At the very start of the season, before the Exeter game, I recall standing in a crowd in the fan zone discussing our chances.
I recall saying that we’d learn nothing from a single game and that we’d be best measured after ten games. Well, that’s how many we have on the board right now (excluding cups), so it’s time to do an assessment of where I think we’re at.
It’s fair to say that the ten matches have had a bit of excitement, and I genuinely think if I’d been told the state of play right now before the Exeter game, I’d have nodded and taken it. I definitely think if we finished 13th overall this season, I’d be happy, and we’ve put some daylight between us and the bottom four. We’re in credit in terms of points, and we’ve already had the sort of results that people remember for a long while; the 2-0 win against Derby being one for the right reasons, and the 4-0 mauling at Posh one we’ll recall for the wrong reasons. We’ve had last-minute drama, both in our favour and against us; we’ve won a game on penalties, already had a bit of a cup run but also lost to lower league opposition. We’ve scored six away, we’re unbeaten at home in the league, but we’ve also failed to win matches that, on paper, we should have come out of with three points at home. Even I have gone from optimistic to pessimistic and back again, and all in the short space of ten League One matches.
Oh, and we’ve had the usual deadline day ‘disappointment’ selling our leading scorer and forgotten all about it when a new loan hero emerges. Already there’s an MK fan club on social media, and those already doubt him, and to top it all off, people are still angry at Jez for reasons they’re not sure about. It’s basically like we’ve crammed a whole season’s highs and lows into just a few short weeks.
What is the truth? Well, I can present to you my truth, but as we found out this weekend, that doesn’t suit everybody. However, I’ll try to put some sort of assessment together for the first ten matches.
First of all, let’s talk about the actual outcome rather than the process. We’ve played ten matches, amassed 13 points and have a game in hand over some of the teams above us. Already, there’s a pack breaking away, so a win in our game in hand (Accrington at home) would only see us climb two places, possibly three if it were by two goals.
There was an argument that we’d had an easy opening few fixtures, particularly Forest Green, Exeter City and Fleetwood at home, and it is true we’ve played two of the bottom four. However, there is a table on Soccer Stats which tells you the relative performance – it measures your points per game and your opponent’s points per game. In those terms, we’ve actually had one of the toughest opening spells; six of our games have been against teams in the top half of the table, with 60% of our games being away. The teams we’ve played average 1.56 points per game between them – only Peterborough have had a tougher opening set of fixtures. I was intruged when Mark Kennedy mentioned this after the weekend’s fixture, and I think it’s crucial to bear in mind. The table also suggests that in terms of relative performance (how we’ve actually done against the level of teams we’ve played), we’re the ninth-best side in the division after ten games. I’d have taken that before Exeter, I’ll take it now, and I’d take it in May.
On the flip side, there’s the xG table. It is something that splits opinion, I get that, but the xG data suggests we’re outperforming ourselves. Our expected points (xG data used to determine results, not actual goals) would see us in the bottom four, although it would also have leaders Plymouth in 13th. It’s not a ‘stat’ as such, pointing to issues, but it is worth considering; the data suggests we’re not yet creating the sort of clear-cut chances needed to win matches. Our biggest issue, according to the xG stats, comes when conceding chances at home – we’re fifth-worst in the league for xG against at home. Could it be those nerves again, a young squad feeling the pressure? Or are we still suffering the ‘how do we break this lot down’ conundrum from last season?
In my eyes, the answer is neither. At present, we’re setting out not to lose matches, and we’ve had some tough ones recently. Derby at home was one we showed great discipline in, whereas I think we were a little naive against Forest Green and Fleetwood. The truth is we could have won all three of those early matches, but those two teams, including Exeter, took advantage of us when we were very early work in progress. I think there’s a little more stability now, which is promising.
So we know what the stats say and what the table says, but what do our eyes tell us? I appreciate I see things differently to some, but I think there’s as much to debate here as there is from the stats. At times, I’ve been very impressed; Derby at home and Portsmouth away are two examples. Oxford away was also a great indicator of the things we do well, but on the flipside, there’s Cambridge and Peterborough away, and Fleetwood at home. I was more disappointed in terms of performance with the 2-2 draw with Fleetwood than the recent defeat at Bolton. In fact, I’ve seen sufficient improvement over the last three matches to make this section much more balanced than it would have been after seven matches.
I don’t think there are any issues with our keeper; Carl Rushworth is a top stopper, and he’ll earn us more points than Josh Griffiths did last season. Some of that is down to having a more settled back four; in Mark Kennedy’s approach, the defence is focused firstly on stopping goals, whereas I think under the previous regime, the focus was on the back four being the starting point for an attack.
It’s taken a bit of time to settle, and as we saw at Bolton, we still have errors in the back four to cut out, but I feel that when we’re on it, we defend relatively well. I know some will disagree, but I don’t see the conceding of chances as a defensive issue, which I’ll cover shortly. I think Poole and O’Connor have settled into a partnership, with Poole offering a bit of pace and O’Connor looking to be an enforcer. It hasn’t all been straightforward, and there’s still a bit to go there, but the pair of them being settled in front of Rushworth is a big bonus. I know TJ has his doubters, but he’s settled in recent weeks, and Sean Roughan’s form has been a real bright spot. That’s surely the first choice back four for now, with Walsh and Jackson on the fringes when they’re fit.
The fundamental issue with our current approach falls in the midfield area. I know we’ve got talented players to fill the three midfield slots, but I just don’t quite see it having been figured out properly yet. It’s like playing Scrabble; you’ve got a rack of letters, you know there’s a high-scoring word in there, but all you keep producing right now is something which looks like that Polish keeper’s surname from 1973. Sure, it looks like a word, but it can’t be used. That’s our midfield in my eyes; it looks like a midfield, but it keeps breaking down. I think that’s why we conceded chances early on against Bolton, it’s why we lost our grip against Fleetwood, and it’s also why we did well against Derby; when the midfield works, we flow. When it doesn’t, we look a bit ragged.
