Did anyone else shudder when they remembered it was Milton Keynes Dons up next for Plymouth Argyle? Granted, there isn’t nearly as much on the line this time around. And it’s true that the last encounter between the sides inspired a formation change for Steven Schumacher that thus far appears to be a masterstroke. But with all that said, Argyle were still thumped 5-0 by MK on the final day of last season. Those scars don’t just disappear.
I tend to remember that day feeling peculiar from the start. An ankle injury I picked up in the week prior meant I was already approaching the ground with a comically wonky walk. The nature of kick-off time meant the pre-match pints became post-match pints, the pre-match pasty became a pre-match bacon roll, and the football had managed to ruin a weekend before the clock struck three. I even missed my bus home for good measure.
However, having just taken you on a journey to this particularly murky corner of Memory Lane, allow me to bring some good news. MK are not the same team they were last season. Not by a long shot. The losses over the summer of Scott Twine and Harry Darling have been crippling, and whilst manager Liam Manning has tried to stick to his principles, it hasn’t quite worked out this season for a number of reasons.
Style of play
Perhaps due to panic at how their season has begun, MK have deployed a few different shapes so far this season. Recently they’ve settled on a 3-4-3, setting up in a very similar way to Argyle with one man up front (likely to be Will Grigg) and two creative players just off him.
Should they line up with three at the back, the defence has usually consisted of Warren O’Hora, Jack Tucker and one other. Occasionally that man is Dean Lewington, but more recently Zak Jules has got the nod. Jules has played the full 90 in each of MK’s last three games, opening his account for the season with a goal against Shrewsbury Town last weekend.
Though there’s no guarantee Manning will opt for three at the back. Having lost their last three, MK may well panic again and revert to the back four they used at the start of the season. The versatility of long-standing captain Lewington helps – he’s competent either at left back or one of a back three, and allows Manning to shuffle his defensive pack fluidly when required.
In midfield, I’d expect to see Josh McEachran start after recovering from an injury picked up in his side’s opening day clash with Cambridge United. It’s likely he’ll be alongside Bradley Johnson, a summer signing from Blackburn Rovers. Dawson Devoy has also been used in the middle, but is suspended for this one after being sent off for a bad tackle against Shrewsbury.
There are a few potential names for the positions behind the striker. Conor Grant (no, not that one) is one, and Matt Smith is another. But for me their best option in that area is Daniel Harvie. He has a goal and an assist thus far this season, having missed the first four games. Add in a team-high nine key passes, and it’s clear to me that he can be MK’s main threat playing behind Grigg.
Their general style of play can be defined in three words: passing, passing and passing. They rarely go long, they seldom cross and don’t regularly dribble. They’re very happy to keep the ball, wait patiently for openings and take advantage on the off chance an opportunity does arise. That’s a perfectly valid style of play when you have a relative genius in Twine to recognise and take advantage of those openings. Without him? It’d be kind to say the jury is very much out.
I will just take a moment to expand on MK’s passing game, because it’s been one of few shining lights in an otherwise bleak season for Manning’s side.
Whilst their passing isn’t always the most threatening, they are one of the most comfortable sides in the division on the ball. Their pass success rate of 76% is third best in the league, with only Derby County and Ipswich Town holding better records. MK’s only outfield ever-present in O’Hara has completed 661 passes, also the third highest in the division, and MK have two more players in the top 25. Argyle for their part have none, with Dan Scarr coming in at 27th.
Their style of waiting for opportunities can mean that the shots they do take can be more dangerous than average. That can be reflected by their shot accuracy rate sitting at a very healthy 41%. It’s the second-best figure in the league, with only Wycombe Wanderers higher on 42%. MK’s shot conversion rate of 12% is also at the right end of that particular table.
Some more specific strengths can be boiled down to players who “on their day” can be decisive. Take Grigg, for instance. He may have failed to ignite in recent years, but has good memories of MK after a loan spell in 2014-15, and another in 2021, before re-joining the ranks this summer. He’s scored three goals since, including two near-identical finishes in a 4-0 win over Morecambe in August. He’s not involved often, but can be deadly when he is; nobody in the league has scored more goals with a better shot conversion rate.
