Preview: MK Dons

There have been several occasions this season where we’ve dominated games and not gotten the rewards, last Saturday’s win over Swindon Town was not one of them. We were out-shot, out-played and there were two successive goal-line scrambles, but the quality of finishing from our strikers rendered the other facts about the game moot – long may that last.

The attention now turns back to the FA Cup, as we look to make it into the Fifth Round of the FA Cup for the first time in nine years. Given what happened in the previous round against Premier League Stoke, as well as our general good form of late, there is a level of expectation now that this will be another memorable occasion in front of a sell-out away following, placing a level of pressure on our players to perform against what are still higher-division opponents.

Possible Line-Up

Aside from the occasion itself, this game is an opportunity for the players to show that they can perform in the division above.. Is Michael Doyle mobile enough to impose himself on a League One midfield? Has our defence benefitted from playing against a lower quality of striker? Is Marc McNulty clinical enough to be effective against better opponents? Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, this could be a game that informs Mark Robins decision-making over the summer were we to achieve promotion.

There seems little reason to change the team up for this game, albeit this is an XI that has lost two of its last three away games. The likes of Rod McDonald, Peter Vincenti and Josh Barrett are all seemingly pushing for selection, but it seems like they’ll have to content themselves for a role on the bench, with the latter two offering Mark Robins an opportunity to change things up in the second-half.

Last Time We Met

Our last trip to Milton Keynes came early into Mark Robins’ return to the club, with the team struggling for confidence and the manager yet to identify the personnel or formation with which to build the team back up from. It was pretty much a non-event against an MK Dons side who even in March knew they had nothing left to play for. A goal early in the second-half from MK midfielder Stuart O’Keefe was enough for the hosts to beat a goal-shy Sky Blues.

However, we did play MK Dons back in pre-season – in a ‘home’ game in Nuneaton – where two Marc McNulty penalties handed us the win. Given the amount of player turnover between the two sides since last March, this game arguably provides a better indication of how these sides match up, with the massive caveat that it was only a pre-season friendly.

How Are They Doing?

MK Dons invested fairly significantly over the summer in Robbie Neilson’s rebuilding project at the club, following the ending of the fairly successful Karl Robinson era the previous October. Neilson moved on most of the old guard at the club to bring in a combination of quick and powerful players, many of whom had experience of playing well at League One level or in Scotland.

However, the Neilson project never really took off in any meaningful way at the club. The Scot – a friend and former team-mate of Steven Pressley who had a brief trial spell with the Sky Blues – struggled to get the best out of the talented squad at his disposal, often playing a far too slow style of football that has seen MK score a measly 29 goals in 28 league games. After losing 2-1 at Northampton last week, MK Dons dropped into the bottom four in League One and saw Neilson handed his P45.

MK Dons owner Pete Winkelman has been swift in appointing Neilson’s successor, former England under-16 coach Dan Michiche. Without any previous managerial experience in senior men’s football, Michiche’s appointment appears to be an attempt to harken back to the Karl Robinson era, although is a much bigger risk given the club’s current predicament.

Possible Line-Up

Michiche inherits a strong squad though, one which should be far too good to end the season in League One’s bottom four. In Ethan Ebanks-Landell in defence, Ousseynou Cisse in midfield, and attacking options including Chuks Aneke, Osman Sow, Ike Ugbo and Robbie Muirhead, MK Dons are a physically imposing side, regardless of form. However, they also have pace and skill in the form of Aidan Nesbitt out wide, full-back Callum Brittain, and striker Kieran Agard, as well as midfield composure via Ed Upson and Alex Gilbey. It would be wrong to assume that MK Dons are struggling in League One due to a lack of quality in their squad.

While Dan Michiche is a complete unknown as a manager, I would expect him to want to really take the game to us in his first game in charge, utilising the quality they have in midfield to dominate possession, while looking to overload us out wide and get crosses into the box for their powerful forwards. There is the potential for this game to be a real bloodbath for us if we’re not at it.

Prediction

This is game not only presents a decent opportunity to progress further in the FA Cup, but this being a big away day offers the chance to create some special memories in the process. However, we are still the lower-division side in this game and despite MK Dons relatively few league places above us in the pyramid, there is a clear gulf in quality and resource between the two clubs at this moment in time.

