Top of a division for only the third time in four years, it may still be early in the season but eight games is a significant enough period for this run to be down to more than just good luck. Putting away a struggling AFC Wimbledon side at home with a minimum of fuss would be the kind of performance to demonstrate we can stick around at the top for a while longer.
However, you wouldn’t be a football fan if you weren’t looking at a game against a winless side without a little trepidation that the opposition are due a win. For Mark Robins, the challenge is to avoid any complacency the team might have about this game but also simultaneously being wary that our current league position and unbeaten status might engender a level of anxiety that it can be lost.
Despite another impactful substitute appearance from Callum O’Hare, it still seems likeliest that Mark Robins will stick with the set-up that has worked over the opening weeks of the season rather than risk unsettling things by adding a more overtly attack-minded option through the middle of the pitch.
However, with Liam Kelly out injured, the dynamic of the midfield has shifted and could perhaps do with the added directness of Callum O’Hare over what is a tidy but quite passive trio of Liam Walsh, Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke. Even with the consideration that AFC Wimbledon are likely to congest the areas of the pitch O’Hare wants to operate in, it seems that it is time to see how the Aston Villa loanee can impact a game from the start.
Elsewhere, the only other consideration is whether Brandon Mason should return to the side, having played 90 minutes with the under-23s on Friday afternoon. Sam McCallum’s confidence at left-back has grown exponentially over the past few games, although Mason still appears to be a step or two up in terms of quality over the youngster and it would be my preference to put him straight back into the starting XI.
Last Time We Met
It was a home game at the Ricoh Arena last season that we were expected to win, you should be familiar with the script.
We toiled against a resolute AFC Wimbledon side, who got off to the best possible start in taking the lead from their first attack of the game. After a laboured first-half, Luke Thomas scuffed an effort through a crowd of massed yellow AFC Wimbledon shirts to tie the scores.
The game continued in a familiar rhythm, until Tom Bayliss surged through the opposing defence late-on, teed up Jordy Hiwula, who dithered, passed the ball back to Bayliss, who was tackled, the ball then fell back to Hiwula, who scuffed a tame effort towards the same postcode of the goal that was easily cleared.
Manager – Wally Downes
What looked to be a nostalgic appointment of a former club legend last December, proved to be an inspired one as Downes – whose last managerial experience had been in 2004 – oversaw a truly great escape. Buoyed by some inspired loan additions, excellent defensive organisation, and no small amount of spirit, AFC Wimbledon fought back from being nine points from safety in early March to avoid relegation on the final day of the season.
Downes appears to have struggled to replicate last season’s intensity this time out. His side have still threatened in spells but have struggled to convert those good spells into 90 minute performances, with their attack struggling for form thus far.
Who To Look Out For?
Set up in a 5-3-2 system, AFC Wimbledon’s best performers this campaign have been their wing-backs, who have supplied attacking width and quality delivery into the opposing penalty area. Former Gillingham and Southend man, Luke O’Neill, is a proven performer at this level, with his set-piece deliveries especially outstanding. Nesta Guinness-Walker on the left has been close to a revelation after joining from non-league Met Police over the summer, with his raw athleticism allowing him to adapt to League One football with ease.
With further set-piece experts in midfield in Anthony Hartigan, Callum Reilly and, the returning to full fitness, Anthony Wordsworth making AFC Wimbledon a significant threat from dead-ball situations and crosses from open play.
Yet to get going this season, last season’s top-scorer Joe Pigott is nonetheless capable of scoring some great goals while generally being a handful to deal with physically. Brentford loanee Marcus Forss looks a player who will thrive on this side’s desire to get crosses into the box, while Ghana international striker Kwesi Appiah is capable of great moments but has lost a level of explosiveness to his game due to persistent injury issues.
Further back, AFC Wimbledon have a number of physically pre-possessing central defenders, with academy graduate Will Nightingale marshalling the back-line either at the heart of the back three or in a defensive midfield role. Additionally, there are high hopes that England youth international keeper Nathan Trott, on loan from West Ham, can go some way to replacing Aaron Ramsdale’s heroics in goal.
Areas To Exploit
The first step to dealing with this AFC Wimbledon side will be in both closing down crossing situations and dealing with the crosses that do come into the box. Mark Robins will have to make a decision between either asking the two furthest forward central midfielders to close down AFC Wimbledon’s wing-backs, risking leaving us open in the centre, or our wingers to do so, risking leaving Matt Godden isolated against the opposition’s back three (or four, if centre-back, Will Nightingale, plays in midfield).
AFC Wimbledon’s wing-back formation does present itself opportunities to exploit if we can control possession. Our two full-backs will essentially be unmarked, it should present plenty of opportunities for Liam Walsh to switch the play quickly, forcing AFC Wimbledon’s defence to shift over and potentially leaving gaps that can be opened up via quick passing.