The 2,000 lucky souls who attended tonight will no doubt have been glad of their free cup of hot chocolate, as a cold early winter’s day turned into a damp and cold one before the game, then a dispiriting, damp and cold one after it. For our part you hoped the players would have in mind that not being fully on their game against Burton saw them come a cropper and wouldn’t be thinking that a match against a supposedly struggling side might be any sort of stroll. There was no such complacency tonight, rather MK Dons had the beating of us through a clearer game-plan and greater coherence, which is another way of saying we looked like a collection of players not used to playing together.
The team saw four changes from Saturday, two enforced (Maatsen’s suspension and Smyth’s injury). In front of Amos were Matthews, Gunter, Pratley and Purrington. Whether it would be a flat midfield four or a diamond remained to be seen, with Watson accompanied by Shinnie, Morgan and Gilbey – who perhaps tellingly got the nod ahead of Maddison with Williams starting on the bench – and Washington fit enough for a start alongside Bogle, who started in place of Aneke.
However, what proved to be a simple 4-4-2 proved to be no match in the first half for MK Dons’ 3-5-2. They started the brighter and caused us problems from the off, with their forwards finding space and midfield runners able to beat us for pace. That they failed to turn several promising moments into goals was down to poor final balls, poor control at the death (especially a one-on-one with their guy seemingly more intent on claiming he was fouled), and good goalkeeping, with Amos making two or three decent saves. In the first 20 minutes or so our best moments came from pressing their keeper into poor clearances. It was telling that Watson was giving away free kicks, while Morgan was given a final warning, then Pratley did get yellow as he seemed to tangle with their guy on the ground (who was also given a yellow).
We did improve as the half progressed, perhaps as the commentators suggested due to an injury to their playmaker. Gilbey came more into it with some penetrating runs, while Washington came close a few times, opting to try to bring down a cross he might have hit first time and almost converting a Purrington cross at the near post. But in general our front two were well contained, with Bogle winning some headers but to no great effect and otherwise not able to hold up play, and our midfield struggled to contain their runners, putting our defence under pressure.
It was no surprise that Bowyer made a change at the break, with Maddison replacing Shinnie, who it was suggested might have taken a knock. If anything this made us weaker in the central midfield area where we were overrun in the first half, although we were looking to Maddison to provide a greater attacking threat.
Nothing much changed in that MK Dons continued to create chances but were denied by Amos. And once more our threat involved their keeper, with a ball forward chased down by Gilbey only for the keeper to head it over him then fluff the clearance, leaving us scrambling to get in an effort while he was out of his goal.
On the hour Bowyer made a double substitution, with Aneke replacing Bogle and Williams on for Morgan, followed not long after by Famewo coming on for Watson, with Pratley moving into midfield. Just what the formation was by now was hard to tell, with Washington and Maddison in wide areas and Williams moving around. Nevertheless, we had then probably our best short period of the game as almost by willpower we came close to taking the lead. A Maddison Crossfield pass found Washington, who cut inside but saw his shot saved, then a combination of Aneke, Maddison and Williams managed to work the ball down the right and we had numbers in the box. The ball eventually broke to Pratley, who shot over the bar. And a Maddison break and cross was almost converted by Aneke.
Just as it seemed we might be taking the game by the scruff of the neck, with MK Dons forced onto the back foot, they went up the other end and scored. Nobody closed down their guy in midfield and then there seemed to be confusion over who was picking up who, leaving a simple pass to a guy in space in the box, who shot past Amos.
With about 15 minutes of normal time left there was the time to turn it around, but we became increasingly desperate, increasingly reliant on a long ball to find Aneke. It was only after two minutes of the four added on (which became five with an injury) when we almost scored an equaliser which we scarcely deserved. Ball into the box and pressure on it, their keeper parried it but it fell to Pratley, who lifted it over the bodies only for it to rebound off the crossbar. And that was indeed that.
This was a more sobering defeat than Burton. Individually the players worked hard, had good moments and bad; collectively we fell well short. It highlighted that we are still very much a work in progress, with no strong spine as yet and no combinations in the key areas. MK Dons exploited our lack of cohesion and with better quality in the final third would surely have won comfortably. We might have gone second tonight but ended up with a clear lesson that we will need to improve considerably if a top-two position is to be within reach.
Amos – 8/10. By a distance our man-of-the-match. Have to see if he might have done better with their goal, did come out for a cross and didn’t make it, otherwise it was a faultless performance with some excellent saves.
Matthews – 7/10. Another good display, up against a tricky player but not caught out, although was involved in the general confusion over who was doing what for their goal.
Pratley – 6/10. Can’t be blamed for the pressure our defence was under and fact is when he moved into midfield he twice came closer to scoring than anyone else.
Gunter – 6/10. Worked hard at it, did get caught out on occasions.
Purrington – 7/10. By and large he had a good game.
Morgan – 6/10. Some good moments, perhaps unlucky to be taken off.
Watson – 5/10. Was left exposed by others in midfield and too often saw the ball passed forward and their guys just run beyond him.
Shinnie – 6/10. Nothing dramatic but I think we lost what little cohesion we had when he went off at the break.
Gilbey – 5/10. Some good moments in the first half running with the ball, but didn’t seem to do much defensive covering and was less prominent in the second half. Also when on a yellow almost got in the way of a quick free kick, which if he had done would almost certainly have resulted in a second yellow.
Bogle – 5/10. Worked hard, won some headers, but not much movement and couldn’t control and keep the ball.
Washington – 5/10. A night for him when things just didn’t quite come off. Might have taken the shot in the first half instead of trying to bring it down, might have crossed in the second rather than shooting from a tight angle.
Maddison – 6/10. Unable tonight to make a decisive contribution, but he does make things happen.
Aneke – 6/10. Didn’t fall for him in the box tonight.
Williams – 5/10. Unable to make an impression.
Famewo – 6/10. Very good to see him back.