It’s nice when you can control your own fate, and in a relegation battle having games left to play against the teams around you is the closest you can get to that.
So with eleven games to go, having all four of the teams immediately around us to play (Charlton, Shrewsbury, Fleetwood and of course Wimbledon) feels like an opportunity. You’d think that winning this run of games would see us reach the middle of April feeling, if not home and dry, a little more comfortable with our league survival. That run – which admittedly also includes Sunderland and Rotherham in the middle – starts on Saturday with a visit to Plough Lane.
How confident should we feel? Wimbledon’s home form has been, frankly, awful. They have won only twice this season. Only Crewe and Gillingham have worse form at home. On top of that, The Dons haven’t won at all since early December. In contrast, our away form has been largely positive and we are scoring more goals away from home than we’re expected to (1.31 vs an xG of 1.23). I’d even say we are on a bit of a “run”; last weekend’s game showed how the team can come together and Tuesday was always going to be a hard game against an opposition that, if not polished, were well drilled in their attack.
There are downsides though. We’ve struggled a lot against teams in the lower half of the table. It’s tempting to say we are trying to play the sort of football that the top teams are playing. And that those sorts of tactics don’t work well against the “dig in and hope for a bit of luck” teams. In fact, it’s not only tempting, I believe it is true. The problem is, our approach hasn’t quite come together consistently within games and that has left too many “lucky” chances for these teams.
It is more than fair to say that Wimbledon are playing for draws and flukes. They have eleven draws in seventeen home matches. It is not hard to see how they will approach Saturday’s game.
I’m expecting Wimbledon to line up with four at the back and play relatively deep. Don’t expect them to press our backline during build-up play and therefore you are likely to see lots of passing around and playing out from the back. From recent games, The Dons seem weaker against quick breaks and players running into the box. So this could be a great game for someone like Brooke Norton-Cuffy to cause the defence some trouble.
Going forward, they are not a quick team. Their build-up play is leisurely and tends to include a semi-long ball from the middle of their half. One thing I noticed is their front players will push forward but the midfield will take a little longer to get up the pitch and arrive in the box. Whilst it looks to let them down from an attacking perspective it does occasionally create unexpected space on the edge of the box as the defence draws in. So players like Marquis tracking back will be key to defend against this.
The Dons do like a header. Watch out for their crosses being aimed head-height in the box. As a sit-back-and-get-lucky sort of team, they also rely on set pieces. These look well-drilled and could be a bit of risk for us given our struggles this year.
A familiar face in The Dons’ lineup will be Alex Woodyard. Our player of the season 16/17 as we won promotion back to the Football League. You’ll remember him leaving us in 2018 to join Peterborough in League One before moving to Wimbledon in 2020. It’s always nice to see our alumni players playing at high levels, although of course fingers crossed for an off game at the weekend! One former Imp we won’t see is Ollie Palmer, who jumped ship to Wrexham in the January transfer window.
In terms of the game itself; watch the midfield pairing of Luke McCormick (six goals, six assists) and Jack Rudoni (eight goals, three assists). Rudoni in particular is good at getting his head on the ball and from snippets I can see he is a very progressive player who likes to make sure he ends up deep in the box from midfield to steal a poachers goal.
Our home encounter this season, back in October, was a bit of a low point in what in retrospect was a pretty positive month results-wise. It was our only loss, and I recall it being a frustrating game after The Dons scored within the first five minutes and we saw both Poole and Scully off with injuries. Prior to this season, we’ve generally had a good time against Wimbledon, though, with a variety of draws and wins over the last few years.
Before our recent league clashes, we last played Wimbledon in the 17/18 FA Cup where they knocked us out in the first round. Now, someone might prove me wrong but I believe that is the game is the first time we ever faced The Dons in their current guise. Whilst MK Dons have been a regular opponent over the years, as a new club AFC Wimbledon spent the first part of this century climbing up through non-league football until their promotion into the EFL in 10/11. Of course, that was the season that saw us drop in the opposite direction. We missed out on facing them after that as they were promoted to league one the season before our own return to league two.
It’s safe to say I am nervous about Saturday’s game. It’s obviously an important six-pointer, and it’s too hard to call whether we will carry form into the game. For me, the big risk is that a draw, which I expect them to continue to aim for, could be as bad as a loss at this stage. We need to take some risks and for a player or two to produce some magic!