Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Defeat Not Just Down To Officials

With the mood having so clearly changed – as eight without a win quickly became three wins in a row and unbeaten in five – and with eyes fixed as much on Ipswich’s arrival at The Valley on Saturday, this one had all the makings of a banana skin. In fact it was so obvious, discussed before and during the game, that surely we would avoid one, surely the message would be that the recent wins had shown the need for a high performance level if we want to win, against anyone in this league, that MK Dons might be arriving bottom of the league but everyone is surprised by that, can’t take them lightly. Instead, with hindsight perhaps even considering the notion of a banana skin illustrated the problem, one we failed to shake off through the game and ended up well beaten. The game did turn on officials’ decisions, as Garner claimed afterwards, but that isn’t even half the story as MK Dons created the better chances before those decisions, virtually the only chances, and stuck to a gameplan which worked.

Now I missed Saturday’s game, being in London for the weekend (and happily able to get to the splendid Back to The Valley event on Friday night) but with a prior engagement for Saturday (involving a stroll to Parliament Square). So I can’t comment on the extent to which against Shrewsbury we did/did not match the levels attained against Portsmouth. But last night we clearly didn’t have the same edge and intensity. Perhaps just fatigue but different opposition throw up different challenges, even if on paper they have the same formation; and we didn’t adapt our gameplan to that, either before or during the game.

For example, whereas Portsmouth played with a more stretched set-up, looking to get people forward, which helped Dobson and Fraser to stay compact in front of the defence, MK Dons were content to sit deep behind the ball and play on the break. Dobson and Fraser were sucked further forward and MK Dons were able to run beyond them and get at the back four. MK Dons were more dangerous than Portsmouth as a result despite being set up defensively. Against Portsmouth Kirk had buzzed around to good effect, not carrying a goal threat but helping to link play and get the ball to the wide men. MK Dons just denied him that space and outmuscled him, with the result that he drifted wider himself to find space, which in turn left Stockley as isolated as he had been when we were playing a front three. And although Rak-Sakyi and Campbell both had their moments they were more often crowded out, while the decision to give Sessegnon a rest (which was the only change to the line-up, with the game coming too soon for Blackett-Taylor) and ask Clare to fill in at left-back didn’t help as he looked uncomfortable there all night.

The result was a first half to forget, for us and any neutral. It took us 40 minutes to muster a shot, an effort from Egbo from outside the box which sailed over the bar, and in stoppage time the ref blocked off their guy, enabling us to intercept the ball out of defence. Campbell, who was involved in most of our threatening moments, was played in but from a widish position and with a defender throwing himself in the way only managed to hit the side-netting. That all came just after MK Dons had their best moments, as a breakaway down their right saw their guy get the better of Clare, who comically cut across to usher the ball behind for a goalkick only for his momentum to take him out of the picture and the ball not cross the line. It sat up for their guy to square it and with the goal at his mercy another hit the bar. In the follow-up they cut inside and a decent shot required Wollacott to turn it around for a corner.

It clearly wasn’t working for us and the break gave an opportunity to consider options. And I think Curbs got the call right on Charlton TV. He advocated moving Kirk out wide, with presumably Campbell (who had picked up a knock) coming off, and bringing on Aneke to partner Stockley. There was indeed a change, with Campbell substituted, but with Payne coming on to play on the right side, Kirk moving left, and Rak-Sakyi asked to play in a central position.

The change did help improve things (not a reflection on Campbell but rather how we might be better able to create and score against their set-up). Rak-Sakyi caused them far more problems than Kirk had in the position, while Kirk was able to concentrate on space on the flank and delivering balls into the box. The downside was that a ball into the box was still only likely to find an outnumbered Stockley (which became graphically clear when Kirk delivered a peach of a ball across their box which nobody was able to connect with), while MK Dons were still winning the physical battles. Also, the impression that we were getting on top – despite MK Dons creating more chances (one saw their guy round Wollacott only to be forced wide) - worked against a further change to get Aneke on the pitch in time to accompany Stockley.

Again, Garner may have been proven right, that we could have raised the pressure and won the game late on. But the evidence was hardly compelling. MK Dons were still creating chances of their own, one involving their guy rounding Wollacott only to be forced wide, and we were showing signs of fatigue and frustration, with Inniss’ balls out of defence getting intercepted and Clare kicking out at their guy after losing the ball. In any event, all such ideas went out of the window in the 65th minute. Another well-worked breakaway resulted in a race between their guy advancing towards the box and Inniss. Their guy tumbled into the box and the ref had decisions to make. Was it a foul? Contact by both, my first impression was nothing in it and no foul but you do see them given. Was it inside the box? Replays said no, ref said yes, so penalty given. Yellow card for Inniss? Ref says yes and, having already been booked, off he went. Wollacott got his hand to the firmly-struck penalty but couldn’t keep it out.

We never looked like being able to come back from that, with MK Dons persisting with their gameplan despite their man advantage. We brought on Aneke with about 20 minutes left, but for Stockley, while Sessignon replaced Kirk and Clare moved to central defence. And any thoughts of late pressure disappeared when Fraser was adjudged to have fouled their guy in a central position outside the box and they scored from the free-kick (again Wollacott getting a hand to it). Morgan and McGrandles came on, for Fraser and Dobson, which gave a fair indication of thoughts turning to Saturday long before the final whistle.

We can either just write off the evening and start thinking about Ipswich on Saturday or learn some lessons. We didn’t show the opposition enough respect, either with the effort and intensity in another lame first half (surely possession counts for nothing when the opposition is entirely comfortable with you having it) or the assessment of the way the game was playing out. And related to that we surely have to be more flexible – yet paradoxically more consistent – in our use of available players. What worked well against Portsmouth did not work last night, which amounts to a failure to set up in a fashion which would hurt them most and a failure to make changes during the game in light of this.

If all were fit and available we would have an interesting mix of options for the attacking positions – but whether or not the players occupy the same spot on the pitch they are different with different strengths and weaknesses, to be adjusted if necessary in response to the opposition. What we don’t have is a first-choice combination which we can be confident will be available and able to last at least most of the game. Come Saturday and Ipswich what choices are made will presumably be affected by injuries (and suspension), with Leaburn and Jaiyesimi out of contention for now, doubts over Campbell and Blackett-Taylor, and Aneke presumably still being thought of as an option for 20 minutes, 30 max. But hey, we’re playing a ‘good team’ so …


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