Why trading Angus Brayshaw could fix Melbourne's midfield

This article was originally published in June, 2019.

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

You don't have to be Einstein to work out that Melbourne is unable, or unwilling, to address a key weakness that their rivals have continually exploited.

Simply put, the Demons' footskills are woeful and their midfield is getting smashed on the outside. It's been an issue this year, during the Dees' annus horribilis, but it was also apparent during last season's barnstorming run to a preliminary final.

In 2018, Melbourne was able to paper over those cracks by producing one of the most brutal contested-ball midfield seasons of all time, with Max Gawn's dominance feeding the likes of Clayton Oliver, Angus Brayshaw, James Harmes and Jack Viney. They were still often beaten on the spread, but it mattered little once Melbourne got their tails up towards the end of the home-and-away season due to their dominance on the inside.

This year, though, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the Demons. And it's obvious that coach Simon Goodwin needs to address his team's midfield balance before last season's progress is exposed as a false dawn rather than a building block towards a drought-bursting premiership.

Statistics highlight just how unbalanced and unskilled Melbourne's midfield is.

Going back to the start of last year, only 58.4 percent of the Dees' possessions have been uncontested - the second least across the league. Their disposal efficiency in this time is ranked 16th (kicking efficiency 15th) and they commit the third most unforced giveaway turnovers of any side. Their handball retention rate of 83.4 percent in the past 18 months is dead last in the AFL.

Looking at the individuals in the Demons' midfield isn't pretty reading either.

Oliver, Harmes, Viney, Brayshaw, Nathan Jones and Christian Petracca are the club's top six for centre bounce attendances from 2018-19. All are ranked by Champion Data as average in terms of kicking efficiency, except Oliver (below average). In terms of uncontested possession percentage, Jones is listed as above average, with Brayshaw and Harmes average, Petracca and Viney below average and Oliver poor.

It's obvious Melbourne's strength on the inside is now being outweighed by the lack of spread and skill on the outside.

The Dees' finals hopes are now officially shot but it will be a fascinating off-season for Goodwin and the club's list management team.

The silver lining to a poor season is of course a high draft pick and the Demons will likely secure a selection around the No. 2, 3 or 4 mark.

They may well use that on the best available talent, having not used a first-round selection since 2015 when they drafted Oliver at No. 4 and Sam Weideman at No. 9. While that may net them the next Hugh McCluggage or Jaidyn Stephenson, there is always risk - even at the pointy end of the draft.

Another option the Demons should consider is packaging that early pick with one of their bevy of quality inside mids to bring in a ready-made, elite outside runner. It's unlikely they'd even contemplate trading co-captain Viney, despite his so-so form this season and ongoing injury concerns. Oliver would also be off the table as an All-Australian at the age of 21 who still possesses enormous upside. As good as Harmes is, he wouldn't command enormous currency at the trade table, while Jones, at 31, will almost certainly finish his career as a one-club player. Trading Petracca now would be a classic case of 'selling low'.

Which brings us to Brayshaw. The 2014 No. 3 draft pick is averaging a healthy 25 possessions, 3.2 tackles and 3.7 clearances per game, and has gained the 14th-most meters in the league this year.

But Brayshaw personifies Melbourne's midfield issues - fantastic in the contest, tough as old boots and able to find the pill, but unreliable by foot. He has committed the 11th most turnovers in the league this year, with his disposal efficiency under implied pressure and physical pressure the second-worst and fourth-worst of the league's top 50 ball-winners.

But as a high draft pick coming off a third-place finish in the Brownlow, and in the prime of his career at 23, he would still command some serious trade currency if the Demons were so inclined.

Would the Dees consider dangling his name out there to a team lacking someone of his skillset? If so, who should they target in return?

One name stands out: GWS star Lachie Whitfield. The 2012 No. 1 draft pick is exactly what the Demons need: Someone able to spread quickly and cleverly from a contest, someone who can hit targets for fun, and, as a bonus, someone who can impact games either on a wing, at half-back and as he's shown this year, at half-forward.

His stats from 2018-19 show how damaging he is by foot. He has the fourth-best retention kicking inside 50 of the top 50 players for kicks inside 50 and the second best mark completion percentage of the same top-50. The 24-year-old is third for uncontested possessions per game across the competition in this timeframe, and is rated elite in terms of kicking efficiency.

Whitfield is a restricted free agent at the end of 2020, and in this era of 'pre-agency' -- where clubs often consider trading a player the year before they become free agents to maximise their return -- if the Giants had an inkling Whitfield wanted to move back to Victoria, then it might be clever to trade him before he was able to walk out for a much poorer return.

It would also alleviate any salary cap concerns, allowing the Giants to lock up restricted free agent and captain-in-waiting Stephen Coniglio, as well as having more money to spend on their wealth of emerging talent.

In this hypothetical, would the Demons be up for trading their first pick (currently No. 3) and Brayshaw for Whitfield? And would the Giants be up for that?

Another hypothetical might be for Fremantle to reunite Brayshaw with his brother Andrew at the Dockers - would a fair trade be their first pick (currently No. 13) for the elder brother, who could offer Nat Fyfe some much-needed inside support? Then, the Demons could look at offering the Giants their first pick, as well as Fremantle's first rounder, for Whitfield.

If a chase for Whitfield fails, other wingers the Demons should target at the end of the year are out-of-contract Lion Tom Cutler, Freo's Ed Langdon (also out of contract), 2020 restricted free agent Rory Atkins from Adelaide, or Geelong's 2020 unrestricted free agent Mitch Duncan. Even out-of-favour (and out of contract) Lion Lewis Taylor could be appealing. As a short-term fix, Hawthorn's 2020 unrestricted free agent Isaac Smith, who will be 31 before the start of next season, might also be worth chatting to.

There's a lot of 'ifs' in the above scenarios but one thing is for sure - Melbourne have to fix their glaring problem because other clubs have worked them out. And you don't have to be Einstein to understand that.