The midfield conundrum – O’Connor or Connolly?

Whilst we’re unsure exactly how the side will line up on Friday night, or what the approach will be, one thing is for certain; Saturday has given our manager some serious things to consider.

Ahead of his first game in the dugout Michael Appleton will have a host of questions on his mind, something we’ll explore later in the week with an in-depth article. However, one of the big questions is worth asking now, mainly because it can be typed up quickly here in Northumberland ahead of my journey home and scheduled for the tea-time crowd tomorrow!

I’m taking a leap here and suggesting we’ll go either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. In both of those formations, it’s likely Wales international Joe Morrell will play, as well as Jack Payne, be it as part of a two-man attack or maybe even out wide. However, the big question has to be whether we start Calum Connolly or Michael O’Connor.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

I’ve always been a fan of O’Connor, ever since his loan spell here back in the Peter Jackson era. He’s changed a bit as a player, I feel he’s more defensive now than he was back then and is perfect when screening the back four in a 4-2-3-1, especially with a more attack-minded Joe Morrell next to him. He’s been pretty harshly dealt with recently too; I haven’t seen him have a truly bad game but he’s been out in the cold due to the arrival of England Under 21 man Callum Connolly.

Connolly’s pass in the 2-0 win against Fleetwood caught my eye and signalled him out as a composed and energetic midfielder, but it’s claimed part of our problem this weekend was a lack of heart in the middle of the field. I think we lacked a leader in there but is that all? Or is Callum Connolly not the right partner for Joe Morrell, instead being more of an alternative? Should we bring MOC back into the fold for the weekend’s tie?

It’s been a while, but I thought we’d throw together a ‘versus’ piece to examine the pair. I’ve picked a range of stats from Wyscout that I feel are crucial for the role of holding midfielder; not least passing accuracy and defensive duels won. So, how do the pair measure up and who would be more suited to a start on Friday?

Despite Callum arriving late in the transfer window, he’s getting quite close to Mickey’s minutes on the field; that’s due in no part to the latter’s slightly stunted pre-season. When I caught up with Mickey ahead of the Bristol Rovers’ game, he told me he felt fit and ready for action; “I had the operation in the summer,” he said.

“I think I’ve been involved in every game so far. I missed three weeks in pre-season but I did have a good off season. I didn’t get a holiday, I was in every day whilst the other lads were off to Dubai or whatever they were doing, so I feel fit at the minute. My knee feels great and I just feel really good at the minute.”

Despite that, he has 668 minutes from 11 matches, whilst Callum has 541 minutes from his six outings for the club. It’s led to some social media speculation that Connolly may have a clause in his deal that states he has to play; as far as I’m aware that’s not the case.

How do they measure up? The two really important ones for me are pass accuracy and defensive duels won, but both need additional figures to give them some context. Callum’s pass accuracy is very good, something which may surprise those watching at the weekend. He has an 86.5% accuracy, which comes from 33.27 passes per game. Mickey has a lower figure but by no means a poor one, with 79.5% accuracy from 33.5 passes per game. It suggests they’re not far off each other in terms of delivery, although Callum does slightly edge it.

Interestingly, for those who felt Callum was off it against Oxford, his accuracy was 87% although he made almost half as many passes in that game as he did against Wycombe the week before.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

The other big stats to look at is defensive duels won. In my mind, the role next to Joe Morrell is one of a ball-winner as much as anything. It’s a role in which you need to harry and harass, chase and battle. Callum has won 46% of his defensive duels, making 6.16 per game. This weekend, he won just one of five, a couple of which led to goals. It wasn’t a good afternoon for the youngster and he would surely be the first to admit that.

As for Mickey, he has won 71.4% of his defensive duels this season, making 8.49 per game. This is a big stat for him to come out on top of, not just strengthening his case but perhaps pointing to something we missed this weekend. That experience, that fire in his belly might have kept the score down a little and whilst I’m not blaming Callum for the drubbing (everyone was pretty awful), having a leader and fighter like Mickey in there would have helped drive the team on.

Outside of that, the two are split fairly evenly. Passes to the final third is a stats I really like; it’s all well and good spraying the ball accurately from side to side, but getting it into the danger area is crucial. Callum manages 4.66 passes to the final third per game, with a 71.4% accuracy. Mickey delivers slightly more, 5.66, but his accuracy is slightly down at 64.3%.


Similarly, the number of interceptions they make is similar; Callum making 4.73, Mickey 4.99. It suggests that there is little to call between them in terms of their defensive duties, aside from that tackling rate of Mickey’s.

I’ve also included ‘number of successful actions’ – this is a pretty wide-ranging stat that measures everything a player does on the pitch and how successful they are. That’s passing, heading, tackling, shooting, the lot. If it comes off, it’s a tick. If it doesn’t, it’s a cross and at the end of the game, it’s measured as a percentage. Again, across the board, there isn’t a lot to choose. Callum is successful in 66.4% of his actions, Mickey 63.2%.

What’s the outcome? Well, despite being a huge fan of stats, the key for me lies in the one thing you can’t measure in numbers; experience. I firmly believe Morrell has to play, which for me means a more experienced player at his side; certainly for the next few matches. We need a spark of youth, a nice passer and an engine in Morrell, but we also need that heart and fire which Mickey would bring. His tackling stats alone suggest to me that he’s a fighter and this weekend, he should get the nod if fit.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for all the latest Imps’ news and reaction. We’re also on Facebook and you can like us on there too.


  1. Connolly’s first game was decent but then he played only worse and wors.O’Connor for me ….
    Talking about midfield, I wonder if Appleton will try to play Freck once fit or we won’t see him again cause he’ll be shipped out in winter… Second option looks like more sensible one to me if I’m honest…

    • Interesting stats as always, thanks Gary. It’s a tough comparison to make given that as a team we were decent in the earlier games that O’connor played and have been below par in many of the games that Connoly has played.

      In any case I’m for o’Connor at the moment. We need some leadership in the middle to get us back on track.

  2. Play them both? Are we likely to see us line up with an extra midfielder and play 4-3-2-1? So a place in midfield for Morrell, OConnor with one from Bostwick,Chapman and Connolly

Comments are closed.