The premiership window is still very much open for the West Coast, who have another chance to reach the Grand Final this year.
From flag favourites to falling short in the first round of finals, 2020 was a frustrating year for the Eagles.
On paper, it looked as though the West Coast could have dominated the league.
But with wasted opportunities, an accumulation of injuries, and troubles in the hub, it was, as Head Coach Adam Simpson described, a “wasted season.”
A rebound is much needed. And with their premiership window still wide open, the Eagles are once again a flag favourite in 2021.
Here’s our preview of how the Eagles will be approaching the 2021 season.
A Big Opportunity
2021 could be the Eagles’ best shot to secure a flag for a while.
That does sound a little dramatic. But on analysis of the Eagles’ current age profile, a large proportion of their key players are over 30-years-old. That includes the likes of Nic Naitanui, Luke Shuey, Jack Redden, and Mark Hutchings.
Although, all four of these players are still performing and have a few years of good footy ahead of them.
Plus, with all-time top goalkicker, Josh Kennedy and ex-captain Shannon Hurn set to retire at the end of this season, there’s no doubt that the West Coast are approaching a transition period.
With players expected to be leaving over the next few years, and new arrivals coming in, this could be the last time Adam Simpson’s squad will be settled for a while. That means now is the best opportunity to make an advance on the grand final.
Simpson will not want to waste that.
New Faces And A Productive Off-Season
We weren’t expecting the Eagles to be firing off trade deals like a 1980s Wall Street banker this summer.
After breaking the bank to sign Tim Kelly last summer, it was always going to be a much quieter transfer period for the Eagles.
The main trade talking points are the acquisition of half-back Alex Witherden and small forward Zac Langdon.
Spoiling attacks, intercepting challenging bombs, and generally making a nuisance of himself in defence, Witherden impressed in his opening seasons for Brisbane.
He’ll be fresh coming into the side for the start of 2021, having played only a handful of games for the Lions last year, and will combine well with Liam Duggan to drive the football upfield from the back.
Expect to see him become a feature from the get-go.Embed from Getty Images
Meanwhile, former Giants small forward Langdon adds even more depth to the West Coast’s attack. Scoring 21 goals in 21 games during his rookie season, the 25-year-old has an eye for the sticks and is sharp when it comes to reclaiming possession around the stoppage.
Although it might be a few weeks before we see Langdon pull on the blue and amber jumper after the forward suffered a nasty concussion during pre-season.
Zac Langdon is on track to return to full training next Thursday and press for @WestCoastEagles debut in Rd 1.— Paddy Sweeney (@SweeneyPaddy9) March 11, 2021
Making good progress from concussion, passing multiple SCAT5 tests.
12-day return to play period ends 2 days prior to @GoldCoastSUNS game.@6PRbreakfast @9NewsPerth pic.twitter.com/CmJmIwvAUr
The Pressure’s On From The Start
Coaches and players all know that premierships are won in the first quarter of the season.
No one echoed that sentiment more than Adam Simpson after his team’s shock finals exit in October.
“We look back on our season, and we lost three in a row early in the year, and we lost by plenty. That hurt our percentage,” said Adam Simpson.
Losing to the Gold Coast, Port Adelaide, and Brisbane in the opening rounds of the year was where the Eagles let the top four slip away from them.
The good news is Adam Simpson will be grilling his team to be more clinical from the first bounce.
The bad news?
The Eagles will face off against the Gold Coast, the Bulldogs, Port Adelaide, and Collingwood in the first five rounds of the season, all teams they suffered tough losses to last year.
And their first away match and earliest test will come in round two against the Bulldogs, who caused the Eagles some real headaches back in round 16.
It’s going to be a busy start to the season!
The Game Plan
Being clinical with the ball in hand is something the Eagles must strive to be better at this year.
After conceding multiple narrow losses in 2020, including a two-point loss to the Bulldogs and a one-point loss to Collingwood in October’s elimination final, the West Coast can’t afford to waste chances this season.
Taking a look back at their defeats, the Eagles scored an average of 7.3 behinds in each of their five losses. Admittedly that’s not an awful statistic. But if we’re critical, it shows the team left several goal-scoring chances out on the field.
Particularly against Collingwood, the Eagles squandered multiple opportunities during the second half of that finals match that could have changed the outcome of the game and their season.
We also expect the side to continue to utilise their superiority at the stoppage.
