After what can only be described as a rollercoaster season last campaign, the pressure is back on for the Dons to maintain their momentum and begin life brightly back in League One.
There were both highs and lows last year – from the 4-2 defeat at Morecambe to the dramatic 1-0 victory over Mansfield on the final day – and perhaps this year MK Dons fans will be looking for more stability in their side to cement their place back in the third tier ahead of a promotion-searching campaign over the next few years.
Strong additions as well as holding onto other key players has certainly put Paul Tisdale in a good position moving into August. Transfers were done early allowing the squad time to gel throughout pre-season, something that comes as a breath of fresh air after years of Karl Robinson panic signings.
Having been criticised for not properly investing after the Dons’ previous promotion to the Championship, Pete Winkelman has certainly backed his manager this time round and given Tisdale the opportunity to bring some top names to MK1.
Rhys Healey is of course this summer’s marquee signing. Moving from Cardiff for an estimated £200,000 fee, the 24-year-old returns to the club where he netted 8 times in 18 league games between August and January, in doing so becoming a fans’ favourite at Stadium:MK and earning himself a chance at Premier League football with his parent club.
But it’s not just Healey’s goals that will make him such an important player in Tisdale’s squad – his all-round-play is superb, consistently tracking back and putting pressure on opposition defenders, an ability to precisely hit cross-field passes under pressure, a frightening turn of pace that scared the daylights out of many defenders last season.
The potential of Hiram Boateng’s arrival should also not be underestimated – the physical ball-winning midfielder has impressed throughout pre-season so far, not just for netting in both an in-house friendly and against Oxford City, but also his energy and enthusiasm in midfield to break up opposition plays and set his own team up to attack quickly on the counter.
Regan Poole brings stability to a defence that was regularly torn to shreds last season. Favouring a 5-man defence utilising Dean Lewington and Callum Brittain as wing-backs, Tisdale appeared out of his depth when faced with a centre-half injury crisis which saw him forced into moving to a flat-back-four. The addition of another top-quality defender, able to play across the line, will allow more stability as the Dons step up into a far superior division.
Questions marks will however be raised over the addition of Joe Mason – previously without a club since January – who has yet to show in pre-season why Tisdale chased his signature. The former Championship hitman had disappeared from the footballing radar over the past few years after disappointing spells with Burton, Colorado Rapids and Portsmouth, but given the right guidance and a run of games there is nothing to say that the Plymouth Argyle graduate wouldn’t be able to make his mark in League One.
On the flipside of the coin, Chuks Aneke’s loss will certainly be felt by the whole squad. A player who offered both physicality and skill, he will certainly not look out of place in the Championship with new club Charlton. Whilst a vocal minority of the fanbase voiced their displeasure at Aneke attempting to earn a move elsewhere last summer, the Arsenal graduate showed a top level of professionalism in staying and giving his all to the side to see them over the promotion line.
What we’ve seen so far…
Whilst I’m not one for taking pre-season results seriously, there have been some good signs.
The 5-1 win over Brackley was an excellent display across the board. A strong lineup saw the Dons revert to their a 3-5-2 – Agard and Bowery the strike duo – with Callum Brittain putting in an excellent showing on the right -hand side, seemingly playing as a wing-back but evidently spent far more time in the opposing half. Stuart Moore started in goal ahead of Lee Nicholls – it will be interesting to see whether Tisdale gives Moore further opportunities this season after having displaced Nicholls for a few games back in January.
From what I’ve heard, the Welwyn Garden City showing was far less impressive – described as “the most boring 90 minutes I’ve seen” by one of my friends, the Dons scraped through thanks to a Jordan Houghton free-kick midway through the second half. Former midfielder Ben Reeves featured as a trialist whilst he trains with the Dons as a free-agent – potentially another incoming?
Youth to watch…
18-year-old Dylan Asonganyi certainly has a point to prove this year and will be looking to work his way into the first-team squad.
A fast, strong and intelligent attacker, Asonganyi has a distinct direct style of play and will drive at defences with his rapid dribbling. Having made a handful of appearances last season, including a goal against a Charlton Athletic XI in the Carabao Cup alongside a start in the league against Bury, the teenager certainly has Tisdale’s backing and will be looking to capitalise on that over the coming months.
Sam Nombe also has the potential to break into the team – slightly more experienced than Asonganyi at the age of 20, the Croydon-born forward has learned from his loan spells and will be hoping to earn himself an opportunity from the bench. Similarly, fast, strong and direct with his style of play, he can certainly bring that added air of unpredictability when needing to break down a side late on.
Whilst some seem keen to get ahead of themselves and predict a double promotion, à la Luton, I’d personally say that a mid-table finish would be very acceptable as well as the most likely outcome.
The current team is clearly a project – Tisdale isn’t looking to bring in instant success at the risk of the club’s stability, instead wanting to build a side that will be able to challenge in a handful of years when the time is right. Young prospects such as Poole, Houghton, Healey and McGrandles will certainly help achieve that.
Martin Atherton – The MK Way Blog