MK Dons Tactics: The Changes Needed

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Robbie Neilson, manager of Milton Keynes Dons gives his team instructions during the Carabao Cup Second Round match between Milton Keynes Dons and Swansea City at StadiumMK on August 22, 2017 in Milton Keynes, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

MK Dons were tipped to be fighting for promotion at the start of the season. After Robbie Neilson took over mid-way through the last campaign, he guided the Dons to a 12th placed finish. They were then expected to kick-on from there, especially considering some of the signings they made in the summer.

MK Dons Tactics: The Changes Needed

None of that promise has come to fruition, however. Successive 1-0 losses to Wigan and Blackpool in their first two games, either side of a 1-0 extra-time win over Forest Green in the Carabao Cup, got them off to a poor start.

They then beat Gillingham 1-0, with debutant Osman Sow netting the winner.

However, the Dons lost against in their most recent game. Charlie Mulgrew’s brace helped Blackburn Rovers to a 4-1 over the struggling Dons. Derrick Williams and and Dominic Samuel also netted for Rovers, with Ed Upson briefly equalising for the visitors.

It’s clear that something needs to change within the MK Dons tactics. Otherwise, it could be another long season for Robbie Neilson’s men.

At the Back

It’s hard to understand why this defence is conceding so many goals.

George Williams at right-back won the Dons’ Player of the Season award for the last campaign, Ethan Ebanks-Landell has won promotion from League One on two separate occasions and Scott Wootton has a vast amount of experience at higher levels.

It’s when you look at left-back that you find the weak link. Dean Lewington is a hugely popular figure at MK Dons. The club captain has been with the side since their controversial move to Milton Keynes, making over 600 appearances. However, his performances have suffered in the last year or two.

He struggles to keep up with his opponent, and often finds himself out of position. His positioning was key to Swansea’s equaliser in the Carabao Cup tie in midweek. He was far too close to his centre-back, meaning Jay Fulton had enough time to pick out Leroy Fer with his cross.

The only way Lewington could secure his place in the side long-term is to play as a centre-back. Neilson played the captain here in the Dons’ win over AFC Wimbledon last season and it was one of Lewington’s best games for the club. Being played there meant he had to firmly stick to his position. It also allowed the versatile Williams to play at left-back, who is much more disciplined in his positioning anyway. This meant the Dons always had at least four players back, limiting AFC Wimbledon to just three shots on target.

It doesn’t seem likely, however, that Neilson will replace Lewington any time soon. The only like-for-like back-up in that position, Ben Tilney, moved to National League North side Brackley Town on a season-long loan. This decision shocked many, after Tilney put in a number of Man of the Match performances last season.

Neilson has also said he is trying to bring in a replacement, but at the moment no new rumours have come to light.

The Wingers

In the starting eleven, the MK Dons wingers look good. Their backups, however, are either a few steps down or just non-existent.

Robbie Neilson allowed two wingers, Daniel Powell and Dean Bowditch, to leave the club in the summer. While this was probably the right decision, he hasn’t done much to replace them.

Gboly Ariyibi is the only arrival in this position. The loanee from Nottingham Forest is an exciting addition, and is already off the mark for this season. He scored the winner in the cup win over Forest Green in the 110th minute. Ariyibi may have some eye-catching moments, but he isn’t without his frustration. He often takes on too many players at once, not being aware of the support around him. This means the Dons tend to lose the ball in the final third.

It’s painful to watch, especially with others so well-positioned around him. His final ball also leaves a lot to be desired. A number of times against Swansea, and in the win over Gillingham, a better placed pass from the USA international could have seen the Dons score more. This will improve over time, but it needs to be fast if MK Dons are to reverse their early-season woes.

In terms of competition for Ariyibi, it’s pretty sparse. Kieran Agard, the Dons’ top scorer last season, has been played on the right wing in each of his appearances this season. Attacking midfielder Peter Pawlett featured on the left against Blackburn, too. He will likely start more games if Neilson is unable to sign a more natural winger. Pawlett wouldn’t be a bad option, however, going by his first few performances.

The only natural replacement is Brandon Thomas-Asante. The youngster is a hot prospect, but has rarely featured in the league. A regular spot may be too far for him for now, but if results fail to improve soon, he may be given a chance.

The Strikers

Goals have been a rarity for the Dons so far this season. They scored over 100 in the league in 2014/15, but this seems to have gotten lower and lower each season since.

The Dons have scored just three in their first five games this campaign. As well, only one of these has come from an out-and-out striker. Ariyibi’s winner against Forest Green is joined by Osman Sow’s header against Gillingham and Ed Upson’s strike against Blackburn.

The main concern at the moment is the striker’s being played in the used formation. Robbie Neilson has favoured a 4-3-3 system since his arrival. Usually in this system, the main source of goals would be the wingers crossing to the striker to convert.

However, Neilson’s first choice so far this season seems to be Ryan Seager. While he is a good player, he doesn’t suit the formation. Standing at just 5ft 7″, Seager is often marked out of games by the defence. If the crosses come in high, he’s too short to get them. He is then too isolated to receive any crosses on the ground.

It’s the same situation when Kieran Agard plays in that role. Agard is only one inch taller than Seager, so he too becomes isolated when playing at the only striker in a formation.

The only game where this hasn’t been a problem was the Dons’ only league win so far. New signing Osman Sow started as the striker. Standing at 6ft 3″, he caused constant threat to the Gillingham defence. His goal then came from a cross, like they should in the system that Neilson plays. He stooped down to head in Aaron Tshibola’s excellent delivery.

If Neilson can continue to get the best out of Sow, then fortunes at Stadium MK may begin to turn. However, the whole team needs to step up too. This start doesn’t reflect the ability that this squad has, but if it doesn’t start to come together soon, it’s going to be another difficult year for MK Dons.

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