Nic Naitanui’s dominance at the ruck will be well complemented this season by players like Liam Duggan, Alex Witherden, and Tim Kelly, who will be gunning to move the ball upfield fast. This injection of speed will catch opposition players on the break and enable the Eagles to hurt teams at the restart.
But for the West Coast, their tactics will come down to controlling the play. Being the fifth-best marking side in the league last year, Simpson likes his teams to keep possession and play higher up the field. It’s likely he’ll employ the same tactic again, utilising his top marking forwards like Liam Ryan and Josh Kennedy to keep a hold of the footy and control the play.
Who We’re Keeping An Eye On
One player we’ll be keeping a close eye on is defender Liam Duggan who proved last season he wasn’t just an out-and-out half-back.
Towards the later stages of the year, Duggan impressed with his rebounding ability. He also stood up in several crunch matches, including the emphatic round 17 win over St Kilda.
After being rewarded with a top-five finish in the John Worsfold medal race, we’ll be tracking how Duggan improves this season, with talk that the rebounding defender could be moved to play a role higher up the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
Another defender we’re keeping a close eye on is Tom Cole. After managing 14 appearances last year, the 23-year-old was dependable and effective when he got his hands on the footy. Recording an 84% disposal efficiency for the season, Cole proved himself a vital component in the Eagles backline through his ball-playing capabilities.
Although not the biggest marker in the Eagles defence, his strengths lie in the ferocity and the speed of his groundwork.
We expect him to push on this season and add another string to his bow to improve his intercept and marking play.
Lastly comes young forward Oscar Allen.
Starting 2019 as a backup ruckman, Allen has slotted into the Eagles front three, becoming a target man for the West Coast midfielders. Scoring 18 goals in 15 games last season, he was impressive inside the opposition 50.
What often goes amiss with Allen is his work rate. Ranked 6th in the squad for average tackles per game, the young forward works hard in attack and defence. His superior work rate is perhaps why Adam Simpson has been considering playing him in a swing role this year.
Allen interchanged between the full-forward and full-back positions during the Eagles pre-season matches and effectively made multiple intercepts and spoils at the back. It’s likely we’ll see him continue to drop back and provide defensive support during the season.Embed from Getty Images
“I played full-back my first game and then full-forward my second game. I don’t mind the opportunity to play in different spots,” Allen said last week.
“I think it’s just to help our talls have an extra back when either TB or Gov need a little bit of rest. It’s a bit of read what the game tells us.”
After an injury-plagued 2020 season, the Eagles are still waiting for several key players to return to the pitch.
The first of those is Elliot Yeo, who is still suffering from an Osteo Pubis injury, that has sidelined the midfielder for over eight months.
“Elliot is good. He will start ramping up some more training, I think, next Monday, and we’re tracking well in the sense of pain levels and what he’s able to cope with,” Eagles General Manager Craig Vozzo said in Tuesday’s injury update.
“It’s a slow, frustrating process for Elliot and us, but we’re making some decent progress.”
Meanwhile, Eagles captain Luke Shuey will miss out on Sunday’s curtain-raiser after suffering another hamstring setback. Shuey missed three games last year following a double hamstring strain at the back end of the season.
Confirmation Luke Shuey has done his hammy. Low grade, will be sidelined for 2-3 weeks. The @WestCoastEagles Captain had three hammy issues last year, and two calf injuries during the preseason. Frustrating start to 2021 for Shuey.— Ryan Daniels (@FootyRhino) March 12, 2021
Continuing to work his way back from a recurring knee injury, midfielder Mark Hutchings will also miss the first four weeks of the season.
Jake Waterman and Bailey Williams are also expected to be out for at least the first two games with back and ankle injuries, respectively.
B: Brad Sheppard, Tom Barrass, Tom Cole
HB: Liam Duggan, Jeremy McGovern, Shannon Hurn
C: Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey, Dom Sheed
HF: Jamie Cripps, Jack Darling, Brendon Ah Chee
F: Liam Ryan, Josh Kennedy, Oscar Allen,
R: Nic Naitanui, Tim Kelly, Elliot Yeo
Int: Jackson Nelson, Zac Langdon, Jake Waterman, Alex Witherden
Predicted Finish: 2nd
Featured Image: by Flickerd //https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:West_Coast_huddle_2018.jpg // CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)