list were suspended. Not one to deviate either privately or publicly, the Bombers coach will take a seemingly unflappable approach into what could be his final game as Essendon coach. How the set of circumstances will affect the players remains to be seen but it won’t affect the coach, who has worn the brunt of criticism for the performance of a club that still seems to push expectations ahead of reality. The club’s argument will be that the Bombers’ record against top-eight teams remains poor. They rank in the bottom third of clubs when it comes to contested and uncontested possession, inside 50, marks inside 50 and disposals differentation against other finalists. How much weight they put on injuries affecting performance remains unclear.