Essendon had an impressive 2021 campaign after many wrote the young side off as wooden spoon contenders. Beating the pack to eighth place and securing a place in the finals, many fans thought this would be the year the Bombers broke their finals drought, but it wasn't to be.
With developing young forwards, a star-studded midfield and x-factor players, many think that this is the year Essendon can take their season one step forward and make a mark in September.
With many expectations placed upon the shoulders of the Bombers squad, here are the five burning questions heading into the 2022 season:
How will Essendon deal with a tough draw?
While expectations of Essendon may be higher heading into the new season following an impressive 2021 campaign, the Bombers seem to have been dealt a tough fixture.
Despite not leaving Melbourne for the first eight weeks of the season, Essendon do face a tricky start to the year, playing Geelong, Brisbane and Melbourne in the first three rounds. With a potential 0-3 start not out of the question, the Bombers are then also scheduled to face three top six teams from 2021 (Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Sydney) twice.
With a relatively young side (ranked 15th in the AFL for average age in 2021 at 23.8 years) the Bombers may find their inexperience to be one of the biggest obstacles to back to back finals campaigns. However, if the club can successfully navigate the opening month of the season they'll be heading into winter full of confidence.
Can the Bombers win that elusive final?
The Bombers came ever so close to breaking the drought in 2021 with an elimination final appearance against the Bulldogs, but fell short to the tune of 49 points. Failing to kick a major in the second half, becoming the first team to do so in a final since Geelong in 1956, pointed to the inexperience of the young Bombers who many pundits had missing the finals altogether prior to the season.
With Ben Rutten now in his second year at the helm after a strong 2021, all signs are pointing towards improvement at Windy Hill, but lapses in form throughout 2021 still loom as an issue. The Bombers ended their season as they started it in many ways, their elimination final loss mirroring their Round 1 encounter with Hawthorn. Essendon led by 39 points at half-time, but ended up going down by one point thanks to an eight-goal-to-one third term.
First and foremost, Essendon have to fight it out for a spot in the eight to prove their worth in September and make amends for last years performance. After just making the cut in 2021 and now facing a much tougher fixture, perhaps the question should ask will Essendon make it to a final?
Who misses out in a stacked midfield?
Alarm bells started ringing at the Bombers in 2021 when both Dylan Shiel and Jye Caldwell were sidelined early in the season, but other members of the squad stepped up. Darcy Parish thrived in his best season yet, while Zach Merrett showed that he is a bonafide star of the competition. At full fitness, Rutten has a difficult, but welcome, choice of Merrett, Parish, McGrath, Shiel and Caldwell to run his engine room.
With so many players showing their talents in the centre, someone has to miss out come Round 1. Dylan Shiel, the former Giant who signed a six-year deal in 2018 to join the Bombers, looms as the unlucky player who could find himself on the outer of a stacked midfield.
Shiel, who played just eight games in an injury-interrupted 2021, will be hoping for a big preseason to prove himself as someone worthy of a spot in the middle, or will find himself in a new position in Rutten's plan.
Can Jake Stringer back up his 2021 form?
Stringer was one of the most electric players to watch in 2021 as he flourished in a dual midfield-forward role. The 27-year-old played 19 games throughout the year after suffering a syndesmosis injury in 2020 which saw him sidelined for parts of the disrupted season, but returned to the form that earned him an All Australian spot in 2015.
Stringer's goal for 2022 is consistency. In his first three years at Essendon, the former Bulldog displayed sporadic bouts of form, despite having the talent to change games off his boot. Last year it was clear that the Bombers are a better team when Stringer is at his best, kicking 41 goals and averaging 4.4 clearances a game.
In a game so heavily swayed by momentum, Stringer and his moments of brilliance in both the forward line and midfield can change not only the outcome of a match, but a season for the Bombers. Going into season 2022, if Stringer is fit and firing then Essendon have a much better chance at returning to September action.
Will the forward line click?
The Essendon midfield has no shortage of star power, as does their forward line, but at times last season these two units found it hard to click. The Bombers ended the year ranked 5th AFL wide for inside 50's but had moments, like their Round 1 loss, where there seemed to be a disconnect within the team.
Essendon did score heavily throughout the season, ranked 7th in total points scored in the competition, but found themselves scoreless for parts as their young forward line struggled to mesh under first year coach Rutten. Peter Wright kicked 29 goals in his first year in red and black, while young gun Harrison Jones managed 20 in his debut season. With Stringer spending more time in the midfield, the mantle now falls to the next generation of Bombers to establish themselves in the competition as the club aims for another finals appearance.
When things were clicking going inside 50, the Bombers looked commanding. Going into year two of Rutten's game plan and with a full pre-season under their belt, Wright, Jones and the developing Archie Perkins will be looking to form a more cohesive midfield unit in 2022.