EFL League One 2022/23: Set-piece superiority key for MK Dons as they punish Pompey – tactical analysis
EFL League One has slowly been building a collection of ‘big clubs’, sides who were once regular features in the Premier League and EFL Championship. Sunderland and Derby County, for example. One club, however, has had a slightly different journey, and that is Portsmouth. For all their troubles behind the scenes, they are fighting towards clawing their way back up the football pyramid. Like those other big clubs, though, they have struggled to get past the hurdle that is League One.
In Pompey’s 19th fixture of the 22/23 league campaign, they fell to a 2-0 defeat to MK Dons, giving the visitors their fifth win in a season that could see them be embroiled in a relegation battle towards the end of the season. Furthermore, the Dons are in the midst of a hunt for a new manager, after they sacked Liam Manning due to the club’s poor first half of the season.
This tactical analysis will look at why Portsmouth came away with nothing, despite their tactics allowing for a healthy amount of possession and shots on goal. We will also provide an analysis of MK Dons’ performance from set-pieces, as both goals were scored from dead-ball situations.
Hosts Portsmouth lined up in a 3-5-2 formation that was intended to have a high attacking presence. In fairness, it did, it just lacked the quality at the end. They reverted to this shape after switching to a 4-4-2 in their last game against Stevenage in the EFL Trophy.
When comparing their lineup in this fixture to that of their most recent League One outing (a 2-0 defeat away at Wycombe), there are a few changes. One of them was the positioning of the former Tottenham Hotspur youngster Connor Ogilvie lined up on the left side of the back three after playing as a left wing-back/midfielder last time out. Clark Robertson and the vastly experienced Michael Morrison completed the back three.
Taking Ogilvie’s place at left wing-back was Denver Hume, with Owen Dale playing on the opposite flank. Dane Scarlet was dropped to the bench, with Reeco Hackett-Fairchild coming into the midfield picture. Colby Bishop started in attack, alongside Josh Koroma, who drifted between attack and midfield as the match went on.
MK Dons opted for a 5-4-1 system that focused on soaking up the Pompey pressure and taking limited chances when they occurred. This may have been a decision influenced not only by the calibre of their opponent, but also the fact that they suffered a home defeat in the previous league game against Fleetwood Town, whilst playing a four-at-the-back system.
Zak Jules joined the lineup in the central three, with full-back positions being taken by Daniel Harvie and Tennai Watson. In midfield, former Chelsea starlet Josh McEachran was joined by EFL veteran Bradley Johnson. Mo Eisa, who cost the Dons a reported pretty penny, started up front.
Portsmouth’s approach and why they failed to score
It was expected that the hosts would look to dominate the pitch and try and retain large portions of possession, with the intention of stretching the MK Dons defending units. Pompey somewhat achieved their goal of seeing more of the ball, with 64% possession – they also turned a good number of attacks into shots (14 shots, eight on target), but just couldn’t find the key to unlocking their opponents. This segment will look at how Pompey typically looked to get forward, along with an analysis of how MK Dons acted off the ball in different parts of the match.
Pompey’s formation allowed for a wide shape in possession, giving both the wing-backs the license to get forward in wide areas. They also looked to shift the ball forward quickly, with central defender Robertson displaying his ability to play line-breaking passes on more than one occasion.
But how were Portsmouth afforded this space out wide? Well, their central presence was seen as a higher threat by the visitors, and rightly so. They were aware that Pompey’s wide players may have chances to carry the ball into the final third but were equally aware that their chances were limited in terms of finding a target from a cross if the Dons remained intact. Nevertheless, getting the ball into wide areas was an important part of the hosts’ tactics as they looked to break through. While they did have chances on goal and made their opponents work hard off the ball, MK Dons’ defensive resolve deserves credit as the quality of those chances was limited.
One feature of Portsmouth’s tactics going forward and utilising wide areas was the positional rotations and flexibility allowed amongst the players – the midfield unit in particular was given a license to somewhat roam free in attack, something that Jay Mingi seemed to enjoy.
At 22 years old, former Charlton Athletic prospect Jay Mingi is far from his peak as a footballer but is already showing sparks of the player he could one day become. Far from the finished product, but already showing versatility, Mingi is a defensive midfielder by trade, but thrived in a more attacking role in this game. He often drifted into wide areas or spaced between the opposition’s midfield and defence to try and find the solution and showcased good technical ability in doing so.
