AFL Grand Final Preview: Which team will win the 2021 decider?

·Contributor
·7-min read
Max Gawn (pictured left) and Marcus Bontempelli (pictured right) hold the AFL grand final trophy.
Max Gawn (pictured left) and Marcus Bontempelli (pictured right) pose for a photograph ahead of the AFL Grand Final. (Getty Images)

Another historic AFL grand final awaits, this year in Perth as Melbourne looks to end a 57-year premiership drought.

In its way is a Western Bulldogs team that knows all too well the burning desire to end such a long wait for another flag, having broken their own drought in 2016.

Let’s take a close look at the game and all the key elements that will decide who wins and why.

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2021 AFL GRAND FINAL

Melbourne v Western Bulldogs

Saturday, September 25, 5.15pm AWST (7.15pm AEST)

Optus Stadium, Perth

X-FACTORS:

Melbourne – Max Gawn

The Demons skipper tore Geelong to shreds with a career-best five goals in the preliminary final and looms as a major headache for Luke Beveridge and the Western Bulldogs.

It’s not just his work in the ruck, it’s the fact he can get back to support the defence and forward to be a target in front of goals.

He’s had 31 scoring shots this season, the most in his career, the only issue being his accuracy. He’s kicked 16.15 for the year, and if he gets chances on Saturday night he needs to convert them.

Max Gawn (pictured) catching a ball during the Melbourne Demons training session.
Max Gawn (pictured) in action during the Melbourne Demons training session at Lathlain Park on September 18, 2021 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The ruck has been a major issue for the Dogs. They have conceded Tim English is not having enough of an impact as a top-choice ruckman, so he is spending significant time forward, and they brought in an underdone Stefan Martin for the prelim after a long injury layoff.

Martin has at least had a fortnight to recover, but there must be concerns about his ability to go with Gawn around the ground. English will still need to do a lot of that ground work.

Western Bulldogs – Cody Weightman

Back in the team after missing the preliminary final with concussion, the 20-year-old might be young and inexperienced, but he’s just the sort of player that could bob up with three or four goals.

As good in the air as he is on the ground, Weightman has brought a different look to the Bulldogs’ forward line this year, and had a real impact on the scoreboard.

He played just three games in his debut season last year, but he’s played 15 this year and booted 26 goals. He’s gone goalless in just one match in 2021.

Cody Weightman (pictured0 celebrates a goal during the AFL semi final match.
Cody Weightman (pictured) could be a key to granf final success for the Bulldogs. (Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

He showed the impact he can have in a final with a four-goal haul in the elimination final against Essendon.

The Bulldogs’ talls have to make sure they’re at least bringing the ball to ground against Steven May and Jake Lever, giving this kid and Bailey Smith a chance to cause the Dees some problems.

WHY THEY CAN WIN:

Melbourne

They’ve just been the toughest team to score against all season. They averaged just 65 points against for the home and away season. That’s as miserly a team as we’ve seen for more than a decade.

It comes through complete buy-in from the whole team, and an experienced pair in May and Lever marshalling the troops in defence.

Luke Beveridge and his coaches have great tactical nous though, and completely shut May out of the game when the sides last met in Round 19.

They used Mitch Hannan as basically a tagger, and May had no influence on the game. The Dogs won by 20 points.

There’s no Josh Bruce (knee) in the forward line for the Dogs this time though, so that changes the dynamic, but making May and Lever accountable, bringing the ball to ground as much as possible, and not bombing inside 50 will be crucial against this Melbourne defence.

If they can’t do any or all of that, the Dees win. It’s too good a defence to be able to kick a winning score against any other way.

Western Bulldogs

It’s all about the battle of the midfield for the Bulldogs. They have the potential to really put the heat on the Dees.

Both midfields are loaded with stars, and it was a drop-off at the contest that cost the Dogs in the final few rounds of the home and away season, which saw them drop out of the top four.

When the Dogs beat Melbourne in Round 19 they won the clearances 49-41, even though Melbourne dominated the hitouts 67-18.

With Martin in the ruck to provide more of a contest, the likes of Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore and Marcus Bontempelli might be able to get their hands on it even more.

We saw in the final round of the season when Geelong had an incredible 20-minute purple patch against Melbourne – slamming on eight goals in the second quarter – that it had a lot to do with winning the ball out of the centre square, getting it inside 50 quickly against a spread Melbourne defence.

When the Dees defenders can’t get over to help each other they’re more vulnerable, so it’s up to the Bulldogs midfield to make that happen as much as possible.

CHINKS IN THE ARMOUR:

The ‘weaker’ parts of the ground for both teams just happens to be in the same 50m arc.

It’s not that the Melbourne attack and the Bulldogs defence are weak, they’re just not as dominant as other parts of the ground.

Melbourne really only settled its forward line – and in particular the use of Ben Brown rather than Sam Weideman – later in the season.

The Dees are not exactly the sort of team that blows other sides off the park, but that’s also because they don’t really need to because their defence is so good.

A big crowd gathers for the People's Parade ahead of the 2021 AFL Grand Final, at Optus Stadium on September 24, 2021 in Perth, Australia.
A big crowd gathers for the People's Parade ahead of the 2021 AFL Grand Final, at Optus Stadium on September 24, 2021 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

There plenty of firepower there though with the likes of Brown, Bayley Fritsch, Kozzy Pickett and Tom McDonald.

The Bulldogs will be thankful to have Alex Keath back to bolster their defence.

The Dogs ranked fifth for points against in the home and away season – the same spot the Melbourne attack ranked.

Josh Schache has been named in the forward line but could also be used as a swingman in defence if things get out of hand.

WHO WINS AND WHY:

It’s a deserving grand final match-up, even if the Dogs have come from fifth. These two teams occupied the top two spots on the ladder for 15 rounds of the season.

As admirable as the Bulldogs have been in this finals series, and what they’ve overcome with injuries and travel, it’s going to be a huge challenge to overcome a Melbourne team that has had a remarkably healthy season and is firing on all cylinders.

Yes, the Bulldogs won in Round 19, but that was helped by Melbourne’s wastefulness in front of goal. They booted 2.7 in the opening half.

The Dees are just playing with a commitment and a selflessness that has been years in the making. They play as a team now, not a group of highly talented individuals.

With Gawn feeding the likes of Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca in the midfield, and with May and Lever patrolling the backline, it’s hard to see the Dogs kicking a winning score.

Tip: Melbourne by 26 points.

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