Murr-inho Defensive Display Earns Stags a Draw

Adam Murray revealed to the press this week that he and his management team would be spending time with their MK Dons counterparts prior to Tuesday's friendly against the Championship newcomers. If you had witnessed the first 45 minutes at the One Call Stadium however, you could be forgiven for thinking the Stags boss had consulted with Jose Mourinho rather than Karl Robinson and Richie Barker.  His Mansfield side answered questions marks raised both in this blog and on the terraces regarding the Stags suspect defensive unit by keeping a strong Dons side quiet during the opening half, and even managed to gain a one goal lead courtesy of the inside of Nathan Thomas' right boot.

The Stags made three changes from the game at Oakwell on Saturday as Adam Murray continues to rotate his side, with a solid core beginning to emerge. Krystian Pearce, who had been recovering from a knock, came in for Ryan Tafazolli, who was not named amongst the substitutes having played a full ninety minutes three days previous. Jack Thomas and Craig Westcarr were introduced to the starting eleven in place of Mitchell Rose and Reggie Lambe. Adi Yussuf was again absent from the squad, having been fasting during the festival of Ramadan and as a result being behind the rest of the squad in terms of fitness. It is clear to see that players such as Shearer, Hunt, Collins, Benning, Chapman and Green have established themselves as surefire starters ahead of the new season. The pitch has been shortened at the Quarry Lane End and the club has also switched dugouts, meaning the home team is now closest to the away supporters. The reason given for this is that the away dugout is closer to the half way line.

Before commenting on the game, I must mention the farce that greeted me outside the stadium in trying to purchase a ticket. Now let me just make clear, I am well aware that tickets can be purchased in advance and it probably is my fault that I did not take the club up on this option. However, any new supporters or 'floating fans' who may not be aware of the clubs ticketing policy would have been well and truly discouraged from attending. Greeted by the sight of a queue snaking from the ticket office and well into the car park, I joined a good thirty minutes prior to kick off and got to my seat (having jogged from the queue) with five minutes already played and 50+ people still queuing. With a crowd near enough double tonight's attendance, Barnsley managed to operate cash turnstiles on Saturday. Why on Earth can the club not see that the absence of a cash turnstile is costing them bums on seats and valuable income?

With a sweaty brow following my exertions traversing four flights of stairs, I took my seat to be with MK Dons in possession of the ball with two lines of yellow shirts challenging the visitors to break them down. Adam Chapman was sat in the hole between the defence and midfield as the leader of the unit. The Stags were happy to concede possession to the Dons back line and were only pressing when the opposition got to within 35 yards of goal. Jack Thomas in particular was utilising pressing to good effect and turned over possession on several occasions.

This was the pattern for much of the opening half of the game, although Matt Green had the ball in the net after 15 minutes. After a through ball from Clements, Green rounded David Martin and slotted into an empty net. Unfortunately for Green, the assistant's flag was raised, wrongly in my opinion. Moments before, Green had shown he would not be bullied by the opposition defence, squaring up to Kyle McFadzean after bundling the ex-Alfreton man to the floor.

Murray had indicated prior to the match that both the MK Dons game and Leicester on Saturday would be used to work on the sides defensive shape and he will have been delighted with what he was seeing. Both Collins and Pearce were defending excellently, performing to a much higher standard than shown in previous friendlies. When in possession, the Stags were neat and tidy and looked to release Green in to the channels when the opportunity arose. There were not a lot of incidents to report on within the first period, but that will have suited the Mansfield management down to the ground. Nathan Thomas was looking bright at the other end, dragging a right footed shot wide of the right hand post.

