HAVING been prime top three contenders two months ago, MK Dons’ promotion push has hit the buffers somewhat and EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) examines the key factors behind their slump.
One To Watch – The dip for MK Dons
Before the festive period, Milton Keynes Dons were able to find some tactical consistency.
Joe Walsh and Baily Cargill started either side of the outstanding Jordan Moore-Taylor in a back-three, while George Williams and Dean Lewington represented technical, savvy wing-backs.
The disciplined Jordan Houghton partnered the energetic Alex Gilbey in midfield while the attacking trio of Chuks Aneke, Kieran Agard and Rhys Healey combined ruthlessly in transition.
Had the Buckinghamshire outfit had the same on-field stability that Lincoln, Mansfield and Bury have been afforded since mid-December, therefore, they could well be in a similar position to the division’s top three sides.
Instead, they had a difficult time with absentees.
Six players including centre-backs Walsh and Moore-Taylor missed the 1-0 home loss to Colchester just before Christmas and the 3-1 defeat at Cheltenham on Boxing Day, with Chuks Aneke battling fitness issues.
They were given a slight reprieve for the 2-2 draw at Northampton and then New Years’ Day’s 6-0 win over Cambridge, which saw Moore-Taylor return as well as Mathieu Baudry, boosting the defensive options.
However, Rhys Healey returned to parent club Cardiff prior to the 4-3 loss at Bury and, for various reasons, the left-sided forward has not re-joined as some expected.
George Williams then picked up a long-term injury which, with question marks over Callum Brittain in terms of fitness among other things, meant Tisdale had to improvise unsuccessfully with midfielder Conor McGrandles at wing-back for the 1-0 home loss to Crewe.
A week later, Moore-Taylor picked up another injury… you get the idea.
That’s five members of the accepted first eleven who have either been affected by injury or, in Healey’s case, been recalled – that is massively disruptive.
Question marks over Winkelman
It is possible that Pete Winkelman is partly to blame for MK Dons’ dip in form.
The chairman, by his own admission, has made a chronic series of mistakes that have led to two relegations over the last three seasons, making this a potentially defining season in his reign.
He made the right decision to wait for the conclusion of Exeter’s League Two Play-Off campaign and appoint Paul Tisdale who, luckily for Winkelman, did some excellent work in his first six months at the helm.
The 46-year-old has improved squad morale, he has provided clear-headed leadership, he has made the team tactically savvier in the main whilst improving the professionalism with which the club operates.
Not only that, he has produced a promotion-contending team, of which a large proportion were part of last season’s relegation.
All Tisdale’s endeavours mean that, unlike fellow relegated owners, Kelvin Thomas and Abdallah Lemsagam at Northampton and Oldham respectively, Winkelman has not faced any scrutiny or discontent this term.
Perhaps, therefore, he could feel indebted to Tisdale and thus be slightly more proactive than he has been in his support for his man early in the window.
Norwich legend Russ Martin came in on the 15th January, but the indications are that was a signing for his qualities in the dressing room with potential for progression into a coaching role, rather than for impact on the pitch.
Of course, Tisdale had told the media that he only wanted to enter the market for the right type of player, yet it does seem questionable that it was only in the last week of January that MK added to their solitary winter addition.
In fairness to Winkelman, right-sided forward David Wheeler and versatile midfielder Jake Hesketh should perform strongly at League Two level, although even they do not directly replace absentees like Healey and Williams.
Forward Ste Walker was loaned in from Middlesbrough, but that has the feel of a last-minute, panic buy: it could be a big ask for him to adapt from Under-18s football to the senior game whilst producing the consistency in performances required to aid a promotion charge.
Aside from injuries, Lewington at 34 may be struggling to main high-intensity performances in quick succession – with Mitch Hancox out of favour, another wing-back with whom to rotate the stalwart and keep him fresh would have been a significant plus.
In terms of mid-season recruitment, MK Dons appear to have taken a long time to react to problems, rather than solving them straight away or even pre-empting them and it is possible that Winkelman should take an element of responsibility for that.
Tisdale not primarily to blame
After the 3-1 loss at Exeter, Tisdale said that he “does not know what his players were expecting” and implied that they were not ready for the rigours of a League Two away match.
He did not take personal responsibility for the defeat in his interview and some have interpreted that as a lack of honesty, integrity and bravery.
There is another way of looking at it though, which is that it takes a different type of bravery to place responsibility on the players.
The two early goals MK conceded inside the first 17 minutes were not down to anything tactical, but rather a failure from the players to track runners, to get goal-side of their opponents, to put their bodies in the way of shots and generally battle for the cause.
If Tisdale had repeatedly warned his players about what Exeter would do in the early stages and they did not heed his instructions, what else could he have done.
While it can take courage for a manager to admit to his mistakes after a defeat, he would also need to do so whilst knowing exactly what those mistakes were, rather than because it will sound better to fans.
Ultimately, if a boss continually apologises for his mistakes, supporters will start to turn in any case.
The only way to curry favour with supporters is to achieve results and that’s why Tisdale has, at times, distanced himself from fans and not appeared overly concerned by what they think.
That might be partly why a section of Exeter fans grew weary of him towards the end of that tenure, but over the long-term, they are far better off for having had a process-driven leader at the helm for 12 years.
The Betting Angle
MK Dons absolutely need to stand by Tisdale, who has done more than enough work in the first half of the campaign to earn loyalty during this sticky period.
If so, we can expect the side with the fourth-best Expected Goals ratio in League Two to hold onto a place in the top seven.
However, a combination of factors including off-field issues and the absence of key performers means he might have too much of a mid-season re-building job for MK to rediscover form in time to repair their automatic promotion bid.
For that reason, a poke on MK to finish their 46-game campaign in the play-offs might just be worthwhile at narrow odds-against quotes.
League Two – MK Dons to make the play-offs (4/6 BetVictor)