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How three 2019 losses spooked Simon Goodwin and the Demons

It was the three AFL games that made Simon Goodwin blink and set Melbourne on a downward spiral.

After steady steps forward, firstly under Paul Roos and then Goodwin -- built on a ferocious contested ball brigade feeding off Max Gawn's sublime tap work -- the Demons took a giant leap in 2018, winning two drought-breaking finals. With a hungry young core, plus a key offseason recruit in Steven May, the Dees looked set to finally enjoy a period of sustained success, and even possibly break the game's longest premiership drought.

The following year started abysmally after a host of off-season surgeries cruelled the club's preseason training regime. It was obvious early the Demons were unfit and unrecognisable to the team that stormed to a preliminary final just six months earlier.

In Round 1, an inexperienced Port Adelaide outfit ran rings around their opponents on the MCG, with many of the Demons appearing to be running in quicksand on a hot March afternoon.

The next week, the Demons travelled to Geelong and were annihilated by 80 points despite dominating a host of stats, most notably 73 inside-50s for a paltry six goals, compared to Geelong's 20 majors from 48 inside-50s. Then in Round 3, Essendon piled on 130 points to beat Melbourne by three goals in a shootout.

It was after that defeat that Melbourne's game-style dramatically changed. At that stage, much like in 2018, the Dees were still dominating contested footy, clearances, time in forward half and inside 50s, and playing on quickly after marks. It was a helter-skelter approach that suited a squad heavy on brute force but light on kicking skill. Unlike the season before, however, the Demons couldn't score, but the traits Goodwin and Co. had instilled in the team were still there.

Something changed at that moment. And instead of backing the style that had helped propel the team up the ladder in previous seasons, Goodwin and his coaching unit suddenly focused on controlling the ball by taking more marks and kicking shorter. They seemed to be happy to sacrifice their frenetic ball movement if slowing down meant restricting their opponents' scoring.

Champion Data statistics show how much things changed from rounds 1-3 in 2019, to rounds 4-23 that year. In the first three games, the Dees were the No. 1 play-on team in the league and third-ranked in kicking forward percentage. For the rest of that season, those rankings fell to fifth and 12th. Their time in forward half slipped from second to sixth. Possession gains in the forward half went from second to 10th. Inside 50 differential from fifth to 10th.

Unsurprisingly, making such dramatic changes so quickly didn't work as the Demons tumbled to 17th. And from that moment onwards, the Dees have appeared a confused bunch - individually and collectively.

In 2020, Melbourne are still playing with less dare than 2018, ranked about mid-table for playing on after a mark, kick long percentage and kick forward percentage. Despite boasting one of the healthiest lists in the league, the Dees have continued to implement a semi-safe style, which has severely impacted their scoring power.

The results haven't been as stark as the 2019 debacle, with the Demons sitting 10th after 15 games with a percentage of 106, but they look set to miss finals after dropping their past two games against Sydney and Fremantle.

Monday night's loss to the Dockers highlighted Melbourne's inability to play to their strengths, according to respected football strategist Craig Jennings. The former Melbourne assistant said the Dees' biggest strength was their contest-winning ability, but the current game-style, which relied on precise, safe ball movement, didn't suit the list.

"They don't have the kicking skills to execute this game-style ... they allowed Fremantle to set up defensively and dictate the game," he said on SEN. "Fremantle had a balanced game-style and Melbourne was misaligned - Melbourne should have adjusted their numbers about five minutes into the first quarter when the rain came down and turned it into a real one-on-one territory game - that would have suited them [because] they rarely win games through skill but they are a strong chance to win a pure contest game.

"Melbourne are built for the contest but their game-style is misaligned because they're trying to play a skill game - some teams do that but Melbourne's best weapon is the contest game and their game-style doesn't suit the players they have. I don't blame the players, I think this is a strategy consideration."

Jennings, who was let go by Melbourne at the end of 2019 despite being described by Nathan Jones as "one of the best minds in footy I've seen," went on to say Goodwin's intensified defensive focus in 2019 was impacting the team's development and confidence.

"I thought Melbourne were on the right track with 'Roosy' [former coach Paul Roos] and then the transition [to Goodwin] worked really well in 2017-18 - Melbourne were the highest scoring team across those two seasons combined but still sound in defence, then there was a really sharp turn in 2019 where the focus was all about defence," he said. "But the challenge when it's all about defence is, it takes a lot of mental maturity to implement and then players can overthink the game and forget to play on instinct, and it becomes too complicated. I've seen more of that this year."

With two games to go in the home-and-away season, it's highly unlikely Melbourne play finals, which would be a huge blow to a club that earmarked a return to the finals as a pass mark for 2020. Since their breakthrough preliminary final appearance in 2018, the Demons have won just 12 of 37 games.

Goodwin is contracted until the end of 2022, so barring a shock sacking, has at least two more years to work things out. As he ponders another offseason full of difficult decisions, perhaps the biggest question he must answer is whether he continues to finetune this safety-first approach, or if it's better to revert back to the cornerstones of his successful 2018 campaign.