MARK ROBINSON inherited a squad that had picked up two points from 11 games and was shot of confidence. In the remaining 21 games over 13 weeks he rebuilt a Dons team that would have comfortably finished mid-table if results were replicated over a full season. TIM HANSON’s analysis of the remarkable turnaround.
Despite never really looking comfortable at League One level, this now means it will be the division when the Dons have spent the most time since 2002.
The Robbo transformation has certainly been impressive. Under his management, the Dons registered seven wins, eight draws and six defeats from 21 games. That works out at 1.4 points per game, which if replicated over a full season would add up to 64 points and a comfortable mid-table finish.
I think these numbers are particularly impressive in two respects. First, Robbo inherited a squad that had picked up two points from 11 games, was visibly shot of confidence and rated by many Dons fans as possibly the worst set of players to turn out for the club in several years.
To quickly have such a big impact with the same set of players deserves huge credit. And second, Robbo said himself when he took the job that he would not be a “quick fix” manager.
He has overseen 21 league matches in 13 weeks, with precious few full weeks between games to instil his ideas on the training pitch. That he has been able to have such a clear impact both on results and style of play, should also be highly commended.
So how has Robbo done it? I think the first thing to say is that he switched to a system that everyone was comfortable with.
Under Glyn Hodges, and before him Wally Downes, the Dons had almost always lined up in a 3-5-2 formation. This seemed to reflect a desire to have two strikers while remaining defensively solid, but the truth is that the Dons’ centre backs rarely looked comfortable in a back three.
Robbo has started with a back four in every game as manager and centre-backs who have previously struggled immediately looked more comfortable, Will Nightingale being the best example.
Over time, the rest of the formation has shifted to a 4-2-2-2 (see formation chart below), which suits the players all over the pitch. The Dons lack natural wingers but have attacking full backs that are allowed the space to get forward.
The holding midfielders – Alex Woodyard and George Dobson – can focus on their strengths of winning the ball back and starting attacks. The two ‘number 10s’ – Ayoub Assal and Jack Rudoni – are given freedom to roam and create. And Joe Pigott and Ollie Palmer both benefit from having another forward to play with.
With Pigott and Palmer supported by Assal and Rudoni, the Dons started to pose an attacking threat they had previously lacked. In addition, while Robbo has retained a focus on keeping possession throughout his time in charge, the Dons have increasingly got the ball forward a bit more quickly, rather than keeping passive possession in more defensive areas.
This is borne out by the possession stats: in the 13 games under Robbo prior to switching to a front two versus Accrington, the Dons averaged 53% possession; in the (more productive) eight games since, it has been 45%.
The Dons have still tried to keep the ball far more than was the case under Hodges (when average possession was around 40%) but it now carries more of an attacking threat.
Given Robbo’s background, it is perhaps unsurprising that he has been keen to put more faith in the talented young players at the club and this too has had a big impact.
Most notable has been the emergence of Assal, who only started his first league game on March 20 and has quickly become a spearhead of the Dons’ attacking threat. It’s excellent news that he has signed a new three-year contract.
Rudoni has started most games under Robbo and now has more of a goal threat to supplant his creativity.
Robbo was also happy to put his faith in Nik Tzanev to take the gloves when Sam Walker was out injured, which has paid off handsomely.
Football fans in general, and Wimbledon fans especially, love nothing more than seeing their own home-grown players turn out for the side, and there should be much more of this to come next season and beyond.
It should also be acknowledged that more experienced players have improved under Robbo, backing up his belief that player improvement and development does not end with the academy.
Woodyard is perhaps the best example in this regard, looking a hugely underwhelming signing for large parts of the season, transformed into a vital part of the Dons’ midfield under Robbo.
It will be interesting to see how Robbo shapes the squad over the summer, but already it’s clear that there should be less turnover than in previous seasons. Only three players have so far been released – O’Neill, Reilly, and McLoughlin – with 21 players already contracted for next season. That 21 includes a number of players who will probably not be considered first team ready and instead go out on loan, so reinforcements will be needed.
It is hoped that Joe Pigott will sign a new deal and remain at the club, though given his form over the past season it’s likely other clubs will be interested.
Pigott’s 20 league goals and five assists meant he scored or assisted 46% of the Dons’ goals, the highest individual contribution to a team’s goals anywhere in League One.
He will be a very hard man to replace if he does go. Other priority areas for the summer recruitment include an energetic central midfielder (Dobson would be ideal), another forward option, another full-back, a back-up keeper (assuming Matthew Cox goes out on loan), and ideally some more pace at centre-back (though there are good numbers there already).
I’m sure Robbo will also give some thought over the summer to continue to evolve the style of play and produce other tactical options.
One challenge next season will be facing opponents who know more about how a Mark Robinson Wimbledon team wants to play, and so be better placed to capitalise on any potential weaknesses.
There were already signs of this in the closing games of the season, where Rochdale and Portsmouth regularly got in behind the Dons’ defence with quick forwards. Robbo likes to play a high defensive line but with relatively slow centre backs and attacking full backs, it can allow space for opponents to attack.
In this regard, it’s encouraging that Robbo recently said that ‘formation flexibility’ is a key area for improvement, so the Dons can present opponents with new and expected problems during games.
It feels like an exciting time to be a Wimbledon fan, with much hope for what a Robbo-led team will deliver next season, alongside the prospect of full crowds at Plough Lane.
The recent test event, which I was lucky enough to attend, gave 2,000 fans their first glimpse of the new stadium, and it was certainly impressive.
Thoughts quickly turned to just how good it will be for a competitive game with a (hopefully) full crowd next season. I, for one, can’t wait to find out!