On the brink of half time, the Stags broke from their defensive shackles and took the lead. Craig Westcarr, who had turned in a muted first half display and given the ball away needlessly on a few occasions, played an excellent pass into the right channel which Matt Green bustled his way on to. Green then drove at a backpedalling defender before heading to the byline, where his cross was deflected over any attackers who had gathered towards the centre of the goal. Clements picked up the loose ball on the left of the area and played a lovely reverse ball inside to Nathan Thomas on the edge of the area. The tricky winger dropped his shoulder and curled a right footed effort over the keeper and into the new crisp white netting. He made a mockery of a previous blog where I mentioned playing on the left reduce his effectiveness to cut inside and shoot on his preferred side!

MK Dons should have been level in all truth before the whistle met the referees lips for the interval. Having worked the ball well in the right hand channel, the ball was pulled back for Daniel Powell by Carl Baker who powered his shot into the ground and over the bar with the goal at his mercy. It was the only clear cut chance that the Championship side had created.

Although there were no substitutions made at half time by either side, there was a definite change in emphasis from the yellow shirts, as the home side appeared to be given more license to entertain and whilst they by no means neglected their defensive duties, it was not a case of ten men behind the ball as it had been in the first half. Just after the break, a long throw from Chapman reached the middle of the penalty area where it was flicked on by Collins but competently cleared by the visiting defence.

A test of confidence for Shearer on 51 minutes, as Nicky Hunt fired a floated pass back to him. Despite being under pressure and off balance, Shearer managed to volley his clearance to relative safety where Benning did the rest. Hunt redeemed himself at the other end following a clever passage of play with Nathan Thomas.

The visitor's however did manage to breach the home defence on 58 minutes. Nicky Hunt made a mess of a header in the right channel inside the opposition half, managing to direct the ball inside and towards his own goal. Daniel Powell was found in the on the right hand side having broke free of the defence and turned home at the second attempt after Shearer parried his initial effort. Hunt overall had played extremely well defensively with numerous crucial tackles.

The Stags made their first batch of changes on 65 minutes. Lee Collins, Craig Westcarr and Matt Green were replaced by a trialist defender, Reggie Lambe and Chris Beardsley. The inevitable changes do prevent the game flowing as it should and as such both sides were struggling to create anything substantial. On 71 minutes, goalscorer Nathan Thomas was replaced by Anthony Dwyer. Following an easy save from Shearer to deny Carruthers, off went Benning, Chapman and Clements in order to give playing time to Conor Green, Jamie McGuire and Joe Fitzpatrick. The opposition also made numerous changes during this period.

Having failed to trouble the MK Dons in the second half, Mansfield could have won it on 86 minutes. Joe Fitzpatrick did well through the centre and found Reggie Lambe free in the inside left channel. Unfortunately for Lambe, despite creating several opening for himself to have a shot on goal, he carried on running into a gaggle of red shirts and was skilfully dispossessed by the Dons defence. Jack Thomas also fired over with loads of available to him.

The game ended all square with a goal for either side. A fair result all told, with the visitors having the majority of possession but failing to shatter the Stags defensive resolve. Every Mansfield player played their part in maintaining a solid looking structure, even managing to look threatening on the counter attack.

After the game, Adam Murray declared himself chuffed with the performance his players had produced against such slick opposition, with which I would concur. It was nice to see a clear focus on defending and that a lot of hard work on the training pitch had translated so well into a semi-competitive game. The only question mark I would raise is how often the Stags are likely to be threatened by a side so focussed on possession as MK Dons were this evening. They are much more likely to come up against a direct style of play in League Two than the patient probing of the Championship team. Nevertheless, you can only test yourself against what is in front of you and an even tougher test is in store against Premier League opposition on Saturday.

It will be interesting to see how Murray approaches the upcoming game against Leicester, with the emphasis surely to be on keeping the opposition out again. It could turn out be a master stroke by the management team. With Carlisle boss Keith Curle in attendance at tonight's friendly, it may mask the Stags attacking threat from being entirely obvious to snooping scouts ahead of the league getting under way on the 8th August, as players such as Thomas, Westcarr, Green et al cannot be seen to full effect when focusing more on the defensive side of their game.