If Sheffield United can improve fitness and possession, and not panic when ahead, they can score goals against most teams at this level, and go on a run.
They passed the ball well for a spell and had one or two half-chances before a smartly taken goal that was set up beautifully by Quinn and Clarke and well taken by Cresswell. After this, they played well and could have had a few more. We defended well and protected Long, with Maguire having his best game for ages. We started to win first and second balls again and could have gone ahead by more than one at half-time.
The second half was the same as the first; we came out slowly, sat back and did not get tight enough. They scored a decent but very avoidable goal, as we gave up too much time in the middle of the field and then out wide where neither Williams nor Phillips got close enough to the goal scorer. Although we managed to move up a gear after the equaliser, it was frustrating that we had to wait until they scored to do so.
After regaining the lead, the performance became a mixed bag, with some decent retention offset by some wasteful, sloppy play. We seemed to panic the longer the game went on when some better balls would have led to more chances and more goals, but as the game moved to the final stage, we seemed to sit back, defend deeper and give the ball away.
The sending-off made no difference and the visitors still penned us in. Despite them not creating many chances, balls were being sent into our box and a mistake felt inevitable, such is our inability to hold onto leads and prevent late goals.
Despite picking up eight points from 12 (and it should have been 12), the confidence still seems fragile, as if the players almost expect to concede a late goal.
There were two main issues against MK Dons, the first being fitness. Our players, on the whole, do not look fit enough. Most teams seem stronger than us as the games unfold. Wednesday were one, but there are others. Even on Saturday against Orient we looked dead on our feet and it was the same against the Dons, who were down to 10 men. McDonald, Cresswell and Phillips all look shattered by the time after an hour. This is really poor and needs addressing.
The second issue was once again retention, or lack of it. When we kept possession, we looked good and passed well, creating chances with some clever balls from Quinn, Evans, Clarke and McDonald. However, all too often, many players, including some of those, gave the ball away, even in our half. It was too sloppy at times.
There were lots of positives, though; when we did get the ball down and play, we created some chances and looked positive. We tried to keep it on the floor and were able to move the ball from side to side. We looked dangerous when we attacked and Clarke and then latterly Evans showed some clever touches and play.
Clarke was the best player on the pitch and was very inventive but always coming off the front and receiving the ball. He looks a very clever player who does different things but who also thinks about what he does. He would be a great asset to keep for further than the month but Blackpool will probably recall him. Long did well with what he had to and was well protected by the two centre-backs, of whom Maguire was back to his early season standards. Montgomery also had a really good, battling game and was all over the field at times.
Phillips was a little disappointing and Cresswell, despite his goal, was still slow at times and did some daft things for an experienced striker. McDonald goes from excellent to awful and back again. He is a very good passer but is so weak at times and very slow, meaning Monty often has to cover two or three men. Lowton was really poor and seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut. He probably needs a spell out of the side.
The two centre-backs set the standards and with a keeper without the baggage of the late goals and mistakes hopefully we can start to keep some clean sheets.
If we can improve our fitness and possession, and not panic when we go ahead, try to keep going forward sensibly, we can score goals against most teams at this level with the players we have, and go on a run.
Exeter is a game we should win and then we have a few other games from which we should take points if we can build on the past three results.