While it would be easy to say that the ASADA investigation into the club has finally taken its toll on the Essendon players, the club has once again succumbed to fatigue.
With the public eye rarely being drawn away from the club in 2013, a slew of back-to-the-wall wins saw Essendon – against all odds – a top four contender through the first 17 rounds of the season. Yet since then, the Dons have seen a rapid fall from grace in the past month.
Essendon supporters have become all too familiar with the club suffering dramatic declines in form mid-year. The Bombers got off to flying starts in 2011 and 2012, before barely scraping into the finals in the former and missing out in the latter despite being in fourth place at the halfway mark of the season.
2013 was meant to be different though; Essendon navigated a tough June (where the club began to fall in 2011 and 2012) to remain in fourth spot and even gave themselves a chance to challenge for top spot on the ladder in the top-of-the-table clash against Hawthorn in round 17.
The fairytale, however, was not to be as premiership favourites Hawthorn sent Essendon into a tailspin from which it is yet to recover.
Many in the media attributed Essendon’s abysmal last month of football to the ASADA investigation coming to a head, but it is Essendon’s defensive intensity which has let it down in games against Hawthorn, Collingwood, West Coast and North Melbourne.
In the first 17 rounds of the season, the Bombers conceded a mere 81.8 points per game – the fourth lowest of any team – and 47.8 opposition inside 50s. Those numbers are a stark comparison to the stats from the last four weeks, where Essendon has conceded 127.8 points per game – the most of any team in that stretch – and 58.5 inside 50s per game.
With defenders Jake Carlisle and Cale Hooker out of form and showing signs of exhaustion and swingman Michael Hurley sidelined by an ankle injury, key forwards have been able to run riot against the Bombers with Buddy Franklin, Travis Cloke and Drew Petrie bagging hauls of eight, five and three goals respectively.
The responsibility for Essendon’s poor defending cannot be exclusively attributed to the back six, with the midfield group also showing signs of severe fatigue in the last month. Although never great, the midfield’s disposal by foot during the slump has been nothing short of appalling, gifting the opposition the opportunity to hurt on the counter-attack.
In conjunction with a forward line which has severely underachieved in 2013, Essendon failing to uphold the team’s defensive identity does not bode well for the remainder of the home-and-away season and finals if it is to partake.
The ASADA investigation into Essendon’s controversial supplement program in 2011-12 has provided a welcome excuse for fans and coach James Hird as to why the club has dropped off yet again, but the indisputable problem that the players are not physically capable of maintaining a high level of play for a full season remains.