Last week’s defeat to Shrewsbury Town has brought into focus some of the more concerning aspects of our season. With just two wins in our past ten league games, zero league wins away from home and having dropped out of the top six, not only is a win needed in this upcoming game but a run of victories would be most welcome to get our promotion bid back on track.
As positive as most of this season has been, the congestion in the League One table means we cannot rest on our laurels. With no game on Boxing Day, we could be as low as 12th and five points from the play-offs before our next league game if we were to lose here. Now is the time to convert draws into wins and assert ourselves in the promotion picture.
This game has the potential to be the most interesting team selection of the season, with places up for grabs across the pitch and no indication even of what formation Mark Robins will be looking to play.
The biggest conundrum at the moment is how to find a fit as many of our best performers as possible into a functioning unit, primarily because a lot of the players we’d like to see in the team are central midfielders. The recent 4-2-3-1 shape, with Jordan Shipley and Callum O’Hare playing out wide, had shown promise against Ipswich Town in the FA Cup replay but came unstuck last week against Shrewsbury when we needed to relieve pressure on ourselves against a hard-working, pressing side.
The situation gets trickier when looking at the rest of the squad as a whole, where we have defenders who’d be better-suited to a formation involving a back three and wing-backs, and forwards who look more comfortable playing in a front two, either option involving Mark Robins taking at least one midfielder out of the side. With no natural width to the side further up the pitch, playing with wing-backs seems the best compromise at the moment, just how that affects the rest of the side will remain a mystery until the team is named ahead of the game.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting against Lincoln City looked to be the lesson in football that demonstrated that we were a long way away from attaining promotion from League Two – being the third from final league game of the season. Within seconds of the kick-off Lincoln were ahead and were continually able to poke at our weak spots throughout the 90 minutes.
An equaliser came via a well-executed counter-attack from a Lincoln corner, rounded off by Tom Bayliss. Lincoln regained the lead around 20 minutes later, punishing uncertain defending from a long ball, only for the Sky Blues to equalise from a move directly from the ensuing kick-off. Just as we were building a head of steam, Lincoln’s powered through our limp defence to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, holding us at arm’s length for the entire second-half and scoring a further goal to kill us off.
Manager – Michael Appleton
Stepping into the considerable void left by the Cowley brothers – who took Lincoln from the doldrums of the National League with crowds of around 3,000 to League One and regular sell-outs of their 10,000-capacity Sincil Bank home – it is perhaps not so surprising that Michael Appleton has taken time to make an impact at Lincoln City.
A highly-rated coach for his work at youth-level with West Bromwich Albion and at senior level with Oxford United, Appleton is the kind of progressive, up-and-coming coach that symbolises the direction Lincoln have been looking to move towards since promotion from non-league. With the club having recruited technical players of the likes of Jack Payne, Jorge Grant and Jake Hesketh over the summer, Appleton has had some of the raw ingredients he would like to worth with but the squad overall still seems to be getting up to speed with what their manager is looking to implement.
Who To Look Out For?
Although an infamous tag of being a physical and long-ball side under the Cowleys wasn’t entirely unwarranted, the former managers had evolved the style of play during their final 12 months at the club. Key players in their promotion-winning season last year were the attacking full-back duo of Neal Eardley and Harry Toffolo, technical midfielder Tom Pett and the skilful winger Bruno Andrade. Some excellent football was played at Sincil Bank last season, while there was still a level of pragmatism to pin-point opposition weaknesses with more direct play when required.
Jorge Grant and Tyler Walker – team-mates in the Nottingham Forest youth-team – have added to that dynamic most seamlessly this season. Grant’s set-piece delivery and evasiveness have made him an effective operator on the left side, while the out-and-out finishing ability of Walker – a reported summer target for ourselves – has seen him reach eight goals this season, although the more physical presence of John Akinde has been preferred at times.
While yet to add an end product to his terrifying dribbling ability, the minute figure of Jack Payne looks set to be a key way in which Lincoln might be able to change this game from the bench. Having proven himself an effective operator at this level with Southend, Oxford and Bradford, it is only a matter of time before Payne gets going. The raw pace of Harry Anderson on the right-flank is another area where Lincoln can hurt us ahead of their solid defensive base marshalled by the grizzled Michael Bostwick.
Areas To Exploit
Due to injuries, Lincoln have been left without a natural holding midfielder player over the past few months, which can leave their defence exposed in the space just ahead of them. Being able to get between the lines and run directly at what is largely quite a slow back-line could be a source of joy for us in this game.
Moreover, Michael Appleton is the kind of process-driven manager who’ll prefer performances that help implement his preferred technical style of football over individual results. Having won their past two games, Appleton has bought some breathing room for his side away from the relegation zone, which is likely to make this a game between two sides looking to play attractive football rather than the passing vs pressing contests that we have struggled to deal with this season.