City eased past Scunthorpe United last night at Sincil Bank, winning 4-0 and missing a handful of good chances too in a one-sided affair.
Little can be gleaned from these games in terms of the new season; tackling is restricted to a degree, teams become disjointed late on and the intensity is often reduced for fear of injury. Players are only at half match fitness after the long break too, so the results are not exactly an indication of how we’ll do. Who can forget the 5-1 victory against then-Premier League Middlesbrough at the beginning of the nineties, or beating Derby County in the summer of ’96? The seasons that followed were not huge successes.
That said, you can learn plenty about a team from these early games. Styles of play, individual players attributes and even future tactics are all hinted at or alluded to. Preconceptions can be shattered too, thoughts that fans had prior to these games can be cast aside. I think that’s the case here; there have been a few eyebrow-raising moments and surprising choices which suggest the squad has certain flexibilities that we hadn’t seen prior to the resumption of matches.
What have we learned from these games? I suppose every fan will take something different away with them, but I’ve put together a list of five things that I feel the friendlies with Salford, Scunthorpe and to a degree, Leicester, have cleared up.
Six months ago, only a handful of Imps were uttering Sean’s name and those that were, like me, we pronounced it wrong. After the two streamed friendlies, few are going to get it wrong now and without trying to add pressure, the secret is out of the bag. The 17-year-old has slipped into the first team with consummate ease, not looking out of place against Salford and turning in a strong performance last night.
There’s more to be surprised about too; he’s been classed as a centre back and yet he turned in a comfortable display at left-back last night. He looked strong, standing up to the pressure of senior football like a professional with 100 games behind him. Positionally he looked aware too, and on the photos Bubs has sent me he seems to be lurking in the background of almost all of them. He was busy, agile and thoroughly impressive throughout.
I strongly suspect that, as opposed to going out on loan as we imagined, Sean Roughan is going to be very much a part of the first-team picture this coming season. He’s offered us another option at left-back and unlike some other youth team graduates, he doesn’t look out of place in the senior squad one bit. How many of our other young players can we say that about going back 20 years? Freck maybe, but which other young players slotted in with such ease? I appreciate these are only friendlies, but if this lad keeps progressing he’s going to have the football world at his feet.
Tayo is a player I thought might struggle to find an identity this season. Our midfield looked packed with talent, many new signings filled the central roles and I saw him duelling with Max Melbourne at left-back. I think it is telling he appeared in midfield after coming on against Salford and turned in a Man of the Match display last night too.
I’ve liked Tayo in the middle ever since that game against Blackpool which I felt he bossed. There’s so much to like in Tayo; he’s comfortable on the ball, rugged in the challenge and gets from box to box really well. His close control is as you’d expect from a top academy player, but he isn’t lightweight or easy to bully at all. I noticed one thing last night which filled me with hope too; he’s not afraid to play a big switch and quickly move the ball from the middle to the flanks. I liked that, he picked pinpoint passes of forty or fifty yards with ease and having that outlet when we are being pressed high could be vital.
I think we’ve learned that he is not simply one of two (three now with Roughan) possible players who will feature at left-back, but a central midfielder who will be duelling with McGrandles, Jones and Bridcutt for a starting role. Longer-term, I can see him partnering with and learning from Bridcutt, something that should excite City fans.
Having one keeper is a worry, I get that. We absolutely must sign another and I don’t think there’s any doubt it will happen, but from what I’ve seen of Ethan Ross, we have a viable backup with bags of potential. I watched him closely (when the feed allowed) last night and I liked what I saw; he’s big and commands his area really well. There was one punched cross which went almost as far away from the area as some keepers kick it, and I never felt he looked like conceding.
Again, I know these are only friendly matches, but there were mutterings of concern when we signed a third-choice stopper from League Two, but thus far he’s done everything he can to convince me that if we needed to call upon him in League One action, he wouldn’t disappoint. I’ve also noticed his social media presence too; he’s featured in a couple of club videos as well as posting some stuff around town. I get the impression he’s going to be a favourite for some fans for his amiable, approachable demeanour and perhaps after a season of vying for the number one jersey, he could be a first choice stopper here.
