I was going to write this last night, but I opened my browser and sat staring at the screen wondering, ‘what the hell do I write now’.
Even I’m getting tired of writing the same stuff. It’s true, but it sounds less plausible every week, doesn’t it? Once again, we were more than matching our opponents. Once again, we missed the best chances of the game, two of them, which would have at least earned us a 3-3 draw. Once again, we shot ourselves in the foot with a couple of weak goals that have been the narrative of the season. Once again, people are waiting for me to come online and defend it, some challenging me directly as if it’s my fault, others are hoping I offer some comfort that softens the blow.
If we were getting rolled over 4-0 every week, it would be easier. If we were actually as bad as the most disillusioned elements of our fanbase felt, I could live with it. I could handle the not caring, or the knowing we were rubbish, but the truth is we’re not. Yet another club knows we’ve been as good as them, if not better. Yet another manager thinks we’re too good to go down. It’s alright for them, they only have to watch promise and expectation turn to zero points and weak goals twice a season. I guess I wanted to state some things that I feel are facts right now, just to keep them clear in my mind and not lose sight of my inherent belief that there are four (indeed, plenty more) teams who on our day, we should be better than in this division. The problem is that ‘should be better than’ doesn’t get you points, does it?
1: We are a good team, we do create chances and we should be getting more points than we are.
2: We concede bad goals, regularly, and each week someone else seems to be at fault.
3: We haven’t been outplayed by a team for 60/70 minutes of a game since Portsmouth, and only one other (Rotherham) have looked infinitely better than us for the whole game.
4: We have more chances in a game than average, and still don’t score, despite signing a forward once valued at £2m.
Whilst football is all about opinion, these in my eyes are facts. They’re not opinions, and not something I’d be willing to debate,. The rest of the stuff around the club I’ll debate with anyone, but these are the fundamental pillar of my 2021/22 Imps’ belief system
What do I write about last night? Honestly, it could almost be copied and pasted from other weeks, couldn’t it? We started a little poorly, made a few errant passes and played ourselves into trouble, but we didn’t actually look like conceding. As the game wore on, I felt we’d score, and we certainly finished the half as the better side. There was, of course, the miss from John MArquis and Chris Maguire which just typified our season. If we give the ball away and create a one-on-one situation from nothing, we usually concede. When it happens the other way around, we manage to shoot ourselves in the foot and miss it. That was the case again. Marquis, everyone’s hero a few weeks ago, never looked set to score, and his chance was really poor. It fell to Maguire, who’d be screaming for it in the middle, and his wasn’t much better. At least Marquis’ was on target (at the keeper), and at least Maguire’s tried to beat the players (but missed the goal). I haven’t seen the xG, but my gut feeling tells me that moment probably had a better chance of going in than a penalty.
When you’re playing a team like Bolton, packed with talent, you expect for them to have chances, and they did, but when half time came around (yep, that’s how hacked off I am, half time inside 700 words) I wasn’t feeling too bad at all. On the whole, we’d played very well; rode the storm early and kept them to little more than pot shots and half chances. Conor McGrandles barely put a foot wrong, Norton-Cuffy proved why he is destined for bigger things and some of the other players were giving a good account of themselves. No matter what you might think about his second half performance, Morgan Whittaker had some input into the first half, although he did look a little reticent to have a go at times.
Enter the second half, a horror show that genuinely kept me awake last night.
Bolton were always going to come out and fight hard, and I expected us to have to weather the storm, but once it landed, we offered less resistance than my bird table which blew over last Friday. We began to make poor decisions, not in our attacking half, but 25-yards from goal, time and time again. I suppose we come to expect it, but every time we did we put pressure on ourselves. What was wildly frustrating was we didn’t do it in the first half, but after a sit down in the warm we obviously changed our mindset. The first example was Ted Bishop, excellent in the first half, giving the ball away that led to a super save from Josh Griffiths. That resulted in one corner, which eventually led to another.
I don’t like to call one player out, but I have looked at each goal and I do have fundamental problems with each one of them. It’s easy to point at the defence and say ‘we concede too many’, but the problems don’t just come from them. The first goal is a defensive issue, you have to defend a corner better than that. The ball shouldn’t have made the back post, but when it does it sees their man unmarked and stabbing home, whilst his marker, Cohen Bramall, looks on. Bramall, who wasn’t the worst player in an Imps shirt by a mile, let his man go. Simple things.
I feared we’d go to pot after that as Bolton turned the screw. I tweeted we needed to stay sharp and we did, getting a foothold back in the game. As for Bramall, he made up for his mistake, a nice passage of play between him and Scully seeing us draw level. It was a tad fortunate, a bit of a lucky bounce saw him beat a defender, but he finished with aplomb to give everyone something to cheer. That made it 1-1, but it should have been 2-1; an energised Bramall had served up a delicious cross for Marquis, who rose above his defender and then nodded wide when it was harder NOT to hit the target. John has settled quickly and brought a lot to the club in recent weeks, but last night he was poor. He gave the ball away in key areas and spurned two guilt-edged chances. One would have given us a 1-0 lead, the other drawn us level and hopefully given a platform (after Bramall’s) to win the game. Big moments make games and we fluffed out big moments.
