With AFL finals looming large, the focus is intensifying on the legitimate challengers for the flag.
Geelong and Collingwood are top of the form line, with impressive winning streaks ahead of September.
Hovering in third place, by virtue of a sliver of percentage that separates them from fourth and fifth, are the Demons.
Even after a dramatic loss to the unstoppable Magpies at a rocking MCG last Friday night, pundits are largely keeping faith with a Melbourne side that has now lost six of its past 10 games.
The reasons are clear: A stellar team mix of role players, stars and X-factors — and the experience of having made it to the mountaintop just 12 months ago, sweeping all before them in September to win a first flag in 67 years.
Essentially, everyone is expecting the Demons’ football muscle memory to kick in and drive them to a repeat of their premiership glory.
The fact is, however, that Melbourne’s performances — while showing occasional glimpses of the team’s best — are well off the mark they set in 2021.
And the fix starts with better final quarters and second halves.
Super stretch sealed flag for Melbourne
Last year, Melbourne came into the final four rounds of the season lying third, with 13 wins and a percentage of 124.2.
From there on, the Demons won seven games on the trot to finish top of the ladder — with 17 wins and a percentage of 130.8 — before sweeping through the finals series to claim the flag.
Their experience shows you can turn things around. After losing the final quarter in seven of their first 14 games in 2021, the Demons were beaten in the final term in only two of their last 11 games.
Melbourne’s final seven-game unbeaten stretch saw the team lose only one final quarter, to the Eagles but, in total, the Demons outscored their opponents by 26 goals to 10.
In terms of second halves, it was even starker. From round 16 through to the grand final in 2021, Melbourne lost only one second half, against Hawthorn in round 18.
Over that time, Simon Goodwin’s men outscored their opponents by 79 goals to 32. In finals, the equivalent figure was 30 goals to eight.
It was a combination of surge football in attack and tough defense that gave few openings to opponents.
So how are the Demons going in 2022?
Whether or not you think the form line is still relevant back to round 11 — when the first questions were raised with the six-goal loss to the Dockers at the MCG — the Demons have been mixed, at best, after their brilliant start to the season.
They started with 10 wins in a row, but have lost more than they have won in their past 10 games.
More worryingly, after a brief bounce back beginning in round 15, Melbourne has now gone down in three of its past five games, losing to Geelong, Western Bulldogs and Collingwood.
In each of their six losses since round 11, the Demons have lost the final quarter, and every time they have conceded between four and six goals.
The issues aren’t limited to after half-time, either. If we look at the last seven games of 2021 — including finals — the Demons average score was a tick over 106 points a game. They also managed to keep opponents to a seriously stingy 57.3 points a game.
In short, Melbourne was flying on both sides of the ball. This time around, in the 10-game stretch starting with the loss to the Dockers, the Demons have scored an average of 80.4 points a game, and their opponents have scored an average of 77.2.
One possible reason is that their forward defensive pressure is not where it was — for pre-finals at least.
In the last four rounds leading into finals in 2021, the Demons brought fierce forward pressure, averaging 18.5 tackles inside 50 to their opponents’ 7.75.
From rounds 18-21 this year, Melbourne has averaged 7.25 tackles inside 50 to 11.5 for their opponents.
Last year, this turned around in finals, with the Dees being comprehensively out-done in forward 50 tackles (23-41 overall) — but that didn’t matter, because Melbourne’s attack was so potent that it swamped opposition teams, scoring an average of 119 points to 56 in September.
The thing that made Melbourne really dangerous was the prospect that they had the capacity — either while in front or trailing on the scoreboard — to hit teams with an unstoppable burst of scoring.
They still have the ability to put a run of goals together, but the other issue is that the Demons are now showing themselves vulnerable to giving up leads.
On five occasions this season, including twice in the past three rounds, Melbourne has given up leads of more than 20 points to lose games.
Does this all mean that we should write off Melbourne’s chances of going back-to-back? Absolutely not. The Demons are still a legitimate second- or third-favorite for the flag behind Geelong, despite their issues.
They also have the ability to turn these issues around — but it is clear that there still remains a fair bit of work to do to find their unbeatable best form. And that improvement needs to start happening soon.