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Melbourne Football Club

Salem benefits from big pre-season

Marc McGowan  September 12, 2018 9:15 AM

NAME the Demon who's one of only two general defenders in the AFL to rate elite this year for kick rating and defensive-half pressure.

Michael Hibberd? Wrong. Neville Jetta? Wrong. Jordan Lewis? Wrong. If you guessed Christian Salem, you're absolutely right.

The other is Western Bulldog Roarke Smith, another who's not so obvious.

Salem spent the pre-season preparing for his transition into an inside midfielder, and remained there through the first five rounds before returning to the half-back line in a team restructure.

His dedicated summer included being stricter with his diet and hiring a personal trainer, who mapped out two-a-day sessions in the month leading into the start of Melbourne's pre-season.

That followed Salem being dumped to the VFL in round 21 last year, where he received a one-week striking ban that cost him another week. He then played in the Collingwood loss that ultimately cost the Demons a finals berth.

The 23-year-old also spent three weeks out recovering from his latest hamstring injury shortly before that period.

"It was a frustrating year last year, with a couple of injuries and a bit of inconsistency due to that," Salem told AFL.com.au.

"I knuckled down in the off-season and got myself really fit and strong and it was more towards setting myself up to have a consistent year.

"I found that helped quite a bit. I missed one game because of my broken thumb, but other than that, I've had probably my most consistent year since I've been at the club."

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Salem hard at work in February (Photo: Scott Barbour)

There's no probably about it, and Salem knows that.

He's played 22 of 23 games this year, as well as setting career highs in contested possessions (6.7), rebound 50s (3.9), inside 50s (2.4), metres gained (369.1), score involvements (4.6), clearances (1.6) and tackles (3.7).

Salem is trending towards averaging more than his previous best mark of 21.4 disposals, too, after gathering 51 touches in his past two matches.

Good things generally happen for Melbourne when the silky left-footer has the ball in his hands that often.

He rates eighth for kick rating (+6.9 per cent) – based on players' cumulative success on hitting a target of varying difficulty – among the AFL's top 300 kicks in 2018, after placing seventh (+7.5 per cent) last year.

"It's one of my strengths and I take responsibility when the ball's in my hand and try and pick out the best option," Salem said.

The No.9 selection in 2013 arrived at Melbourne as part of a pre-draft deal that included the Demons sending pick two (Josh Kelly) to Greater Western Sydney for Dom Tyson and the Salem choice.

That trade is still the source of great debate, given Kelly's rise to All Australian status last year.

Making it more interesting is that Kelly and Salem attended Brighton Grammar together, along with Jayden Hunt, who Melbourne selected with a late pick as part of the same deal.

"It's funny, because we're best mates. We actually don't really speak much about it," Salem said of Kelly.

"We couldn't control all that trade stuff. They did what they had to do and pick swaps happened, so it is what it is.

"I just come out and play my best footy, but I don't really feel any extra pressure because of that sort of stuff."

Salem doesn't quite have the perspective of his co-captain Nathan Jones on how far the Demons have come, but there were still tough times as then-coach Paul Roos engineered the rebuild.

The Melbourne Football Club is a different, far more positive place now that has fostered the development of a new generation of budding stars – and potentially great team success.

Salem and the Demons return to the MCG on Friday night trying to take a fourth straight top-eight scalp that would deliver a preliminary final clash with West Coast in Perth.

"With a young group, a lot of boys are up and about and it's exciting, and it's been like that throughout the whole year," he said.

"From the coaching staff right down to the players, fitness staff and physios, we've all bought in. It's almost like a family and we're having a lot of fun and enjoying the ride."