It’s easy for me to say what I think should and shouldn’t happen; I’ve never worked in football, and I don’t see the players every week. My issue is still with the holding role; I’ve seen one player I think looks similar to Bridcutt (the blueprint for the role), and he got 65 minutes in the Papa John’s before coming off. That was Jacob Davenport, a player I firmly believe can be huge for us if he gets fit (I said that about Theo Archibald, by the way), but the others are all players I think operate further forward. Lasse is like McGrandles, all running and effort, but perhaps not quite suited to the role of a single defensive midfielder. In my opinion, he’d work well in a three when you need the flexibility to go 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1 quickly, but with someone else playing the fixed defensive role, he could do that. As for Tashan, Matty Virtue and Ted Bishop, all three could easily play in the attacking midfield role and be effective. The one player who might be a good holding player is Max Sanders; if we need to be more like a 4-2-3-1 and Davenport is not fit, then Sanders and Sorensen side by side would be my preference.
Of course, we’re short up top and whilst the club won’t say that it’s becoming obvious. Tom Hopper missed the weekend’s game, his second stint out (even if it is only for a single game), and whilst I really like Ben House, a striker is someone who does 65/70 minutes and gets replaced, isn’t he? Maybe I’m wrong, and whilst I know Garrick, Mandroiu, and Diamond can play through the middle, I’m of the opinion someone like Conor Wickham, Promise Omochere or John Marquis would be great for the bench. I mention those players because they’re all strikers who sat on the bench against us in recent games, then came on when their team started chasing. I’m not sure we have that change of plan up top if we’re chasing a game, certainly not with Tom injured.
That said, we do have some exciting wide options, and this weekend they got a bit more so with Danny Mandroiu. Of course, in an article assessing things after ten games, I was always going to have an unknown quantity to write about, and that is Mandroiu. His debut was certainly eye-catching, and along with Diamond, we seem to have two players capable of making a real impact. We haven’t seen Jordan Garrick get back to the levels he reached before his injury (albeit in three matches or so), but he’s another exciting player, whilst Charles Vernam is going to have to be very patient as he’s fallen down the pecking order, probably courtesy of his frustrating pre-season injury. Who knows, had he started against Exeter, as was the plan, he might have been a fan favourite now instead of being left to play catch up.
There is a real change of style – we go longer more, which hasn’t always worked (much to the dismay of the ‘get it forward’ brigade, who have now decided that they still want to get it forward, but not just in the way we do). We’ve played some nice stuff, and I think as a settled side begins to form, we’ll play more. I like to see players such as Tashan on the ball; when he’s on form he is such a talent, but we’ve got to find a way to balance him with strength in the middle, which he lacks. It’s like this; when we play football and it comes off, it looks good, but after ten games, we’ve also seen what happens when it breaks down, and it isn’t pretty.
I’ve already said we’re more defensive-minded, but that means we work very hard out of possession. We’re better without the ball at the moment, which always draws criticism. I recall Danny Cowley getting pelters from some fans after the 1-1 draw with Oldham because we were a team who liked to not have the ball for periods, and when forced to play football, we didn’t always get it right. We saw that this weekend; our performance at Bolton, without the ball, was very good at times, but fans don’t appreciate that when they’ve travelled across the country; they want possession, shots and stuff like that. For Mark Kennedy to keep the credit he’s got (simply by not being Michael Appleton for some fans), he needs to ensure we strike a finer balance between a workmanlike approach off the ball and a free-flowing style on it. Right now, I think we’ve got one aspect developing nicely (off the ball), but we’re not quite there in an attacking sense. However, against Cambridge, we showed what happened when you’re loose with the ball and completely ragged without it. That can’t keep happening, and it’s something I felt we saw for a good 60 minutes against Fleetwood as well.
Where are we after ten games? That was the point of the article, and my honest answer is ‘on the right track’. Of course, there are things to be ironed out, and it’s interesting listening to other managers when they talk about progress. One, in particular, caught my eye this weekend; Michael Appleton. He was saying how his best seasons at clubs have always been the second one when the players have twelve months or so working with the coaching staff when the odd transfer miss has been and gone, and the crux of a squad has been formed. We’re ten league games into Mark Kennedy’s reign, and to condemn it, or indeed say it’s revolutionary, would be wrong. However, there are signs of what he’s trying to do coming through, and I do think there’s a fight to the team we haven’t always seen in the last year or so. It doesn’t always seem evident, but think of it like your favourite band. You might love an album (for me, let’s say Rancid, And Out Come The Wolves), but then they inexplicably put out something you’re not a fan of (the 2000 eponymous album). You don’t just stop listening, do you? You know they’re a decent band, but they don’t always hit the sweet spot.
That’s this Lincoln City side. I can see what they’re trying to do, I can see improvement in the players, application and understanding. I can also see the shortcomings, the bits that need working on, and it all adds up to us having an alright season, not troubling the top ten, but hopefully staying clear of the bottom four. That’s the assessment after ten matches, and it’s probably as much as we could have hoped for back in late July.
We’re up and running, we’re competing, and we’re not folding like a busted Las Vegas poker player either. We have a decent squad, and I feel our approach is more suited to a winter window when we can look to pick off targets in the last six months of their deal. There will be defeats that are tough to take, a few wins that raise the eyebrows and more ups and downs than the rollercoaster on Skegness sea front.
Whatever happens, we’ve strode into the Mark Kennedy era, warts and all, and are doing as well as any of us expected. That’s all we can ask after ten games, isn’t it? Let’s hope the next big barometer, Christmas, sees a similar story.