AFL Debate Club: Can Essendon's 2023 be considered an improvement on last year?

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Have the Roos and Eagles ended the tanking debate? (3:18)

Rohan Connolly looks at North Melbourne and West Coast's late season wins, and how it affects the notion of 'tanking' in footy. (3:18)

Welcome to ESPN's AFL Debate Club, the column in which our writers and contributors will take one prompt from the week and put their opinion on the record. The kicker? No opinion is immune from criticism!

This week, Rohan Connolly and Jake Michaels debate whether the Bombers have taken a step forward or back in 2023.


Can Essendon's 2023 be considered an improvement on last year?

Rohan Connolly: Yes it can. But I hasten to add, anything is an improvement on a complete car crash, and that's what 2022 was for the Bombers both on and off the field via a boardroom coup, administrative upheaval and a coach sacking.

I think it's important to state that in my view, nearly all the progress is off the field, which will at least kickstart the process of on-field improvement. And not just the quick fix sugar hits the Dons have indulged in regularly, but long-lasting, sustainable improvement through better list management, recruiting and development.

The tangible improvement on-field is admittedly only marginal (from seven wins to 11), and contingent on playing the bottom two sides twice each, with just three wins coming against top eight teams.

But I've liked several individuals' growth. Obviously, Kyle Langford up forward has been a big success. I think also, whilst it's hardly been headline-grabbing, there's been a desperately-needed durability about some of the younger players upon whom Essendon will come to rely more, namely Nic Martin, Sam Durham, Ben Hobbs and Archie Perkins.

The end to this season by the Bombers was dismal to say the least. But, almost perversely, I'd be heartened by coach Brad Scott's comments about this playing group's attitudes and lifestyle after last Friday night's belting. It's as if any remaining band aids have been ripped off.

I've been banging the drum about Essendon's poor culture for years now, but I finally feel that in Scott, the Bombers have a coach across the issue and strong enough to make meaningful change, ditto president Dave Barham and chief executive Craig Vozzo.

This is a club that has been going on auto-pilot for far too long. And it's been reflected in a playing group which contains too many who appear satisfied simply with being an AFL footballer.

I think a few are about to get a rude awakening. And having people in charge who are actually capable of delivering those home truths is at least a start.

Jake Michaels: I understand Essendon made a jump from 15th to 12th, but I'm sorry, in no way can you argue they are in a better position than they were 12 months ago.

The Bombers looked to be heading in the right direction late last year with five of its seven wins coming between rounds 14 and 20. Brad Scott arrived with fresh ideas, Zach Merrett was named skipper and many were bullish about what the club could achieve this campaign.

Unfortunately for Essendon, all 2023 has proven is the chasm between them and the competition's best remains as great as ever. Forget the best, they're a significant step down on even the mid-table teams; their final ladder position and 11 wins won't convince me otherwise.

For starters, six of those wins came against bottom four teams. They finished the year with a percentage of 89.7 -- the fourth-worst in the competition -- and post-bye they ranked last for points against and second-last for points scored. If you can't score and can't defend I'm not sure how many games of football you're winning.

There's cause for serious concern with the personnel, not to mention the fact Darcy Parish and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher are both rumoured to have played their last game in the red sash. Dylan Shiel can't get his body right and will head into next season as a 31-year-old. It's a similar story with Jake Stringer, albeit one year younger. Recent recruits such as Sam Weideman and Will Setterfield continue to underwhelm, and the fact Dyson Heppell is playing on tells you all you need to know, really.

Champion Data's 'premiership standards' gives a great indication of how close teams are to a flag. It looks at 32 key metrics and clubs aim to rank in the top third (or top six) for as many as possible. The best teams rank top six in around 60-70% of these area. The Bombers? Just two of the 32. For context, only the Kangaroos and Eagles have fewer. But the concerning part is they rank bottom six in 22 of them!

I'd argue it's exponentially more likely the Bombers finish next season bottom four than it is they play finals. Happy for you all to keep receipts on this one, too...