Since they last won a premiership 24 years ago, Essendon fans have become accustomed to being fed different narratives about their club’s chances of contending for another flag.

There have been more than several false dawns along the journey, countless moments where the tide finally seemed to be turning before the Bombers faithful were let down yet again.

So naturally, you could understand some apprehension when senior coach Brad Scott gave the media what has been a catchphrase that has been used ad-nauseum over the last month — the ‘Essendon edge’. 

Over the first month of the season, you’d be hard-pressed to find any article that doesn’t mention the ‘edge’, with the four-letter buzzword used in both a positive and negative light. 

But just how exactly has the ‘edge’ manifested itself in the Bombers’ play and what role has it played in the club’s surprising 4-2 start to the season? 

An emphasis on winning the contested football

In the decades following that ruthless 2000 side that went 24-1 en-route to the club’s 16th premiership, Essendon has developed a reputation as being a soft club more often than not. It’s not that the Bombers haven’t had star players, but too often, the team has not been greater than the sum of its parts. Individual players have racked up gaudy stats for not many wins. 

Sydney forward Tom Papley sledged Essendon after the Swans beat the Bombers in a fiery round two clash at the SCG, claiming the ‘edge’ was more fiction than fact, but the numbers so far paint a vastly different picture.

Clearances have not been something Essendon could hang its hat off for the best part of two decades, but this year’s Bombers side already stands apart from its predecessors in this facet.

Zach Merrett pumps his fists as he celebrates an Essendon AFL goal.

Skipper Zach Merrett no longer has to do all the heavy lifting in Essendon’s midfield with the emergence of some younger players to shoulder the load.(Getty Images/AFL Photos: Dylan Burns)

Last year, in Scott’s first season as coach, Essendon ranked 17th in clearances per game, languishing below a West Coast side that was considered one of the weakest in AFL history. 

So far through six matches this year, Essendon finds itself ranking fifth in clearances per game with 37.8, ahead of more feared midfield units such as Carlton and Port Adelaide. 

If Essendon can remain in the top five, it would be the team’s best year in terms of clearances since 2011 where it ranked sixth in the competition. It is still a relatively small sample size, but it’s been a good start. 

Tied into the clearance number has been the Bombers’ grunt work at stoppages where they’ve gone from dead last in the competition to sixth in terms of stoppage clearances. 

Scott’s Bombers have also seen a rise in their contested possessions, going from 16th in the AFL last year to eighth this year. There is still much work to do, but it is a massive step in the right direction. 

Since the retirement of Jobe Watson at the end of 2017, Essendon has been crying out for a contested ball-winner in the middle of the ground. Dylan Shiel was recruited to the club in the summer of 2018 purely to help in this aspect, but has largely struggled to recapture the form that saw him make an All-Australian team while with the GWS Giants.

For too long, too much of Essendon’s midfield work has been heaped onto the shoulders of current skipper and three-time All-Australian Zach Merrett and his running mate, Darcy Parish. 

Jye Caldwell of Essendon tackles Jake Soligo

Jye Caldwell’s emergence has helped added a much more defensive edge to Essendon’s existing midfield mix.(Getty Images: Sarah Reed)

However, under the Scott regime, some new faces are starting to take some of the load off the All-Australian duo. 

The Bombers were able to land former Carlton and GWS midfielder Will Setterfield in the 2022 trade period, and the 26-year-old played a pivotal role in Essendon’s engine room in his first year at the club before his season was derailed through injury. 

Setterfield was the midfielder most used behind Parish and Merrett at centre bounces last season, and so far this season he’s continued to be prominent in the middle. 

Along with Setterfield, Scott has not been afraid to throw the likes of Archie Perkins, Sam Durham and Jye Caldwell into the mix, and all three have held up well, allowing Merrett to spend more time on the outside where he’s able to damage teams with his elite foot skills.

Since Durham returned to the line-up after missing a week with a concussion, both he and Caldwell have taken on bigger roles at centre bounces and have passed with flying colours.

Greater positional integrity across the ground

The emergence of the likes of Setterfield, Durham and Caldwell in the middle has impacted other parts of the ground as well. 

Prior to Scott’s arrival, without a true big-bodied midfielder to help out Parish and Merrett, Essendon resorted to using Kyle Langford and Jake Stringer through the middle in spurts in order to give opposition teams different looks. 

While the tactic had success at times, particularly with Stringer, who enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in 2021, it took some bite out of Essendon’s forward line, meaning Peter Wright was often left as the lone threat forward of the ball. 

Stringer appeared in 67 per cent of Essendon’s centre bounces in 2021, and that number has steadily decreased over the last three seasons. So far this season, he’s attended just 14 centre bounces in six matches, instead damaging teams inside 50 where he leads the Bombers with 14 goals, good for eighth in the competition. For a player who has struggled to stay on the park due to injuries, spending less time in the midfield is likely to keep Stringer on the park for longer as the season wears on. 

