Recap of last season
It was an up-and-down season for the Western Bulldogs in 2022, unable to string more than three wins together at any one time throughout their campaign, finishing in seventh with a 12-11 record. It was a slight fall from the heights of Grand Finalists the year prior, however, seventh was also familiar territory for the 2016 premiers.
The Western Bulldogs made it to September for the fourth year in a row - and sixth in the past eight years, however, bowed out earlier than anticipated, with a 13-point Elimination Final loss to Fremantle.
Josh Dunkley won his first Charles Sutton Medal as the club's best and fairest, while Aaron Naughton also topped the club's goalkicking tally for the first time, kicking 51 goals - improving on his tally of 47 the year before.
How they can improve
With a stronger and taller forward line with greater marking power, the Bulldogs should be seeing better ball movement in 2023 and shouldn't be afraid to use the more direct line of going through the corridor. The Bulldogs should be seeking to go down the line a lot more, instead of relying on overlapping rebounds and handball chains.
While the fast-paced movement of the ball inside 50 would go against much of what the Bulldogs' game is about, a slowed-down transition and entry forward will have opposition teams guessing their next move, while also giving multiple chances for Bulldogs forwards to lead into space and create more avenues to goal.
The Bulldogs also should look into defending the transition from forward 50 to defensive 50 a lot more, having gone from a top-two side to a bottom-two side in this category from 2021 to 2022. A more cautious approach and reading of the play should do the trick and help keep the ball in their half of the ground to move forward.
In: Oskar Baker (pre-season SSP), Jedd Busslinger (draft, pick 13), Charlie Clarke (draft, pick 24), Harvey Gallagher (draft, pick 39), Liam Jones (free agent), Rory Lobb (trade, Fremantle)
Out: Louis Butler (delisted), Zaine Cordy (free agent, St Kilda), Josh Dunkley (trade, Brisbane), Lachie Hunter (trade, Melbourne), Stefan Martin (retired), Charlie Parker (delisted), Josh Schache (trade, Melbourne), Mitch Wallis (delisted)
The Bulldogs' strength now lies in the ability to play an offensive brand of football, suited to the style of play Beverage would want, and for which the team is known for. While the club might've lost players who could contribute to this, they still have certain personnel who can execute the necessary game plan.
The Bulldogs' midfield unit runs deep, and this is where much of the engine room of those who can cover large distances and keep the pace, however, the minutes in the middle of the ground still look to be shared across the board, with everyone on the same page in terms of how to execute the style of play.
There's also now genuine marking strength all across the ground but especially at the two ends, with the addition of Liam Jones to the backline to compliment Alex Keath, and Sam Darcy to compliment Naughton. Josh Bruce has been trialled down back in the pre-season, but could just as easily use his marking potential in the forward line too.
Should Bruce spend a large part of this season down back, it could see the return of a three-key forward attack, with Naughton, Darcy, and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan. Even if Bruce was to remain a forward, having four tall forward marking targets at their disposal could be a huge point of difference and revolutionise the game once more.
Despite their strength, there do remain a few gaps in the Bulldogs' positions across the ground that need addressing for total team structure and in the defence, a lock-down defender would improve things dramatically.
The Bulldogs ranked in the bottom four league-wide for rebounds last year (852), signifying that a lack of a bona fide key defender who can take on the game's best forwards, was evident. Cordy is gone now, and Jones could fill that role, having proved his capabilities at Carlton previously.
But it's also the defensive structure around stoppages when inside the defensive 50 that has hampered the Bulldogs in the past. A close man-on-man defence - even from the midfielders who drift down - could help the Bulldogs get out of trouble and not see opposition players make up too much space to get ahead of the ball, and the game.
Covering the loss of reigning Charles Sutton Medallist, Dunkley, will be a challenge for Beverage and his staff. With no obvious replacement, it forces a shift in the way the midfield operates and while it might work out still, the presence of Dunkley having left will be felt immensely.
After a debut season in 2022 where he managed four games, key forward Sam Darcy is looking set for a breakout year for the Bulldogs this year. The father-son pick won the club's Chris Grant Best First Year Player award last year, demonstrating his skill and potential in such a short amount of games.
In his four AFL games to date - Round 21 to the Elimination Final -, Darcy averaged 11.5 disposals and 6.0 marks, along with kicking three goals in the final two games of the Bulldogs' season.
A versatile player who was drafted as a forward and ruck, but spent much time down back for Footscray in the VFL, his versatility within a Bulldogs set-up where Luke Beverage has been known to play around with different player's positions, might be handy for Darcy to impress the competition in multiple ways in 2023.
The Bulldogs will still be competitive in 2023, despite losing players who were integral to their setup in years gone by, none bigger than the reigning Charles Sutton Medallist, Josh Dunkley. Now seven years since the drought-breaking 2016 premiership, and another Grand Final appearance in 2021, the time might suggest the side could go either way in 2023. But in any case, the Bulldogs will want to remain in finals contention for a while longer and make a move in September once more.
Ladder Prediction: 10th
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