It’s been a good 24 hours or so, hasn’t it?
Basking in the glory of seven points from games with Charlton, Wigan and Sheffield Wednesday has been lovely (there was another game, I can’t quite recall it now….). They have 24 seasons of Premier League football between them, with many more in the top flight (y’know, before football started, right Sky?) and we have none. Big clubs, big games and in truth, three big performances, each getting better and better. Yes, we lost to Wimbledon, and therein lies the subject of today’s lesson.
City fans will soon be called nodding donkeys because we spent one week looking up the table and the next looking down. Right now, we’re looking up, and the fixture list doesn’t look unkind. Shrewsbury, Doncaster (twice), and Portsmouth are all struggling, Accrington and Cheltenham should be beatable, and Crewe are already looking doomed. Assuming Sunderland is cancelled, that takes us to Boxing Day, just five days short of making new signings. Imagine that, we could actually be in the top ten when the cavalry come riding in (assuming Swansea don’t pull the plug again). What a time to be alive, we’re going up, bad man ting, etc.
How easy was that? In two paragraphs, I’ve dispelled this whole ‘I’ll take 20th’ rubbish and already got us on the cusp of the play-offs. All that starts this week when Shrewsbury, with one recognised midfielder in their squad, come to town. Steve Cotterill has gone from having everyone’s best wishes to question-shaming poor local media in just a few months, and aside from a couple of wins (they beat Cambridge 4-1, like, who hasn’t bettered that, right?), they’re still struggling. We just need to turn up and….
Have you ever watched QI? It’s a high-brow quiz show that I tend to watch for a few minutes before flicking over to something with Jimmy Carr making self-deprecating tax jokes. Anyway, there’s a great bit on the show where they look to lead the panel into answering a question with what seems like the obvious answer, but which is wrong. You know, like saying ‘what position did Drewe Broughton play for Lincoln City’, and somebody erroneously answering ‘goalscorer’. *QI KLAXON* – he was, in fact, a forward, and no goals were forthcoming. It’s that kind of thing. Well, in this instance, I just sounded my QI Klaxon because I stumbled into an obvious error. I did it purposely, of course, I don’t think this weekend’s game is a gimme, and neither should anyone else. If anything, it is the exact opposite – this is the type of game that Michael’s squad fear the most.
Hands up who can remember the last time Lincoln City beat Shrewsbury at Sincil Bank. Here’s a spoiler; assuming you begin to form vivid images of matches from the age of five, you’d need to be 21 (at least) to remember Yeo and Francis Green giving us a 2-0 win in 2005. Since then, the results have been 1-1, 0-4, 0-0, 1-5, 0-0, 0-1. Yep, in six matches, we’ve scored twice, conceded 11 and taken three points from a possible 18. Going further back, we’ve only beaten them twice at the Bank since 1974/75 and only four times in all 23 encounters in Lincoln. Up the Imps, etc.
Of course, none of that means anything, does it? The only numbers that relate at all are those that show how Michael’s Imps have done against Salop at home. Bad news chaps and chapesses – we lost 1-0 last season and drew 0-0 the year before in what I still term as the worst game of football I’ve ever witnessed that we didn’t lose. Let’s not stop there though, why don’t I strip away a few more layers of expectancy?
We know that Michael’s team play nice football, they expose space and look to split the full-backs and centre-halves. Until recently, runs in behind have been at a premium, but we’re evolving a bit, but we’re at our best when teams need to beat us. Nigel Adkins needed to beat us to save his job (he didn’t). Sheffield Wednesday needed to beat us because they were backed by 20,000 home fans (they didn’t). Wigan needed to beat us because you don’t spend huge wages on players and then defend at home against Lincoln City (lolz). In all of those games, we played well.
Teams who did not need to beat us included Wimbledon (we did it for them), Wycombe (they set out not to lose every game first and foremost and we did it for them), Gillingham (because they’re the poorest of poor relations according to their manager and just turning up should be enough for them to be given points, they’re so poor. Their budget, I’m told, is less than I spend in Morrisons on reconstituted chicken goods and fizzy drinks) and Morecambe. Four games, one point. Are you seeing a pattern here? If we play a team who wants to go out and win the game of football, we’re in with a chance (Rotherham a classic example). If we play a team that are happy to take a point from the game, it becomes a struggle. That’s not even a ‘this season’s squad is worse’ thing. Remember Fleetwood, Accrington, Shrewsbury, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers at home last season? None of those teams needed to come and beat us; some got early goals to defend, others just defended early, and again we took one point from 15.
Some of you like stats, right? We’ve played 19 games this season, league and cup. In just five of those games, we’ve played fewer passes than the opposition, with a 60% win rate. In the other 14 games, our win rate is 28%. It seems a fact that when a team tries to outpass us, we do much better. The two we’ve lost despite playing fewer passes were Bolton (who played very well) and Oxford (who we had crippling injuries against). Don’t for one second think we’re going to play fewer passes than Shrewsbury; we won’t. This season we average 462 per game, they play 316. Recently, they beat MK Dons 1-0, but played just 223 passes all game, at a really poor accuracy of 69%. MK Dons (predictably) played 649 at 88%, but it didn’t help them, did it? It’s not even like they’re a long ball team; Shrewsbury play (on average) 49.8 long passes per game. The next highest? Us, on 50.3. In fact, only ten teams play fewer long balls.
That’s a conundrum, isn’t it? Salop will play fewer passes than us, but they’re not long ball. What can we deduce? Well, it shows they do a lot of work out of possession, and when they’re in possession, it is a slow tempo. They make 11.7 passes per minute of possession, the sixth-lowest in the league, whereas we’re second with 14. They’re lower on other crucial numbers, such as touches in area and shots. They average 42.9% possession, only Gillingham and Wycombe have less. What we have here is a hybrid team, not direct, but happy to sit without the ball and stay compact. They like three at the back, usually 3-5-2, but also 5-3-2, occasionally switching to 4-5-1 and none of those formations makes splitting full backs and defenders easy. They have played those formations in their last three away fixtures, losing 2-0 at Oxford (4-5-1), 2-1 at Ipswich (5-3-2) and 2-1 at Bolton (3-5-2). It’s safe to say they’ll use one of those at our place and simply say ‘come and beat us’. They’re the worst games for the Imps, hands down.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Away from home, Shrewsbury’s xG is just above one, and they only average one goal every two games on their travels. They like to get wide and deliver crosses, but if we have the right approach then our two wide players can help stop that threat. The big questions are these; do we have what it takes to break down a side like Shrewsbury, who might not be fast-flowing and fancy-free, but seem good without the ball? Can we also cut out those individual errors which led to games against Wimbledon and Wycombe being lost before we’d even got into our stride?
It’s this simple; don’t expect to go into this game and see City bang in three or four because we’ve had three good results (and one we don’t talk about). Instead, that game we don’t talk about, that one where a team in yellow nullified everything we had and offered little themselves, yeah we could see a repeat of that. Even worse, we could see a repeat of the 2019/20 game at the Bank, notable only because it was the evening I bought FIFA 20 and for Cian Bolger being sent off. I’d advise getting three or four big cups of coffee before the game, and maybe something to read (a match programme perhaps).
Just a friendly word of warning (insert your own thumbs-up emoji here).