By Luke Payne by kind permission
Let’s set the scene. It’s the first league game of the season after relegation. Furthermore, it’s an away day against the favourites for the League Two title, who are surrounded by press constantly due to their Hollywood owners. The fans are concerned that the squad isn’t strong enough to compete against the top sides. That can only mean one thing right? You guessed it… The Dons left the Racecourse Ground as 5-3 winners against Wrexham! Here’s how I rated the players after the blockbuster season opener:
Formation: 5-3-2 (Switched to 5-4-1 after 91 minutes)
GK – Craig MacGillivray – 7.5: Made a number of strong saves including in a one-on-one against Ollie Palmer. He did also make a big save in the build-up to Wrexham’s first goal, but his defence let him down and didn’t close down the rebound. There was nothing he could have done about the three goals and he managed his time well, showing an impressively crafty level of gamesmanship. With that being said he did eventually pick up a yellow card for his time-wasting antics. His distribution was good, even when under pressure and he usually found his target with his long kicks.
RWB – Cameron Norman – 7.5: Played very high up the pitch as did Daniel Harvie on the other wing. He looked comfortable on the ball and tough in the tackle. He won the free-kick for The Dons opening goal and was involved in a number of the passing plays as the team transitioned into attack. A very solid player operating in the middle third though he does need to be react quicker at times in the defensive third as he was quite slow getting out to the Wrexham players as they were shaping up to shoot from the edge of the box.
RCB – Warren O’Hora – 8: He looked composed on the ball and cut out a number of attacks with well-timed challenges and big headers, displaying fantastic anticipation even when shepherding the ball off the pitch to win goal-kicks. O’Hora seemed to be on the same wavelength as Jack Tucker and the two complimented each other really well.
CB – Jack Tucker – 8: Similarly to O’Hora, he cut out plenty of attacks and had the better of his man. His decision-making was on point and he understood that sometimes it was necessary to clear his lines but he was also able to play out from the back as well. He tried a few long balls forward that forced Wrexham’s defenders into action and acted as cover for O’Hora and Tommy Smith wherever necessary.
LCB – Tommy Smith – 8.5: The name in the starting line-up that caught most Dons fans by surprise. Smith was a force to be reckoned with. He won every tackle he went in for and was always quick off the mark to cover or support Daniel Harvie. He did get caught running forwards to challenge the man on the ball a couple of times when he probably could’ve let one of the midfield trio swoop in to protect him but he barely put a foot wrong otherwise. He was described by Graham Alexander as a no-nonsense defender and he showed that with his physicality and his decisiveness in clearing his lines.
LWB – Daniel Harvie – 8: He enjoyed the freedom of playing without a winger in front of him and was up and down the pitch non-stop. Harvie got stuck in and played the ball about nicely, often playing well-weighted passes down the wing for the likes of Jonathan Leko and Ethan Robson to run onto. He completed an impressive display with a goal. Ethan Robson won the ball just inside Wrexham’s half and Harvie collected it, running half the pitch before he was able to slot the ball into the bottom corner with his right foot from the edge of the box. He looked exhausted even before he made that run but still found the energy to sprint back across the pitch to celebrate his goal with the fans, making it 5-2 after 94 minutes.
CM – Alex Gilbey (C) – 8: The new vice-captain led by example with a determined display, getting stuck in and playing the high press effectively. Perhaps the best example of this is for Jonathan Leko’s goal where Gilbey was able to get a tackle in high up the pitch, allowing Ethan Robson to collect the loose ball and start the attack. He does however need to work with Norman to figure out who covers the man on the edge of the box from rebounds as the pair of them let Wrexham’s first two goals in from similar positions.
CM – MJ Williams – 8.5: He protected the defence wonderfully, not really losing out until he got beaten for Wrexham’s third goal after 96 minutes. Williams did the dirty work extremely well and was always ready and waiting to cover Gilbey and Ethan Robson. He even ventured forwards himself a few times and hit the post with a low driven effort shortly after Dons opened the scoring. In addition to all of this he was comfortable in possession and was able to play the ball about nicely with the likes of Gilbey, Robson, Norman and Harvie around him.
