By Luke Payne, Feature Writer
After a break from the league due to international fixtures, The Dons made their way to the Peninsula Stadium to face Salford City. It was an eventful game that saw Dons take an early lead only to fall behind by halftime thanks to a controversial penalty given to The Ammies. Eventually it would be Mike Williamson’s men that would take the 3 points, securing a 2-4 win away from home. Here’s how I rated the players after the action:
Formation: 5-2-2-1/ 5-4-1 (Two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders)
GK – Craig MacGillivray – 5: Had a howler for Salford’s equalising goal. A low ball came into the box and MacGillivray started to make a move to claim it then pulled out, allowing the ball to reach Kelly Nmai who was able to convert the cross, making it 1-1 after 36 minutes. It was one moment of indecision but it caused a huge momentum shift until half-time. He learnt his lesson in the second half and was far more decisive and assured when claiming balls in and around the box. He did also pull off one or two impressive saves including one from a low-aimed header that the keeper was able to turn behind for a corner.
RWB – Joe Tomlinson – 7.5: Had a relatively quiet first half but showed a lot of intent to get forward. However, this left Cameron Norman very exposed at the back and Norman was often overloaded on that side. He arguably should’ve been in a better position to mark Kelly Nmai for Salford’s first goal. His positioning did improve somewhat in the second half but it was his attacking play that stood out and he came away from this game with a brace. His first goal came from a fast attacking move that saw Tomlinson receive the ball on the right side of the box courtesy of an Alex Gilbey pass. From there, the wingback struck the ball between the keeper’s legs to make it 2-2 after 50 minutes. Then 20 minutes later, he was fastest reacting to a deflected Jack Payne pass and Tomlinson rifled the ball into the back of the net making it 2-3 after 72 minutes, completing The Dons’ comeback.
RCB – Cameron Norman – 5.5: A tricky one to give a rating to. He played very nicely out from the back and contributed well in possession. However, out of possession he struggled. His positioning was poor a lot of the time and he did allow Kelly Nmai to beat him a few times though he wasn’t helped by Tomlinson playing so high up the pitch. Norman has to share a portion of the blame for the first goal as he lost track of Nmai in favour of doubling up on Matt Smith, Salford’s target man. Norman was also the man to give away the penalty that gave Salford the lead, sticking a leg out to get the ball off a charging Kelly Nmai. With this being said it did look like a clean tackle so it’s harsh to blame Norman too much for this. Former Don Ryan Watson converted the penalty, sending MacGillivray the wrong way to make it 2-1 after 45 minutes and 2 minutes of added time.
CB – Warren O’Hora – 7: He’s really starting to settle in the middle of the back three and it’s evident from his increased passing range that he’s starting to feel more confident in this role. He sprayed a number of lovely long balls out to the likes of Joe Tomlinson and Daniel Harvie but he also played out from the back with great control, making it difficult for Salford to press effectively. He had a big battle with Matt Smith and did lose out on a lot of the aerial battles but he made up for this by protecting the box well and Salford were limited to a couple of chances in the box, one which they took and the other that was blasted over the bar by Smith in the second half.
LCB – Dean Lewington (C) – 7.5: He’s back! Lewington’s presence was certainly welcome in a fixture like this. He played with an outstanding level of composure and he read the game expertly, regularly stepping around his marker to intercept or clear a ball. He did have a few shaky moments in possession but he made up for his mistakes each time. Playing out of the back looked very natural with Lewington there, exchanging passes with the likes of O’Hora, Daniel Harvie and Conor Grant. He also started the move for The Dons’ second goal, winning the ball just inside Salford’s half before making a short run and moving the ball on. Lewington was also involved in the passage of play leading to Dons’ third goal.
LWB – Daniel Harvie – 6.5: Had a solid game and tried to get involved at both ends of the pitch. He played the ball about well but didn’t get too much opportunity to attack in the first half. However, there was a huge space that started to appear on the left wing in the second half and Harvie exploited it more and more as the game went on. By the closing stages he was regularly getting forward and getting into advanced crossing positions. From set pieces he seemed to be in a bit of a gamesmanship battle with Curtis Tilt, one of Salford’s experienced centre-backs.
CM – Jack Payne – 7: Perhaps a little less positive with his passing than he usually is in the first half but as gaps started to open in the second half, Payne was able to dictate play a lot more. He worked well with the likes of Conor Grant and Alex Gilbey to work the ball around Salford’s half and the trio were able to create a number of chances in this fashion. Payne played the ball that led to Dons’ third goal of the game, although his pass was lacking a little in quality, the Salford defender it hit only deflected it into the path of an onrushing Joe Tomlinson who was able to convert the chance. Payne carried the ball on the edge of the box a number of times and seemed reluctant to shoot so it would’ve been nice to see him going for goal a little bit more.
