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The youngest club in the EFL. The phoenix club. Wimbledon, as they want to be known, AFC as they’re recognised.
The Dons teeter on the brink of the relegation zone of the League One table, albeit with games in hand, but what’s gone on in south London to leave Neal Ardley’s men marooning at the wrong end of the league?
The loss of three of last season’s key men was a huge blow. Tom Elliott’s hold up play and aerial ability has been sorely missed, Jake Reeves’ energy has never really been replaced and Dominic Poleon’s pace and eye for goal from wide right has found a new home in Bradford, alongside the robust Reeves.
As soon as Ardley came to the realisation that his star performer, Elliott, would be leaving for free come the end of the campaign, he knew he needed reinforcements, which, to his credit, he brought in. Without the physical presence of the now-Millwall man and Port Vale-bound Tyrone Barnett, Wimbledon found themselves lacking a target man.
Hence, Ardley brought in Kwesi Appiah and Cody McDonald, two strikers known for their ability to get in behind the last man; not to hold the ball up or win flick ons and knock downs.
With a lack of physicality up top, Ardley decided to go back to the days of Terry Brown in the Conference, trying to get his side playing a game the Crazy Gang would never have been proud of. A stark style switch was incorporated; the long ball towards the target man gone, short passing and technicality the name of the game. To invigorate the midfield after Reeves’ departure for a miniscule £150,000, Ardley turned to experience, luring Jimmy Abdou and Liam Trotter to the club, with both relatively defensive-minded midfield enforcers.
After a successful pre-season, where the Dons defeated Premier League Watford en route, the first game of the season at promotion hopefuls Scunthorpe ground out a rewarding point for Ardley’s team, with Abdou getting a debut goal. But it was clear to see the Wimbledon players of the last campaign hadn’t quite grasped Ardley’s concept of a keep-ball mentality.
The defence still assumed a target man lay in wait up front, and thus kept launching the ball long for Appiah and McDonald to constantly get beaten in the air by marauding centre halves. The Wimbledon squad has never grown into the possession game that Ardley was trying to implement to cover for his side’s lack of physical nous, and the problem got so bad that the Dons gaffer resorted to deploying Lyle Taylor, also famed for his pace in behind, as a makeshift target man, and trying to back up his strategy by playing Liam Trotter almost in a number ten role, to attempt to win the aerial challenges with his 6’2” stature. Invariably this has proved an abysmal plan. Taylor’s strength comes by way of aggression, and neither he nor Trotter want to challenge for every single duel in the air.
Joe Pigott has been hauled in from non-league Maidstone, to a mixed reception from supporters. All Dons fans knew their side needed a target man, but didn’t expect a journeyman who has had to drop back down into the National League to prove himself again. Perhaps a level of disappointment surrounds Pigott’s arrival, with the Dons linked with names like John Akinde, who seems almost certain to leave doomed League Two strugglers Barnet.
Although the vast majority of his problems lie in attack, Neal Ardley must try and sure up his midfield. Tom Soares and Jimmy Abdou have been seen running around aimlessly in past games and not winning the 50/50 challenges or the second balls, as they are meant to do in the role of ball-winning midfielder. Liam Trotter will need to be put back into his natural central defensive midfield position where he can successfully break up play and shield the back four as an anchor man or deep-lying playmaker, while Ardley needs to decide if he is going to utilise a 4-3-3 or a traditional Wimbledon 4-4-2.
Andy Barcham’s consistency has cemented his left wing starting position, but the right side of midfield has been a problem. Ardley must decide if he is going to utilise Harry Forrester out wide right, or whether he is going to look for a more solid than creative option in George Francomb. Either way, he may need to look for a more out-and –out wingman, like Keanu Marsh-Brown at Forest Green, known for his pace, eye for goal and crossing ability.
Left-back seems to be a recurring problem too, with Jon Meades constantly niggled with injuries and when he does play he seems rusty and shaky on his return from a side-line spell. Francomb has filled in there throughout the season, with Ardley’s confidence in Callum Kennedy almost null.
Wimbledon urgently need new full backs, as they look weak when it comes to strength in depth on both sides of defence. Barry Fuller remains solid and consistent, but with age comes a decline in pace and physical ability, and the captain has been caught out on numerous occasions this term.
Someone youthful and pacey, like Kane Vincent-Young at Colchester, who can play on both sides, would be an ideal signing, while Matthew Briggs, ex-Colchester and current Chesterfield, could also be a decent signing at left back if Kennedy is binned.
George Long looks steady in goal, and Joe McDonnell looked both shaky and secure against Milton Keynes last time out. Ardley will need to replace both ‘keepers at the end of the season, with McDonnell too unreliable and Long going back to Bramall Lane. Sam Walker, also of Colchester, and Ben Garratt, both linked with potential Championship moves, could be their two options, while undeveloped starlet Nik Tzanev could go out on loan to League Two alongside young guns like Paul Kalambayi, Neset Belikili and Toby Sibbick to gain first team experience.
The Dons have the players to dig themselves out of trouble, and if Ardley goes back to his long ball mechanisms then surely the Crazy Gang approach will hoist Wimbledon clear and to safety. Either way, Ardley’s squad will need a serious summer revamping.