League Two Final Day: MK Dons Or Mansfield For Promotion?6 min read
Injury-hit MK Dons
If MK Dons ultimately miss out on promotion, to a Mansfield Town side level on points with them going into the final day, they will have been very unlucky in many ways.
In the first half of the season, there was not a great deal to separate themselves and runaway champions Lincoln – but that was with a fully fit first XI.
December though saw key defender Jordan Moore-Taylor pick up an injury, from which he has never fully recovered, which is where the problems started.
Paul Tisdale was perceived to be strengthening generously at centre-back in the summer, when he added Moore-Taylor, Bailey Cargill and Mathieu Baudry to a squad that already had Joe Walsh.
In fact, each of the above players have suffered injuries, forcing Tisdale recently to switch from the three-at-the-back setup he has used for much of the campaign to 4-3-3 – with January recruit Russ Martin and midfielder by trade Jordan Houghton as the two centre-backs.
Plus, Alex Gilbey is a hugely influential midfielder who has also been ruled out through injury.
Gilbey provides the verve, energy and dynamism to get MK going whenever they hit a lull – we saw last season the dangers of him not being in the squad – and once again the ex-Colchester man’s absence has coincided with poor form, with seven points from six games since his latest lay-off hardly helping the promotion push.
Earlier in the season, Tisdale’s side were winning games through a controlled, disciplined, possession-based structure in which every player knew their jobs.
Now, it appears as though they are trying to win games via moments of individual brilliance from Jake Hesketh or Chuks Aneke, combined with perhaps clinical finishing from Kieran Agard.
MK Dons have undoubtedly been among League Two’s best four teams across the whole season – but they are not in the best position right now and in-form Tranmere look potentially ominous opposition in a Play-Off Final if they got there.
If Mansfield Town’s results had gone according to their shot data, they would have been promoted in mid-April like Lincoln.
The Stags average 1.63 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.96 Against (xGA), giving them a ratio of 62.93}; the best in League Two.
And yet, David Flitcroft’s troops go into the final day needing to avoid defeat to secure promotion.
In the first half of the campaign, Mansfield lost just once in a 24-game sequence that saw them draw 12 times; they created more than enough chances to turn a lot of those stalemates into victories.
Now, though, they have lost six in 14 – Carlisle, Yeovil, Crewe, Port Vale, Notts County, Stevenage, Newport and Oldham are among the teams to beat them in 2019, all of whom sitting outside the top seven with two in the relegation zone.
If the Nottinghamshire outfit had only gone to Meadow Lane and matched their opponents for effort, or scored from at least one of their 19 shots against the Glovers, then got an extra point from one of those other games, they would be knee-deep in bubbly by now.
A big problem has been finding the right balance in the moments at which they have to defend.
David Flitcroft is keen to incorporate a lot of players who are good with the ball – he has recently experimented with technicians Jacob Mellis and Jorge Grant in the same XI to mixed results, before the latter was replaced by Willem Tomlinson.
Those struggles leaves Mansfield reliant on 37-year-old ball-winner Neal Bishop to hold things together in the defensive phase.
Plus, the injury to athletic right-back Hayden Whites has been hugely problematic, because they do not have another player with similar qualities.
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Speedy Hamilton to race in?
MK Dons and Mansfield are level on points in fourth and third respectively – but the away side’s superior goal difference means they need to merely avoid defeat to secure automatic promotion.
Because the onus is on the hosts to win, it is possible that they will have to commit numbers forward at some stage.
Mansfield forward CJ Hamilton is one of the quickest players in League Two and is likely to relish the extra space, making him an appealing anytime goalscorer punt at 12/5.
Tip: CJ Hamilton to score anytime