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FOUR losses from four NAB Cup games and on Saturday smashed by 64 points, and held scoreless for the entire second half against the Brisbane Lions. At face value, it's been a pretty ordinary pre-season for Carlton.

That's the superficial view, anyway. Very superficial. Even a couple of years ago, it would have been enough to spark a whole new wave of hand-wringing and whispering about Carlton coach Brett Ratten's future.

That it hasn't this time is perhaps a measure of a greater maturity about the different pre-season agendas at play for different clubs. But it's also a comment on the position to which the Blues have meticulously built their list since those dark days of seven or eight years ago.

First came the arrival of a potential saviour in Chris Judd. Then the building around him of a quality midfield spearheaded by some precocious talent in Marc Murphy and Bryce Gibbs, the continued improvement of Kade Simpson, Heath Scotland and Andrew Carrazzo and, more recently, the blooming of Mitch Robinson.

For awhile, it seemed Carlton had deposited nearly all its riches in the centre square while remaining too thin at either end, but then Michael Jamison emerged as a quality key defender and the zippy likes of Eddie Betts and Jeff Garlett began to rack up some goals in attack.

Last year was another significant step forward, not only because Carlton won a final after a couple of near-misses, but because it seemed to get the balance of its best 22 just about right, the recruitment of Nick Duigan and Jeremy Laidler significantly stiffening the back line, Chris Yarran adding plenty of run, and even the untimely loss of Jamison through injury producing an unexpected plus in Lachie Henderson's forced but successful shift from attack to defence.

There was another unexpected bonus when struggling key defender Bret Thornton was shifted forward with surprising effect.

Which is all aptly symbolic of the next step Carlton can take in its bid to return to the top four this season, and why the Blues won't be biting too many fingernails over a March pasting in sunny Maroochydore.

If last season was about structure, this season for Carlton might well be about flexibility. In that regard, the Blues look pretty impressive - and ominous.

That versatility used to be just about Jarrad Waite swinging between attack and defence. Then Andrew Walker joined the club, a one-time midfielder or defender last year combining with Betts and Garlett for more than 150 goals. Now, Carlton seems to have options all over the place in all parts of the ground.

Even conservatively, there are about 20 Carlton players who can be used with effect in a range of positions and on a range of different opponents. Waite, whose first hit-out of the year on Saturday showed encouraging signs, Henderson and Thornton are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Take the ruck, for example. Matthew Kreuzer looms as an obvious No. 1. But he's also a more than capable key forward option if Robbie Warnock hits his straps at the tap-outs. Ditto Shaun Hampson.

That's handy flexibility. And even handier if, as Carlton football manager Andy McKay points out, the substitute rule does end up going from three interchange and one sub to a 2-2 arrangement, forcing ruckmen to rest up forward rather than risk becoming redundant.

That's not even counting greenhorns such as Levi Casboult, Matthew Watson or Luke Mitchell. "Our list is actually reasonably tall now," says McKay. Indeed, there are only three clubs that average more height across the senior list.

"Three or four of them are young and still developing, and obviously people haven't seen much of them, so they instantly think we need some height down back and up forward, but I think that perception is changing now."

It's at least moved on from that obsession only a couple of seasons ago with the "three amigos" of Betts, Garlett and Yarran.

But Carlton's impressive flexibility isn't only about height.

Carrazzo and Robinson can play either as midfielders or defensive forwards. Aaron Joseph as a midfield tagger or an old-fashioned, negating back pocket. Gibbs has proved equally adept midfield or as a defensive sweeper. Murphy can go forward as well as rack up the touches in the pivot.

All of which should make it a lot more possible for Judd - still the key man - to drift forward a bit more, where he's done his share of damage on the few occasions he has been allowed that luxury, as well as give that battered body a breather.

There's even enough cover for the more one-dimensional types. Laidler's loss for the first month or so of the season is a blow, but not a catastrophic one with Paul Bower capable of filling the same role.

Flexibility and versatility will become even more important this year, not only with another looming tightening of the interchange bench, but as clubs look for every possible structural and tactical edge over each other.

On that score, Carlton looks well-placed regardless of what its score in the NAB Cup may suggest.

Follow Rohan Connolly on Twitter @rohan_connolly