Milton Keynes Dons 1-0 Mansfield Town Six Things: Tisdale masterclass key to promotion decider

Paul Tisdale –

Milton Keynes Dons returned to League One at the first attempt thanks to a win over direct promotion rivals Mansfield Town, as David Wheeler’s second-minute strike sufficed in the only goal of the contest. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Early double-blow for Mansfield

Mansfield needed to avoid defeat to secure promotion, but their upper-hand deserted them in the opening exchanges. Dean Lewington’s corners caused all sorts of problems in the first half and the 34-year-old’s opening gambit was turned home from close-range by Wheeler, as the visitors looked short of a defensive presence when dealing with dead ball scenarios. To make matters worse, Matt Preston went off following a collision with goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, which disrupted their balance. Alex MacDonald’s role at right wing-back was only likely to be effective if he had a right-sided centre-back overlapping him but, with the more limited Kristian Pearce taking Preston’s place after Ben Turner came on, there was nobody with the subtlety of mind to sweep up second balls and link-up with MacDonald.

Tisdale’s system change vindicated

Injuries at the back had forced Paul Tisdale to abort the 3-4-3 he has deployed for much of the campaign and switch to 4-3-3 with Russ Martin partnering Jordan Houghton at centre-back. Utility man George Williams though had proved his fitness in two previous substitute appearances, enabling Tisdale to use him as a wide centre-back and revert to 3-4-3; Williams’ intelligence and positional awareness made a huge difference. Houghton, who moved into midfield, intercepted loose balls superbly, as did Conor McGrandles, with the duo tidying up effectively to stop the visitors bringing striking-duo Tyler Walker and CJ Hamilton into play.

Stags’ lack of width

Towards the end of the first half, David Flitcroft switched from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3 with ineffectual midfielder Willem Tomlinson replaced by striker Danny Rose. The latter’s selflessness and spring was crucial to at least getting hold of diagonal balls from deep, but the reliance on Rose was almost symptomatic of a bigger problem: a lack of width. MK Dons had a compact defensive structure which relinquished space in wide areas, which Mansfield did not use. Mal Benning’s deliveries from deep were below-par but shortly after he was taken off, Mansfield had auxiliary wing-backs playing on arguably the wrong sides. CJ Hamilton, on the left, is right-footed and had few opportunities to attack the flank directly; technician Jorge Grant, on the right, is also right-footed but does not have the pace to attack on the outside and thus ran into Houghton and McGrandles-blockaded cul-de-sacs.

Late pressure

Mansfield’s late pressure was not lacking intensity, but it only came from diagonal balls and thus MK defended with relative comfort. Rose came alive in the final five minutes; one turn and shot was spilled by Nicholls temporarily, moments later he appealed for a penalty following an alleged foul by the imperious Joe Walsh, before one headed from a right-sided cross lacked power. MK Dons had opportunities to counter-attack as Chuks Aneke showed his creative qualities between the lines, but the hardworking Kieran Agard was not quite at his clinical best.

Play-Offs await Flitcroft’s troops

Although it’s possible that the early setbacks threw Mansfield off-kilter, it was hard to avoid the feeling that they looked disjointed. The Stags had no clear strategy for creating clear cut chances, they were merely depending on the possibility that one moment of individual quality would send them up. In fact, that moment did not occur and thus Mansfield will need to win promotion via the Play-Offs, with a trip to Newport coming up on Thursday night. Although dejected now, the Nottinghamshire outfit will need to re-energize themselves sufficiently to stand up to the raucous atmosphere-inspired early barrage that surely awaits them at Rodney Parade.

League One beckons for MK

Paul Tisdale deserves immense credit for leading MK Dons to promotion. In the first half of the season, it appeared that his side might go up via a more comfortable course but waters became choppier due to Rhys Healey’s mid-season exit, injuries to several defenders including Jordan Moore-Taylor, then influential midfielder Alex Gilbey. Throughout all the chaos, Tisdale has remained a calming presence and that was crucial to MK not only producing a tactically-shrewd game plan here, but executing it with such clear focus. MK have been among the top four best-performing teams in League Two all season – and they thoroughly deserve their promotion.