Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
Promotion-chasing Milton Keynes Dons have an opportunity to complete a third consecutive win on Saturday, when they welcome Newport County to Buckinghamshire.
Crisis, what crisis?
A run of seven defeats in 10 league games appeared to have massively hindered to MK Dons’ automatic promotion hopes, but the club have responded defiantly with 1-0 and 3-2 wins at Newport and Carlisle respectively.
January recruit Jake Hesketh has made a huge impact and, while chairman Pete Winkelman might perhaps have been more proactive in his mid-season backing for Paul Tisdale, he should be credited for loaning in the Southampton midfielder.
Hesketh, part of Burton’s impressive EFL Cup run to the semi-finals, provides energy in the press, quality in possession and admirable versatility.
Equally, Tisdale should be applauded for making several brave switches.
Goalkeeper Lee Nicholls was dropped after a very poor performance in the 3-2 home defeat to Swindon, with Stuart Moore faring well since replacing the ex-Wigan man.
Plus, Jordan Houghton had been a constant during the strong pre-Christmas form but he has since been replaced by the more physical Ousseynou Cisse while the selfless Conor McGrandles has moved to a more suitable central position, with Alex Gilbey handed an advanced role that allows him to press without inhibition.
Plus Chuks Aneke came on for the second half at Brunton Park and the link-up play between the enigmatic wide forward and top goalscorer Kieran Agard came back into prominence in the victory; considering how influential they have been in the first half of the campaign, that is a huge plus.
Over the last five games, MK Dons have averaged 2.42 Expected Goals (xGF) per game which is by far the best chance creation record in League Two, showing that they are back to their best.
Newport County lost 4-1 at home to Manchester City last Saturday teatime and the club can take confidence from the fact they stopped one of the best squads in world football from breaching them in the first half.
The Exiles produced a highly-spirited display with defenders Regan Poole, returning to the club on loan from Manchester United, captain Mickey Demetriou and stalwart Mark O’Brien putting in strong performances.
It is great that Newport were able to put a goal past City and Padraig Amond certainly has a memory to tell his grandchildren.
As well as Newport did to produce a competitive display however, one wonders how the glamour clash will affect their preparations for league action with only a top half berth left to play for.
Of course, it did not hinder them in Tuesday’s 4-1 win at Notts County and they deserve immense credit for a fully deserved victory.
Eventually however, a run of nine games in 28 days could sap energy levels.
Last season, Michael Flynn’s Amber Army averaged 1.48 points per game before they exited the FA Cup and 1.2 after, which shows that the mental and physical energy which a successful cup run demands can sometimes take it’s toll later in the campaign.
Flynn bolstered his attacking options by adding enigmatic technician Ben Kennedy, speedster Adebayo Azeez and exuberant runner Harry McKirdy in January.
However, it remains to be seen whether the manager can incorporate wide man Kennedy into his favoured 3-5-2 system whilst Azeez and McKirdy have faced fitness issues, with the latter only entrusted with a six-minute cameo last time out, meaning a heavy workload for Amond and target man Jamille Matt.
And, despite Newport’s brilliance on Trentside, fatigue had been evident in their previous four league performances, during which they had posted the second-worst shot data in League Two with an Expected Goals Ratio (xGR) of 33.84%.
Hosts MK Dons, therefore, look well-placed to complete three consecutive league wins for the first time since October.
MK Dons to win 20/23