Why a frustrated Carlton must stay the course

Carlton's Ed Curnow reacts after Sunday's loss to the Dogs. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
Carlton's Ed Curnow reacts after Sunday's loss to the Dogs. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

AFL football can be a frustrating business. And there's arguably no club or supporter base in the competition as frustrated right now as that of Carlton.

Fair enough, too. The club with 16 VFL/AFL premierships - equal with Essendon as the most in the competition - hasn't won one for 26 years.

It has reached just one grand final in that time, hasn't played finals of any description for eight years and even that appearance was by default, after Essendon's demotion following the supplements scandal.

The Blues seem to have been rebuilding forever for little reward. Their ladder finishes since 2013: 13th, 18th, 14th, 16th, 18th, 16th and 11th. That's pretty dismal reading.

Now, another season threatens to head the same way; Carlton currently 13th at 3-5 after an untimely fade-out last Sunday against the Western Bulldogs.

There's already pressure building on coach David Teague, and if the Blues get thumped this week against undefeated Melbourne - with a particularly tough run to follow over the next month taking in Sydney (away), West Coast and GWS (away) - the sense of déjà vu may become overpowering.

Which is exactly why I think Carlton needs to do everything in its power to keep the ship as stable as possible.

This is a club which, almost despite its best intentions, has still been prone to make decisions on the run. Teague, remember, himself replaced Brendon Bolton, a coach sacked mid-season when results weren't forthcoming.

They've been slow in coming on Teague's watch, too.

But the fact is, however slowly and erratically it's been shown, Carlton is making some progress.

The Blues are in a far more positive place than they were when Bolton got the chop just on two years ago.

And last Sunday's loss to the Bulldogs is a good example.

For just on three quarters, the Blues not only took it up to but past the Dogs with some free-flowing, attacking football, holding a lead the best part of five goals, their run impressive, Harry McKay and Eddie Betts combining for nine goals up forward.

In the end, they were mown down by a very good team, some regular weaknesses coming home to bite them.

Carlton gives up way too many strings of opposition goals, eight in a row this time.

The Blues are regularly beaten badly for clearances and contested possession, and are a poor tackling team. In short, they're good offensively, pretty ordinary on the defensive side of things - almost a mirror image of the Bolton years.

Yet, at least now, Carlton looks like a team which can land a few blows, most importantly, on the scoreboard.

It plays with a greater sense of freedom and dare, rather than just hoping to grind an opponent into submission.

And yes, there is at least plenty of scope for improvement.

Senior recruits Adam Saad and Zac Williams can offer a lot more than they have to date, and most likely will. Both are still, after all, still feeling their way at a new club.

Zac Fisher and Jack Martin have been considerable losses on the injury front, but both should be back in harness within a month.

Talented young ruckman Tom De Koning may be back as soon as this week.

Forgotten man Charlie Curnow? Who knows. But if and when he does return, Carlton will have a genuinely dangerous forward set-up.

It's the midfield where structurally, the biggest deficiencies remain.

The toll taken by several years of Patrick Cripps having to solider too much of the load has become obvious in 2021, and fixing the lack of support and depth won't happen overnight.

The Blues need to be particularly conscious of the incredibly talented Sam Walsh suffering a similar fate.

And yes, Carlton needs to toughen up. But defence is as much about mindset as personnel.

It's not as though the Blues are physically incapable of applying the sort of pressure Richmond learned to a few years back.

Nor getting their positioning right, a weakness exposed several times against the Bulldogs.

I suspect many of the pre-season predictions about Carlton giving the finals a serious shake this year were borne as much out of mathematical progression as reality.

And the reality is that the Blues' list - for now - still isn't that great in relation to the AFL's better teams.

But I also think the foundations are genuinely there this time.

And surely if nothing else over the last couple of decades, the Blues have learned that improvement doesn't come just because you think it's past time it should.

Seven wins from 17 starts last year gave Carlton a better strike rate than any season since that last finals appearance in 2013.

Three wins from eight so far in 2021 isn't a great follow-up.

But three quarters like those the Blues served up against the Dogs, not to mention a biggest losing margin in those five defeats of only 28 points, seems a reasonable indicator that Teague's side isn't that far off the mark.

It's a situation which could turn quickly enough given just some - hardly major - improvements.

And the Blues' biggest task in the meantime might simply be not to let frustration get the better of them.

This story Rohan Connolly | Why a frustrated Carlton must stay the course first appeared on The Canberra Times.