Johnson is also a “dangerous on his day” sort of player. Now aged 35, whether he’s on top form often enough is certainly up for debate. But when he is, he can be very difficult to defend against. MK picked up their first win of the season against Port Vale. That was inspired by Johnson, with two goals from outside the box – including a superbly placed free kick – sealing a 2-1 win.
Considering their style of play, it may come as a surprise to know that one of MK’s significant strengths has been in the air. They’ve not played to it nearly enough, partaking in the second-fewest number of aerial duels in the league But they win 53% of them, which is good enough for sixth best. Perhaps we are starting to see some tactical tweaks to take advantage; in their first six games, MK averaged 57% possession. In their last six, they’ve averaged 49%.
MK’s deficiencies become blatantly obvious when you consider how a successful football team ought to operate.
You can throw as many stats at is as you like (and boy do I love to) to aid your decision making, but as a manager you have some very simple objectives. You need to set your team up to create as many goalscoring chances as possible, whilst limiting the goalscoring chances for your opponents. You may get unlucky at times, but keep that up throughout a season and you’ll be successful more often than not.
As it stands, MK are doing neither. Their xG stats go a long way to expressing the extent of their issues. With 6.24, Manning’s side have the lowest xG in the league, but they also have the sixth-highest xG against with 14.14. It shows MK are operating in exactly the opposite way a successful team ought to be. It’s no surprise that they find themselves dead last in our expected points table with 9.07 – Morecambe are the only other team in the league below 10.
There are a few other xG-related stats that truly blow my mind, particularly when you consider how strong MK were last season. Across their 12 games this term, they’ve had a higher xG than their opponents precisely once – that 4-0 win over Morecambe. And their game against Bristol Rovers on Tuesday was particularly damning, as they managed 0.1 xG across the game. 0.1! In 90 minutes! At home to Bristol Rovers! It’s a truly shocking level of attacking impotence.
Let’s also look at key passes. I mentioned Harvie had a team-high nine of them when looking at who may start, but that’s a paltry figure in reality. In terms of the league, it’s good enough to be joint-93rd best. Against Bristol Rovers they managed just three all game. To put that into context, Argyle had 13 against Accrington, and Joe Edwards managed three on his own. MK can keep the ball all they like – their passes are generally harmless.
All in all, they don’t create nearly enough openings for their style of play to be effective. It relies on them waiting patiently for openings and ensuring that, when they do shoot, they do so from a position that gives them the best chance of scoring. As such, it’s a damning indictment that they have taken just 53 shots from inside the box this season, the fewest of any team in the league. Again, that’s something that can be overlooked when you have Twine to blast a few in from range. Alas.
With all of that in mind, it’ll come as no surprise that MK don’t stack up well when looking at the volume of chances. They’ve had ten ‘big’ chances in their 12 games this season – only Wycombe have had fewer. But even that is inflated by the six they had in that Morecambe win. It’s almost certain they’d be bottom of the list had they played anyone but Derek Adams’ side that day.
I’ll just run you through a few more MK stats. They’re generally pushovers in ground duels, with only two teams in the league having a worse success rate. Only three teams have completed fewer dribbles. They are the only team in the league not to have picked up a single point from a losing position.
MK come into this one in 22nd place in the league. And honestly? I think they’re lucky to be that high.
We’ve all watched football before. We’ve all seen a team in great form play a team on a howler of a run, with the latter finding a way to come out on top. I’m very prepared for the words I’ve just written to come back and bite me on the backside.
That being said, I’d be disappointed if Argyle were anything other than dominant. If the Greens get off to a good start and score a couple of goals they could do some serious damage, but there’s always a chance the wounds from their last encounter with MK could play on their minds. I’ll therefore settle with a score I genuinely consider to be the midpoint of possibilities: 3-0 Argyle.