By Luke Payne, Feature Writer
The Dons faced a very capable Crawley side at Stadium MK for the final game of 2023. The away side looked very impressive going forward but it was Mike Williamson’s men who came out on top, securing another three points with a 2-0 win. Here’s how I rated the players after the final match of 2023:
Formation: 5-2-2-1/5-4-1 (Two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders)
GK – Craig MacGillivray – 8.5 (TOP DON): Probably his busiest game of the season but also his best performance of the season. MacGillivray made a number of vital saves to keep Crawley out, including a couple from close range. He kept his cool each time he was called into action and made sure that any rebounds were nowhere near Crawley’s players. He wasn’t required as much for his passing capabilities due to the opposition press being too effective.
RWB – Alex Gilbey – 6.5: Started the game at wingback but switched positions with Jonathan Leko about 30 minutes in. Battled well as always and ran up and down the wing all evening. He should’ve scored halfway through the second half, where the ball was played across goal for him but he couldn’t hit the target. Gilbey made up for this later though when he collected the ball from Cameron Norman and squeezed a shot past the Crawley defenders, hitting the far post before finding the back of the net. This made it 2-0 after 82 minutes. He then had another big opportunity, sliding in to control a through ball from MJ Williams before getting up and immediately going for goal. His effort was saved by Corey Addai but he did have Ellis Harrison in a better shooting position to his left so he arguably should’ve passed the ball instead of going for goal.
RCB – MJ Williams – 4.5: For a midfielder playing in defence, he seemed to struggle passing the ball out from the back, making a worrying amount of mistakes in possession. These mistakes gave Crawley some dangerous chances, and Williams is lucky that they weren’t clinical enough to put them away. He did settle a bit more in the second half, but the mistakes were still present in his game. With this being said, he did set up Alex Gilbey for a major chance late in the game after playing a clever one-two with Ethan Robson to break into Crawley’s half. His defensive work was just about acceptable and he contributed with some big clearances.
CB – Warren O’Hora – 6: Certainly more solid in possession than Williams but O’Hora did still make a couple of poor mistakes. However, he atoned for this with some important blocks and he battled well in the air. O’Hora cleverly flicked a ball away to safety after one of MacGillivray’s saves despite being on the ground having slid in to try and block the shot. He’ll be disappointed with how many times Crawley played straight through the middle of the final third though.
LCB – Dean Lewington (C) – 7: Easily the best Dons defender on the night. Lewington showed that experience is king in a game where the opposition played at such a high tempo and were relentless with their pressing. He may not be the fastest but his positioning was fantastic and he remained calm throughout, even flicking the ball over a Crawley player’s head at some point. Tricks and flicks aside, Lewington defended valiantly and led by example. The guard of honour he got before the game is also worth a mention, a lovely gesture for an MK Dons legend!
LWB – Joe Tomlinson – 7.5: Tomlinson had a busy night. He had a lot of defensive work to do and did get caught out a couple of times but he was also heavily involved in creating chances at the other end as well. He opened the scoring just 2 minutes in, getting on the end of Max Dean’s through ball before firing the ball into the bottom corner at the near post. Tomlinson had another couple of chances in the second half, the first of which he fired off target from Ellis Harrison’s cutback. Despite missing this he nearly finished the game with a brace, breaking through on goal again in the closing minutes but it was disallowed for a very dubious offside decision.
CM – Jack Payne – 6.5: Certainly not his best game as he too made far too many mistakes in possession but equally he was still pivotal to the way Dons played and picked out plenty of passes that no other player on the pitch would see. He helped to bring the wingbacks into play, finding them time and time again with some beautiful diagonal passes. Payne also regularly found ways to dribble his way out of trouble in the middle third and he won the ball back in the build-up to The Dons’ second goal. Overall he did a lot more good than harm being on the pitch.
CM – Dawson Devoy – 5: Crawley play a very similar style to The Dons except they do it at a much higher tempo and Devoy is clearly still learning how to play effectively in this system. He made some very dangerous mistakes in possession though he was tasked with passing his way out of trouble whenever Crawley pressed, which was seemingly all of the time. The thought process was there but perhaps he was lacking in composure. Devoy came off after 54 minutes for Ethan Robson.
CAM – Jonathan Leko – 4.5: Started the game in attacking midfield but was largely ineffective with Dons struggling to get out of defence. He then swapped places with Gilbey and took up the wingback role but struggled to play the ball out. His defensive work was reasonable enough given he’s not a natural defender and he did put effort in. However, most things he tried to do with the ball didn’t work. Leko came off after 78 minutes for Cameron Norman.
