So potentially the trickiest trip of the season has come and gone and the Imps have finished January unbeaten, picking up 9 points from 5 games; a good tally even if marginally below our average so far this season. On paper, it’s time for a different kind of test. From a team full of confidence to a club with a toxic atmosphere, currently staring non-league in the fact. Here are some things to look out for:
1) County (All Notts County stats are League only)
Coming into Saturday, County are 8 points and 13 goals from safety. Their disastrous season has been perhaps the most surprising story of League Two. Despite some considerable spending, it’s been a woeful campaign. A win record of just 14% (compared to our 59%) and a goals conceded record comfortably the worst in the division tell their own story. These woes have been compounded by well-documented issues off the pitch ranging from the amusing to some eye-watering numbers. Perhaps most concerning for Notts County fans are the baffling debt figures being reported if they are relegated.
More pertinent to Lincoln City, however, are the issues on the field. In their last 7 games, County have lost 5 and drawn too. Perhaps most frustrating for their followers may be the fact that they’ve failed to score in 5 of those 7. A surprising win against Tranmere aside, this has been the story since early October when County’s 3 game winning streak came to an end – in fact, 75% of County’s League wins so far came inside a week.
Not for the first time this season, it’s important to point out that their generally porous defence is at its weakest in the closing stages, a time when our attack often comes alive. 14 of the 59 goals they’ve shipped (more than 2 a game) have come after the 80 minute mark, perhaps reflecting the accusations of a lack of mental strength I’ve seen made by supporters. Despite them being on a run of 1 win in 17 games, they may fancy their chances of getting a point out of the game. Out of their 5 home games against the top 9 teams, County have only lost to Forest Green (who hold the best away record in the division). Predictably they’ve not won any of the other 4, perhaps indicating that they may set out to frustrate us and force a stalemate.
However, I believe first-half form is worth covering. If games ended at half-time, County would be out of the relegation zone in 21st. While it’s obviously important not to read too much into the half-time table, it’s an interesting way of assessing where a team’s strengths lie. It’ll come as no shock to Lincoln supporters that we improve considerably after the break compared to other teams in the division. In fact, we’re actually 7th in the half-time table – 3 places below Grimsby! By contrast, County struggle after the break and so far in the second period of games, they’ve conceded almost 3 times as many as they’ve scored.
2) Danny Rowe
Before Danny’s arrival, losing Bruno Andrade to suspension would have seriously worried me. While he’s not been at his scintillating best lately, his importance shouldn’t be underestimated. However, Rowe has returned to Sincil Bank and the impact has been immediate. In his 3 appearances since his loan move, Rowe has averaged a goal every 58 minutes. All 3 of his strikes have been with his deadly left foot. In fact, Rowe has already contributed 30% of all our left-footed goals this season.
I think this shows the different option he provides to the wingers we’ve had and still have. He can combine the direct running from deep that we’ve lacked when McCartan hasn’t been playing (or involved enough in the match) but can also be clinical when fed inside the box. His impressive impact has left Danny and Nicky with a dilemma for the Notts County game, recalling Bruno would require either dropping Rowe or fielding the experimental but potentially deadly trio of Anderson, Rowe and Andrade behind Akinde. It would be a risk away from home but equally, we won’t face a more susceptible defence.
If we do opt for the same system with either Rowe or Andrade, I will expect to see the other from the bench – not a nice prospect for the full back.
3) Grant Smith
A debate that has been rumbling along amongst fans this season is on Josh Vickers versus Grant Smith. When Josh last returned from injury and immediately regained his place, there was plenty of debate with some arguing Smith’s case with others asserting Josh as first choice. This debate was reignited this week with some feeling Smith could have done better with Bury’s equaliser. In this case, I’ll just lay out the figures I’ve collected as this is an issue I will return to in future when I have added more metrics.
So far in 2018/19, Vickers has played 19 times (1855 minutes), conceding 21 goals and keeping 4 clean sheets. Smith has played 14 times (1378 minutes), conceding 12 goals and keeping 5 clean sheets. This means with Josh in goal, we’ve conceded a goal every 88 minutes whereas with Grant we concede every 115 minutes. This seems to clearly make the case for Grant retaining his spot but it’s important to also look at the threat they’re facing. I don’t have access to more complex measures such as xG but hopefully, over the course of this data sample, shots on target will have evened out to ensure it’s a relatively even measure.
Josh has actually been called into action far more frequently when he’s played, facing an average of 4.2 shots on target per game while Grant has faced 3.5 per game. This means the (hopefully friendly) rivals have a pretty even save percentage: Vickers’ is 73%, Smith’s is 76%. I believe that the noticeable difference in shots faced is a result of when each custodian has been in goal, Vickers’ appearances largely came on early on in the season when the defence and method were still bedding in and being learnt.