- from afl.com.au
WESTERN Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge is optimistic about returning to the finals next year after his team became just the second reigning premier in the 2000s to miss the top eight.
After the Dogs faint finals hopes were buried by a nine-point loss to Hawthorn at Etihad Stadium on Friday night, Beveridge said there was enough talent on their playing list and their game style "holds up", but admitted they would need to improve in every area to become a serious contender next season.
The Bulldogs coach revealed they would largely look for that improvement to come from within the existing group, and would take "an opportunistic approach" to the trade and draft periods.
The Dogs have faced many obstacles this season, not least of all another long casualty list, but Beveridge said they hadn't handled pressure as well as last year.
They would look to bolster their "vulnerable" defence and regain lost cohesion while trying to rectify their "forward-half struggles" and efficiency. On the latter, the loss to the Hawks was a case in point, with the Dogs having more inside 50s (50-40) and scoring shots (25-24).
"It has been a muddling year for us. (At) 11-11, we halve the year it's not what we set our sights on," Beveridge said.
"Games like tonight we would've won last year, and we haven't quite been able to cover (the loss of) key personnel and we probably haven't, as a group, come on as we would've liked
"Our consistency over four quarters hasn't been good enough.
"We'll need to be stronger in every area next year to be a formidable group.
"We haven't been able to beat the best teams, so we're in the pack, but I'm really optimistic that we can drag ourselves up into that (top) eight area next year."
Midfielder Tom Liberatore has been criticised for his reduced output while suffering an apparent premiership hangover this season, but Beveridge said the rugged midfielder wasn't alone.
"Tom's one of a group of our players who haven't been able to find their best, so we'll be asking them to go away and look after themselves and make sure they're ready to get back to some of their best but improve on it," Beveridge said.
"There's no doubt we'll need to challenge each other, and Tom is one of many who will be in that boat."
The retirements of veterans Bob Murphy and Matthew Boyd would change the dynamics of the group, but the Dogs are well equipped to buffer their loss, according to the coach.
"There's a significant change sweeping through our club again (and) that's exciting in that our younger guys need to make sure that they pick up the slack and own the leadership side of things," he said.
Beveridge said veteran Dale Morris would "probably" play on and assist younger leaders like Easton Wood, Marcus Bontempelli, Jordan Roughead, Jason Johannisen and Lachie Hunter.
Asked whether young star Bontempelli was ready to be captain, Beveridge played a straight bat.
"I'd rather not go down the leadership side of it right at this point in time it's a bit raw," he said.
"There's no doubt our leadership group is going to change. Two significant contributors and stalwarts are going to go out of it, so we'll go down the democratic route and form our leadership team in the off-season, but it's too early to talk about who might be the figureheads."
Beveridge hinted that another veteran, key forward Travis Cloke, was no certainty to play on for a second season with the Dogs next year.
"'Clokey' has offered some productivity at different times and we'll talk to him over the next couple of weeks about what his intentions are," he said.
"Obviously he's a mature player who's had a very, very strong career, but his heart's got to be in it, and we'll talk to him about that."