Imps v Cheltenham Town Preview

Well, that was good, wasn’t it? The Imps pull out another top-drawer performance on the big stage. That sets us up nicely for an opportunity to seal promotion at home this weekend. In last week’s preview, I highlighted the importance of Matt Gilks in our surge towards League One and was backed up by the magnificent save and accurate goal kick that saved and then secured the game. However, I did also hint at an unlikely goalscorer and it turned out to be our top scorers so you win some, you lose some! This week, it’s Cheltenham Town, here are some things to look out for.

1) The Robins (All Cheltenham Town stats are League only)

In the reverse fixture, City came away with the points with a 2-0 win. It was a fairly comfortable game that ensured that the Imps remained the early pacesetters after 10 games with an impressive 25 points. As an aside, at this point, Bury were 8th, MK Dons were 13th and Mansfield were 14th. Macclesfield, who climbed out of the dropzone midweek were on just 3 points. It was a game to forget for Akinde as he managed to miss a glorious opportunity and block a goal-bound shot before the Imps pulled ahead.

Cheltenham may sit 16th going into this tie but their form is decent. In their last 5, they’ve won 3 and lost just 1. This puts them 4th in the last-5-table with Lincoln leading the way as the only unbeaten team; in fact, we’re now unbeaten in 18 and have lost just once in 25 in League Two. Despite their lowly League position, Cheltenham are 5 points closer to the playoffs than the relegation zone, perhaps an indication of the weakness of those below them. This relatively comfortable position is built on the Robins’ recent home form with the 2nd best record at home in League Two over the last 6 games. Only Tranmere better them in this table who, incidentally, were the last team to win at Whaddon Road on January 12th.

Fortunately for us, it’s a very different story on the road; they’re actually 2nd bottom of the away table over the last 6 (you might have already guessed that we’re top of this table too). They’d actually lost 6 away games in a row before unpredictably beating Crewe who have an impressive home record. Another weakness in Cheltenham’s season has been an inability to keep the opposition out. Their clean sheet record of just 17% is the 2nd lowest in the division and I can’t see that improving this weekend.

At the other end, the key man is veteran striker Luke Varney who made his debut in the reverse fixture. Despite us going onto win after he entered the field, he’s had a good subsequent season. He’s managed 14 goals from 31 appearances (26 starts). He’s always struck me as a player who has played a bit above their level rather than being a big fish in a small pond. This is reflected in the fact that this is his best scoring season since 2006/7 despite being 36. However, he did score 5 goals and notch 3 assists in the Premier League as a part of the Blackpool side heroically battling relegation in 2010/11.

2) A different level of opposition

Last time out, we faced one of the better sides in the division, this week it’s a weaker proposition (insert ‘on paper’ wherever you see appropriate there). Recently I’ve spent a big chunk of time putting together some systems to analyse our performances against teams based on their level. It’s led to both confirmation of what you’d imagine but also some interesting points I didn’t expect.

Firstly, a couple of things that won’t surprise many: we score more and concede fewer goals against the worse teams and pick up more points against those lower in the table. Groundbreaking stuff right? If anything the points per game metric is mainly to test my system is working but there is something interesting in the Goals table. The rate at which we defend better against worse teams outstrips the improvement in attack considerably. You could argue that this indicates a weakness going forward, we rarely thrash the strugglers. However, looking at how high the scoring average starts I think it actually indicates the strength of our attack. We continue to score consistently and the decreasing effectiveness of our attack is minimal against better opposition.

What’s more surprising on the surface is the fact that the amount of shots we take actually decreases when playing weaker opposition. In fact, if you look at the averages based on League section table, we actually average fewer shots against those in the bottom half than against Mansfield and Bury! Furthermore, it’s not just that these matches lack shots, teams in the bottom half (but not relegation zone) average more shots than the Imps in their matches against us. This had me puzzled so I dug a little deeper. Long-time readers will perhaps have already guessed that it’s all about the quality of the shot (don’t worry I won’t use xG). This can quickly be seen by the fact that when it comes to shots on target, the natural order is restored and Lincoln average a positive number. Against those in the bottom half, we get nearly half our shots on target and almost a quarter go in, a stat that noticeably decreases as we face better opposition. To me, this suggests that against the weaker sides, we tend to be more patient, knowing we can craft a good opportunity whereas, against the better teams, we know we’ll get fewer golden opportunities so are more likely to take on a riskier shot. This is reinforced by the fact that, despite the shots figures, we average considerably more possession against those bottom half sides.

3) Set-Pieces

A little more tenuously, the better shots against weaker sides may also be reflected in the corner totals. Despite more possession and goals, we average far fewer corners against the weaker sides; who needs a corner if it goes in? Speaking of set pieces, we notched a goal from a penalty and a goal kick last time out, that takes our tally of set-piece goals to 38 for the season. Ian Holloway was the latest manager or pundit to point out our ability from restarts this week and he’s certainly not wrong, the organisation and ingenuity is the reason that, despite not having a player with 20 goals, the Imps are on course for the title.


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