PERTH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 25: Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs handpasses the ball during the 2021 Toyota AFL Grand Final match between the Melbourne Demons and the Western Bulldogs at Optus Stadium on September 25, 2021 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The Western Bulldogs were riding a wave of expectation after a strong opening month of the season. A first grand final appearance in five years came as a shock to few, but a devastating 74-point loss to Melbourne left a sour taste in fans' mouths.

Season finish: 5th
Record: 15-7

After a disrupted 2020 season and a heartbreaking three-point elimination final exit at the hands of the surging Saints, the Western Bulldogs had a point to prove heading into 2021.

The Bulldogs were the team to beat for much of the season, finding themselves primed for a top-two finish before three crucial losses to end the home and away season saw the club relegated to fifth and stripped of the golden double chance in finals. The boys of the west didn't need it when it came to September, marching all the way to the grand final, but a cross country road trip and electric finals performances may have been the catalyst for a grand final fade out.

The Dogs remained undefeated until Round 7, turning in a string of dominant performances including a 128-point Good Friday demolition of North Melbourne that saw Josh Bruce kick 10 goals. Marcus Bontempelli dominated, as did Jack Macrae, while Adam Treloar proved his worth in blue, red and white after an off-season move from Collingwood.

AFL Rd 1 - Collingwood v Western Bulldogs
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 19: Bailey Smith of the Bulldogs is tackled by Jeremy Howe of the Magpies during the 2021 AFL Round 01 match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Western Bulldogs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 19, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Despite dominant performances throughout the season, including 100+ point wins over the Kangaroos and the Saints (Round 10) and a 22-point win over the eventual premiers in Melbourne in Round 19, the Dogs struggled at the pointy end, with consecutive losses to Essendon, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide in the final three rounds of the season.

The Bulldogs rolled the Bombers by 49 points in the elimination final, before coming out best in a one-point thriller against Brisbane in a semi-final. Facing the Power at Adelaide Oval in the club's first preliminary final since their premiership run in 2016, the Dogs didn't blink, winning by 71 points. In the grand final, under the lights in Perth, the Bulldogs' season ended in heartbreak as an electric Melbourne team blew out the margin from a close first half to a 74-point victory.

Star player: Marcus Bontempelli  

There are few players in the competition that have the influence Bontempelli does on and off the field. In his second season as captain, Bontempelli had arguably one of his best seasons since his debut back in 2014.

The 25-year-old was the hot favourite for the Brownlow on medal night, eventually finishing in second, but he claimed his fourth best and fairest award at the Dogs and a fourth inclusion in the All-Australian team.

The 2016 premiership player didn't miss a game in 2021, averaging 26.7 disposals and 15.2 kicks at 68.9% efficiency. The midfield gun, who was one of the Bulldogs' best in the grand final loss, ranked 15th competition wide for tackles laid, averaging 5.05 a game. Up forward, Bontempelli kicked 31 goals in 2021, including three in the grand final, while the big-bodied midfielder also averaged 5.5 clearances a game.

One of the most valuable players at the Dogs, Bontempelli was just three votes away from winning his maiden Brownlow Medal and if not for a fourth-quarter fade out, could have been in possession of a Norm Smith of his own too.

Breakout player: Bailey Dale

Six years after his debut, Dale had his breakout season after a move from the forward line saw the 25-year-old go from a fringe player to an All Australian half-back.

After a 2020 season in which Dale played just nine games and kicked seven goals, his improvement in 2021 was monumental. A pre-season switch down back seemed to be a masterstroke, as Dale became one of the competitions premier defenders.

Dale averaged 24.0 disposals and 17.2 kicks a game at 79.6% efficiency, while also averaging 5.2 intercepts throughout the year.

Dale picked up three Brownlow votes in 2021 but was awarded all ten coaches votes in the Bulldogs' Round 20 win over Adelaide, just one performance that saw him awarded with an All-Australian blazer and a fourth-place finish in the club's best and fairest award.

Positives

Midfield machines: The addition of Treloar into a midfield already stacked with the likes of Bontempelli, Macrae and Tom Liberatore made the team something to be feared going into the season.

Rightfully so, the Dogs ranked second competition wide for clearances per game and subsequently fourth in inside 50's per game. The midfield dominance made it easy for the team to carry the ball into the forward line, with Macrae finishing with 27 total goal assists for the season.

Forward line: The forward line duo of Bruce and Aaron Naughton proved dangerous in 2021, alongside the emergence of Cody Weightman and Tim English.

Bruce (48 goals) and Naughton (47) both stood tall in the forward line, leaving the Dogs with the second-highest percentage in the league (132.8) at the conclusion of Round 23. Weightman kicked 26 goals in his second season, while English balanced his duties in the ruck with time in the forward line, finishing the season with 19 majors.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 04: Cody Weightman of the Bulldogs celebrates kicking a goal during the round 16 AFL match between Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne Kangaroos at Marvel Stadium on July 04, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Negatives

What goes up must always come down: The Bulldogs were a puzzle of inconsistency in the last two months of the season. Late losses to Richmond and the Hawks cost the club a top-four finish, then dominant wins over Essendon and Port in the finals carried the team all the way to the grand final.

In the final game of the year, both versions of the Bulldogs turned up. The opening half of the grand final was strong and a 19-point lead late in the third quarter seemed like enough to get the Dogs over the line, but a late Demon's rampage proved too much for the team to handle.

A top-four finish was always in reach for the Bulldogs, should they have gained that coveted finishing spot, they would have saved themselves a week one finals trip to Tassie. While the club's frequent flyer points would have added up nicely, a month-long road trip across Australia no doubt had an impact on the Bulldogs' ability to run out the game alongside the Demons.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 23: Josh Dunkley of the Bulldogs injures his shoulder during the round six AFL match between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Western Bulldogs at Manuka Oval on April 23, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Backline deficiencies: While the Bulldogs had a solid offensive outfit, down back the Dogs often lacked bite. Key defender Alex Keath stood tall, ranking 11th league-wide in intercepts per game, but veteran Easton Wood managed just 15 games and left the Dogs exposed.

In the grand final, the Bulldogs conceded six goals in just 15 minutes and looked desperate for answers. Across the season, the club ranked 16th in rebound 50's and clangers per game.

Season grade: A

The Bulldogs were one of the best across the whole season. Despite lapses of inconsistency and drops in form just prior to the finals series, the Dogs were able to produce some magic in September to work their way back into a grand final.

Should the dogs be graded up until the 16th-minute mark of the third quarter, they would receive an A+, but a 45-minute lapse in concentration was enough to undo a season of hard work and leave the club motivated by the sting of premiership heartbreak in 2022.

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