With Michael trying out different things it is hard to see the setup he’s going to use in the season, but last night felt much more like a 4-3-3 than the 4-2-3-1 he’s favoured in the past. The emphasis is on the wide players to tuck in more, using the full-backs as wide players, and although it can leave us short in the box on the break, it gives us lots of options with a slow and steady buildup.
There are a few things pointing to a change of formation this season; the lack of a recognised ten with time running out, the overload of central midfielders for what would usually be two places and the situation up top. Anthony Scully and Tom Hopper look like being our two strikers, with a third likely to be added on loan, but it seems unlikely now that we’re going to bring in a headlining number ten. That suggests to me instead of sticking with last year’s setup, Michael has tweaked it slightly and is now thinking of a 4-3-3 with a midfielder playing in an eight role and advancing (James Jones perhaps) with the double sixes in front of the back four. It’s a contrast to the 3-5-2 we thought he might play when the transfer business was half complete.
It would be interesting to see a change of pattern from the start in matches, we’ve been 4-2-3-1 since coming back into the league and maybe the new, slick passing style is more suited to a packed central midfield area. I do think we have the flexibility to change things up when we need to though, which is going to be tough for opposition sides. If I had one complaint last season it would be how predictable we were and easy to nullify; look at the likes of Gillingham who just stopped us playing. If teams aren’t exactly sure which Lincoln is going to come out, a 4-3-3 or something else, we’ll be harder to stop from the off in games.
There was some worry we might lack senior pros and leaders on the field in the coming season and although that might be the case in some people’s eyes, there are signs from one or two that they’re ready to seize the moment and become those players. One who I feel is really beginning to step up is Jorge Grant. He’s been captain on a few brief occasions and last night he looked really busy. If you’d asked me back in September which of DC’s signings would be a leader of men for MA come pre-season, I might not have picked Grant out. However, he looked every inch an MA signing last night, whipping in crosses and getting involved in smart passing moves, as well as verbally making his presence felt. It’s a strong testament to his character that he has survived the cull and is still a part of the manager’s plans, an integral part at that.
The likes of Joe Walsh and Adam Jackson will eventually step up too, but the friendlies haven’t given them much chance to show their qualities as yet, whilst Harry Anderson has featured sparingly and I think might have a battle on his hands to force a place in the starting XI. Also, if H wants, I’ve got the number of a great barber.
I think Tom Hopper is going to surprise a few as well. I was vocal in my uncertainty of Hopper during his early spell here, but he’s looked lively and alert in these friendlies. He’s bagged two in two matches and his finish last night was that of a confident player with plenty of experience. Sure, he missed a few against Salford, but I would rather strikers were getting in positions to miss than not getting them at all. I also think Tom, as a player with plenty of League One experience, is going to be good for the likes of Scully and perhaps any loan player we bring in. It’s odd calling younger men ‘senior professionals’, but as Michael said experience is all about games, not age.
Friendlies are of little importance in terms of competitive fixtures, but they are a good chance to draw assessment and conclusion at an early stage. This season, they’ve been more important than ever for fans after the prolonged absence of football, which is why so many people were angry at missing lots of last night’s game through a dodgy feed; people want to see Lincoln City in action. I have been inclined to miss friendlies in the past, but this season’s ties seem much more relevant than previous years. DC liked to line up Championship opposition and it wasn’t easy to see the way we wanted to play, rather we saw the way we dealt with the opposition which didn’t exactly make for a great spectacle. I think much of the previous manager’s philosophy was to play to the opponent, rather than find a pattern of our own. That wasn’t the case the whole time, obviously, and it worked like a charm in conjunction with other approaches, so it isn’t a criticism at all, merely an observation. Michael Appleton is very much about his style, his method and his approach. We saw it backfire last season against Gillingham, but work wonders against Sunderland and Burton.
Because of that emphasis on us, the friendlies this season have therefore given us more of an indication as to how we are going to approach games, not how we’re going to stop others doing it. It’s an interesting shift and has certainly played into the narrative of excitement for football’s resumption.