The image above shows how he used said attributes to take the ball into a 1v1 situation and looked to play a one-two combination. He plays the pass to his teammate inside and immediately makes a darting run past the Dons defender toward the byline – if he received the return pass, Pompey would’ve been looking at a highly dangerous chance indeed. That wasn’t to be though as Mingi did not receive the return pass.
The image above gives us a slightly better idea of his contributions to his team’s efforts in attack. A confident dribbler, he often found himself involved on the right flank, forming a partnership with right wing-back Dale. Making runs with the ball in high areas to get into the box struck panic in the Dons’ defence and could be an important feature of Mingi’s game in the future.
As the game went on, even though Pompey continued to have more possession and chances to go forward, there was a shift in overall confidence, with the Dons sensing that Portsmouth were there for the taking.
After grabbing themselves a second goal just after the hour mark, they looked to stifle Portsmouth, especially in midfield areas, as they looked to kill any Pompey hope of a comeback. This became even more apparent in transitions – the image above is taken just after MK Dons have given the ball away, but instead of retreating and dropping deeper, they kept the energy levels high and looked to counter-press in these situations. The pressure put on the man on the ball, and other teammates on standby to undertake the same task in their respective positions, also allowed MK the chance to step up and choke Portsmouth even more.
Dons dismantle Pompey from set-pieces
MK Dons would have prepared for the game expecting to forfeit the majority of possession, and their 5-4-1 shape suggests. But did they park the bus? Far from it! They remained compact and well-organised off the ball for the most part and took their chances in possession, most notably from set pieces.
As mentioned earlier on, both goals in this 2-0 came as a result of a set-piece routine (even if the second goal had an element of fortune about it). With that in mind, this analysis segment will look to break down Dons tactics from selected set pieces, and where Pompey simply weren’t good enough defensively.
This MK Dons free-kick led to the corner from which they scored the opening goal, and the warning signs were there for Portsmouth from this set play. In this scenario, MK Dons did nothing special or complicated in their positioning in the box, but something that cost Pompey not once but twice on the day was their ability to react and deal with the danger to a solid level.
In terms of positional set-up for MK Dons, it was the classic method of putting your big central defenders towards the far post, with other midfielders and attackers scattered across the box. One key factor, though, was Eisa’s positioning. He looked to exploit some poor marking as he anticipated the whipped ball into his area – a somewhat lucky clearance from the Pompey man denied Eisa a shot on goal, but did the Dons a corner…
MK Dons tested Portsmouth’s defensive reactions once again, and like before, Pompey proved to be lacking. A short corner that was simply not picked up quickly enough allowed MK Dons to build whatever they wanted in that wide area. Notice the movement of the highlighted man outside of the box, Conor Grant. He quickly scans to check if anyone follows him – they don’t. This gave MK Dons another man to use in the build-up on the flank, and Grant proved to be a key piece in this corner routine.
Grant delivers a peach of a first-time cross, hitting the ball toward the back post. So, the delivery was spot on, what about the movement of his teammates and the Portsmouth defending? Well, it was Bradley Johnson who nodded home the Dons’ second goal, after he was able to easily lose his marker (yellow highlighted) as Johnson travelled across the box. The veteran then positioned himself clearly behind a teammate, directly in the path of the cross to simply cushion the ball into the back of the net.
Poor reactions and marking costing the former Premier League club yet again.
MK Dons’ second goal featured one of the oldest corner routines in the book, and the more you watch it, the more unbelievable it becomes that Pompey just let Conor Grant sit at the edge of the box completely unmarked! McEachran noticed this and delivered a crisp pass to his teammate, and well, Grant’s next action is up for debate as to whether he meant it or not! He took a swing at the ball, and the resulting swing directed the ball into a cluster of MK Dons players, which brings us down to a breakdown of their positioning from this corner.
As you can see in the first image of the two above, Johnson causes more panic in the box by making a decoy run across goal, dragging a good portion of Pompey’s defence with him. Meanwhile, a herd of Pompey players make their way towards the back post, and the result is a 4v2 scenario in the box in favour of the attacking side, and Jack Tucker tucked the ball home to put his side two up. Another example of a poor Pompey reaction, with the element of bad organisation in the box.
MK Dons and the club’s fans didn’t expect to find themselves in the mix for a relegation battle as we approach 2023, but this win against a fairly good team will give them hope they can put together a good run for the remainder of the season and finish well-above the drop zone.
Calling this performance a tactical masterclass would be a bit of a stretch, and they could have been punished by Portsmouth if the hosts were having a better day, but the Dons set themselves up with a clear tactical system in place and used their opponent’s weaknesses to their own strengths.