Big Defensive Decision Awaits Michael Appleton This Weekend

Courtesy Graham Burrell

When Cian Bolger earned himself a red card for an elbow on Shaun Whalley against Shrewsbury, Imps’ supporters had every right to be concerned.

Bolger’s early-season form had been hugely impressive and with Michael Bostwick on the treatment table, it left the defence looking very threadbare indeed. Michael Appleton admitted it landed him with a headache in the aftermatch of that 0-0 draw, but that it also presented opportunities to fringe players looking for a spell in the side.

52% of Stacey West readers hoped to see Aaron Lewis come in at full-back and Neal Eardley step into the middle of the defence. 34% said they’d prefer to see Callum Connolly alongside Jason Shackell; with hindsight, I wonder if that figure might leap up drastically.

The truth is that Connolly has been a revelation in the defence, clearly thriving after being played in a more natural position. Admittedly this week was only the EFL Trophy, but he helped keep Freddie Ladapo and Michael Smith quiet, as well as marshalling a young defence. Ben Coker is match-rusty, Harry Anderson is a stranger to wing back and Max Melbourne has little experience and played out of position. Connolly, with three games at centre half under his belt, was arguably the senior figure in terms of game time.

He hasn’t disappointed at all. As I said on the podcast today, he was my Man of the Match this week. He brings something different to our back four and I wonder if he might have a shout at a start against Gillingham this weekend. Look at the evidence; he helped keep John Marquis quiet, a player who cost in excess of £1m. He wasn’t overawed by Marcus Forrs or Joe Pigott when we played Wimbledon and he looked calm and assured against Ipswich Town. Add that to his appearance against Rotherham and he’s got a real case for keeping Cian Bolger out of the side.

Of course, Bolger is a different type of defender. One would assume that Bolger is more aerially dominant, perhaps a little more worldly-wise when it comes to handling big centre forwards and experienced players looking to jab a sneaky elbow at you. He’s not as composed with the ball at his feet in my opinion, but he’s played much more football and as a senior figure would be hoping to get the nod.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

However, we know Michael Appleton likes youth, he likes energy and Callum certainly has that. He’s a good passer of the ball, but he’s also proven himself more than comfortable dealing with tough opposition. It’s been nice to have a bit of pace in the middle of the defence and the Appleton way of playing, passing out from the back, suits the Under 20 World Cup Winner as well. It could be a big decision for the manager to make.

“It’s not just an opportunity for someone to get in the team,” Michael Appleton said of Bolger’s suspension, “but to try and stay in the team too.” The manager opened the door for Connolly and the youngster seized his chance. It’s been quite a turnaround for the Everton loanee, he was widely condemned for his performance against Oxford, his ‘tackle’ on Fosu before one of the winger’s goals was a limp and weak as the ones I used to put in at under 13 level. It was hard to see a way back from that, but he’s shown immense character and resilience not only to bounce back but to plug a gap that looked like seriously troubling the squad.

With Ipswich, Wimbledon and Portsmouth away, as well as Rotherham at home, the run of games Bolger has missed looked daunting and yet we only lost one, that to a freak goal. Granted, wins haven’t been as regular as we’d like, but the job of the back four is to remain organised, hard to break down and tough. Connolly has proven he’s just as adept as anyone in that role and has a very good chance of playing this weekend at Gillingham against a side I expect us to compete well with.

Who do that stats say is the better choice? Admittedly, the averages are only taking into account four games for Connolly and more for Bolger, but I’ve put together a graphic and some analysis on the next page (without bias) to see who the numbers suggest would be better playing alongside Jason Shackell. I’ve put it on the next page to save the stat-o-phobes the trouble of either getting angry, bored or both.

If you don’t like analysis by numbers, this is where we part ways. Instead of going straight off though, give the link below a click and make sure you’ve voted for the site in the FSA Awards, as well as giving Josh Vickers’ a vote for his stunning save. Cheers.



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