Tough Starts Continues: Wycombe Wanderers 1-0 Imps

Credit Graham Burrell

City’s challenging week continued as we slipped to a 1-0 defeat against an organised and robust Wycombe side at Adams Park.

It’s always tough to write something after a defeat of this type. There are positives to talk about, but this is a game you know is always going to be tough. Wycombe had a season in the Championship and what they did to get promoted last time, they now do better. I’m not going to disparage their style when ours clearly has flaws right now, they ‘did a Lincoln’, on the new Lincoln.

What is ‘doing a Lincoln‘ all about? It’s our historic approach, using a big man up front and chasing every ball, contesting every decision and generally giving the opposition 80% of a football game and 20% of a bum kicking. Some teams know how to deal with it, which I think we did, but knowing and doing are two different things. Having not been at the game, I’ve taken the time to watch back this morning from the comfort of my bed, and the whole thing made me feel like rolling back over and going to sleep.

The trouble is this: when you give a side like Wycombe a one-goal head start, you’re always at a disadvantage. Last season, we got going from the start and could almost afford to give a side a head start. This season, with players yet to hit their full fitness and the squad still to be completed, we cannot. Dare I say, the play between the two boxes has changed very little from the beginning of last season. There are just three elements not yet in place, and two of them are the fundamentals of football.

Credit Graham Burrell

I’m not knee-jerking here, but the first issue I can see is a failure to defend in a basic manner at times. We’ve played five games this season now and haven’t kept a single clean sheet. I’m not going to say ‘it’s a worry’, because I do not worry about things until they’re a problem, and four games in it’s only a problem if you have no points. However, last season I recall Oxford coming to the Bank and playing far better than Wycombe did yesterday, yet we won 1-0. Why? We defended well. The sad thing is aside from the goal yesterday, we defended well, but a game is not 89 minutes with a brief caveat that if you make a mistake, it is scrubbed off.

I’ve watched the goal back and I’ve got to side with the critics, it is an awful goal to concede. It started with a loose pass in midfield, and I saw Bridcutt ‘blamed’ for that, but for me the issue occurs in the box. You know where the ball is going when it is delivered, and yet two players read it wrong. I’m not going to say Josh Griffiths isn’t up to it, because he’s an England Under 21 with a great record and he’ll be okay this season. I’m not going to call out Max either, but he’s a player forced into a position he doesn’t usually play due to our injuries. Between them, they made a mess of the ball and Sam Vokes won the game for Wycombe before it even started.

After that, from what I have endured this morning (and believe me, I fast-forwarded through some bits), we had 80-odd minutes of fairly uninspiring football. Wycombe aren’t a bad side, I wouldn’t do them the disservice of claiming they were, but they’re not a great one either. They’ve got enough to finish top ten, maybe trouble the top six, but if we were at our 2020/21 levels, that’s a game we could have won with relative ease. Sadly, that brings me to our second issue, one Michael addressed in the post-match interview: a lack of goals.

Credit Graham Burrell

After Fleetwood, I happily claimed I was wrong, my worries over the lack of goals were unfounded as we’d bagged seven in three matches. Since then, we’ve had 180 minutes of not scoring, and maybe worse, not really looking like scoring. If we took Anthony Scully out of the equation, we wouldn’t have a goal threat of any serious proportions, and again whilst I’m not worried right now, I feel the missing piece is yet to come. I’m not saying ‘we need a striker’, certainly not in relation to the current team. As I correctly saw pointed out on social media, bringing another striker in to replace Tom Hopper would see that striker play Tom’s role. Actually, in a game like yesterday, you need a striker like Hopper, working both boxes. It’s no coincidence that in the pre-match buildup I spoke to a Wycombe fan who said John Akinde was our best player against them last season. I would imagine that’s because Tom and John are very similar in getting back and winning headers, fighting for challenges and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Indeed, only if Tom had been on penalties last season, he’d have scored 25 (if he hit them better than a week last Tuesday!) and he’d be considered more of a threat. In games like Tuesday night, another type of striker could offer us an option, but it doesn’t just solve the so-called goals problems. What I think we need brings me to my third issue.

