For the first time in seven years, West Coast failed to qualify for a place in the AFL Finals, making this season their lowest finish in the league since 2014 - Adam Simpson’s first year in charge.

Having occupied seventh place for most of the year, losses to the Western Bulldogs, Sydney, and North Melbourne in the back end of the calendar proved costly for the Eagles and saw them drop to ninth in the League.

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Interestingly, West Coast didn’t have a bad start to the year, going 8-5 before the midseason bye. But after this week off, the Eagles suffered a string of losses wrapping up the remainder of the season with a disappointing 2-7 record.

Reflecting on the year, Triple M’s Tommy Atkinson raised a valid point that something must have happened to West Coast during the mid-season bye that derailed their season and saw them pick up just two-wins in nine-games following the break.

Speaking on the Western Huddle podcast last Tuesday, Atkinson said, “West Coast went 8-5 in the first part of the season. That included losses to the Dogs and St Kilda when they were up by three goals in the last quarter, and they choked.”

“They easily could have turned it to 10-2 and been in the top couple.”

“They then came home for 2-7, and something happened.”

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“They had the Richmond game before the bye, and they stormed back in that. They had the week off, and they made four changes,” he said, referencing the returns of injured key players Luke Shuey, Jeremy McGovern, Tim Kelly, and Brad Sheppard.

“Whatever happened after the bye week, they were cactus from there, and they couldn’t turn it around. Something happened in the back half of the season, and it just ruined them; they were awful.”

Did the Eagles simply lose focus? Did returning players upset the balance in the squad? Was the return to a normal season length too fatiguing?

Perhaps it was a combination of all three.

Two key takeaways

Looking at the first half of the season, two observations can be made.

Firstly, all of the Eagles losses before the bye came away from home.

It’s no secret that West Coast have struggled when playing away from home over the past two seasons, noting their poor run of form in the Queensland hub in 2020.

West Coast Eagles 2021 Season Wins/Losses Worm
West Coast Eagles 2021 Season Wins/Losses Worm

 

Whether it’s the long distances the side has to travel, or issues with adjusting to different playing conditions, the Eagles will need to up their game on the road in 2022 and cannot simply rely on their strong record at home to get them a place in finals.

Adam Simpson’s side won 3 out of 12 away matches this season, and in each of those matches, they were on average second best in every statistic apart from hit-outs and free kicks awarded against the side.

Secondly, a common theme of several of those losses was the manner in which the Eagles coughed up games during the final two quarters.

While dominating teams in the first two terms, West Coast notably faded out of matches to go 8-14 in third quarters and 10-12 for fourth quarters throughout the season.

Whether that was a problem with fitness, maintaining momentum throughout matches, or issues with work ethic remains to be seen.

But it’s worth noting West Coast aren’t the only side in Western Australia that have issues winning away from home. Fremantle have also only won three games outside of their home state this season, suggesting how difficult it is for WA teams to win on the road.

The second half

Like their performances in the second half of matches, the Eagles’ performances in the second segment of the season didn’t quite live up to the billing.

Especially considering the wave of confidence, the Eagles rode into the back end of the season after their clutch win against Richmond the week before the bye, Eagles fans were left scratching their heads with the side going 2-7 at the back end of the year.

Realistically, how much can go wrong in the space of a week?

Upsetting the balance

An interesting trend has emerged for West Coast when welcoming an influx of players back from injury.

Reflecting on last year’s elimination finals loss to Collingwood, the Eagles brought back five key players from injury before the match (Shuey, McGovern, Jamie Cripps, and Jack Redden), and arguably their additions may have upset the cohesion of the Eagles 22, costing them the game.

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A similar occurrence happened again this year during their loss to the Western Bulldogs following the bye week.

Bringing back A-graders Shuey, McGovern, Sheppard, and Kelly from injury, the Eagles struggled to get into their groove against the Bulldogs and were largely overrun in the middle of the park.

Still, it goes without saying, if you’re a coach and you’ve got Norm Smith medalist Shuey and All-Australian’s McGovern and Sheppard telling you they’re fit to play, you’re going to play them.

It can be disputed whether their inclusion disrupted the harmony of a side that had completed the biggest comeback of the season against the Tigers a fortnight prior.

It may have also been harsh on some of the younger players like Harry Edwards, who had a solid performance against the Tigers but lost his place two-weeks later.

For Atkinson, the “constant chopping and changing” of players was another of his biggest criticisms this season.

Josh Rotham got dropped. I don’t know why he ever got dropped,” the pundit said.

Oscar Allen never got settled, a top player in the comp, playing forward, playing back, playing ruck, moving him around.”

“They couldn’t work out what their best side was. At the back end of the season, they had four or five changes every week, with the same players going in and out. Forget injuries; they were just all over the shop and had no idea what to do.”

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Constant changes to the side in the latter part of the year may have disrupted the Eagles cohesion.

Yet, some sympathy must be paid to the Eagles selectors who have had to battle with one of the worst injury lists seen in the league this year.

Work ethic and arresting momentum

The Eagles fell down considerably this season on statistics which I consider to be key pressure stats. The first to note is West Coast were the bottom of the competition for average tackles per match.

Funnily enough, Eagles small forward Jamie Cripps ranks as the second-best tackler in the AFL, but it seems the rest of the side are way off his pace.

Especially against teams like Sydney and the Western Bulldogs, who can move the ball quickly through their hands, the Eagles struggled to arrest momentum, turn over the football and regain possession, notably ranking second-last in the league for turnovers.

At the contest, the Eagles weren’t as poor but should be doing better with the players they have in midfield. Coming 14th in the AFL for average contested possessions won per game, the Eagles struggled to win the ball and initiate their kick-marking style of play.

That was noticeable in their Round 17 loss to bottom side North Melbourne, where the Kangaroos hunted the ball harder and won more contested possessions in the later stages of the match.

From their pressure applied to how they transitioned the ball against opposition teams, the Eagles did seem to fall off the pace in matches, and their four losses on the bounce at the end of the season was a tough way to end the year.

Looking ahead to 2022

Although it was a disappointing end to the season, West Coast showed a lot of quality in the first half of the year, and if they can start to improve on their performances over a full four-quarters, they should feasibly be able to challenge for a top-four finish.

This off-season will be pivotal for West Coast, who will need to have some honest talks about closing out matches and getting results away from home.

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Getting recruitment right at the draft will also be key for the Eagles, who will almost certainly be looking for another ruckman to replace the departing Nathan Vardy, as well as another winger or a player who can bring a little more speed out of midfield, and another next-generation defender to add additional cover at the back.

This season may have been less than ideal for West Coast, but they still managed to finish in the top half of the table, showing how tough this side can be to beat. With multiple big wins coming this season against preliminary finalists Port Adelaide, a resurgent Carlton side, and reigning premiers Richmond, West Coast are without a doubt one of the most dangerous sides in the League.

Looking at the power and quality they have on their list, I still back them to be a finals contender next season.