It’s been a fair few weeks since I’ve done a match report, through no fault but my own. When we were at home to Brentford, frankly I couldn’t be bothered. And last week at Tranmere I had a pretty bad hangover and couldn’t be bothered. See the trend. Anyway, Town picked up four points from six in those games and I figured I’d get back to reporting ways for the home match against fellow promotion chasers MK Dons.
Town started the game in 2nd place, with the Dons a few points behind in 5th. The two Sheffield clubs were sandwiched in between, and the race was starting to hot up for who would take the second automatic promotion spot (I’ve pretty much given up hope of Charlton being dragged back into it!) In all honesty I think it’s between Us and the Sheffield two for that place, as I don’t think the Dons have enough over the course of the season to seriously challenge.
It was nice to see that every single MK Dons season ticket holder had turned up for the match.
Town lined up in the now-familiar 4-4-1-1 formation, with new signing Kallum Higginbotham taking a place in the starting eleven just days after signing from Falkirk. Town also signed defender Murray Wallace from the same club, but he will stay there on loan until the end of the season. Meanwhile, Donal McDermott has left permanently for Bournemouth. Bye, thanks, and all that.
Town: Bennett, Hunt, Morrison, McCombe, Naysmith, Arfield, Gobern, Miller, Cadamarteri, Higginbotham, Rhodes.
Starting at a very high tempo, Town were on the front foot immediately and put the Dons defence under a lot of pressure, who were dropping deeper and deeper with each Town attack. Their ‘keeper David Martin made two sliced clearances early on despite being under no pressure, and the away side did not look to be playing with any degree of confidence. Tommy Miller was looking quite dominant in the midddle, playing a slightly deeper role with Gobern given more freedom to move forward. Higginbotham also looked very composed, harrassing the Dons defence and giving the side that much-needed injection of pace and energy in the final third.
Town’s best chance of the opening period fell to Rhodes, who headed over from a Cadamarteri cross after just nine minutes. Despite all of Town’s possession and dominance, chances were at a premium and they were being crowded out very well by the Dons defence once they got the ball into the box. Without the physical presence of Alan Lee, there was greater pressure on Rhodes to do battle with the two centre-backs, and it was a battle he didn’t look like winning. The away side had managed to get a foothold in the game by the twenty minute mark and were starting to look much more composed and comfortable on the ball. Even venturing into the Town defensive third for the first time! However, just like Town, there was no end product despite some neat passing play across the midfield.
The half didn’t really pick up again until the last ten minutes. McCombe put a header over from a Higginbotham corner, and when Town broke a few minutes later with a three-on-two situation in their favour, it looked like they would take the lead. Arfield won the ball down the right and raced towards the Dons box, with Rhodes and Higginbotham in support. He attempted to drag the ball back to the new signing, but again he was quickly crowded out by some impressive defending, and the attack came to nothing.
Town managed to take the lead in first half stoppage time, through centre-back Jamie McCombe. A free-kick just inside the Dons half was played short to Higginbotham, who moved forward before delivering a perfect cross to the far post, where McCombe was waiting to nod it into the opposite corner. On the balance of play, it was no more than Town deserved, but still only one of very few clear chances that we’d created. Not keen on the ‘Boom Boom’ thing going on over the speaker system when he scored though. Whoever’s responsible, hang your head.
So a good half of football, especially in the opening and closing stages, but Town really should have created more goalscoring opportunities for all the possession they’d had. The Dons looked very shaky under pressure in the first fifteen or so minutes, but then managed to get a bit of composure back and knocked the ball around well, though again without creating anything obvious. Stand out players in the first half were definitely Higginbotham and Cadamarteri in an attacking sense, and the two centre-backs at the other end. Dons had struggled to create anything in the final third, mainly due to the strong aeriel presence of McCombe and Morrison, who were winning everything that was sent their way.
Half time: Town 1-0 MK Dons
The Dons came out of the blocks much better in the second half and immediately put Town under pressure, playing the ball down the wings and putting some decent balls in the box. Fortunately Town have over 13ft of centre-backs in there, and dealt with these relatively easily. However, Ian Bennett must have had a tenner on MK Dons because he mis-kicked a clearance and swung a wild punch at a cross, but neither of these opportunities came to anything. Town really struggled to get on the ball in the opening stages of the second half and the away side continued to dominate in possession. Having said that, it was Town who came closest to scoring the next goal when Morrison met a Higginbotham corner, but his header was cleared off the line by Luke Chadwick. Another quality delivery from Higgo, who was looking very impressive on his debut. I thought his first touch was letting him down a bit at times in the second half, but I’ve been crucified for saying this on DATM (though I may have put it in harsher terms immediately after the match) so I retract my statement That second goal so early on would really have knocked it out of MK Dons and I could have seen us going on to win by a couple more.
