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This time Dons columnist Dominic Damesick looks back at a disappointing defeat to Stevenage and the challenge of a trip to Crawley Town.
It is going to be difficult to not simply repeat what I wrote last week, to not sound like a broken record. The Dons did not create enough clear-cut chances on Saturday, like last week, and somehow never seemed that likely to break a resolute Stevenage rearguard.
The side is worryingly devoid of pace and power going forward, with no winger capable of leaving his man for dead and no striker able to hold off six-foot-plus centre halves. Is it the system, is it the personnel?
Was it a mistake to loan out Jabo – who now has four goals in five games at Colchester – or is that a red herring? Whatever the cause of the problem, a problem does indeed exist, and Saturday’s defeat left the Dons six points adrift of the automatic promotion places.
It is too early in the season, and the table is too tight, to feel that the Dons have already blown their promotion chances, but something really does need to change. In Saturday’s game the first goal was always going to be absolutely crucial. If the Dons had scored first they could have relied on their midfield to dictate the game, keeping possession and slowly sapping Stevenage’s energy and morale in the process.
However, it was Stevenage who scored first, which allowed Gary Smith’s men to sit back and frustrate the Dons, who struggled to fashion many clear-cut chances when faced with 10 men behind the ball. The side persisted with their patient football, and to their credit stretched the Stevenage back-line as best they could, with Luke Chadwick – especially in the second half –hugging the touch-line far more than last weekend.
The Dons certainly had strong spells, but failed to capitalise on such periods of domination, with set-pieces again a source of frustration. The delivery is often not good enough, and when it is, the team just does not have the height to take advantage. Oh, if only Charlie MacDonald could bring a stepladder with him!
For the fans, it is easy to start turning on the team and on the manager, but it is a temptation that must be avoided. Given what Karl Robinson has delivered in his first two seasons as a manager, and the tactical style and financial prudence with which he has achieved it, the fans would do well to trust him when he states that he still believes in the quality of his players.
Most of the players, too, have little to prove to the fans in terms of their commitment to the cause, several of them having turned a blind eye to better offers elsewhere to try and complete the project they have embarked upon at this football club: promotion to the Championship.
It always seems somewhat unfair to equate a disappointing performance to a lack of effort, and whatever shortcomings the side had on Saturday, desire to win was not one of them. It is also fair to say that Robinson could really do with a break in luck right now: injuries, officials and the bounce of the ball all seem to have conspired against him, and whilst such factors (or excuses!) cannot solely account for the Dons’ struggles in the first quarter of the season, they certainly do not help Robinson’s cause.
Fourth-placed Crawley Town will provide another stern test on Tuesday night. The match comes on the back of the Dons’ first home defeat in the league this season, which took the side’s winless run to four matches.
Furthermore, Robinson’s preparations will be hampered by injury concerns over several players, alongside the disappointing news that Stephen Gleeson is likely to be absent from the side for quite some time with a broken foot. Yet, it is this type of game, when the odds seem firmly stacked against a side, which can truly test a team’s promotion credentials.
Think back to the away game at Bournemouth in August, when the 10-men from Milton Keynes fought back to claim a draw in very difficult circumstances. The Dons need more performances like that one, of standing strong and brave in the face of adversity, if they are to turn this season around.
The squad has proved time and again that they have technical ability in abundance; that they can play aesthetically pleasing football, with touches of panache and class throughout the side. Yet, they need, perhaps, to be mentally stronger.
To have that ability to win by any means necessary, even if the football is not the purest and the side is not at its strongest, in terms of personnel. The Dons require a mental toughness that can supplement, and compliment, their attractive style of play.
Of course the Dons also need pace and height and a goalscorer! Yet, the personnel with those attributes are unlikely to have been acquired before Tuesday evening, so for the Dons to take points from Crawley will require them to have the mentality of winners. Robinson has got his team playing, stylistically, like a top side; can he get them to think like one too?
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