The First Ten Matches – How the Michael Appleton Era is Panning Out

Credit Graham Burrell

I think it is fair to say that whilst Michael has been in charge of the club for over a year, his ‘era’ has only really started this summer.

It was this summer we began to see his players coming into the club, and the ones he previously targeted settling in. His style has been evident for a while, but this summer was when we first saw round pegs in round holes, in terms of the squad’s attributes. I mentioned when I spoke to him earlier this year that he was firmly settled into the EPC and felt like he was now driving his vehicle, not one recently vacated by someone else.

So, with our incoming transfer business seemingly concluded, how has the MA era started, and what can we expect from the future. I thought I’d break this down into three parts, on the field, off-field and the future potential. I feel a bit guilty as I’ve not been well the last couple of days and I missed yesterday’s ins and outs, aside from this analysis video, and I wanted to provide something worth reading before tomorrow’s clash with Fleetwood.

Credit Graham Burrell

On The Field

Even including this weekend’s defeat, if someone had told me during the last week of August that after ten matches we would have lost twice, once to the reigning English champions, I would have snapped your hand off. Football is not all about results of course, despite what you might think. Eight wins (seven and one on a penalty shoot out) certainly seems impressive, but performance is also hugely important. Anyone who tells you otherwise only need think back to the final day of the 2018/19 season, where the Imps were booed off despite winning the title, to realise performance is important. If you win a few games, there’s a chance you are getting lucky; Plymouth did this back in 2017/18, registering rubbish xG but finishing well. That was unsustainable and the next season, as expected, they were relegated after the problems they had managed to mask with hard work eventually got through the papered-over cracks.

Is that the case with us? Have we had the rub of the green? The short answer is (and you may not like this), but yes we have. The penalty which turned the game at MK Dons wasn’t a penalty. Against Charlton, we were second best for a long period before grabbing another penalty. At Blackpool, we were 2-1 down with seven minutes to go and maybe with supporters in the ground the result would have been different. This does not mean we’ll ‘do a Plymouth’ of a couple of years ago though, not one bit. Those result, whilst fortuitous, also showed some signs of real promise. Blackpool away was a lesson in remaining focused, applied and adhering to your own game plan. We won that game through our attitude as much as anything, although Lewis Montsma’s juggling skills helped. Charlton, and to a lesser degree Oxford, were not fluke wins, but victories born out of letting the opponent have the ball and ensuring that on the occasions we got it, we did better than them. Even MK Dons, a game were conceded a lot of possession, we ended up on the right side of the result on the balance of play, even if the penalty was fortunate.

Then there have been the games in which I have been mega-impressed, namely Mansfield and Bradford. They were matches in which we showed a ruthless edge, a hunger and desire to play football the right way. My hope is that those matches are a hint of what to expect in future league matches, once the team find a rhythm and continuity. There is no reason why the free-flowing attacking football we displayed at Field Mill won’t make much more regular appearances in the league, but for now, we have to accept that our four league wins from five maybe doesn’t tell the whole story. Perhaps, if we had ten points instead of 12, it might reflect our endeavour a little more accurately. I’m not being controversial or cutting here at all, the start has been superb, but I think losing the Bristol Rovers this weekend has tempered expectation slightly and, being brutally honest, that isn’t a bad thing. Here’s another statement which might not win me many friends: I can see us losing a couple more in the coming weeks, maybe starting tomorrow. It s no reason to panic, no reason to be over-critical because the first ten matches have shown me that this team is bursting with potential and that the passing of time will only serve to improve us and make us stronger.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Off The Field

This is really the squad, more than anything. Is our current squad a serious improvement on the one which Michael inherited a year ago, and then on the one that broke up in May? The short answer, and I’m sure this will be echoed by many, is yes.

The medicine hasn’t been sweet though. When you have a team that has seen strong levels of success, as ours had over a three-year period, then key figures departing is always going to bring about uncertainty, and not knowing is as much a part of genuine fear as anything. Seriously, when you watch your favourite horror movie, what is the scariest bit? the unknown? Not quite realising what is going to happen? Football is the same. When we lost Michael Bostwick, in particular, I got that fear. I know many felt the same about Josh Vickers and Neal Eardley, even as far back as when Toff left too, but that is football. At the time, I didn’t see it as clearly as I felt that Bozzie would be a big influence on a young squad. Could you see those players in this squad though? I’m not saying they’re not good enough for League One, but in the style and setup we have, would those players have a significant role to play? I’m afraid, the answer is probably no. Plus, when you consider that both Bozzie and Eards are injured for Burton Albion, a real fear as players enter their thirties, we may have ripped a plaster off in the summer; taken a short term hit of discomfort for the greater good.

