Please note that all data has been collected by me using the limited means available to someone who doesn’t have access to the professional software used by clubs today, writes Tom Williams.
Slight disparities may also be caused by variation in the definition of terms (for example, what constitutes an assist), I do my utmost to provide explanations of how to interpret such contentious terms, but this can cause minor disparities between various sources. Feel free to email me with any questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lincoln City’s 2018/19 season was another success story for the management duo of Danny and Nicky Cowley. They guided the Imps to a second promotion and third trophy of their tenure in just three seasons. These articles are a statistical analysis of how they managed it covering firstly the team statistics and then player-by-player breakdowns.
The Imps played 55 games in this season and won 47% of them in all competitions (50% in League Two). On August 11th, Lincoln won 4-1 at home to Swindon Town and entered the automatic playoff places in 2nd, they wouldn’t slip below this position for the rest of the season and didn’t fall off the top spot after mid-December.
This kind of consistency, requiring a resolute mentality and the ability to grind out results, is the hallmark of the Cowleys’ teams. It requires contributions from throughout the squad as the Cowleys aim to get the most of their budget by opting for a small squad of quality players This is reflected by the fact that only 20 outfield players made 10 or more appearances. The plan is for all of this small core of players to make significant contributions without relying too heavily on certain individuals. Indeed, Lincoln City’s top scorer, John Akinde, scored just 8 goals that weren’t penalty kicks (that’s not to say he didn’t contribute enormously, more on that later). Despite lacking an out-and-out goalscorer, Lincoln managed to notch 90 goals with 22 different scorers.
Although no longer primarily using the formidable 4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders and adopting a more expansive style, the Imps managed to improve on their goals conceded record from the previous campaign alongside scoring far more goals. With the second-best defence in League Two and just 58 goals conceded in all competitions, Lincoln’s success was once again built on solid foundations.
As touched upon in the previous section, after a transitional season finding their feet in League Two last time out, the management team clearly highlighted what needed to change to become a genuine force in the fourth tier. The result was a Lincoln City side that aimed to have greater control over games and be more proactive with dictating the tempo. There were other more specific factors too, some of which I will be breaking down below.
One of the most surprising things about Lincoln City’s transition from a side fortunate to make the playoffs to Champions is that the better side actually shot less often. In 2017/18 Lincoln City took an average of 11.2 shots per game and scored an average of 1.4 goals. This season’s Imps averaged 10.1 shots per game but scored a significantly improved 1.6 goals per game. The key to this is a more clinical nature, it is clear that the side have worked on creating better opportunities rather than more shooting chances. The previous season’s shots on target record was more than respectable at 40% and actually remained the same despite the improved goal haul and points tally.
The difference can be seen in the Imps’ conversion rate. In 2017/18, Lincoln averaged a decent 12.8% (again better than the opposition averaged in either season) but that rose to a phenomenal 16% this season. For context, Manchester City averaged 14% in the Premier League and Liverpool managed 15%. While fans might love to encourage optimistic shots, Lincoln’s backroom staff have clearly created a system designed to carve out clear opportunities rather than chances to try speculative efforts. In League Two, the Imps took on the seventh fewest shots despite having the second-best attacking record.
Furthermore, this tactic was also evidently adopted when on the defensive. Despite allowing more shots than they took, Lincoln averaged more shots on target and more goals than their opponents; in fact, they restricted opposition attacks to just a 9.8% conversion rate giving the Imps a significant advantage.
Lincoln’s desire for clinical shooting can also be measured by other metrics, especially where goals went in and where they were assisted from. Unfortunately, I don’t have data for where each individual shot landed as I record my data manually and don’t have the time or resources to track each shot. However, you can still get the general idea from tracking Lincoln’s goals and comparing them to the opposition. 71% of Lincoln’s goals went into the bottom half of the goal and 63% of the total went into a bottom corner. As anyone coached at a young age will be able to tell you, the key is to hit it ‘hard and low’. Top corner goals may look fantastic, but the risk/reward certainly favours a more efficient approach. Contrastingly, only 57% of the Imps’ goals conceded went into the bottom of the goal with just 48% in a bottom corner.