However, it wasn’t to be, and Dons got the equaliser in very fortunate circumstances. They won a free-kick on the touchline and when Stephen Gleeson whipped it in, the ball went over the top of everyone’s head, but also Bennett’s, and straight into the top corner. A real blow for Town who had not really looked like themselves in the second half, and certainly hadn’t created any chances really worthy of a goal (Morrison’s header aside).
The Dons continued to dominate after their goal,and looked more likely to take three points than any other outcome. Their best chance to take the lead came in the 70th minute when top scorer Charlie MacDonald was played into the Town box by Bowditch, but his effort was initially blocked by Morrison and then parried away by Bennett. A good reflex save by the ‘keeper, who was atoning for an otherwise abject performance. Town really needed to step it up if we were to get anything at all from this game, never mind the win, and I’d have liked to have seen Alan Lee come on at this point. Rhodes had looked completely lost up front on his own, and for all of Higginbotham’s good play, a standard 4-4-2 formation would have been best to see the game out with. Take Arfield off, who had put in a poor performance by his normally consistant standards.
The change didn’t come, and Town stuck at it with the lone striker system, and it didn’t really pay off. Despite finishing the game on top, we never really looked like scoring again. The closest we came was when Jack Hunt’s cross-cum-shot (I’m surprised this term has not been outlawed from the game yet!) bounced off the underside off the underside of the bar, and Scott Arfield drove an effort inches wide of the post in injury time, but the defender looked to have it covered.
Full time: Town 1-1 MK Dons
Probably a fair result on the balance of play, but one which will favour the away side more than Town. Yet another draw in the league takes us to thirteen for the season, joint with Scunthorpe and Walsall (both in the relegation zone), and I’m very disappointed with the lack of adventure shown by Clark on Saturday. Throwing another striker on at around the 70-minute mark would have been a very sensible action for a home team in that situation, yet I still can’t help but feel that avoiding defeat is becoming too much of a focus for this team. We never really looked like winning on Saturday, though if we had created more chances in the opening twenty minutes, which we dominated, then it could have been a different story. The final ball was poor on the whole, and I’m not surprised to see that we only had three shots on target (twelve in total, which I’m amazed by!) Higginbotham had an impressive debut, and looks like he will be a very useful player for us, but I’m concerned as to how he is going to fit in. Clark seems pretty dead-set on this 4-4-1-1 formation, which has hardly yielded impressive displays or results as of yet, and it means sacrificing a striker to accommodate this ‘luxury’ player role. I’d have prefered to see us play 4-4-2 on Saturday, or 4-3-1-2 if Clark is insistent upon playing the Number 10. And regarding our central midfielders, I feel we are still yet to see what will be our most impressive pairing: Johnson and Arfield. This was our consistent partnership before Johnson’s injury last season, and they appeared to complement each other very well. We don’t really have that driving attacking force in any of our other midfielders, and on his day Scott Arfield could play this role very well. Johnson is experienced enough to be able to play the midfield sweeper/anchor man role, which would allow Arfield to push on and support a front two. Granted, with Higginbotham playing, we don’t really need this type of midfielder playing, but when lining up in 4-4-2, I’d like to see these two given a chance. God knows he’s tried every other combination.
Man Of The Match: Jamie McCombe. Both centre-backs played well on Saturday, but I’ll give it to McCombe for getting the Town goal as well. He has looked impressive since coming back from his loan at Preston (he looked good before then, but one small mistake put him in Clark’s bad-books), and he seems to be striking up a good understanding with Morrison. Neither are blessed with pace, but they are both very strong in the air and have a very good ability of reading the game. We aren’t chasing back any long balls any more, because they are being cut out early on. Aside from MacDonald chance in the second half, we never really looked like conceding, and this is definitely down to the performances of the centre-backs, who dominated the Dons strikers all game.
Unsung Hero: I’m going to say Cadamarteri for this. He was one of our stand-out players in the first half but sort of tailed off a bit in the second (as did most of the attacking players, to be fair). He has fought well to earn his chance in the starting eleven and is putting in performances worthy of keeping it. He has a lot of energy and strength to really test opposition full-backs, and my only criticism is that he isn’t brave enough when on the ball. I’d like to see him knocking the ball past the defender and getting into space a bit more, rather than cutting back and looking for that pass infield. I suppose it’s harsh to judge him on Saturday’s game because he was playing on the left, and clearly isn’t confident putting in a decent cross on his wrong foot.
Anyway, onwards and upwards as Town travel to London next Saturday to face Leyton Orient. I tipped Orient for a good season, and despite their appalling start, I expected them to have picked up a bit more than they have. They are bang in the middle between the relegation zone and the play-offs, ten points away from either. Their home record is not great (4-4-7) and this is a game Town really need to be going into with the intention of getting three points. We’ve dropped to third after Saturday’s result and need to keep picking up wins to stay in touch with the other promotion candidates. I won’t begin to guess the line-up, but I’ve already made my feelings clear on the midfield and the formation, however I can’t see Clark going with DJ/SA unfortunately.