Langford has enjoyed a similar uptick in his fortunes, after being miscast as a midfielder for the first half of his career as the team became obsessed with finding its own version of a midfielder in the Marcus Bontempelli, Dustin Martin archetype. 

Jake Stringer of the Bombers celebrates kicking a goal

Jake Stringer has been able to remain forward of the football, consistently damaging defences once Essendon gets the ball inside its own forward 50.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

Scott’s arrival has seen Langford play purely as a forward and after booting a career-high 51 goals in 2023, the 27-year-old is currently on track for a similar output this year. 

Keeping the likes of Stringer and Langford up forward allows Essendon to keep defences on their toes, with opponents no longer able to assume the ball is going in the same direction on most inside 50 entries. 

Another change ushered in during the Scott regime has been returning Andrew McGrath to his natural half-back role, where he played as a junior before being picked first overall by Essendon in the 2016 draft. 

After appearing at 120 centre bounces in 2022, Ben Rutten’s last season at Essendon, McGrath has not registered a single centre bounce attendance in the last two seasons, instead settling into a damaging half-back role. After averaging a career-high 5.4 rebound 50s per game in 2023, McGrath is on-track for new career-high of six per game this year. 

Using players in their natural positions may seem basic enough, but it’s something the club has not done consistently enough for years. 

Defending with a purpose

Eyebrows were raised when Essendon splashed the cash on free agent defender Ben McKay over the summer. 

The 26-year-old is understood to be earning upwards of $1.5 million this season in a heavily front-ended deal, a figure that seems astronomical at first look, given he came to the club having played just 71 games in six seasons with North Melbourne for a handful of wins.

Essendon was one of a number of clubs including Hawthorn and Sydney who were after McKay, and his performance through the first six weeks has shown just why he was so highly in demand. 

After years of being monstered by big forwards, McKay’s presence in Essendon’s defensive 50 has been a welcome addition. His arrival has freed up the likes of Jayden Laverde to not have to play on the opposition’s top forward, and will no doubt help unlock Jordan Ridley once he returns from a quad injury. 

After ranking 13th overall in the league in intercepts last year, the Bombers are up to sixth in this category. Essendon also ranks sixth in the league in defensive one-on-one contests won. 

Ben McKay of Essendon makes a spoil

Ben McKay’s off-season arrival has helped sure up what was once a shaky Essendon backline. (Getty Images: James Elsby)

More importantly, Essendon has improved its defence all over the ground so far this season. 

After ranking third-last in tackling last season, Essendon is up to sixth so far this year. Tied in with that has been the forward-half pressure, with the Bombers ranking ranking fifth in tackles inside its forward 50, up from 14th a year ago. 

There has been a buy-in from top to bottom to for the team to up its pressure and it’s shown in a drastic improvement in pressure acts, up from 16th in 2023 to seventh so far this season. Increased pressure all of the ground gives Essendon a greater chance of stopping transition goals as well as setting up opportunities for repeat inside 50s. 

Make no mistake about it. While Essendon has been impressive in multiple aspects, there is still significant work to do for the team to be consistently battling for top-four positions. 

The Bombers have started seasons on fire previously before fizzling out. They came out of the gates with an identical 4-2 record last year before finishing 11th after ending the season with two consecutive losses by an average of 98 points. Long-suffering fans are a long way away from being able to trust this club again.

Essendon coach Brad Scott and his players

Essendon coach Brad Scott has refused to buy into the outside media’s hype since his arrival at the club at the end of 2022.(Getty Images: Sarah Reed)

Despite being seventh heading into this week’s Anzac Day clash against Collingwood, Essendon’s percentage still sits at a paltry 92.7 — the Bombers are the only team in the top eight with a percentage under 100. 

Scott has been adamant on not chasing “sugar hits”, instead wanting to slowly build the bones of a team that can contend for years to come, not just for fleeting moments here and there. 

“It’s good reward for effort,” the Essendon coach said of the start to the season after beating Adelaide last week.

“We obviously had a really poor two and a half quarters here two weeks ago, but outside of that the effort and intensity has been pretty good for the year. We sit 4-2 and I think we’ve started favourite in one of those.

“So I can say we’ve got a lot of work to do but clearly at least the bookmakers and the industry thinks the same. We’re certainly not getting ahead of ourselves, we know where we’re at, but it’s good reward for effort to sit here 4-2.”

Whether you love the Bombers or not, there’s no doubting that a strong Essendon would be incredible for the AFL, as we’ve seen with the recent resurgence of Carlton and Richmond before them. 

The media will hype up Essendon as a team ready to contend right now, before tearing the club down after an inevitable loss that follows — as is natural for a young team. But Brad Scott seems to get it, and refuses to shortcut the process, and that’s the most important thing. He has the bones of a team that could be legitimate in the years to come, and he knows it.

If the Bombers are able to stay the course and continue to methodically build, for the first time in over 20 years, they’ll be able to be a force once again.

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dan