Tisdale’s Milton Keynes Dons on the march

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 06 November 2018, 09:44

Milton Keynes Dons appear serious promotion contenders in League Two, so Gabriel Sutton has looked at how Paul Tisdale has turned things around in Buckinghamshire.

Positive vibes

Relegation in 2017-18 was a demoralizing experience for the club.

Tisdale, who took charge following Exeter City’s Play-Off Final defeat in May, knew that it was important for this season’s squad to be comfortable communicating with one another.

He therefore arranged a pre-season tour of Spain; July trips abroad are not especially common in League Two, partly for budgetary reasons, but this one was crucial in terms of bonding.

Because the group were at close quarters with one another outside training hours, they struck up good relationships and developed a level of intimacy that is perhaps necessary over a gruelling league campaign.

Summer recruits, such as midfielders Jordan Houghton and Ryan Watson, for example, were able to get to know their new teammates very quickly and thus did not feel like newbies once the season began.

Moore-Taylor stars

One of the first things Tisdale did, after being appointed manager in the summer, was bring Jordan Moore-Taylor with him from Exeter City.

Moore-Taylor, who came through the academy at St James’s Park and was present for six of Tisdale’s 12 years in charge, rejected various attractive offers elsewhere to team up with his long-serving boss once again.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the 24-year-old has been one of the star signings of the League Two season to date.

Although Moore-Taylor is not particularly tall, he has great upper-body strength and his excellent reading of the game keeps him one step ahead of his opponents.

His ability on the ball helps MK Dons exert control and at times allows him to deputize in central midfield, as we saw in the 1-0 home win over his former club back in August.

Plus, Moore-Taylor’s organizational qualities means he can instruct the likes of Joe Walsh and Baily Cargill, the latter joining an EFL club permanently for the first time following a series of loan moves from Bournemouth.

Tactical consistency

11 MK Dons players have already hit double-figures for league starts this season.

That shows that, very quickly, Paul Tisdale has identified his best players and has a core on whom he can rely.

Of course, he has made occasional tweaks. Until mid-October, we usually saw a 3-5-2 system with Alex Gilbey being the most advanced of three central midfielders.

More recently, Gilbey has moved deeper at the expense of midfield technician Ryan Watson, to incorporate three forwards in Kieran Agard, Chuks Aneke and Rhys Healey in something more akin to 3-4-3.

Because these formation alterations have been made without sweeping changes to the personnel, they have been easy for players to manage and that is reflected in results.

Technical wing-backs

In pre-season, it looked like the wing-back roles would be handed to Callum Brittain and Mitch Hancox; the former an academy graduate who showed flashes of promise in 2017-18, the latter a summer signing from Macclesfield.

The duo are both very energetic and thus able to get up and down the pitch quickly.

Instead, however, Tisdale has favoured George Williams and Dean Lewington.

Neither are particularly quick, but Williams offers intelligent movement off the ball, Lewington is a set piece specialist while both hold their positions well and keep possession efficiently.

Ball retention, in many ways, sums up Tisdale’s philosophy: he wants his teams to be cool, calculated and to attack when space arises without taking unnecessary risks.

Front-three firing

We saw in MK Dons’ 1-0 win over Northampton last month that Rhys Healey, Chuks Aneke and Kieran Agard can cause problems with their mobility and ability to inter-change.

On that occasion, the MK couldn’t quite find their shooting boots and thus missed a host of presentable opportunities, but promptly re-discovered them for Saturday’s 4-0 thumping of Crawley.

Healey, on loan from Cardiff, always looks lively on the left of a front three and is a willing runner.

Aneke, who featured for Arsenal as a youngster, is an enigmatic talent that Tisdale appears to be taming; the 25-year-old offers skill and craft cutting in from the right.

Kieran Agard, who has won promotions from the division above with Rotherham and Bristol City, is a very capable goalscorer at this level and so it is proving, with four in his last seven.

The vibrant trio are a real threat, especially when opposing teams leave gaps in central areas.

Discipline demanded

Tisdale wants discipline from every non-striker in his teams, evidenced by the fact that Healey, Aneke and Agard account for 18 of MK’s 24 league goals.

Another two have come from Robbie Simpson, a striker who has not featured too much due to injury, while even solitary goals for midfielders Ousseynou Cisse and Ryan Harley came when they were given advanced roles.

Otherwise, holding midfielder Jordan Houghton scored one long-range strike in the 1-1 draw at Mansfield and defender Joe Walsh bagged following Lewington’s corner in another 1-1 draw, at Swindon.

Very rarely are non-forwards given the licence to break into advanced areas and while that can sometimes hinder them in the attacking third, especially during a September period that brought about five goals from five and no wins.

Equally though, it is hard to see MK having the best defensive record in League Two – 10 conceded in 17 – and losing only to an injury-time goal at Lincoln without such discipline.

With solid foundations, Milton Keynes Dons could enjoy a swift return to the third-tier.

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