Rocky path to finals for Freo
Fremantle’s inaugural president Ross Kelly used to tell the inaugural coach Gerard Neesham that it was handy for the water level to drop every now and again – it showed you where all the rocks were hidden.
That may be the one positive that the Dockers can take out of a woeful loss to St Kilda at Patersons Stadium on Saturday.
Aaron Sandilands stepped out of the water, the level dropped appreciably and the terrain that lies between Fremantle and a second consecutive finals berth certainly looks more rocky now than previously.
The Dockers are a fair way away from solutions, but they would have had a more comprehensive list of problems for attention yesterday morning than they had before Saturday’s game.
It is premature to suggest the Dockers are in crisis, but they are certainly in trouble now.
Many of their problems are centred on a drastic lack of manpower. But while they need the cavalry to arrive in one to two weeks, it is at least four weeks away – when Sandilands is likely to return and, hopefully, bring Michael Barlow, Roger Hayden and Alex Silvagni with him.
Until then, Fremantle are a badly compromised team – a fact ruthlessly exposed by the well-drilled Saints.
Coach Mark Harvey said Fremantle had planned for St Kilda’s structures but players had failed to execute the plans.
From Harvey’s perspective, this is probably true, but the brutal reality for him is that the opposition is doing as much planning for you as you are for them and now, without Sandilands, the Dockers are far more easily planned for.
Counterpart Ross Lyon worked on neutralising Fremantle’s strengths, with Sam Fisher on Matthew Pavlich and Clint Jones paying close attention to Stephen Hill, then picked apart their weaknesses.
He did not even need stellar games from his guns to do it. Luke McPharlin was terrific on Nick Riewoldt and Antoni Grover got the job done on Stephen Milne. Brendon Goddard was on his way to hospital before quarter-time.
But in the age of the “press” teams need two things: All players on the same page when trying to stop opponents from moving the ball, and enough skill, poise and bravado to move the ball themselves when they have it.
Lyon had this on Saturday. With half a dozen or more players off their best and Sandilands in the stands, the Dockers have neither.
Defensively, some of their players aren’t even in the same library let alone on the same page.
Offensively, in the western derby a fortnight ago and again on Saturday, too many players fumbled or missed targets under the heat of the press, coughing up possessions and allowing free shots at a vulnerable defence.
Hence, most of St Kilda’s goals on Saturday came from their midfield streaming forward – Brett Peake kicked three and Jones two – or from up the ground forwards like Adam Schneider, who got in behind a Fremantle press that could not contain St Kilda’s ball movement.
In their bid to counter, the Dockers managed a paltry 1.5 to half-time. They were not just outgunned, they were disarmed.
Players are judged not just by how well they can play, but by how often they can play well. Those who can’t play well enough don’t get to play. Those who can play well enough but not often enough are consigned to roles as depth players who fill holes when needed but hopefully aren’t needed too often.
While players never accept that is all they can be, the reality for some is that is all they will manage to become.
And you know these depth players have been needed too often when you get an effort like Fremantle’s on Saturday.
The spate of injuries that started mid-summer has meant the Dockers have had several depth players running around for most of the season, and their current injury list means they will be running around for at least a month more.
The longer it goes, the more it hurts and it has hurt the Dockers in three of their last four games.
Some of Harvey’s problems are obvious. Some are more subtle. All must be addressed if the Dockers are to be all this list can be.
Among the obvious ones is Michael Johnson. The club needs to find a way to address his plummeting confidence before it gets much lower. Johnson is too good a player to let go to waste.
Among the subtle ones, Nat Fyfe, as brave, athletic and brilliant as he is, remains a work in progress, with too many of his hard-won disposals amounting to little. Fyfe could end up being truly great or just good and the Dockers need greatness.
These are rocks that Harvey can work on in the short term. Others will stand between the Dockers and finals until Sandilands and company step back into the water and the level rises again.