CM – Ethan Robson – 10 (TOP DON): There were a few unsung heroes in The Dons performance but Robson was the one who subtly had an impact in all of the major attacking plays. For the first goal, he played the ball in from the free-kick into a dangerous area, forcing Eoghan O’Connell to try and defend it only to head it into his own goal, making it 1-0 after just 6 minutes. He then won the ball on the halfway line and contributed to the passing move in the build-up to the second goal. For the third goal he was quick to react to a loose ball following Gilbey’s tackle and as a result he was able to set Jonathan Leko up for his first goal. His contribution for the fourth goal was smaller but still essential as he played the ball to Mo Eisa who swiftly set up Leko for his second goal. Finally, he won the ball in Wrexham’s half for Harvie’s goal.
ST – Jonathan Leko – 9.5: Those that follow the MKDSA’s Live Show will know that I said the key to a good performance for Dons would be Jonathan Leko and whether he would put the effort in or not. As it turns out he put in ‘maximum effort’ (Thanks Deadpool) and it proved to be decisive. Leko played with great confidence and regularly ran at the Wrexham defence. He scored with a well-placed shot from the edge of the box after 51 minutes to make it 3-1 before following up with a one-on-one goal to make it 4-1 after 64 minutes. This is in addition to the goal he set up for Mo Eisa in the first half as well as a couple of other occasions where he forced big saves out of Ben Foster. It’s also worth mentioning his hold-up play which was fantastic throughout regardless of if the ball was played to his feet or in the air. Leko came off to a well-deserved reception after 78 minutes with new signing Ashley Hunter taking his place.
ST – Mo Eisa – 9: It wasn’t just Leko causing all the trouble in Wrexham’s final third. Eisa made a nuisance of himself and opened his account for the season in brilliant fashion, dribbling through no less than six Wrexham defenders before poking the ball past Ben Foster, putting The Dons 2-0 up after 10 minutes. In the second half he turned provider and sent Leko through on goal with a through ball. Similarly to Leko, his hold-up play was surprisingly impressive and the pair seemed to have an understanding of where their teammates would be at any given time. Eisa came off after 91 minutes for Phoenix Scholtz.
SUB (ST) – Ashley Hunter – 7.5: Graham Alexander’s latest signing came in with something to prove and he’s certainly off to a good start. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to attack but he was sharp out of possession and intercepted a number of balls that he probably shouldn’t have been able to reach. He brought a fantastic level of energy that was needed to see the game out.
SUB (CM) – Phoenix Scholtz – 7: Asked to play out of position so Dons could have another defensive-minded player on the pitch, Scholtz pressed well on the right side of midfield and contributed to the press, although the press was much deeper in the final stages as Dons were looking to close out the game. He got a few touches and did make a couple of mistakes in possession but his presence was enough to stop Wrexham causing too much trouble down his side.
TEAM PERFORMANCE – 9: It feels wrong to be giving so many high ratings this early in the season but every single player put a shift in to secure that result. Perhaps a nine is too kind given that Wrexham scored three and they were all preventable. However, there are very few teams that will be that effective from the edge of the box in League Two and the firepower at the other end was so impressive that it didn’t matter. The defence looked much tougher physically speaking than last season and the midfield trio were a delight to watch with their combative nature, their sharpness and camaraderie. All of that combined with Mo Eisa and Jonathan Leko finding their shooting boots proved to be a recipe for success in this fixture.
The major difference I was expecting going into the first competitive game of the season was a proper implementation of the high press that Graham Alexander talked about so much when he arrived at the club. That high press was a direct factor in three of The Dons’ goals as well as MJ Williams’ shot that hit the post. The team looked much fitter and were able to run Wrexham into trouble plenty of times. What’s even more impressive is that the fitness levels only really dropped in the final few minutes of added time having only made two substitutions all game.
As far as opening games go, you can’t really ask for much more. However, it is only one fixture. There are still squad depth concerns with three academy players making the bench due to injuries to Dean Lewington, Conor Grant and Matt Dennis as well as unknown absences from Darragh Burns and Max Dean. A result like this suggests that Alexander has built a strong foundation which is promising given that there’s still more business to be done in the transfer window. It will also be interesting to see the amount of rotation for the EFL Cup game against Wycombe on Tuesday as it could be difficult to maintain this high energy style of play every Saturday and Tuesday with the same starting XI. Some changes will be expected for a cup game naturally, but will wholesale changes be made with the league fixture against Tranmere looming on Saturday?
If you’ve read this far then thank you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the game in the comments below and I hope you enjoyed the read!