CM – MJ Williams – 6.5: His primary objective was to reduce the impact of Matt Smith but he kept stepping away from him at times when he needed to be challenging for the ball. Williams broke up play well when the ball was on the ground but didn’t get involved enough in the aerial battles. With this being said, he sat in a deep position which allowed Payne to move with freedom in the middle third.
CAM – Alex Gilbey – 7: Played with high energy throughout as shown by his contribution for the opening goal of the game, winning the ball in Salford’s half and playing the ball forwards to Conor Grant who went on to get the assist. Gilbey got stuck in wherever he could and he never let Salford’s players rest. He got into a lot of good positions in the final third and did get an assist for his troubles but did lack quality at times when delivering that final ball. With this being said it was his persistence that carried him through this game as he showed a fantastic mentality, even in the face of adversity. It’s that sort of attitude that’s been missing from the MK Dons side since the third place League One finish under Liam Manning.
CAM – Conor Grant – 7: A difficult one to give a rating to as he had some quality moments at the beginning of the game as well as towards the end of his appearance but he had a big spell in the middle where he faded from the game. In that middle section he abandoned a couple of easy contests for the ball that he probably would’ve won and he was lightweight on the ball. However, the rest of the time he looked sharp and battled well, dropping deep a number of times to help Harvie dispossess the Salford attacker’s. Grant’s biggest contribution was the through ball he played to Max Dean for the opening goal, picking the pass at the exact right time to give Dean the maximum chance of scoring. He came off after 77 minutes for Ellis Harrison.
ST – Max Dean – 8 (TOP DON): Opened the scoring with a well-taken goal. He made a clever run on the blindside of his man who had gone to challenge Grant. This allowed Grant to squeeze the ball through to Dean enabling the young striker to drive inwards and smack the ball into the top of the goal, making it 0-1 after 10 minutes. Dean did have a couple of other chances which he squandered but the reason for his high rating is actually his contribution to the build-up play. He would pop up everywhere, whether it was in the middle, deep or out wide to make himself and option and create space elsewhere on the pitch. He did get the ball caught up in his feet a couple of times including in the lead-up to The Dons’ second goal but he was selfless with his play which made it so much easier for the likes of Gilbey, Grant and Payne to operate in the final third. He played a few minutes in one of the attacking midfield roles when Grant came off but eventually made way for Jonathan Leko after 85 minutes.
SUB (ST) – Ellis Harrison – 7: Was brought on to provide a more physical presence up front as Dons looked to close out the result but it turned out that all Harrison needed to secure the result was a bit of open space and a mistake from a Salford defender. The defender played it straight into the path of Harrison who used another Salford defender’s positioning to his advantage, hitting the bottom right corner with a shot that Alex Cairns would’ve seen a bit late due to his defender blocking his view. It was an intelligent play from Harrison and he did strike the ball well despite slipping a bit as he hit it.
SUB (CAM) – Jonathan Leko – 6: A late change just to freshen up the attack. He got on the ball a little bit but didn’t have much of a chance to make an impact.
TEAM PERFORMANCE – 7: It wasn’t a straightforward game and it certainly wasn’t an easy day at the office. Initially Salford didn’t look to press our defence too heavily, opting to let us have it as long as we’re moving the ball about at a decent pace. After Max Dean scored they started to come out a bit more and it looked like it would be a case of grinding out the game. A defensive error and a questionable penalty call later and suddenly Dons had a different challenge ahead of them. The second half was a major improvement. There was no dropping of heads as there had been in previous games. The entire team stepped up their level and kept fighting until the job was done. This game was more a mental battle than a physical one.
Defensively speaking there are still gaps, though this is partially due to the lack of natural cover for Jack Tucker. The defence will always have a bit of a makeshift look about it until he’s back but on a positive note, Warren O’Hora is starting to find his feet again and that is huge in the long run. In possession the defence rarely played into traps though there were still a few scary moments. There’s still growing cohesion amongst the midfield players and we are starting to see each player playing to their strengths more, particularly Conor Grant who is at his best when he’s given a bit of space to work with.
Harrison’s goal will be a huge confidence booster for him though it remains to be seen if he can consistently match the standard that Max Dean is setting. At this moment in time, most of the question marks are on the bench. There were four forwards on the bench for this game with one central midfielder, one centre-back and the back-up keeper. In a system that only uses one forward with a couple of advanced midfield players just behind, is there really space in the squad for the likes of Mo Eisa, Jonathan Leko and Matt Dennis? They’ll all have their chance to impress but as the injured players start to return, these forwards might be running out of time. When Ethan Robson returns one of them will probably lose their place in the squad. If Mike Williamson decides he needs another defender on the bench then that’s another one gone as well. Now that Dons operate with a different formation, the balance of the squad will need to be shifted to accommodate it. With just over a month until the January transfer window, it could well be last chance saloon for some of the squad players.
If you’ve read this far then thank you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the game and on who you think could be leaving the club in January in the comments below and I hope you enjoyed the read!