Opinion

It's all about the long game for the Blues this season

By Rohan Connolly
August 3 2022 - 6:00am
CHALLENGE: Carlton has a battle on its hands to make the top eight. Picture: Mark Brake/Getty Images

AFL ladder predictors are all the rage this time of year, but with three rounds of the season remaining, if you're a Carlton fan, I'd probably advise against it.

I went through the exercise before penning this piece and had the Blues missing the final eight, finishing in ninth spot, a game behind the Western Bulldogs, with Richmond grabbing seventh.

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Of course, there are no guarantees, but even the biggest Blues optimist would concede they have a battle on their hands with a phenomenally tough finish - Brisbane on Sunday at the Lions' Gabba fortress, then reigning premier Melbourne, then the all-conquering Collingwood.

Carlton has been in the top eight every week this season, and as high as third on the ladder at one stage when it was 8-2 after a great win over Sydney at Marvel Stadium in round 10.

Disappointing as the loss was, I've been a little taken aback by the reactions to the Blues' shock defeat to Adelaide last weekend, "disaster" a popular adjective used, and many pundits seeing the setback as a mere continuation of the narrative about the club's largely miserable couple of decades.

At that moment, the Blues being part of September action for the first time since 2013 was an unbackable prospect.

Missing out right at the end would sting even harder as a result. But would it mean Carlton's whole 2022 campaign had been a failure?

Not in my view.

Disappointing as the loss was, I've been a little taken aback by the reactions to the Blues' shock defeat to Adelaide last weekend, "disaster" a popular adjective used, and many pundits seeing the setback as a mere continuation of the narrative about the club's largely miserable couple of decades.

Is it really that bad if Carlton doesn't play finals in 2022?

I'd argue strongly that in the bigger picture, this season has been a big tick whether the Blues finish in the top eight or not.

After too many years of raising its fans' expectations without enough to back it up, Carlton in 2022 does at least genuinely look like it has turned a major corner, not just as a team, but an entire club.

That process started earlier, with still-newish chairman Luke Sayers landing a major coup in getting highly-respected administrator Brian Cook aboard as chief executive.

In Michael Voss, they landed as coach an experienced hand who had made major strides in his skill set at Port Adelaide since he had led Brisbane nearly a decade earlier.

Some targeted recruiting via the addition of midfield pair Adam Cerra and George Hewett has made an important difference, as, more obviously, has having a fit Charlie Curnow firing up forward.

But quantum improvements from the likes of Lochie O'Brien, Matt Kennedy, Corey Durdin and Matt Owies have also given the Blues' list a far deeper look.

They've needed it, too. Injuries and unavailability haven't been kind, right from the moment late last year, Liam Jones' COVID vaccine hesitancy cost Carlton a critical key defender.

Indeed, the Blues' whole backline has been unable to put its best face forward all season, Mitch McGovern, Oscar McDonald and Caleb Marchbank having managed just seven games between them, Zac Williams out for an extended spell and Jacob Weitering also missing several games.

Despite that, Carlton has simply made do, the ultimate vindication that the Blues rank seventh for fewest points conceded this season compared to a dismal 17th in 2021.

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Key absentees, like Hewett the past couple of weeks, have hurt the midfield as a group, and it was notable against Adelaide that, in what seemed like a return to the "bad old days", Patrick Cripps and Sam Walsh each had more than 40 disposals yet the Blues lost comfortably. But the gains even there are significant across the season, backed up by key indicators.

Like the fact that on differentials, Carlton ranked 13th for disposals last year, and is now ranked first.

For contested possession, it's 15th last year, second now, and uncontested ball 13th versus second.

The Blues were a lowly 16th for clearances in 2021, now second, and 17th for tackles last year, now eighth.

Those are consistent trends, across a five-month period, and while obviously, for Carlton fans right now, those numbers aren't nearly as exciting as whether the Blues sit seventh, eighth or, heaven forbid, ninth three games from now, in a longer-term sense, they are arguably of more consequence.

After such a barren 20 years or so, Carlton's concerted push again for the top is all about the long game.

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This time there really is substance to the plan. And if 2022 ends up being just another stepping stone in that process, it will still be worth it, whether the Blues end up playing finals this try or not.