It's been interesting to me that a large % on this forum feel that the result against Hawthorn reinforces the belief that Melbourne are not going to succeed in the finals - primarily around the assertion that we lack the mental edge or 'killer instinct' required. The evidence being that we have:
- faltered against weaker opposition (i.e. those who should be an easy 'kill')
- struggled when the expectation is to win (i.e. we only succeed as an underdog)
While this makes sense to some degree, for me the win against Port Adelaide was in the game that truly made me believe we can be successful in the finals. That was last week - following weeks of sub-standard play including losses to Collingwood and GWS.
The Port game for me is where the pendulum settles, as it reinforces my belief that Melbourne have invested their strategic, physical and mental energies into the games that matter. Imagine our losses were against the Cats, Dogs, Lions and Power, and our wins included huge percentage boosting wins against the Crows, Pies, Giants and Hawks? This scenario is more likely to make me believe we wouldn't succeed come September.
Why can't put away teams that have struggled against the rest of the competition this year?
1 - I read earlier the theory that when we play against the top teams, they have tried to win applying their own strategy, rather than trying to unpick ours. In contrast, the lower teams have tried to win unpicking our strategy. This sort of makes sense - but I'm not convinced. I do think however buy into the idea that teams prepare to play us as if it is a big game (the way we prepare for our big games). Hawthorn played their best game for the year last night - they were responding to a flogging by Freo. Noting they have the best coach in the comp, and Sam Mitchell was the mastermind behind our humiliation against the Eagles in the Prelim. The pies were playing in Buckley's last game. GWS stated it was a 'final' for them. Adelaide had some major scalps and Tex was still in form.
2 - We cannot play our high pressure gamestyle for 22 rounds, it's too exhausting. As such, we have invested our biggest efforts for the high stakes games. I think this has some merit - no team can play at 100% all year - and as such, we seem to have 'turned on' the pressure for periods of games (particularly in the second half), as we cannot sustain the energy required to play four quarters of high pressure every week. Against the best teams, we have managed to sustain high pressure for longer periods of the game. I actually like this theory because we have arguably the best fitness and conditioning coach in the league. Everything the Burgess does is for a reason. We looked tired last night - yet came off a 9 day break - I think there is a reason for this.
3 - the coach is crap. I don't buy this argument as he's the guy who has led us to record wins and wins against the best in the comp. I think the players respect him and play for him, and the gameplan (when working) is built to win finals.
4 - mental weakness of players/lack of leadership: I think until we win a flag, we will have this accusation hanging over us, and for good reason. It reminds me of the Chicago Bulls in The Last Dance. They had to prove they could win in the finals to get the belief and trust of their supporters and critics. I don't believe however that you can win against every team in the top 8 and not have serious mental strength. The way we go about our wins has also been instructive - we have never gone over the top celebrating - we look like we mean business and each win is a step towards the GF - the only game that matters
5 - Risk aversion: I've argued this previously as a key reason for not winning against lower clubs (or struggling even if we win). Think back to the incredible chains of handballs that we were bold enough to try against the Tigers, or other really amazing pieces of play through the middle or flooding forward against the Lions and Cats. In a way this is a symptom of mental weakness, but it is also evidence of loss aversion (are they the same). Loss aversion takes hold as the consequences of losing (e.g. humiliation) are greater against teams we are expected to beat. In this scenario, we take less risks because we expect (hope) our opposition to make more mistakes. What happens though is if the opposition don't make mistakes, they grow in confidence, and in turn, we go into our shells and loss aversion kicks in. Thankfully our defence has held strong in many of these games (as it did again last night - thanks HP). Once momentum turns, it can be impossible to stop. In that regard, I was super happy to escape with a draw. For me it had nothing to do with the number of games the Hawks had played - it had everything to do with belief and confidence. Once they got some momentum, we were in trouble.
6 - the mystery and miracle of competitive sports: There is no rational reason, and why we have lost or nearly lost so many games to teams below us perhaps we just can't be explained.
Of the above, I'm taking the following view: We win when it most matters, which makes me believe we can win the GF this year. We can't sustain 100% high pressure all year, and this puts us at risk when it drops off. We also come from a culture of failure, and mental demons will continue to creep in until we get to the top. Despite that history of failure, we have a coaching and fitness team that rivals the best in the comp, and who, in tandem with the playing leadership, have as at the top of the ladder as of Round 18.
I've completely given up caring about how much we win games by, or whether we struggle against 'weak' opposition. I just want the win and move on, and my belief in the team will be determined by the games we play against the top teams, not those at the bottom.