I’m not saying our current squad is perfect, but it is exciting and MA has shown he will react to developing situations as well. prior to Jamie Soule coming into the side, we didn’t expect another new face, but the youngster came in from West Brom and obviously, Robbie Gotts landed from Leeds too. Throw Brennan Johnson into that mix, a player we have seen for one full game, and the latter transfer business looks impressive. I know loads of people are raving about Gotts, but being objective they are doing so because of what they’ve heard or seen on a computer game, not because of what they have seen. He sounds like a great capture though, both flexibly and full of youth and potential. That describes more or less everyone we have signed over the summer.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

I’ve done plenty on our squad over the last few weeks so won’t go into the finer points, but I feel we have a squad that is far more rounded than any previous season. It is a young squad and we must not heap too much expectation on the shoulders of TJ Eyoma and Sean Roughan, for instance, but we can also be excited by their potential. Those two individuals could be key going forward; our current system relies heavily on full-backs being able to get up and down, play it short and neat as well as beat players and deliver into the box. Whilst a three-man midfield is always going to be the heartbeat of a side, our success will depend on the effectiveness of the full-backs. Sure, if they do well then the attackers need to finish chances off, but if we falter at full back, we are far less effective. That was evident on Saturday, especially down the left, where Tayo struggled and Bristol bagged from a delivery from the right and a penalty earned from a run in the right-hand channel. Blackpool hit us from that area in the first half too; food for thought.

Overall, I’m happy with the squad. In a perfect world, I’m sure we’d have another striker, but for now, Soule and Hopper will share the load, with johnson and Scully able to play there. The difference in this squad, compared with say 2018/19, is the flexibility. When we have only had three strikers in the past (Green, Palmer and Rhead for instance), other players couldn’t fill in and the ones we had were either a nine or a ten, not both. MA’s squad is like an intricate steampunk contraption, where all the different parts switch and change, making them functional in areas that you didn’t think they could be.

Even with expected departures today, we’re in a good place squad wise, although a couple of injuries would test that, as we saw at the back this weekend.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

The Future

The key now is playing matches and getting time on the training field, and once the transfer circus closes its doors at 5 pm tonight, we have 18 games to find the rhythm and be happy with our lot.

I think the next few weeks could be challenging. Fleetwood tomorrow is a big game I suspect we could struggle in. Ipswich don’t worry me, despite being top, because I think our style and their style could lead to an exciting game, as we have seen with Oxford and Charlton. I have a feeling we may see challenges in matches we shouldn’t – Wimbledon, Accrington and Gillingham are all sides with different styles of football that we should perhaps consider ourselves capable of beating. They will be the big tests, sides that want us to play our game (Wimbledon), sides that have much smaller budgets than us, but a huge spirit (Accrington) and bullies (Gillingham). Portsmouth are up in the next few weeks too, another side I feel we can more than matches.

The fact is there are no easy games at this level, no games we should feel we have a right to win. What we are going to get is a rocky ride, we will lose matches we think we were better in, we’ll win matches we should have lost. I think that shows the journey we’re on is heading in the right direction though; last season after DC left we were losing matches we were okay in (Coventry, Oxford away), losing matches we played away (almost all) and losing some matches without really putting up a fight (Southend, Gillingham). Now I feel that there is enough around the squad to ensure that our good start can be built upon. The key is staying together, especially off the field, Sure, fans are not in the ground so the players won’t hear a moan if things don’t go our way, but I think this squad has earned the right to have fans backing even if we lost two or three on the spin. Earlier this week, the words ‘Project Big Picture’ had people frothing at the mouth, but if you applied the wording only to us, it is worth backing. Our own personal ‘Project Big Picture’ is eventual Championship football and after last season’s bump in the road, I think that destination is still programmed into MA’s sat nav. Arrival time might be 2022/23, or beyond, but at present, we are definitely on the right road.