Tomorrow, I’ll be making the trip north for what currently amounts to an annual pilgrimage to Gigg Lane to watch Bury take on Milton Keynes Dons, with both sides currently occupying spots in the automatic promotion places a little way back from leaders Lincoln City. Paul Tisdale’s charges have a two-game and single point advantage over their hosts. However, on recent form, it’s by no means a given that they’ll make full use of those fixtures.
Ryan Lowe will be looking to build on a fruitful January, with his side having played twice since the Buckinghamshire outfit were in action, and won all three clashes in the month thus far. He is likely to revert to the XI that started the 1-0 away triumph over Yeovil Town, with only Caolan Lavery a possible absentee after a knock to his thigh on Tuesday night.
The best candidate to take the Sheffield United loanee’s place is Dom Telford, fresh from scoring an impressive brace in the stirring comeback victory over Accrington Stanley to become this season’s current top goalscorer in the EFL Trophy. His interchanges with Nicky Maynard showed a good understanding between the two forwards, and the direct running in from the right half-space of ‘Mr. Checkatrade’ is bound to make Baily Cargill ponder just how much he’ll step out of the visitors’ three-man defence to cover for captain Dean Lewington’s dashes forward.
Further back, much will depend on how often Tisdale instructs his three strikers to press the Shakers’ backline when the latter are in possession. We have already seen marked success for opposition sides in employing this tactic, and it might mean Danny Mayor will have to start from deeper on the field than he’d like to, in order to disrupt that plan.
Similarly, Neil Danns will have to be vigilant when considering the movement of languid dangerman Chuks Aneke, as he has a tendency to drop off from the spearhead of attack to either receive the ball himself or find pockets of space to anticipate a knockdown or loose pass coming his way.
Though the Dons had hitherto stuttered in the league, a ruthless display in their 6-0 pasting of Cambridge United has renewed their fans’ confidence, even now that Rhys Healey has departed to Cardiff City (for the time being). Tisdale’s recent comments in the media suggest little movement in the transfer window, although he does remain hopeful of re-singing the Welsh frontman once a couple of weeks have passed, and his parent club have assessed him fully in training.
Like Bury, MK build from the back. The vast majority of custodian Lee Nicholls’ passes are short to his back three, and his general distribution is accurate enough to be a good fit for that style of play. His height allows him to confidently claim crosses and corners, and in spite of conceding six goals in the last four, he and his teammates can still boast the joint tightest defence in the division.
The 11-day gap between games should be sufficient for Jordan Moore-Taylor to be fit enough to be restored to the lineup, which might mean George Williams is deployed back out on the right flank in place of Conor McGrandles. One of the shorter centre backs in the league, he nevertheless wins more than his fair share of aerial duels, and his strong left foot gives the defensive trio good balance, with both him and Cargill able to shift over slightly to their favoured side to see off threats. The latter is highly suspectible on the ground when faced with a direct threat, barely winning a fifth of his duels, hence why Lowe will surely opt for Telford over Byron Moore. That said, he’s still a very promising player, and he assists Lewington greatly down the flank, offering an outlet to put in crosses to the far post.
Mathieu Baudry, an experienced summer signing from Doncaster Rovers, has had to bide his time to get back into the reckoning, not helped by being sent off seven minutes into his debut against Crewe Alexandra, and a subsequent lengthy spell on the sidelines. He’s looked impressive on scant evidence so far, reading the play well with some timely interceptions… but never being too far from a rash challenge. He’s almost certain to have Mayor cut inside and across him first, so that could be something to watch for.
The aforementioned Lewington is the club stalwart, and it doesn’t seem as though he’s going to be under too much pressure from Mitch Hancox for his jersey anytime soon. The 34 year-old remains an important component of the team, and has contributed six assists from wing-back. Defensively, he’s much more apt to lose the ball in enemy territory, which could be used as an opportunity to counter. He’ll lap up any punts from Will Aimson down his channel, and is sure to have the beating of Telford off the floor at least.
George Williams’ versatility is one of his greatest assets, being able to perform admirably anywhere down the right side of defence in any configuration. He will rove up the flank and give Callum McFadzean little respite, and a lot could ride on how their clash plays out.
In midfield, Jordan Houghton offers perhaps the best pivot in League Two, tasked with recovering and recycling the ball to either Alex Gilbey or the on-rushing wing-backs. He has had cameos at centre back in recent weeks as well, underlying Tisdale’s unwavering faith in his ability to thwart his adversaries and be a platform to take a stranglehold on the tempo. Gilbey’s tireless running and work rate make him the ideal person for a shuttling role between the lines of midfield and attack, and he is apt to shoot from range if other, more penetrative options are limited. He can occasionally try to be a little too cute with his through balls, but once more, he cannot be allowed the freedom that the Shakers often seem to afford playmakers to face away from his own goal to pick out teammates.
Healey’s (temporary) absence could be the opportunity for Osman Sow to worm his way back into prominence, having had to be content with sporadic appearances from the bench during 2018/2019. Milton Keynes’ front three will doubtlessly be fluid in their movement, but he will normally be in the middle of them, the combination of strength and speed being a very effective weapon when he’s on song. He only needed a single chance in his last outing to underline his qualities, peeling off his marker at the near post to stroke home.
Kieran Agard has not always had the goals tally to compare to his xG, but not that’s something that can be thrown at him this term, having racked up 13 already. He could start as the left prong in attack, even if it’s not a position he’s accustomed to. He can be prone to being caught offside, which is often a consequence of playing on the shoulder of the last defender, full in the knowledge that he’d often win a foot race with them.
However, Aneke is perhaps the biggest danger of all. He will have the upper hand in most air wars with Adam Thompson or Chris Stokes, but he is most skillful in shaking off detection in the area, like any truly predatory striker. He averages more than four shots per game, nearly of which find their mark. As I said before, he’ll often come deep to receive the ball, and then dribble towards goal with it in a positive manner. Far from the speediest individual, he’s still very difficult to prise the ball from. Like Agard, he also has 13 to his name, making the duo the most potent across the fourth tier. His attitude has been previously called into question several times, but he seems happy to see out the season in white, gold, and red (his contract expires this June).
As for a prediction, I’m going to go with a 1-1 draw. Both managers are canny operators from a tactical perspective, although Tisdale is more inclined to shuffle the pack if things aren’t going his way. It’s hard to foresee either side’s attack being completely shut out, and a more entertaining game is on the cards than the first encounter served up back in August.