BY DAVE HUNT-JACKSON
AFC Wimbledon failed in their bid to win a fourth consecutive League match as they played out a drab draw at Mansfield Town’s One Call Stadium on Saturday.
Aaron Sasu made way for Josh Neufville in the only change from the side that won at Harrogate on Tuesday as the Dons missed their fourth of five league penalties this term, and for the third time, it cost them the chance of three points.
Had James Tilley converted in the 27th minute and had Ali Al-Hamadi netted against Grimsby and Wrexham, the Dons could have been three points clear instead of dropping to fourth place and outside the automatic promotion places.
As it was, they had the better chances, whilst Mansfield had most of the possession as the two teams cancelled each other out.
Here are Dave Hunt-Jackson’s takeaways from the One Call Stadium:
A SOLID DEFENSIVE DISPLAY
Back-to-back clean sheets away from home is a testament to Wimbledon’s much-improved defensive displays aided and abetted by their two central midfielders Jake Reeves and Armani Little.
In Joe Lewis and Ryan Johnson, they have a rock-solid pairing in the middle and the homegrown full-backs Issac Ogundere and Jack Currie have added consistency of performance in their second seasons in the Dons first team.
On Saturday, as on Tuesday, the first-choice back four reduced the home attacks to the odd long-range shots and conceded not a single clear-cut chance.
Providing there is a contingency plan for January that was missing last season to replace Lewis, assuming Stockport recall him, and for Currie, if he is sold, the Dons may finally have the defensive platform they have long craved.
Of course, hard-won draws away from home have little value if they are not backed up with victories at the Cherry Red Records Stadium. It is vital that the South Londoners improve their woeful home record and add considerably to the two home wins in this calendar year.
NO PLAN B?
Wimbledon went into this match second in the table and, although Mansfield offered arguably the sternest test of the season so far, yet again, the visitors showed they have no plan B.
With the defence frustrating their hosts and the Stags looking increasingly unlikely to score, Johnnie Jackson refused to try a different formation or even to change his personnel, with the only substitution being a like-for-like swap as Aron Sasu replaced Tilly with just six minutes left.
This seeming lack of imagination or ambition means that the Dons manager is all too often unable to influence the course of a game. Whilst it could be argued that a point at Mansfield is a good enough result, a more confident manager would have tried to affect the outcome and actively gone looking for all three points. If Wimbledon are to push for promotion this season, they are going to need a more proactive approach when games are deadlocked, as was the case on Saturday.
HAVE LAST SEASON’S LESSONS BEEN LEARNED?
There is a second downside to Jackson’s reluctance to change things up. By sticking to the same starting 11, game after game – Sasu and Neufville aside – this seems to be the direction of travel – the Dons boss is putting a lot of miles into his first-choice team.
A reluctance to rest Josh Davison, in particular, last season must have been a significant contributor to his season-ending injury as was leaving a clearly injured Al Hamadi out on the field of play.
If Wimbledon are to fulfil their seemingly considerable potential this season it is imperative that Jackson does not burn his players out. Having praised the strength of his squad he must put his money where his mouth is and use them.
Not only does this reduce the injury risk to key players but it also means that the understudies are match ready if and when they have to be called upon.
It would be inexcusable if the second half of this season sees injuries once again blamed for poor results.
MUCH CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
Despite all these concerns, there is however a real sense that, on the pitch at least, a corner has been turned.
Without the blip when Little and Reeves were injured, this is a much more resilient side. They were more than deserving of Saturday’s draw at a ground where they were thrashed last year. With recruitment now in the hands of a head of football operations and aided by a chief scout, the class of 2023-24 is a significant improvement on last year’s team.
They look capable of scoring against any opposition and of holding onto the lead when they do. Jackson has identified his best 11 quickly, and because he won’t change tactics in game and only makes like-for-like substitutions, it means the players know exactly what is expected of them. Whilst this also means the opposition will have an easy job scouting Wimbledon, on the strength of the 12 games so far this season that doesn’t mean that they can stop them.
If the side can be kept mostly injury-free, if January’s recruitment is as good as the summer’s then there is no reason why this team can’t push on and achieve the return to League One that on talent alone they look more than capable of. Given the start they have had the supporters, who were in fine voice at Mansfield and far the noisier, have every right to expect the much more successful season they deserve after last year.
Best Moment: Armani Little’s run from his own half to the Mansfield area, which might have led to a winning goal had he been more selfish and shot rather than passing.
Star Man: Armani Little: A real driving force at the heart of the defence and the starting point for most of Wimbledon’s attacks.
PICTURE: KEITH GILLARD
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