It’s been just under six months since a 1-0 victory over Ipswich Town proved to be the final game of Coventry City’s 2019/20 season, effectively sealing a first league title in over half a century in the process. The landscape of football – and life in general – has markedly changed since then, but the return to competitive action for the Sky Blues marks a small but significant step back towards what is hopefully some kind of normality.
With the campaign beginning with the League Cup, this upcoming game against MK Dons feels more akin to the final game of pre-season than the actual first game of the season. The game is likely to be played at a lower intensity than season openers usually are, both managers are likely to prioritise fitness over progress in a cup competition where the reward is fixture congestion at a time when players are likely to be short on fitness.
There has been little indication over pre-season that Mark Robins is looking to imminently change things up from the 3-4-2-1 system that proved so effective last season. It has been the shape that has been utilised from the start in just about every pre-season game and the squad looks to have been assembled to have at least two options in each position of that system.
Ahead of this game, injuries to both Fankaty Dabo and Julien Dacosta leave an open berth at right wing-back. While both Josh Pask and Gustavo Hamer are capable of filling in for that position, it looks like Mark Robins is seriously considering handing the youngster, Blaine Rowe, an opportunity to impress here ahead of potentially getting a run in the side over the next month or so before Fankaty Dabo returns to fitness.
An injury to Michael Rose, along with an international call-up for Leo Ostigard, means that there is another opening in the team for this game on the right of the back three. Josh Pask and Declan Drysdale look to be neck and neck in the pecking order at centre-back. While both could start if Pask is used at right wing-back, the former West Ham youngster is probably has the edge due to his slightly greater level of first-team experience.
The other selection consideration for Mark Robins is whether to start new signing, Tyler Walker, or last season’s top-scorer, Matt Godden, in attack, or to take out an attacking midfielder and pair the duo in a strike partnership. Walker is likely to be the first-choice over the course of the season but is seemingly short on match fitness due to his lack of involvement in previous club, Nottingham Forest’s, pre-season plans. This game could well be a key opportunity for Matt Godden to demonstrate to Mark Robins that he can still be the main man for the Sky Blues.
Finally, Ben Sheaf has arrived in time for this game, however, it’s unclear whether he’s at the right level of fitness – having trained at Arsenal, whose pre-season started around a month or so later than ours – to be involved here.
Last Time We Met
Leaving aside the friendly match contested two weeks ago against a second-string MK Dons side, our most recent competitive meeting came back in January. It was our first league game since the back-to-back 4-1 victories over Wycombe Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers over the Christmas period, that run of form looked set to continue when Sam McCallum put the team ahead with a confident, bouncing strike from the edge of the box within the first minute of the game.
An energetic MK Dons side gradually worked their back in the game, disrupting our passing rhythm to expose the level of fatigue in our side. Despite that, MK Dons created very little and there were chances for the Sky Blues to grab that second goal which would have killed the game off. Instead, MK Dons striker Carlton Morris pounced on some uncertain defending to hand his side a point that they had earned through sheer work-rate.
The Manager – Russell Martin
The former Norwich City defensive stalwart was handed his first managerial posting at MK Dons midway through last season after a disastrous run of form under his predecessor, Paul Tisdale. Martin, assisted by the well-regarded coach, Luke Williams, improved performances without quite getting the consistent results required to pull completely away from the relegation zone but doing just enough to survive.
Martin seems to prefer a diamond midfield system – although is seemingly considering a back three based on pre-season – along with an intense pressing game that can congest the middle of the pitch while having the benefit of playing with a strike partnership. Having lost a few key players over the summer, Martin is arguably dealing with a weaker squad this year than one that struggled in League One last time out, however, the improvement in performances since Martin took over suggests that MK Dons should be aiming for at least a top-half finish.
Who To Look Out For?
Two of MK Dons’ biggest danger-men from last season – Alex Gilbey in midfield and Rhys Healey in attack – have both departed the club over the summer, along with midfield dynamo Conor McGrandles. Russell Martin has yet to effectively replace those players and is instead relying on players that were around the club last season to provide the creativity and goals in this side.
MK Dons’ biggest threat is likely to be striker Carlton Morris, who is on loan from Norwich City. Morris has been around a few League One clubs on loan in recent years, making a good impression but never quite getting the goals that his work-rate, physicality and skill would suggest he is capable of. It feels essential for MK Dons’ hopes that Morris finally steps up as a goalscorer this year, although youngster Sam Nombe and the more experienced Joe Mason should be able to ease the scoring burden on Morris.
In midfield, Jordan Houghton’s ability to sit deep in front of the defence and get the team moving with his distribution makes him one of the more underrated players in his position in League One. A few years ago, having Louis Thompson and Ben Gladwin as central midfield options would have been seriously impressive for a League One side, however, both have struggled with fitness issues more recently although are capable of asserting themselves when on top form.
At the back, former Coventry City man Richard Keogh is the big name signing but he hasn’t recovered from the serious injury he suffered last year while at Derby County. Instead, MK Dons can call upon some elegant ball-playing centre-backs in Baily Cargill and Regan Poole, along with Brighton & Hove Albion loanee, Warren O’Hora, who will take risks on the ball and are adept at doing so. At right-back, Callum Brittain’s ability to stretch the play provides the team with essential width in their diamond system.
Finally, in goal, Lee Nicholls can be a formidable shot-stopper on his day and has a prodigious record when it comes to saving penalties.
Where The Game Will Be Won or Lost
With both teams looking to get back into the swing of things following a near six month absence from competitive football, I would anticipate a disjointed game. With ourselves looking to play a possession style of football and MK Dons likely to replicate the pressing game that worked well for them in the most recent league meeting between the two sides, there’s a risk that we’ll be the side taking the risks and MK Dons will be in a position to take advantage from any lapses in concentration.
As we have a deeper squad than our opponents, I wouldn’t be surprised if it we made that particular advantage known as the game wears on as we can bring on better quality from the bench. This is unlikely to be much of a spectacle, the result is likely to be dictated by the first goalscorer with neither side likely to put too much of an effort into salvaging this game.