Back in July, I attended a charity event at Stadium:MK, in honour of the MK Dons Sports Education Trust, and in the presence of one Mr Pete Winkelman. As we sipped champagne on the boardroom balcony, The Dons chairman, enigmatic as ever, was bullish about his team’s chances this campaign and quick to embrace the pre-season tag of ‘favourites’.
After successive play-off failures and a significantly enhanced budget this summer, he had made it apparently clear that being the bridesmaid is no longer accepted. Automatic promotion is a must if the Dons are to progress to the next chapter of their relatively new existence.
Fast forward three months and it’s fair to say things haven’t gone to plan so far for Karl Robinson’s men. Despite retaining the majority of those who bagged the second-highest goals tally in the division last campaign, the Dons have struggled to find the net this time around – a problem that most fans would say has been apparent for a long time.
Top of the goal charts is Dean Bowditch on four; three in the league, and all coming against a relegation-worried Bury side over a month ago. Charlie MacDonald and Ryan Lowe, Dons only recognised forwards, have struggled with form so much that Alan Smith has been the preferred option upfront on a number of occasions so far. That is Alan Smith who has scored just two goals in 115 appearances, since scoring for United in their Champions League romp over Roma way back in April 2007. In fact, Jabo Ibhere is our leading striker at the moment, knocking in four.. on loan.. at Colchester. It’s fair to say it’s an issue that needs addressing.
However, we’re led to believe it’s not without trying.
Mick Harford has spoken out today about a ‘Strikers Club’ that takes place every Thursday, with “The idea to get people hitting the back of the net and to get players in the correct positions around the area.” Hardly ground-breaking stuff, but a clear indication that the manager is well aware as to the trouble they may find themselves in if a solution cannot be found sharpish. Ian Wright, a man who knew exactly where the goal was, has been working with the squad since last year and it was announced just days ago that Angelo Balanta would be returning on loan from QPR.
Unfortunately, for all the talk and hard graft on the training ground, it’s match day that counts. No win in 5, and without a goal in 3, Dons already find themselves nine points off automatic promotion, and in danger of losing track of the leading pack even before Christmas. For all the talk of being favourites, Robbo must surely be feeling the pressure.
His acclaimed brand of play has been brought in to question a lot this season – from fans and critics alike – and for all the neat build-up in the world, without a cutting edge, it can quickly become one of the most frustrating styles in the game.
4-2-3-1 possesses many a positive possibility, but the current crop of Dons attacking options is not settled, nor technically coached/gifted enough, to hit the requirements of such a formation. Too often, fans are being subjected to a slow-paced, predictable, often emotionless performance which stagnates back to the final home game of last season against Walsall, when they limped to a 1-0 defeat, leaving them right up against it from the off come the playoffs. Injuries and suspensions have played a part – but this is football and at this stage of the season, we should not be struggling to fill the bench.
Robinson has been quick to defend his approach. In an interview with a local paper after the latest defeat to Crawley, he acknowledged he was trying to answer the questions being asked of him. ‘People are calling for 4-4-2 and to play two up front which we did today, but then there was less fluency and we created less chances’.
‘It’s not the players fault, you need to look at me, I’ll take the criticism from everyone. I know it’s like a broken record, but I’m disappointed, gutted and devastated because I care’.
Clearly the words of a man who knows he is firmly in the spotlight, and wedged in to a tight spot. If the work is going in on the training ground, and Robbo is apparently trying what others are calling for, then what’s next? For me, possession is not the be all and end all of victory, and sometimes you have to cease a little to gain a little. With the introduction of the right players in the right places, this can be turned around. Tiki-taka is not for Crawley, away.
As an observer, I’d love to see Chicksen given a run – introducing a direct injection of pace to the flanks. For me, Bowditch needs to convert his no. 9 shirt in to a no. 9 role and Balanta pushed right up alongside him. If Gleeson can recover from his phantom broken foot then let’s see a bit more drive from the heart of midfield and start to pose a real threat through the middle as well. That should, at least, see us through to Christmas.
With some of Europe’s largest retail & entertainment brands bedding down on the rest of the old Denbigh Fields, and with car parking unheard of to most football fans across the country, from the outside the future looks bright. Unfortunately, closer to the core we find a plateau of development – a half-complete stadium, not to mention a 4500 seated arena that has never been used, and a squad equally crying out for the finishing touches. Until then, Scunny away will continue to stay on that fixture list and MK Dons will remain work in progress.
Written by Paul Speller, We Are Going Up’s MK Dons Blogger
Paul tweets at @paul_speller