THE front six who started the game against Coventry at the Ricoh Arena were the same players who created and scored more than 100 goals for MK Dons last season – so where has it all gone wrong?
Dons fans have celebrated just 13 League 1 goals from the opening 10 games of this season – the same amount runaway leaders Tranmere Rovers have scored in their five home games so far.
The 1-1 draw at Coventry epitomised Dons’ campaign so far – close but no cigar. And the problems up front seem to be the source of the frustration.
There was a time when getting a draw away to Coventry was a good result, but Tuesday night’s game was not played in the mid-90s, and not at Highfield Road.
The start of the season should have caused few concern for this Dons side. It is the strongest team that has ever been assembled in Milton Keynes, the league is weak compared to previous years, and after two play-off defeats under Karl Robinson, the players are desperate for nothing less than automatic promotion.
But some way, some how, Dons have managed to fall six points off the pace of a Tranmere side to have found the back of the net 25 times already, winning seven of their 10 games.
It doesn’t sound too bad, but when you look at the way Robinson’s men have played so far this season, you’d be hard pushed to find a period longer than 45 minutes where they have not been the better team, sometimes by a long way too. It just isn’t happening in front of goal.
“We created enough chances to win four or five more games,” said Robinson after the draw at the Ricoh Arena. “We conceded from a set-piece, but from there we were magnificent.
“They just couldn’t get near us. Our ball retention, wing play, getting the ball wide – it was excellent. We just couldn’t finish our chances.
“Daniel Powell had three, Charlie MacDonald had one, Dean Bowditch had two – I could sit here all night and list them all. But it’s not down to having bad players – they’re just having a barren spell.
“This is a very, very good MK Dons team that is just lacking a little bit of an edge in front of goal.
“People know where we’re going wrong. It’s so glaringly obvious. The players obviously have to put it right themselves, or we’re going to have to make serious changes. I back them to score goals. They did it last year.
“The front six that started the game was the same as last season when we scored more than 110 goals. Today, it just didn’t go in.
“I don’t know what it is. It might be confidence at times, but sometimes it just doesn’t bounce right either. Charlie’s chance got stuck under his feet, a player fell on the ball – it’s just bad luck.”
There is a frustrating feeling growing in the Cowshed. For all the possession, for all the passes, promising positions and crosses, Dons just aren’t making goalkeepers work enough.
It’s all well and good playing the best brand of football in the league, but ask Tranmere or Stevenage – often criticised for their style of play – if they care about that. The question is, will the cream rise to the top in the end?
At Coventry, keeper Joe Murphy was tested a handful of times, but he should have been the walking dead, trudging off the field at full time not only exhausted, but beaten too.
He was desperately unlucky that Stephen Gleeson’s long-range strike took a huge deflection on the way through – the dive to his right would probably have dealt with the initial shot, but he could do nothing but watch as the ball bounced into the opposite corner.
MacDonald hit the post in the first half, Bowditch nearly finished a brilliant move sparked by Gleeson but shot just wide, and Powell saw two efforts fly past the posts. The shots off target aren’t the problem though.
It’s the shots that don’t come that are causing the most unrest in the stands. For too long, fans have lamented watching their side get into a great position on the edge of the box, or even inside it, but rather than take a pot shot, someone has passed the ball away, the move has broken down, and the chance is gone.
And that happened all too often at the Ricoh. A bursting run from Bowditch didn’t result in a shot, but a pass to Luke Chadwick, who passed to Darren Potter – all of this still on the edge of the box. Rather than shoot, Potter took on his man, beat him, but still didn’t shoot and instead picked out Powell at the far post, but the ball was too high for the winger to get a decent connection and play petered out.
The best chance of the game fell to MacDonald on 65 minutes. After Dean Lewington’s penetrating run, Powell skinned three defenders and found himself clear through on goal. Drawing out keeper Murphy, he clipped the ball back across to MacDonald unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box. All it needed was a striker to lash it home.
But MacDonald hesitated, cutting back onto his left foot, allowing the Coventry defenders to flow back. Still MacDonald didn’t shoot. He faked to, before eventually getting the shot off, but it was straight at William Edjenguele who got the block in.
It is telling that the top scorer this season – and last season too – has come from the wing. Dean Bowditch was top scorer when he left Yeovil in June 2010 and took over the mantle at stadium:mk.
His hat-trick against Bury in the 4-1 win at Gigg Lane two weeks ago was a sign that, when things do go right, Dons are neigh-on unbeatable.
And the signs have been there all season. Against Northampton and Walsall, Dons created the best part of 50 chances in front of goal. But the most telling statistic is that they didn’t score a single goal – and instead lost back-to-back games 1-0.
MacDonald has hit the back of the net just twice so far, with summer recruit Ryan Lowe netting once – last season he scored 16 times at Sheffield Wednesday. And while Robinson has experimented with Alan Smith leading the line, he looks more accustomed to the midfield role Sir Alex Ferguson envisaged for the Yorkshireman.
There is no finite answer to Dons’ struggles in front of goal, no reason for things to have dried up. Ian Wright and Mick Harford scored hundreds of goals between them in their careers, and that experience must surely be beneficial out on the training pitch.
Whether it’s confidence or luck, one, the other, or both, must change before the season ebbs away and we are left looking back at what might have been – or worse still, another play-off semi-final.