Playing as the underdog should suit the way Mark Robins prefers to set his teams up, and we have seen on several occasions this season that we tend to produce better results against a better quality of opposition.

What impact MK Dons’ manager Dan Michiche makes is the great unknown heading into this game, but I’m going to back us to win 1-0.

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Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

Preview: Sheffield United

We’re properly crap at the moment. We lost 3-1 to Southend at the weekend and it wasn’t even suprising. We’re heading into a game against one of the most in-form sides in the division, who also happen to be Sheffield United, it’s also going to be on a Thursday night for some reason, so no-one’s going to be there and we have a manager who doesn’t want to be there either.

The attempt to appoint Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink this week has signalled that we are actively looking for a new manager, which is something. How much we should be concerned that the talks ultimately fell through is probably something we’ll only really know when we finally know the identity of our next manager and how long it takes to get to that point.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This upcoming game against Sheffield United feels more like an obligation than it is an opportunity to give our season a shot in the arm. With the focus having shifted from Mark Venus salvaging his managerial hopes to ensnaring the next chump, the excuse for the players mentally not turning up for this game is already there. Something crazy would have to happen for Sheffield United not to win this game.

As for what team we’ll play, that continues to be anyone’s guess. If James Sterry is unavailable at right-back, Dion Kelly-Evans will continue in the side and will inevitably be targeted by a physical and experienced Sheffield United side. Dan Agyei’s consolation goal against Southend will probably see him continue in the side with Marvin Sordell out wide. Jodi Jones’ assist for Agyei’s goal seems like it will be enough for him to start this game. Lee Burge’s injury on Saturday could well see Reice Charles-Cook return in goal.

Last Time We Met

Following a sloppy away performance at Doncaster towards the end of last season, we headed into our previous meeting with Sheffield United knowing that the unlikely prospect of salvaging a play-off spot was past us. Against a Sheffield United side still harbouring their own faint play-off hopes we played an experimental 3-4-3 system featuring a front three of Fortuné, Lameiras and George Thomas with Stephen Hunt at wing-back, which somehow saw us fly out of the blocks to take an early 2-0 lead. A cumbersome Blades side laboured to get a goal back in the second-half, only for a swift counter-attacking move involving Jodi Jones and Aaron Phillips, finished by Ruben Lameiras, see us take a decisive 3-1 lead in the final minutes.

How Are They Doing?

As always seems to be the case at Bramall Lane, a disappointing season at this level saw a summer change in manager and most of the squad with the promise that this would be the year that they sorted it all out. Unlike the past five seasons though, this iteration of Sheffield United actually looks they’ve sorted it all out.

After a difficult start to the season, former Northampton manager and ex-Blades player Chris Wilder has turned Sheffield United into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. It hasn’t been that they’ve just lost one of their past 17 games and scored 37 goals in the process, it’s that they’ve absolutely dominated almost every game they’ve played during that period.

The early season jitters Sheffield United suffered came from a series of sloppy defensive errors which saw Chris Wilder act decisively in jettisoning left-back Chris Hussey and keeper George Long for the squad, bringing in the towering centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell from Wolves and keeper Simon Moore from Cardiff City and switching to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Not only have the changes seem to have eradicated the defensive weaknesses but they have made the Blades a more effective, dominant and attacking team overall.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty in the two wing-back positions have supplied energy, width and excellent delivery from wide areas. John Fleck and Paul Coutts have offered composure and penetration on the ball from the centre of the park to allow Mark Duffy, who has played almost his entire career as a winger, to flourish as a roving, in-your-face number 10.

Up front, Sheffield United have an array of options but have generally stuck with the energy of Matt Done alongside the pure finishing instincts of Billy Sharp. However, with Leon Clarke’s physicality and link-up play and the pace of Caolan Lavery to bring on from the bench, Chris Wilder has several ways in which he can change the game up should Plan A somehow fail to work.

Prediction

I cannot envision which circumstances would lead to victory for us in this fixture. Sheffield United are by far a better team than us in every area of the pitch and they are in excellent form. This game has a 4-0 loss written all over it.