The Two Areas Michael Appleton Must Sort For Next Season

I’ve read with interest a lot of comments about what we need for next season.

Everyone has an opinion, and rightly so. Some think the change needs to come at the top, others look to specific areas of the field and pinpoint where they feel we’ve lacked. As regular readers will know, I’m firmly behind the manager right now, and I think he’s been unlucky for parts of this season. Not everything he does I agree with (poor old Max Sanders must be wondering what he needs to do), but I think if we put some of the injuries aside, and take Michael’s health in the summer into consideration, he’s done a decent job this campaign. At times, we’ve had entire XI’s out injured, and even now we’re struggling, People pointed to the Wigan defeat as another disappointing result, but the list of players we had unavailable was ridiculous.

Anyhow, as I’ve found a spare fifteen minutes for an article, but not for a dog walk video this week, I thought I’d pinpoint the two areas where I feel we have to find a solution to ongoing problems. However, to get us started, I thought I’d look at one area of the field you might think we’re needing to be better, but we’re probably not all that bad.

Credit Graham Burrell

No Need To Panic – Up Top

I don’t think we have a fundamental problem going forward; I’ve seen enough to make me think we will be okay in terms of scoring goals. I see comments like ‘we offer no threat’, but the truth is that our crisis before Christmas, which saw Freddie Draper as our only real striking option, has made our season much harder. My belief is we lost points at that time due to missing chances, we went out of the FA Cup because we couldn’t test the Hartlepool keeper, and since the winter window, we’ve been better. we haven’t been infinitely better, but we have created more chances.

Last season, we created 10.84 shots per game, with a 39.8% accuracy, and that saw us finish in the play-off spots (that’s League One games only). We scored 1.49 goals per game from those shots. This season, with the striker crisis which saw us fail to score in four consecutive league games, we’ve had 10.86 shots per game with a 37% accuracy. The problem has been the actual return; just 1.12 per game. We haven’t had as many penalties, which boosted our goals and xG in 2020/21; it was 1.52 last season and 1.2 this season. Basically, we’re underperforming our xG, which means we’re creating chances but not putting them away, but to a degree that has improved since Christmas. I’m not saying we don’t need to shake it up a bit, but I think we’re at an acceptable level going forward.

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Must Do Better – Centre Backs

I was asked to work out how many different defensive combinations we’d had this season, and I don’t like to disappoint (actually, I wish I had, it’s just taken me 20 minutes with Wyscout to investigate). I can’t actually believe it, but we’ve played with a lot of different combinations of defenders – sometimes the same back four but switched around (for instance, Bramall and TJ on the flanks in consecutive games, but Poole on the left and Montsma on the right (Oxford at home), but Montsma left and Poole right (MK Dons at home). In all, we’ve had 24 different combinations across the 42 league games we’ve played. Our most settled back four was Poole and Robson on the flanks with TJ and Lewis Montsma in the middle (six matches), or Poole and Robson with Jackson and Montsma (six matches). Recently, we’ve barely had a two-game stint switch a settled back four, or five.

In terms of actual pairing in the middle of the defence, we’ve had 11 different partnerships, with five games of three at the back in four different combinations. So, over a 42 game period, we’ve had no fewer than 15 different partnerships. The most popular are TJ Eyoma and Lewis Montsma (eight games), and Adam Jackson and Lewis Montsma (seven games). As a result, we have conceded more goals than last season (1.1 per game last season, 1.36 this season), faced more shots (11.41 per game last season, 13.21 this season) and faced much more xG (1.22 last season, 1.56 this season). Whilst I haven’t gone through our central defensive pairings from last season in the league, I dare wager it is no more than perhaps six, max.

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There are injuries we cannot help; Lewis Montsma for instance, but we have to find a way to get 20/30 games out of perhaps no more than three centre backs rotated. Regan Poole has played in five defensive positions this season (LCB and RCB in a two, LCB and RCB of a three, plus RB), whilst TJ has also played five (RCB and LCB of a two, CB and RCB of a three and RB). We’ve had a midfielder at right-back (Ted Bishop), and I haven’t even factored in subs, which would make us even more unsettled.

It really is simple; if we get a settled back four, that play consistent matches together, we concede fewer goals. Even when we couldn’t hit a barn door with a tractor, if we’d been keeping clean sheets, we’d pick up points. The lack of clean sheets is almost certainly attributable to that unsettled defence.

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Vital – Holding Midfielder

We say that we have a long-term successor to Liam Bridcutt in Max Sanders, but as the months wear on I’m not sure that’s a belief shared by the manager. What we have is a set of midfielders who cannot operate in the one position we urgently need: Liam Bridcutt’s role.

The fact is this: Liam Bridcutt is the best footballer I have seen in a Lincoln City shirt for many, many years. He makes the system work, he controls and dictates play, he helps the defence and makes the players around him better. However, if he only does it for 15 games a season, then we have a fundamental problem on the playing side of things.

That’s not to say he shouldn’t be around the club; I would absolutely want Liam Bridcutt as part of the squad and staff next season. Maybe on a pay-as-you-play coaching deal, if it suits him, but he’s a strong character who makes us better as a squad. That doesn’t take away from the fact we need someone to fill in that role; someone like Tom Naylor at Wigan, a player with experience, but also the ability to play for 90 minutes more than 35 times a season. I’d also be happy with a Jordan Houghton figure, a former Chelsea youth who I’ve always admired and who has helped Plymouth to the top six.

Fail to nail this over the summer, and we’re in for more of the same disappointment as this season, in my opinion.

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I’m not saying those are the only positions we need to change before we’re challenging for a top ten spot, but they are the ones we need to secure to avoid another relegation battle. The difference between the top six and the upper bottom half is the loan deals, the Brennan Johnson’s and Joe Morrell’s of this world. The difference between the bottom four and the upper bottom half are these two basics I’ve listed, and if we’d got them right this season, or they’d worked out for us (depending on whether you blame management or circumstance) we’d have been safe four or five weeks ago. I still maintain there is little difference between Lincoln City in 18th and Oxford in 8th, just consistency and a bit of class in a key area.

Consistency doesn’t come from telling players to play better, it comes from playing a settled back four and midfield for a majority of games. Outside of that, a good loan or two and you’re suddenly knocking on the top six door, not the trapdoor.