How the Demons and Bulldogs can win the Grand Final, with the help of Champion Data

Dunkley: A flag this year would be 'extra special' (1:03)

Josh Dunkley says that a triumph in this year's Grand Final would be "extra special" and would perhaps eclipse the Western Bulldogs' breakthrough effort of 2016. (1:03)

We've put our heads together with Champion Data to determine how both the Demons and the Bulldogs can with the 2021 AFL Grand Final.

The overwhelming detail is just how even this contest could be. According to Champion Data, their scoring profile is "almost identical", while defensively, both sides are ranked in the top four for points against, inside 50s against, scores per inside 50 against, and defensive efficiency.

One aspect the Demons have a massive advantage in is the ruck, while the Bulldogs' deep midfield (in which the likes or Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley are finding their way back into form) helps them dominate the ground game.

Here's where the game could be won and lost, according to the stats.

How Melbourne can win the Grand Final

Exploit the Bulldogs' rucks and win the contested ball

Melbourne's All-Australian followers line of Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, and Christian Petracca is intimidating to say the least, and the stats back it up. This season, the Demons are ranked 1st in the league for hitout win percentage (to the Bulldogs' 17th), and 4th for getting first possession from a stoppage.

Crucially, however, the Bulldogs' midfielders are excellent at sharking the footy effectively, while they're also a defensive juggernaut around the contests. While the Bulldogs are only 11th for getting first possession from a stoppage, they're ranked No. 1 in the AFL for first possession to clearance percentage (to Melbourne's 13th). The Dogs are also No.1 for stopping the opposition from converting a first possession into a clearance.

The centre bounces will be where the Demons need to flex their muscles, as they're 2nd in the league for centre bounce clearance differential (to the Bulldogs' 12th), while the Dogs are No. 1 for around the ground clearances (to Melbourne's 8th).

Taking advantage of Max Gawn and Luke Jackson's No. 1 hitout win percentage is crucial for the Demons to generate scoring chances in a similar fashion to how they did against Geelong in the preliminary final, when they blew the Cats away with a staggering 101 points from clearances - the third most ever recorded by Champion Data.

Pressure the Bulldogs' ball carriers and forwards

The Bulldogs have an elite midfield which bats as deep as any in the league, and it's their ability to push forward and kick (or set up) goals that has helped them become the No. 2 points-for side in the AFL, and the No. 1 team for scores per inside 50. We've already highlighted how the Dogs are around the ground (No. 1 for clearances to Melbourne's No. 8), so it's their ability to find a teammate in space through chains of uncontested possession which could worry a Melbourne midfield more reliant on its gruntwork.

The Bulldogs have won three of the past four matches with the Demons (1-1 this season), and in that time, Melbourne has finished +56 in contested possessions (which is the best of any side against the Bulldogs in that time), but -208 for uncontested possessions (which is the worst record against the Bulldogs in this time).

What might play into the hands of the Demons is that according to Champion Data, finals are, for the most part, usually more contested than uncontested. But even if Saturday's Grand Final doesn't pan out that way (as it didn't when the Bulldogs beat the Demons in Round 19 with a -23 contested possession differential), getting pressure onto the ball carriers and turning those uncontested possessions into contested possessions may mean more rushed disposals in the forward half and more of a chance for Melbourne's interceptors to go to work.

Pressure also brings the opportunity for more balls to come loose in play, something the Demons relish being ranked No. 1 for groundball gets. Having said that, the Bulldogs are No. 2 - not far behind.


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How the Western Bulldogs can win the Grand Final

Get quality entries inside 50

Every man and his dog is well aware of the intercepting prowess that All-Australian duo Jake Lever and Steven May bring to the table. Even in Melbourne's losses this season, Lever in particular has still been able to do as he pleases; in fact, he averaged 0.3 more intercept marks per game in the Dees' losses compared to wins.

However, if the Bulldogs can ensure their entries inside 50 are deep, they stand a better chance of not only retaining the football, but are in a better position to defend Melbourne's counter-attack if the ball is coughed up. Getting quality entries has been something the Bulldogs have struggled with this season; they have conceded eight intercept marks per game in their forward 50 - the most of any side this year.

Against Melbourne this season, teams have retained possession from 47 percent of kicks launched from within 70 metres of goal, but when the ball is sent forward from further out (outside 70 metres), possession is retained just 35 percent of the time. In the clash between these sides in Round 19 this was particularly evident, with the Bulldogs kicking the ball inside 50, 49 times. Of those kicks, 27 were launched from within 70 metres of goal, and 44 percent were retained. In contrast, 22 were launched from further than 70 metres from goal, and just 14 percent were retained.

Not only is this vital for the Bulldogs' chances of keeping the ball in the forward line, but their defence also hinges on delaying the ball out of their forward line. The Dogs are No. 2 in the league for defending ball movement from their back 50, but Melbourne is the league's second best side for defensive 50 to forward 50 transition. Conceding an intercept mark won't be the end of the world for Luke Beveridge's men, but if Melbourne start scoring from back 50 chains, then the Dogs may find themselves in trouble.

Utilise Stefan Martin

This is a pretty simple one, but any ruck help that Tim English can get against Gawn and Jackson is gold. Bullocking veteran Stefan Martin returned to the Bulldogs' side last week, and looking to the stats, it's clear he must play his role on Grand Final day.

If we compare the Bulldogs in games with Martin as opposed to without (excluding Round 12 where he didn't play out the entire match), there is one stat which stands out. The Bulldogs' scores from clearance differential goes from +5.7 per match to +18.7 per match, while clearance and centre clearance differentials go from +6.2 to +6.4 and +1.7 to +2.2, respectively. This could be especially vital given what the Demons were able to do to the Cats (in terms of their propensity to score from stoppages) in their preliminary final.

Nail their chances in front of goal

The Demons aren't going to give the Bulldogs many easy looks at the big sticks, so it's imperative the Dogs' forwards nail the chances when they're on offer. Melbourne conceded just 64.5 points per game in 2021 - the second fewest points of any side since 1968 (if excluding the 2020 shortened quarters season) and the fewest since Ross Lyon's Saints in 2009.

But it's not just overall scores the Demons are steadfast in stopping, it's scores per inside 50 allowed. Melbourne were the only side in 2021 to keep teams scoring from fewer than 40 percent of their inside 50s - giving up points on just 35 percent of entries. This is the best defensive effort ever recorded by Champion Data.

And as far as Melbourne's concerned, even if they lose the inside 50 differential over the course of the game, it's this steadfast defence which stands up time and again. The Dees' defence has been so good that they won six of the seven games in which they lost the inside 50 count this season.

So what do the Bulldogs need to do? Rely on their slightly more potent attack and nail the chances when they come. Melbourne might be ranked No.1 for time in forward half differential, and eighth for "offensive efficiency" (how many points a team scores per 50 minutes of time in the forward half), but they're 15th for shot at goal accuracy. On the flipside, the Bulldogs are 2nd for time in forward half differential, fourth for offensive efficiency, and 10th for accuracy.

If the Bulldogs can kick straight and live up to their billing of being the league's best team for marks inside 50 and scores per inside 50, they might come away with a second premiership in six years.