‘He’s one of the best pros I’ve ever worked with’ – Michael Appleton on the Imps’ midfield

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Carrying on the recent series of Michael’s rundown of some of the new faces, we move on to the midfield this morning.

I spoke to Michael at the EPC on Monday at length, not just about the squad but a variety of subjects. Articles on the keepers, defence and Sean Roughan have already dropped, but today we look at the midfield, by starting with a player who has primarily appeared in defence. Alex Bradley spent last season on loan with Harrogate Town, and was widely expected to go out on loan again this season.

However, having covered at right back in the pre-season matches, he has established himself as a part of the current squad.

“Alex has come in; he’s done well against Crewe and in a couple of the pre-season games too,” said Michael.

“Right back isn’t his preferred position, but if he is going to have a career where he plays week in, week out then I feel he’ll do that as a full back. He likes the game in front of him, he’s such an athlete, he can bomb on and join in. He’s come in since coming back from loan and worked hard. He’s got his head down and done what he needed to do, and he feels a part of it now.”

Courtesy Graham Burrell

One player helping bring the squad together and make everyone feel a part of things is captain and marquee signing Liam Bridcutt. Michael was quick to lavish praise on the former Chelsea man, claiming he is one of the best he’s ever worked with.

“Bringing Brids in was a big one for us. He’s just a man and a top, top guy. He’s a leader on and off the pitch. He gets what we want to do here. He backs up the messages we give the players, on the pitch and around the training ground too.

“He seems to enjoy that responsibility too and he’s one of the best pros I’ve ever worked with. Everything he does is right. When he walks in the gym, you can see some of the young lads lift their effort straight away.”

That’s rich praise coming from a player who has worked for Premier League clubs and played with the likes of Ryan Giggs, and it certainly bodes well for the Imps going forward. Two of the other big summer signings, Connor McGrandles and James Jones, have also turned performances in which bode well for the season. They seem to get mentioned a lot together as our midfield heartbeat, both are creative and hard-working and both have impressed thus far this season.

“Jonah and Connor are both top draw for this level. Connor will be the most underrated player in our team this year. He’s got standout ability; he can find that little pass between the full-back and the centre half and I’d say he is one of the best passers of the ball in this league. He runs more than anyone in every single game. He is incredible and he will get better and better.

“He has a specific role now and he knows exactly what we want and expect. He has role now in the group too. The other lads want to give him the ball and he’s a top character too.”

Credit Graham Burrell

“As for Jonah, he’s shown already he’s got real quality. He’s great from set plays, he’s got a great shot on him and he has a really good engine too. He felt when he came here, he could add more goals to his game. Look, if you want to do well at this level and be competitive, you have to have legs in the middle of the park, and I think we’ve got that with those two players.”

Whilst we were talking mainly about new faces, Michael strayed a little to talk about a couple of last year’s players who have impressed over the duration of his tenure as manager.

“After I took Jorge off at Wimbledon, we had a clear chat on the Monday about what I expected from my midfield players. Since then he’s been outstanding for me. He can be the holding midfielder; he can play as an attacking midfielder and as a wide player too. I think making him a vice-captain of sorts has given him some extra responsibility too, which has been good.”

Credit Graham Burrell

Grant is one that fans thought would be around the first-team picture this season, but some predicted a tough time for Harry Anderson. The lovable winger has proven, once again, that he is an integral part of the squad, with a series of good outings and his goal against Scunthorpe.

“H is H. What you see is what you get. He’s up and down, straight lines, but he’s started to get better coming off the line as a wide player which is good for the squad. I thought he was great against Oxford, created the first goal and took the pressure off us at times by carrying the ball.”

A player who has been in and out of the side thus far this campaign is Tayo Edun, a player regular readers will know I rate highly. Whilst he is out of the first eleven, the former Fulham man isn’t out of the picture completely and his efforts in training reflect a real desire to get into the squad.

“You can tell in Tayo’s training, he wants to be in the team, and he’ll get there eventually. The more the season goes on, he will have a bigger influence on the group. I’ve got a lot of faith in him and he’s hurting being out of the team right now, as long as he keeps that he’ll get there.”

There are options aplenty in the Imps midfield at the moment, with the outside possibility of bringing in a ten too. Whether he is classed as a midfielder (as Payne was) or a forward (Shay McCartan) is down to fan perception, but Michael admitted adding to the squad would deliver options around how he sets the side up.

McCartan – an attacking 10. Courtesy of Graham Burrell

“If we had a real natural ten, we could go back to 4-4-1-1, I do like the diamond, but we want a ten who can get forward and overlap the striker, rather than playing with his back to goal.

One thing that formation does do is allow opponents to put crosses in, but I don’t fear that this season, I think we can deal with that now. I wouldn’t mind that if it happened, I just don’t want to get done in those central areas.

By that, Michael means he doesn’t want the Imps to be played through, case point the 6-0 defeat against Oxford last season. Our recent 2-0 was a complete reversal of that performance and that’s one big improvement the gaffer has seen in the squad this season.

“That’s what won the Oxford game, they had seven players in the width of the six-yard box and we frustrated them. That’s what the 4-3-3 gives us. We were quite relaxed about it (the game), our approach was to defend deeper than we might usually have done, but we knew what we were doing. as soon as we scored, I felt we’d go on and win the game because we can deal with threats now.”

Whilst MK Dons tomorrow might be the sort of game that brings expected threats, the will be a real test of our ability to deal with different opponents next weekend, when Jurgen Klopp brings his Liverpool side to Sincil Bank. That game won’t be won and losst in midfield, but the settled nature of the squad, and Michael’s comfort with the players he has, does at least give us some hope of humbling the Reds.

Some slim hope perhaps.

Later on today, if I get time, I’ll drop the final part of our chat, the forwards.