CAM – Conor Grant – 6: Looked solid on his return to the side. Grant played the ball about nicely and contributed to some of The Dons’ better attacks in the first half. He picked up a knock towards the end of the half. Even though he carried on and started in the second half, he would get swiftly replaced after 53 minutes in favour of Ellis Harrison.
ST – Max Dean – 6.5: Dean was involved quite heavily in a lot of the build-up play in this game, even before he moved to attacking midfield in the second half. His most notable contribution came just 2 minutes in, when he played a lovely outside of the foot through ball for Tomlinson who proceeded to open the scoring. He found himself having to drop deeper to get the ball for most of the first half, with Crawley making it difficult to play out from the back. Dean had more joy in the second half, setting Ellis Harrison up with a ball across the box early in the second half, though it was over-hit somewhat which made it difficult for Harrison to convert the chance. Dean had a couple of shots on goal as well and probably should’ve scored at least one of them. He came off after 78 minutes for Mo Eisa.
SUB (ST) – Ellis Harrison – 7: Harrison and Robson coming onto the pitch changed the dynamic of the game and for a while it shifted momentum in favour of The Dons. The striker’s hold-up play helped Dons to play through the middle third much easier and though he made a couple of mistakes to begin with, he soon settled. Harrison had a chance to score shortly after coming on. He tried to hit Max Dean’s low cross first time but it was a difficult one to take and his shot went flying into the stands. Arguably he had time to take a touch but with goalkeeper Corey Addai scrambling from the other side of the goal, Harrison tried to take it early. Harrison contributed to the second goal, collecting it on the halfway line after Payne won the ball. From there Harrison sent Gilbey on his way who would in turn play a delayed one-two with Norman before scoring.
SUB (CM) – Ethan Robson – 7: Added calmness to the midfield that helped The Dons to get a proper foothold in the game. Despite going ahead 1-0 in the first half, Crawley had dominated possession and pinned Mike Williamson’s men into their own half. Robson and Harrison changed this. Their passing plays in the middle third made it a lot easier to play out from the back and it enabled the likes of Gilbey and Tomlinson to play higher up the pitch. Robson sprayed passes all over the pitch and his presence definitely helped Payne’s performance as well.
SUB (RWB) – Cameron Norman – 7: Despite coming on to protect the lead, it was Norman’s attacking qualities that stood out. He contributed an assist, playing a delayed one-two for Gilbey’s goal and he also pushed high up the right wing, allowing Payne to pick him out a couple of times with his favoured diagonal switch pass.
SUB (CAM) – Mo Eisa – 6: Did some chasing and helped see the game out. His job was made easier by Laurence Maguire (brother of England international, Harry) getting sent off when he picked up a second yellow for dissent.
TEAM PERFORMANCE – 6.5: It wasn’t a particularly strong team performance but it was enough to get the job done. Crawley played very well and outplayed Dons at their own game for the majority of the match. However, where Crawley missed all of their major chances, Dons had enough quality to score a couple. Strong individual performances carried Mike Williamson’s men through this game so the defence and midfield will have Craig MacGillivray to thank for keeping a clean sheet. There were flashes of quality possession play but these were few and far between in comparison to what Crawley were capable of. It would be fair to suggest that in both games against Crawley, they’ve played how Dons are supposed to play.
There was a little more rotation for this game and it certainly suggests that Dons need more strength in depth. Jack Tucker and Daniel Harvie are still a couple of weeks from returning to the side and with Ethan Robson and Cameron Norman initially rested for this game, Crawley were able to dominate until some changes were made in the second half. It also begs the question of what happens if Jack Payne gets injured or has a bad day? There is no other player in the squad that can do what he does in midfield and that has to be a concern. It’s hard to see who could fill the void effectively as Dawson Devoy struggled to match his level and Ethan Robson is a different type of player to Payne, as is MJ Williams. The biggest reassurance is that Ellis Harrison is perfectly capable as a second striker option. He offers something different to Max Dean but can still play with energy and intensity.
That’s all for this year and what a way to finish 2023! Nine league games unbeaten and four wins in a row is an impressive run, the tricky bit is keeping it going. Thank you to everyone reading for your support throughout the year and of course to Jonathan Harries and Chris Turner for their help in keeping the series running smoothly. We look forward to bringing you all more content in 2024, starting with the New Year’s Day game away at Doncaster. I would love to hear your thoughts on the current state of the squad going into the transfer window as well as your thoughts on the game. Thanks again and I hope you enjoyed the read!