Dons have to roll with the punches

Karl Robinson (Manager) (Milton Keynes Dons) and Aitor Karanka (Manager) (Middlesbrough FC) shake hands at the end of the game during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes Dons at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough, England on 12 September 2015. Photo by George Ledger. PSI-0876-0048
Karl Robinson (Manager) (Milton Keynes Dons) and Aitor Karanka (Manager) (Middlesbrough FC) shake hands at the end of the game during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes Dons at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough, England on 12 September 2015. Photo by George Ledger. PSI-0876-0048

Two games, four goals conceded, one scored, no points, 16th in the Championship table. Should Dons be hitting the panic button? In a word: no.

Few would have been so bold as to back Dons against Middlesbrough or against Burnley, especially on the road, so the 2-0 and 2-1 defeats respectively came as little surprise looking in from the outside. The matches themselves though tell a different story.

Three of the four goals they conceded on their travels were moments of magic. Stewart Downing’s 70th minute opener at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday relieved frustration growing around Teeside, before David Nugent pounced on a loose Kyle McFadzean pass to put the result beyond doubt.

And against Burnley, Dons looked arguably the better side against the former Premier League Clarets until Sam Vokes’ stellar strike just after the half hour put them ahead.

Despite Carl Baker’s header on the stroke of half time, there was no stopping George Boyd’s unstoppable volley four minutes into the second half to put the result beyond their reach.

There’s no denying Dons are short two, maybe three players in their bid to compete fully with teams fighting in the upper echelons.

Try as they might, neither Sam Gallagher nor Simon Church have scored yet, and though the Welsh international has been unlucky to twice hit the woodwork, they count for nothing in cold, harsh reality. They need a player with killer instinct; a player who can carve a goal from nothing; ultimately a player who will cost them a lot of cash.

There is also a lack of a midfield driving force. Samir Carruthers’ hit -and-mostly-miss form so far has shown glimpses of last season’s heights, which is a big sign of promise. But the lack of a Dele Alli character to play the Dele Alli role of last season is stunting the creation of chances in front of goal, hindering Gallagher and Church’s opportunities to test opposing goalkeepers.

The third key missing element is something more physical. Alli was able to brush players off the ball, barge his way past people and act as the midfield bully. They miss a midfield general.

But missing a player valued, now anyway, at well over the £5 million Tottenham bought him for is a statement of the painfully obvious. And these players don’t grow on trees either.

So given Dons’ shortcomings in key areas on the pitch at the moment, the performances against Middlesbrough and Burnley significantly better than the scorelines reflect.

Boro were frustrated until a former England international pulled off a moment of genius, and the team able to drop £9 million on a new striker - who incidentally came unstuck against David Martin’s ability to read him like a book one-on-one - needed two wonder-goals of their own to put Dons down for the count.

In the cold light of day, last season has to be forgotten. Gone are the swashbuckling attacks, battering teams from whistle to whistle, with a goal or three inevitable. In their place: stern defensive displays twinned with ruthless finishing and defeats along the way.

Dons weren’t meant to go to these places and pick up points. But these also aren’t the teams Dons are looking to compete with this season. The fact that for long periods they can match teams on the top shelf of the Championship shows they aren’t far off, not far at all.

And it’s why Robinson isn’t frustrated, why the players aren’t downbeat about their chances, and why fans shouldn’t be disillusioned with the league position.

This Championship battle is only just beginning.