The football world got its first teasing taste of finals-level excitement on Friday night, with top four prospects Melbourne and Port Adelaide going head-to-head at Adelaide Oval.
In a heavily officiated encounter the strengths of both sides, particularly in contested football, shone through in the middle of the ground – producing a match to remember which saw Port Adelaide record a tender 10-point victory.
Melbourne got off to a flying start in the first quarter, booting three goals to one in a daring entrance.
After that, Port Adelaide spent the next 75 per cent of the match slowly but surely gaining the ascendancy.
In the fourth quarter, Port Adelaide managed to slam through three goals to just two behinds to wrap a neat bow on the team’s most important victory of the season yet.
In 2018, Melbourne’s midfield and half back line has been a wrecking ball when it comes to producing inside 50 opportunities.
The Demons currently lead the league with 791 entries – 37 more than second-placed Richmond (754) and an even stronger lead over Hawthorn (729) in third.
In contrast, Port Adelaide sit respectably in the middle table at seventh (698).
Melbourne’s ability to lead in this department was on show once again on Friday night, with the travelling Demons leading Port 69 entries to 39 – an almost mind-boggling differential in a lost match.
Melbourne produced 23 shots on goal for the night, operating at an abysmal 33 per cent – Port Adelaide meanwhile put up 24 shots at a 62 per cent clip.
From these numbers, we arrive at a serious fork in the road – is Melbourne’s forward line structure responsible for these wasted chances to build a win? Or is the delivery from the Demons’ midfield simply too poor to work with despite the abundance of opportunity?
Post-match Melbourne senior coach Simon Goodwin offered up his perspective.
“I thought our performance was strong,” Goodwin said.
“I thought it was two teams that knew the way each other played and went at it for four quarters.
“We’re a behaviours-based club and I thought our behaviours tonight were outstanding. We play a game of small margins and that game could have gone either way.
“It’s a big part of our game (inside 50s) – playing a territory based game, forward half footy, and I thought we achieved that throughout the night.
“Our efficiency inside 50 wasn’t at our best tonight and it’s an area we’ve been relatively strong in this year.
“I also thought Port’s defenders did a great job. They won and neutralised a lot of contests.
“If you get that supply you’d like to score more, but the first and foremost, the way that we wanted the game set up was outstanding.”
An interesting take on the match for sure. In discussing the way that the game was set up, Goodwin is clearly referencing Melbourne’s strength in contested possession – another statistic which went the Demons’ way.
At the final siren, Melbourne finished ahead 177 contested possessions to Port Adelaide’s 158 and also led the clearances 54 to 38, despite losing the hit-outs by three.
My interpretation of these comments is that Goodwin feels the midfield battle was handily won but the war was lost in the attacking 50, principally by the forwards.
So far this season, Jesse Hogan is Melbourne’s leading goalkicker with 31, narrowly ahead of Tom McDonald with 28.
From there, Melbourne has another four players in double figures – Alex Neal-Bullen (16) Jake Melksham (15), Mitch Hannan (15) and Bayley Fritsch (11).
It’s also worth giving a nod to half-forward Christian Petracca (9) and small forward Jeff Garlett (9).
Against Port Adelaide, McDonald proved effective once again – booting 3.2 and taking a handful of marks. Likewise, Hannan found his share of the ball, booting 2.3.
Beyond that, however, Melbourne’s forward stocks fell to pieces with Melksham and Petracca managing one apiece, while Fritsch, Hogan and Neal-Bullen mustered up three behinds between them.
Melbourne remains the number one ranked offensive side, despite managing to kick just nine goals in Round 14 – with 1342 points on the board total ahead of Richmond with 1265 and Collingwood with 1229.
For this so far lethal Melbourne forward line structure to be able to offer up so little against an average defensive outfit in Port Adelaide (seventh with 978 points conceded) suggests that something was seriously askew in the red-and-blue system.
There’s no doubt Port Adelaide’s defensive network did battle hard and was justly rewarded with a win. To repel just under 70 inside 50s and emerge with fewer than ten goals on the board is a stunning effort.
But surely these results say more about the number one offensive side, rather than the number seven defensive side?
Melbourne’s next month is, quite frankly, relaxed. Up next is St Kilda, followed by Fremantle and then the Western Bulldogs.
Melbourne will then be put to the test against Geelong and Adelaide, two sides pushing for a spot in the top eight.
It’s going to be fascinating to see whether or not this highly ranked offensive outfit maintains its credibility against two quality opposition sides – particularly Geelong, who has leaked the fewest points of any side this season, despite sitting outside the top four.
Or, perhaps the Demons will find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory once again.