A look at Sydney's year from a win-loss perspective and you're entitled to say they haven't got a lot out of season 2020. But let's delve a little deeper into the year and where they're headed.
What's gone wrong?
In the year following the exodus of experienced premiership stars in Jarrad McVeigh, Kieren Jack, Heath Grundy and Nick Smith, it was more important than ever for Sydney to have senior players out on the field in 2020. Unfortunately, Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy, Sam Reid and Isaac Heeney have all missed significant amounts of the season, and they have been further depleted with news this week co-captain Dane Rampe will miss the remainder of the year with a broken hand.
Calm mature heads are needed to help cope with the challenges posed by hub life and a fluid fixture - as such Sydney have struggled for consistency in their output.
The ruck department issues have again been laid bare this season, with the Swans (ranked 17th in the league for hit-outs, 15th for hit-outs to advantage) unable to win first use of the footy, and therefore losing a proactive mindset at ground level.
Callum Sinclair has bravely battled, and Aliir Aliir has pinch hit at various times in the absence of their first choice ruckman Sam Naismith but in several games this year, the ruck issue has been exposed. Taking on West Coast with Nic Naitanui in Round 5 for instance, they lost the hit-outs by 36 and clearances by 13. A in-form ruckman like Jarrod Witts also exposed Sydney's weakness in this area in Round 7 as the Suns surged to a 32-point win on the back of being +20 in hit-outs and +11 in clearances.
While John Longmire should take some solace that his young outfit is learning to play 'harder for longer,' sustaining maximum effort against quality sides has proven difficult despite the shorter quarters. Against St Kilda in Round 9, the Saints piled on 13 goals to Sydney's four after quarter-time and these types of performances have had the Swans languishing near the bottom of the ladder all season.
The limited marking options inside 50 has also impacted Longmire's game style, and many Swans fans would have been as frustrated as I, watching the team play at snail's pace at times this year. It has caused the team to chip wide, often turning the football over and putting more pressure on the defence. At times, this has resulted in low-scoring, often negative displays. However, in recent weeks the corridor has been opened up. The Swans are now swivelling their heads and have made a concerted effort to take it on quickly through the middle and are looking more dangerous.
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Causes for optimism
Not only has the ball movement changed, but the football world has taken note of the progress being made by the young Swans. In blooding six debutants in 2020, Longmire and his coaching staff have been given the opportunity to evaluate the depth and capability of the list. With the rise of James Rowbottom and continued improvement of Oliver Florent (ninth in the AFL for inside 50s), the centre square certainly looks more dynamic at ground level. Rowbottom is in career-best form, outmuscling and outclassing the Greater Western Sydney midfield opponents on his way collecting six clearances and gaining 445 metres last round.
Tom Papley has been a standout. Known as a barometer for his energy and buzz, he has terrorised small defenders with his consistency to hit the front of packs and the scoreboard. After enduring a tough off season last year, Papley has looked invested and committed throughout this season.
Leaders such as Luke Parker and Rampe have both had a terrific seasons again but Callum Mills is an emerging organiser in defence. Mills was thrown into the midfield for exposure but it his ability to read the cues early to position himself correctly for an intercept mark in the back half that has been most impressive. He is equal fourth in the league for intercept possessions.
Jordan Dawson looks a player more assured of his position and now understanding the value to his team. Once a fringe player, he has built upon last season where he finished ninth in the best and fairest award and has truly established himself as a damaging utility. Comfortable in defence and using his accurate left foot in transition, Dawson has pushed forward at times and had 33 score involvements this season.
Particularly pleasing in the last round against the Giants, Sydney defended extremely well through the middle of the ground. Having to win the footy in your back half puts enormous strain on the defence, but the pressure applied meant GWS ran at 57 percent disposal efficiency. The upside for Sydney is that if this level of pressure can be the benchmark, then their scores from turnovers will certainly rise.
List management decisions
This final part of the season is a prime opportunity to get playing time into younger members of the side, while fostering the style of play that will be sustainable and win them more games in the long run. By continuing to take risks through the corridor while looking to control the ground with strong team defence, the Swans can get a clearer picture of who is onboard for their next push for a flag.
Sydney has had a great history of bringing players in from other clubs but at this point the jury, from my point of view, is still out on both Ryan Clarke and Sam Gray. They would be two players that decisions need to be made upon moving forward. The pressure should be on all players in these final rounds, but you would hope that they can show the club what they can offer in 2021 and beyond.
A player with the talent of Will Hayward needs to now take another step. At times he has looked to plateau this season, and I'd like to find the consistency of effort from both a scoreboard impact and defensive viewpoint.
To the trade period and draft, the Swans need another ruckman that will support and aid Naismith and Sinclair.
Obviously you can never have enough outside run and skill to bolster both the midfield and half-back line. I feel we have seen enough from Dylan Stephens to suggest he is going to blossom nicely. Another agile tall that you could play at either end, would allow Nick Blakey to spend longer periods up the ground or support Rampe and Co. down back.
Blakey had battled to take the next step as a key forward, but an extremely positive performance up the ground against GWS has pleased many. The confidence that Blakey would take out of last week could be profound. By using his endurance and skill, as he did last week to great effect, he could provide an extremely tough match-up for opposing wingman if he can replicate. He obviously needs further time in the gym to hold down a key position inside 50 against the best defenders, such as Harris Andrews, but his time will come.
At this point, I don't feel Sydney should make another play at Joe Daniher. I'd also be somewhat hesitant if for instance, Taylor Walker (who has a year remaining on his Adelaide contract) was to emerge on the market. But an additional tall would also provide time for Tom McCartin to continue his rapid development. Despite the temptation of a final round appearance, get Lance Franklin set for strong supporting role next year.
Overall, there is and there should be genuine excitement about where this Sydney side is heading. The journey will have its peaks and troughs, but they should look to build a brand of consistent, tough Bloods football and start the climb.