Given how we’d played up until that point, certainly in the attacking third, and given how it silenced the home fans I honestly thought we’d go on and win the game. How naive am I?
For their second goal, Bramall has been on the attack and there’s a huge gap on the right. If you pause the passage of play as they attack, it’s four on three in an overloaded right-sided attacking area, and our three are stood within three feet of each other. It’s so easy for them to work a ball out to the right, then across goal to find Sadlier in space. He still has three players and the keeper to beat, but with one shot, he does just that. Two players are in front of him as he shoots, Norton-Cuffy and McGrandles, and neither get a block. Behind them, Jackson is possibly unsighting Josh Griffiths, and whilst it’s a weak goal it’s probably the only one you can’t lay directly at the feet of one player; it was just poor from everyone.
As for their third, there’s one player going to get the blame for that; Morgan Whittaker. I think it’s a little basic to blame just him; for me a good holding midfielder would have penalty spot waiting for the pull back, but as we’d gone attacking (Bishop and Maguire) and not a bit more defensive (Sanders), there wasn’t. Instead, after a weak, half-hearted challenge, their cross was fired home with ease. 3-1 in a game that could easily have been 2-2, or at one point, 3-1 to us. I’d say fine margins but you know what, I’m sick of saying fine margins.
I’ve read about players not putting a shift in, and I was open on Twitter saying how I felt one or two had let us down last night. I’m not one for creating scapegoats or a pile on, and I don’t want to be a catalyst to such either. When you put something on social media, it reaches people, but when I write it on here, it probably reaches more (that’s not arrogant btw, I mean by beating on News Now etc). Therefore, I have to be a little more concise in how I describe a player’s performance. I’m also very careful about use of the word ‘lazy’. Sadly, last night, Whittaker’s challenge on their attacker for the third was lazy, his tracking back and blocking was the same.
The Swansea loanee was not in a good place at all last night. He played the sort of woeful square ball that’s easy to stop three or four times, just a languid, thirty-yard ball across a back four that just needed to step out three feet and intercept. That constantly put us under pressure. He didn’t look as if he wanted to beat players and he didn’t create a meaningful threat on goal, as he had on his debut. To the bog-standard fan on the street, it looked to me as though Morgan Whittaker wanted to be anywhere but Lincoln City last night, and that’s unacceptable. I expect him to be benched this weekend; a lack of ability can be excused, but a lack of effort cannot.
He wasn’t the only one I felt didn’t play well. John Marquis was well below what we’d expect, and the few minutes Tom Hopper came on felt like a breath of fresh air. Scully looked lively, but ended up down plenty of blind alleys, and whilst Bramall has pace and an attacking threat, he scares me at left back. He did it in the first game I saw him play, and it’s still the case. There’s zero doubt in my mind if he tracks his runner, we don’t go 1-0 down and then we’re not facing an uphill battle.
I am a staunch Michael Appleton supporter, as you know, but I do felt the changes happened late yesterday. Ted Bishop played well in the first half, but disappeared in the second and should have been hooked earlier. The same goes for Whittaker; we know he was dying out there; it felt like Joaquim Phoenix’s character in the Joker doing standup; almost painful to watch. For me, he could have come off on 50 minutes, once it became obvious he was struggling after the break, and we could have had a little more balance. I still think Liam Cullen offers something, him in the middle and maybe Mags out wide could have worked? Fiorini maybe for Bishop in an attacking role? It’s easy to manage from the sidelines, but I really felt part of Whittaker’s problem last night was he got the chance to carry on being half-hearted.
Dare I say we’re missing Bridcutt? Or, we miss that leader in front of the back four, a fearless player who’d block his own gran from going into her kitchen if he thought it was important. I know we say a Bozzie figure, but it’s just someone who looks like they would put their body on the line, someone who doesn’t turn their back on the shot from Sadlier for their second goal. That’s what we needed last night, but what really frustrates is this; we’ve had it against Wycombe. We had it in the first half, where Ted Bishop took the ball in a place that ensures his kids are likely to be born flat, rather than baby-shaped. Its there, in the squad, but the players are either injured, or wilting.
That’s me. I admit, I turned it off on 83 minutes, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I hate the fact we’re in these games, playing well, getting plaudits from other managers and fans, and yet still can’t get away from truly poor teams like Shrewsbury and Morecambe. I’m not being elitist, and to a degree, I think this result will be forgotten quickly if we can beat Gillingham. The problem is, they’re going into games looking to not get beaten, and that makes me fear for Saturday in a big way. I’d say ‘0-0’, but as you and I know, we don’t do ‘0’ in the conceded column.
I hope, for the love of God, we find a way to manage it soon, otherwise, April is going to be a worrying month for supporters. I still believe we’re too good to go down, and whilst I know that’s a dangerous thing to say, I can’t recall a time when we actually did go down and I felt we didn’t deserve it. Right now, between both boxes, we don’t deserve it. In front of goal, and defending our own box, I’m not so sure.
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