MK Dons 2 Carlisle United 0: The sense is of a campaign drifting towards obscurity, which is not much of a product to sell to the masses before halfway has even been reached. This defeat nudged Carlisle into League Two’s bottom half and towards a faintly anxious mid-season reckoning.

It was also the latest game that saw United toothless; in position to inflict at least a little damage on the division’s best team and fail to do so. At present you could line up a row of fragile ornaments on the opposition goal line and be fairly confident they would all survive intact.

This is Carlisle’s major issue; not necessarily the only one, but with Ashley Nadesan about to vanish back to Fleetwood and who knows where else, United’s ability to avoid a steeper slide may depend on which striker, or strikers, John Sheridan can lure for part two of this journey.

If the hunt goes badly, Carlisle will be on first-name terms with the weak men of their division. That is the conclusion you have to draw from defeats like this, which see the Blues flirt with the idea of doing something significant but never quite get there.

That is the mark of a middling side, one which, in United’s case, has too many temporary solutions and not enough durables. As at Lincoln in the FA Cup, Sheridan’s team had some reasonable spells against a decent outfit, but it was mainly deceptive.

It was pressure without a point. It was one golden chance, Hallam Hope denied by goalkeeper and post, and then a late period of pushing, by which time MK Dons were two up and in firm control.

No League Two side has yet beaten Paul Tisdale’s team at their vast ground. So there is no disgrace in defeat. The worry arises from what United produce overall, and what they do not.

They did not give their supporters sufficient reason to think this might turn into a memorable away day. Full-time had the effect of a shoulder-shrug – something else to ponder, when wondering how people are supposed to throw themselves behind this cause from here on.

United have some important players returning from injury and that offers certain possibilities. But there can be no confidence of a charge, given how short they are elsewhere, their better qualities too often smothered by an error, or bluntness behind enemy lines.

Their sharper days are fleeting; this was not one of them. Nadesan returned to the XI, and got behind MK a couple of times, but there was also a lot of frustrated waiting as Tisdale’s team began exploring some of the pitch’s spaces, in a home performance far from vintage but which carried a few ominous tones.

When they started spreading the ball, offering cameos of deft interplay, they often found Baily Cargill in crossing space on the left. His deliveries deserved better than inaccurate finishes, like Rhys Healey’s eighth-minute header, or a complete lack of attention by MK’s forward players at other times.

Their possession game was superior, without showing devil. A Lawson D’Ath shot died a swift death when Jack Sowerby blocked, and after Jerry Yates had limped off (Tom Parkes on), Alex Gilbey sent the next half-chance wide.

When another Cargill cross was spilled by Adam Collin, Parkes clearing, Tisdale hopped up and down on the spot in exasperation. George Williams saw a similar delivery unrewarded and these were the moments when one yearned for Carlisle to summon something, to see if they could make it a much more interesting afternoon.

One had to blink when, amid that Dons pressure, Nadesan was suddenly running off the shoulder downfield but failing to apply power to his finish.

A much better opening came later. Macaulay Gillesphey, pushed up into Yates’ wing-back slot, sent Nadesan down the left. His cross evaded Cargill but Hope couldn’t force it home.

This was Carlisle’s chance and one could not be certain when another of similar quality would come. They were then brilliantly reprieved by Gary Liddle, when the defender acrobatically cleared a Healey finish off the line, but United’s glimmers of encouragement were snuffed out early in the second half.

Sheridan did not like the way Carlisle allowed the opener to happen to them, instead of cutting it out early. There were indeed a couple of corners which, although tame, remained in United’s territory, then Nadesan was dispossessed and Jordan Houghton found space to shoot, the ball nestling into the bottom corner past a Collin dive that seemed late.

In this “first-goal league” of which Sheridan often speaks, this felt like a deep cut. Nadesan was denied by Lee Nicholls and there was some surprise when the striker was then withdrawn, Sheridan opting for Richie Bennett from the bench with Jamie Devitt also back after injury.

There was no time, though, to examine these changes for positive effect because Carlisle quickly shipped another. The next stage of the inquest will focus on how Dean Lewington, MK’s experienced but not necessarily rapid captain, was able to stride into such vast space down the left.

From there, they exhibited quality, Lewington’s low cross converted by Kieran Agard, who had shown a striker’s instinct to venture behind the defence.

It was as though Tisdale’s players were laying on a demonstration here of what Carlisle sorely needed. It also meant a final half-hour or so when United, improved by Devitt’s ball-playing, spent time in the home half without…well, you know by now.

Hope pounced on a Conor McGrandles mistake but failed to find Bennett. The same man drew a stop from Nicholls. A few corners came to nothing and, later, a Gillesphey attempt went close.

Close, though, doesn’t win prizes. “We had attempts, but they’re just stats,” Sheridan said. One understands why United’s boss feels like a stuck record with his recent post-match comments yet he and others in top positions must now show a freshness and quality of touch, to give this season life.

Without doing so, January onwards risks feeling like a long and unsatisfying road to nowhere.

MK Dons: Nicholls, Williams, Lewington, Houghton, Cargill, Cisse, Gilbey, McGrandles, D'Ath (Sow 81), Agard (Watson 90), Healey (Pawlett 71). Not used: Moore, Hancox, Simpson, Jackson.

Goals: Houghton 50, Agard 65

United: Collin, Liddle, Gerrard, Gillesphey, Sowerby, Yates (Parkes 11), Jones, Etuhu, Slater (Devitt 60), Hope, Nadesan (Bennett 62). Not used: Gray, Miller, Grainger, Campbell.

Booked: Slater, Gillesphey

Ref: Scott Oldham

Crowd: 6,849 (343 Carlisle fans)