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Tactical Philosophy: Karl Robinson

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Patrick Mills writes about Karl Robinson, the talented manager of MK Dons.


Karl Robinson

Robinson played youth football for the likes of Everton, Swindon and Blackpool before an eight year senior career in the lower levels of English football. He worked at the Liverpool academy while playing part time, helping coach a number of youngsters who have gone on to sign professional terms with the club, such as Harry Wilson and Jordan Rossiter. He then went on to assist both Sam Allardyce and Paul Ince at Blackburn before following the latter to MK Dons. After Ince’s sacking, Robinson was appointed as manager at the age of 29, becoming the youngest boss in the country. In his fifth season with the Dons, he secured promotion to the Championship. Robinson has spoken of his ambition to manage boyhood club Liverpool in the future and has a big focus on developing young players.

Tactical Philosophy

Karl Robinson is very much an advocate of attacking football. His team is tactically flexible and in analyzing MK Dons’ 117 League One goals last season, it becomes clear that Robinson is an innovative coach. As a result, his side rarely look void of ideas. His philosophy of dominating matches and getting numbers forward runs throughout the club from youth level to the first team and during their time in League one, the Dons’ style was somewhat alien to most of their rivals.

There are a number of patterns that occur in the way Robinson’s team attack. The first is based on crowding the opposition’s box and playing intricate one-twos before space arises to shoot. While this often proves effective given the technical nature of his playing staff, it can also result in congestion leaving little or no space to receive the ball. An example of it paying off is shown below.

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This method hints that Robinson may use aspects of ‘positional play’. At the very least, he certainly encourages quantitative superiority. His team usually build the play out from the back, then attempt to dominate the midfield before moving in numbers into the final third.

Crowding the attack with bodies doesn’t always prove effective however and so Robinson’s side have a number of alternatives to this style. In the event that their opponents close off the middle space with numbers, one alternative is achieved by midfield runners exploiting the open space on either side of the opposition’s back line. They then receive the ball and deliver to the box. This helped see the Dons score 20 goals(17% of their total) directly from crosses last term. This approach shows the use of ‘qualitative superiority’. Robinson knows that given the ability of players like Dele Alli, isolating him in one v one situations by crowding other areas of the field should allow Alli space to beat his opponent and create something or take a shot on himself. Below you can see Alli drifting out wide to receive the ball, take on a single marker and cross for Will Grigg to score.

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Another variation involves Robinson’s men dropping off slightly to increase the area in behind their opponent’s defence. Typically, between two and three attackers were tasked with playing on the shoulder and the creative players behind them aimed to play early through balls to put their forwards in on goal. On other occasions, Robinson’s side utilized the pace of players such as Afobe to their advantage in the counter attack. Often when they turned over possession from an established defensive phase, the ball would be played over the top for Afobe to run onto. Exploiting the space in behind, combined with the overloading of forward areas mentioned earlier, resulted in 76 goals (65%) from inside the box last season. An example of MK Dons playing on the shoulder effectively is illustrated below.


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Adding to Robinson’s armoury, MK Dons are also well adept at scoring from long range. 21(18%) of their goals during the last campaign were scored from outside the box. Their vast array of goalscoring methods often tore their opponents apart with a large number of high scoring wins recorded.

Without the ball, Robinson tends to deploy a high press. It meant that teams couldn’t play out from the back effectively. This forced them to play direct, which only aided MK Dons’ domination of games. While when opponents persisted in building from deep anyway, it often resulted in a turnover of possession, regularly leading to goals. The best example being against Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United in a 4-0 win for Robinson’s side, shown below. In fact, three of their four goals were scored as a direct result of this aggressive approach.

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Three career defining games

Capital One Cup 14/15 – MK Dons 4-0 Manchester United, August 26th, 2014: At the beginning of last season, the club’s ambition was to gain promotion to the Championship. Therefore, a Capital One Cup tie with Manchester United provided the perfect opportunity for MK Dons to show their rivals what they were capable of. United were still settling into life under new coach Louis Van Gaal’s way of playing. The Dutch boss is known for his focus on possession and playing out from defence. With MK Dons high pressing game, they tore United apart in a thoroughly impressive 4-0 win. Not only did this result send a message to their division competitors, it also strengthened Karl Robinson’s growing reputation.

League One 14/15 – MK Dons 2-1 Leyton Orient, May 3rd, 2015: After impressing throughout the season, promotion was all but secured heading into their fixture against Leyton Orient. This game at Stadium MK provided them with the opportunity to seal their place in the Championship. Uncharacteristically however, Robinson’s side left it late to turnaround their fortunes. With just stoppage time remaining, the Dons scored twice to clinch three crucial points.

Championship 15/16 – Rotherham 1-4 MK Dons, August 8th, 2015: Before the season started, MK Dons had widely been tipped to finish bottom of the league. But in their first ever game in the second tier of English football, Robinson led his team to a 1-4 away win at Rotherham. Speaking after the game, Robinson talked about how their status as underdogs will provide a huge source of motivation this season. It once again highlighted his ability to move on from high profile departures such as Benik Afobe in January and Dele Alli.

Three Key Players Developed

Dele Alli: Before linking up with Tottenham Hotspur this season, Alli scored 16 goals from midfield for MK Dons last term. Still just 19 years old, Robinson handed Alli his professional debut three years ago. He had already become one of the best players in League One last season before his £5 million move to Spurs and was the fulcrum of Robinson’s team.

Patrick Bamford: Now on loan at Premier League Crystal Palace, Robinson borrowed Bamford from Chelsea in 2012. The England youth international scored 21 goals during his time at MK Dons and made a lot of progress under the tutelage of his temporary boss. Using contacts from his time coaching at Liverpool, Robinson regularly allowed Bamford to avail of the advice of former Anfield striker Robbie Fowler, as well as Arsenal legend Ian Wright.

Benik Afobe: a product of the Arsenal academy, Afobe had previously spent time on loan at a number of League 1 and Championship teams before his arrival at Stadium MK. Although a serial goalscorer during his youth team days, Afobe had yet to establish himself as a prolific striker at senior level. Within the first six months of his loan spell at MK Dons, Afobe had scored 19 goals, leading to a permanent switch from Arsenal to Wolves in the Championship. The 22 year old continued to score freely and can owe a lot to Karl Robinson.

Written by Patrick Mills

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Patrick Mills

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