Have Melbourne finally been figured out?

After three straight losses, which has seen them lose top spot on the AFL ladder on percentage, alarm bells must surely be ringing at the Melbourne Football Club.

The Dees began their premiership defense with a bang, winning their first ten matches and throwing down the gauntlet to the remaining 17 teams in the competition: catch us if you can.

Many were talking up the club as the next powerhouse, the club having swept all before them (except Collingwood, who were the only side they failed to beat last year) to break into a historic drought-breaking premiership behind WA’s hard borders last September.

But this year there is the added motivation for the club to go back-to-back, with the club eager to win a flag in front of their home fans after COVID-19 and its debilitating lockdowns in Victoria denied them that opportunity last year.

Things were going along so swimmingly until they suffered three rather inexcusable losses in the past few weeks, going down to Fremantle, the Sydney Swans and Collingwood, all at the home of football.

Their form slump has coincided with the absence of defensive lynchpin Steven May, which lasted only five minutes or so in the loss to the Dockers after clashing with fellow teammate Jake Lever in the first quarter.

His absence proved telling as the Dees coughed up the final ten goals to lose by 38 points after having led by 25 at half-time and seemingly being on their way to an 18th straight win.

It was still two short of the 20-match winning streaks Essendon (2000) and the Brisbane Lions (2001-02) strung together earlier this century; it would’ve also been the longest winning streak by any side since St Kilda won its first 19 matches of the 2009 season.

Against the Swans in Round 12, the Dees started strongly against a side suspended star forward Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, kicking six of the first seven goals of the match to suggest that the loss to the Dockers was only an aberration.

But while they knew Buddy wouldn’t play, they didn’t anticipate that Sam Reid would rediscover his earlier career form, nor that Logan McDonald would produce a breakout performance that netted him a Rising Star nomination (both players booted three majors each).

As was the case against the Dockers, a poor final quarter would cost them dearly as they lost by twelve points, and suddenly cracks were starting to appear in the Dees’ premiership defense.

In the following days that match, it was revealed that May and Jake Melksham had engaged in a drinking session at a pub, which is strictly against concussion protocols.

Melksham suffered a hand injury in the weak, which arose after May sledged the ex-Bomber about his absence in last year’s Grand Final, suggesting that if he had played, the Dees probably would’ve (but as we all know, they won by a crushing 74-point margin).

Both were forced to front captain Max Gawn, who said in a press conference that he was “embarrassed” by their actions.

After another hellish week, the Dees attempted to turn their focus to the Queen’s Birthday game against Collingwood, but despite another strong start, keeping the Pies goalless in the opening quarter and leading by as much as 20 after half-time, they again capitulated in the final quarter to lose by 26 points.

Clayton Oliver battled hard against the tide though, his 43 disposals enough to edge out Mason Cox (who arguably played his best match since the 2018 preliminary final) for best on ground honours, and henceforth the Neale Daniher Trophy.

Max Gawn was limited in his movement after suffering a foot injury before half-time, which indirectly allowed Cox to run riot in the third quarter, while Daniel Turner failed to finish his debut match after being concussed in the same quarter.

Not only have the Dees lost their past three matches, they’ve now been bumped down to second on the ladder, just below the Brisbane Lions, on percentage.

This will make their Thursday night clash at the MCG next week, which has been dubbed a potential Grand Final preview, all the more intriguing and interesting.

As Leigh Matthews did when he revved up his side ahead of a mid-season clash against then-reigning premiers Essendon at the Gabba in 2001, current Lions coach Chris Fagan could try to do likewise to motivate his side ahead of their clash with the Dees next week.

Matthews famously quoted, “if it bleeds, we can kill it” before the Lions defeated the Bombers to kick-start a 16-match winning streak to finish the 2001 season, culminating in another win over Kevin Sheedy’s men in the Grand Final for the first of a hat trick of flags.

Clayton Oliver of the Demons celebrates a goal

The Demons are in the unfamiliar position of being defending premiers. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

So far this the Dees and Lions have been the two standout teams and their Thursday night clash at the MCG, their first Thursday at the venue since 2017, will be highly anticipated season.

Both sides, as well as Fremantle, have a bye this weekend, and with Carlton playing Richmond this Thursday night, the Blues have the chance to join them on 40 premiership points if they beat the Tigers for a second time this season.

This would see the focus turn towards the upper part of the ladder and which teams will finish where as another intriguing September looms.

As far as the Melbourne Football Club is concerned, the week off couldn’t have come at a better time for the beleaguered club, which has started hitting some roadbumps in its premiership defense and will need to recharge ahead of a huge second half of the season.

It is booked by clashes against the Lions, with the return clash at the Gabba in round 23 set to decide which team finishes the higher on the ladder as the first week of finals.

In between, there are also trips to Adelaide (to face the Crows), Geelong (to face the Cats in a rematch of last year’s preliminary final), Alice Springs (where they will play a home game against Port Adelaide) and Perth (to face Fremantle).

They’ll also have to face the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood for a second time this season, while their only clash against Carlton isn’t until the penultimate round where the Blues could be playing for a double chance.

That all lies ahead for the Dees, and despite their recent form slump we know they will be up for the challenge as they attempt to steer clear of the chasing pack in the race for this year’s premiership.

Question is – will they be able to navigate their way through what looms as a tricky second half of the season, or will opposition teams continue to figure them out and leave their premiership defense in tatters?

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