A development that is noticeable at the top level is how many ‘easy’ finishes players for the best team seem to get nowadays, this is because the savvier teams are increasingly opting for what pundits are coining ‘the extra pass’. This again relates to a team-first approach and a desire for efficiency with players opting to set up a teammate in a more promising position rather than simply take any shooting opportunity. I’ve looked to measure this by recording where the final assist happens (I class an assist as a deliberate touch by a teammate that reaches the goalscorer without major interference). The results show that Lincoln have embraced this ‘extra pass’ approach. 37% of Lincoln’s assists this season came inside the penalty area with 16% coming inside the box and inside the width of the 6-yard box (20 yards). This data is striking when compared with the goals of the opposition with just 28% of opposition assists coming inside the area and only 5% coming in the box in the middle 20 yards width wise.
It’s clear that the key to how Lincoln managed to score such an impressive amount of goals without shooting very often is opting for an efficient approach, turning down less fruitful opportunities in favour of creating ones with a far greater chance of success.
Comebacks and changing games
Another key element to City’s success this season was an ability to adapt and overcome difficult situations, especially falling behind in games. Lincoln fell behind 21 times in their 55 games and managed to get a draw or win on 12 of those occasions (four wins, eight draws). The impressive levels of game management are also reflected by the fact that only one team managed a turnaround win against Lincoln City and that was in the Checkatrade Trophy.
Changing a game often requires a substitution and this is something the Cowley brothers are acutely aware of. They made 162 substitutes this season, only once not using their full allowance (again in the Checkatrade Trophy). The players brought into the game were not only used to consolidate wins and draws but also made positive contributions with ten goals and five assists. Lincoln’s position improved 11 times after making their first substitution in their 55 games and their result only got worse on seven occasions. While this gap may initially seem smaller than expected, the difference becomes clear when you look at the points gained and lost (for all points metrics I judge cup fixtures by the same measure as league games). After Lincoln’s first substitution, result changes gained opponents 11 points but gained the Imps 23 leaving them with a net gain of 12 points, or three wins over the course of the season, another significant boost.
Goalscoring and conceding
Another element Lincoln City needed to improve upon from their previous campaign was to provide a more consistent threat throughout games. In 2017/18, the first half would often pass without the Imps providing much threat to the opposition goal and they ended the season with just 41% of their goals coming in this period. The slow start was most obvious in the opening 15 minutes with Lincoln scoring just 7 goals in the opening stages. This was addressed in the close season with the Imps looking to start far more quickly in the latest campaign, resulting in 18 goals in the first 15 minutes of games and ending with an equal split of goals scored in each half of games.
Lincoln managed to retain their knack for scoring late goals, something which has served them well throughout the Cowleys’ tenure. A focus on mental and physical fitness ensures the Imps are always ready to strike late on with 24% of City’s goals coming in the 75th minute or later. The cool head of John Akinde proved invaluable at this point with over a third (6 of 17) of his goals coming in the last 15 plus added time.
When looking to improve a team, it’s vital to ensure you don’t lose the side’s strengths in the process and the continued focus on restarts is evident. Set-pieces have always been important to the Cowley brothers and the tireless work behind the scenes, with routines inspired by other sports, have been very successful and appear to have influenced teams all the way up to international level. There’s been some talk of the Imps’ set-pieces becoming less effective this campaign, but the numbers don’t support this. As opposition managers continue to highlight, Lincoln are still very effective from restarts. In all competitions, City managed 38 set-piece goals (42% of their total haul) with opposing teams scoring 20 (34%).
As covered by Tifo football recently, there has been some debate about how relevant corners are in the modern game. Research into the top five leagues in Europe has shown that, since the year 2000, just 3.3% (3.1% in the Premier League) of corners have led to a goal. This is a significant decrease compared to the past. In England’s Division One after 1945, 6.5% of corners led to goals. Perhaps misconceptions about how significant corners are in the modern game are part of the issue of the perceived weakness of set-pieces.
Lincoln have also marginally improved this season compared to the previous one despite the absence of key set-piece taker Sam Habergham and the departure of aerial threats Luke Waterfall and Sean Raggett. In 2017/18 Lincoln scored 3.4% of their corners, the 2018/19 figure was 3.5%.
Another factor in how City’s set pieces are perceived is that they are inevitably compared with City’s National League winning season on 2016/17. In this campaign, over 45% of Lincoln’s goals in the National League came from set pieces. However, it’s important to remember the significant advantage City had in facing part-time teams who lacked the time to give due attention to set-pieces.
Versus other teams
The following tables only take League Two meetings between Lincoln City and each opponent into consideration, other fixtures played by opponents are not included.