Brennan Johnson. That’s right, the difference between this team and last season is, in my opinion, Johnson. Not a £10m rated player, that’s too obvious, but a player that gets on the ball and makes things happen. You might even say we miss a Harry Anderson type, or should I say we did in both games this week. Hakeeb Adelakun is showing it in patches, but right now, we don’t have the ‘grab the game by the scruff of the neck’ type player. Actually, we’ve seen this before, back in November, when Harry carried us through games such as Crewe away, where we were excellent but didn’t have a goal threat. We clicked, eventually, and I believe we will this season, but in the meantime, the difference is the moment of individual brilliance that Johnson provided, the single instance of him getting the ball, making a progressive run into the opponent’s half, and carrying play 30 or 40 yards on his own. My hope is Adelakun can find that role once he’s up to full fitness, as I’ve no fear Bishop will provide the Grant balls when he gets a full start.

Credit Graham Burrell

That’s really about it for my analysis, because I feel it unfair judging a team after four games. Look, I’ll point out what hasn’t worked in a game, but on the plus side, I’ll point out what has, and if those who want to be negative slate me for it then fair enough, but let’s not write Lincoln City off after two defeats, eh? After all, aside from a couple of stray passes, Liam Bridcutt had a decent game again, and watching him get a Saturday/Tuesday under his belt with no ill effects is great. Aside from the one mistake at the back, we dealt commendably with their aerial threat and I dare wager Adam Jackson will be taking home a Man of the Match award when your ratings are in. Scully delivered the usual threat and was certainly not one who had a bad game, and Tayo also looked solid and assured for much of the outing.

Sure, Adelakun looked a little off the pace and Dan Nlundulu needs more time to settle and get fit. The midfield still isn’t quite clicking, Conor McGrandles hasn’t started the season in the form he showed at the end of the last campaign, and we’ve only seen Fiorini and Bishop in fleeting moments. We were a few weeks behind everyone else in terms of signings and prep, and it showed.

Here’s an interesting stat that I’m sure you’ll love. Oxford United were beaten play-off finalists in 2019/20, and in 2020/21, after four games, they’d won one and lost three, but they finished sixth by the end of the season. The three-week gap between the end of the season and the play off final does mean you’re playing catch up a bit, and when the transfer market is shifted, so it finishes in late August, it often means squads are not fully fit and firing until the end of September. Because we’ve had to fish sensibly for players, not throw money at the squad, we’ve collected players who have not had a great pre-season, and then on top we’ve been unlucky with injuries again. Remember, Chris Maguire has a unique set of skills to unlock defences, and there is still an attacking player to add, if not a couple. Throw in the like of TJ, yet to play, and those who have not quite been fit, and I think we’re in a decent place. Sure, it’s not a great one, but we’re in a decent place, and reacting to a 1-0 defeat at Wycombe as if we’re going down is not sensible, nor becoming of a fan who understands the game.

Credit Graham Burrell

That said, I do not want to sit here and tell you we should have won that game, we shouldn’t. Nor did we deserve to win on Tuesday either. That’s the honest assessment, as is this – right now our squad is not as good as it was when we walked off the Sincil Bank pitch against Wimbledon in May. Not in terms of skills, individual players or anything, but match fitness, lack of injuries etc. Once the squad clicks, some of our new faces might well perform to the standard Michael expects, some might not. However, you can only judge them on four games if you’re the type of person who judges a film after the first four minutes of dialogue or judges an album on the first bars of the first song. Imagine, if you judged What’s The Story (Morning Glory) on the opening few bars of Hello – a cheap and cheesy pseudo-cover of a Gary Glitter track. You’d be wrong to call the whole album the same, wouldn’t you?

By all means, criticism is part of the game and I’m never going to shut people down for that, but your criticism is only ever going to be valid and respected if you call the good stuff too, and remain balanced and fair when the opportunity arrives. I hate to keep quoting Danny Cowley, it feels like talking about a former girlfriend when you’re with your new partner, but it’s important not to get too high when we win, and not too low when we lose. With regards to the Imps, let’s wait for the next couple of tracks before calling time on the album.

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