Carlisle United 2 MK Dons 3: When Paul Tisdale, the visiting manager, summoned the enigmatic but potent Chuks Aneke from the bench for the start of the second half, it served to underline what MK Dons had and Carlisle, alas, did not.

A true attacking figurehead, rather than a false nine. A dangerous weapon rather than only the possibility of damage being inflicted. MK’s extra force in the final third ended up settling this game and, in the process, highlighted where United need to get.

The above is not intended as criticism of Stefan Scougall, the latest to be tried in the deep-lying centre-forward position by Steven Pressley. Carlisle’s goalscorer was in fact one of their best players on Saturday, and value for his man-of-the-match award.

The issue is United’s ability to hit and hurt teams in all ways, not just some. At their best here (the first half, mainly) there was some good and nimble forward play, the kind of which led to Scougall’s 14th-minute equalising penalty.

There was not, though, a surefire alternative when things needed tweaking. It is plain that Pressley and Carlisle are waiting for Mark Cullen to get up to line-leading speed and the hope is that his increased availability will fill this void.

With 13 games to go, and still in a play-off position, there is time enough to become a team capable of covering more bases. The absence to injury of Danny Grainger and Tom Parkes cannot be disregarded when assessing this defeat either, given it left United to confront a rival with, in defence, one debutant, another just back from the sidelines and a right-back seconded to left-back.

Again, all those involved (respectively Peter Grant, Gary Liddle and Gary Miller) stepped up gamely, though in Liddle’s case he was unusually sloppy in the moment that saw MK Dons go 2-1 up. Yet add these elements to a mix that involves a number of new players and it is apparent that Carlisle do not yet have a blend to match that which drove them into the top seven in the first place.

Individually, maybe. It is the unit that needs to bond, along with the traditional number nine qualities Cullen has been hired to provide. His latest cameo was only a couple of minutes old when MK Dons went back in front, capitalising on pressure they had built through their more rounded attacking game after the break.

Before then, it had been a more even contest in front of that big crowd. The fact it ended in defeat should not take the shine off the efforts of those club staff who conjured #8kforMK, which ended up clearing the 10,000 mark for the first time in the league at Brunton Park since 2008.

That is a significant feat and a tribute to their energy and creativity. The extra buzz and bustle on this fine February day was a welcome feature of the pre-match routine. A shame this transitional side could not match it with something as successful.

In the first half, it seemed possible. Scougall, on his full debut, caught the eye as he dropped off the front line and showed bright movement and purpose, including an eighth-minute break onto a Grant ball, enabling Hallam Hope to shoot. A couple more ventures saw Callum O’Hare denied and Hope nod a Liddle cross wide, and it would really help if, when showing this level of enterprise, Carlisle would not so often find a way to concede. As against Crewe and Exeter, they did again, MK going ahead when Conor McGrandles edged onto Dean Lewington’s cross and then beat Adam Collin with a tight-angled finish.

This looseness needs to be dealt with if United are not to be chasing more games. At least here their response was immediate, their interplay before Scougall was felled by Baily Cargill pleasing to the eye. The Scot’s penalty was not exactly struck with full force but it was accurate enough, and met by 10,000 roars.

Alas, they were the day’s final true sounds of Cumbrian celebration. From there United showed urgency when coming forward but lacked that crucial last element. Their pressing was positive, their midfield and attack operating tightly together, Tisdale’s team looking pedestrian at times and reduced to going long in a bid to get Kieran Agard into dangerous places.

It could not, though, be sustained. Before United slid, Regan Slater drilled wide while Nathan Thomas, though willing to take on his man, found the final moment still elusive. When they came back, Tisdale’s team got better value for their patience, Lewington almost setting up Agard and Alex Gilbey ambushing Slater to make further inroads.

Jake Hesketh next swung a deep cross against Collin’s bar yet it was later, with Aneke joining Agard, that the visitors had played a card the Blues found hard to match. Collin was in watchful form, saving from Gilbey, as Thomas had another drilled attempt blocked at the other end.

The direction of play was, though, firmly in MK’s favour now, and this duly told. United also seemed to sag in terms of their overall energy and the next decisive moment came after Pressley had twisted by sending on not just Cullen but Liam McCarron, Slater and Thomas replaced.

Neither had much opportunity to affect matters before MK went in front. Hope’s ambitious appeal for a free-kick deep in the away half was ignored by ref Peter Wright and while the visitors’ counter-attack was swift, Liddle will still not wish to see the moment Aneke’s cross slipped under his foot, allowing Hesketh to sweep the ball past Collin.

One sensed a greater poise from the visitors here, even accounting for their fortune. Gilbey, running beyond the frontmen from midfield, was a very useful operator and he twice almost added a third before this route eventually did crack United again, Agard tucking home after Aneke had drawn defenders and Gilbey had punched the decisive hole.

This was the moment that sealed the sense of anti-climax for the 10,000. There were a couple of positive distractions later on, such as Jason Kennedy’s highly welcome return to Brunton Park action as an 81st-minute sub, Hope’s well-dispatched 10th goal of the season after Kennedy had helped win it back on the right, and a final flurry that brought Collin up for a corner.

These, though, were after-the-event happenings, the better side having established superiority by then. It would of course be typically Carlisle to follow this big-crowd home defeat with a win at far-away Colchester: a game where, in the interests of generating fresh momentum, a few more of the right parts could do with being available, along with the necessary glue.

United: Collin, Liddle, Miller, Grant, Gerrard, Etuhu, Slater (Cullen 67), Scougall (Kennedy 81), O’Hare, Thomas (McCarron 67), Hope. Not used: Gray, Jones, Glendon, Simpson.

Goal: Scougall 14pen

MK Dons: Moore, Walsh, Cargill (Aneke 46), Martin, Lewington, McGrandles, Brittain, Cisse, Hesketh (Walker 87), Gilbey, Agard (Wheeler 81). Not used: Nicholls, Baudry, Houghton, Harley.

Goals: McGrandles 12, Hesketh 69, Agard 77

Booked: McGrandles, Moore, Aneke

Ref: Peter Wright

Crowd: 10,459 (329 MK Dons fans)