This is unusual for me – usually, I write a game up and refuse to publish anything before that article is done. However, I wrote this article a day or two ago but held off, hoping for a major change that would make the points, well, pointless. 90 minutes of MK Dons away, and I’ve realised it’s still on the money.
Hence, before I try to dissect today’s game, I’m letting this go out. I’ve made the odd tweak to give it a bit more timeliness.
After what felt like two big results over Christmas, a certain doom and gloom appears to have settled over Sincil Bank.
You can twist stats whichever way you want – we’re either unbeaten at home this season, or we’ve won just two on our own patch since the start of Christmas. We’ve either lost one of the last five (in normal time), or we’ve not won in the league since November 19th. Either we’re evolving the squad from last season, or this transfer window will have to paper over gaping cracks, again.
I always like to try to be positive, but I also like to be balanced, and since Tuesday night’s game, which I felt was a huge disappointment, I’ve been looking at the negatives, playing over the concerns in my head. I’m not prone to hyperbole, and I’m not one to moan without basis, but I have decided there are some areas in which I have concerns.
This kinda feels like a reactionary piece – we’ve had some great performances that have left me certain we’re on the right track, but Burton, Charlton and Accrington have gone some way to disproving my beliefs. I felt we were good at defending, solid and not conceding, and all we needed to do was find a way to beat the clubs around us. I say all we needed to do – it’s proving really difficult, and with injuries to Matty Virtue and Ben House, we’ve taken a huge step backwards in recent weeks.
It’s left me concerned about three major issues facing the club over the next three weeks and indeed going through until the end of the season. Here’s what’s concerning me right now.
Worrying On Field Trend
Firstly, I was happy to use xG as a stat last season to prove we were on the right track. Sadly, when the numbers point the other way, I cannot hide from them. The truth is we’re not creating enough chances, we’re not scoring enough goals and very rarely do we come out of a game with enough quality chances to have won it. Obviously, matches like Ipswich and Bolton do drop our xG significantly, but against Accrington on Tuesday, our xG was 1.11, lower than theirs. The goals we scored were both weak from a defensive point of view, and the chances we created from open play were minimal.
With no Ben House, we look shot shy, and with a lack of penetration from either flank, we’re often just a blunt instrument rather than a surgical tool. The wide men who were meant to cause trouble have not done so – Mandroiu is seemingly better through the middle, Charles Vernam asks questions but doesn’t yet have the right end product, and Jack Diamond’s eight goals include five penalties and one tap-in with no keeper in sight against Everton’s kids. I’m drawn to the first few lines of Three Lions repeatedly: “We’re not creative enough, and we’re not positive enough,” and “we’ll go on getting bad results, bad results, bad results, getting bad results.”
I hope I’m wrong, but I haven’t seen any progress in the games we should be winning. There’s no doubt that we can defend well, fight for points against big clubs and instil belief in supporters that way, but if we can’t get points against Burton, Cambridge and Port Vale, we’re going to be in serious trouble.
To put it simply, we can’t play every game like a cup tie between a League One side and a Premier League side. We were magnificent against Southampton and Bristol City, stoic against Ipswich and Bolton, and we managed Barnsley well, but there’s no joy to be had over a 46-game season only having that one approach. Ten games in, even 20 games in (all competitions), I felt we were on the right track, but since mid-November, we have struggled in matches that we really shouldn’t have struggled in. It’s easy to say we’ve found our level, but this league is not great, and currently, our level is not being able to beat teams that are in the bottom four. Charlton have a better budget and better players, but they were poor. Burton were average and we never tested them; Accrington were poor – these are matches that, even at ‘our level’, we should have taken something from. It’s not just this season either – we had the same issue last campaign.
Somehow, we have to find a way to create more chances. Mandroiu, Diamond and Bishop are all creative players, so it’s not a lack of quality or ability, so what is it? That’s the question Mark Kennedy and Danny Butterfield have to find an answer to.
Our use of the loan market has been questioned in recent weeks, and I’m beginning to wonder about some things myself. According to supporters, three players flopped here on loan last season (in reality, it was probably two). Morgan Whittaker was (wrongly) reviled by fans, Liam Cullen was labelled as not good enough, and Dan N’Lundulu was sent back early – neither had a huge impact. This season, Whittaker smashed it at Plymouth and has been recalled by the Swans, N’Lundulu impressed at Cheltenham and is now with Bolton, and Cullen has played (and scored) for Swansea. That’s not a good look for prospective incoming, is it? Three players were deemed to have struggled here, but found other environments better for their career.
We used to be proud that we had helped develop Brennan Johnson, Alex Palmer and the like, but is that notion fading? What is it that caused three players who struggled last season to do well when they left the club? There are obviously circumstances that fans wouldn’t see, and each case is different, but we didn’t look for high-impact youngsters this season, did we? Lewis Fiorini and Brooke Norton-Cuffy, two good loans from last season, were much younger than our outfield loans this time out. Indeed, Oakley-Boothe and Garrick have not proven effective, and I wonder if fans should be a little worried. We did really well in the loan market in 2020/21, and we can’t measure all our loans against that, but we do seem to be regressing in terms of loan success.
Also, are we fishing in the wrong waters? I listened to Mark’s interview the other night with interest; he says we’re being blown away by big clubs after the same players as us. On the other hand, we talk about not being able to compete with those clubs, about being at a different level from them, so why are we trying to attract the same players? Loans into other clubs, clubs we should be able to compete with for players, have been successful. Look at Aaron Pressley, who bagged a brace against us for Accrington. Look at Jensen Weir, who scored against us for Morecambe – these are the teams we can compete with in the transfer market, one would hope. This point is one we’ll know more about in a couple of weeks’ time, and taking Harry Boyes from FGR as we did is an indication we’re perhaps adjusting our sights, but we do desperately need to ensure we don’t get left short in this window, as we were last summer and the summer before.
Of course, since I wrote this, we’ve got another loan player, who makes six; Boyes, Rushworth, Oakley-Boothe, Virtue, Diamond and now Shodipo. That means any more transfers have to be permanent, and I guess that pushes us out of the waters Ipswich (£1m+) and the like are fishing in. Now, we’re going to be seriously tested on our permanent deals, and it’s been a while since we’ve signed a player on a permanent deal in the winter window who can impact the team right away – possibly Poole being the last one? It’s a big, big test for the recruitment team over the next two weeks or so.
Since the summer our turnover of staff seems to have been high. Joe Hutchinson, someone I lauded in a piece last season, left for Grimsby. Jordan McCann, our academy manager, went to Blackburn. Mike Garrity was only our assistant manager for a matter of months before he went to Queens Park Rangers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; people have pointed out it is good to attract staff that other teams want, but is it good to lose those staff? Over the summer, we had a major change in the fitness department; we know Mike Hines and Luke Jelly, among others, departed, with Ross Burbeary coming in.
My concern is, when does that end? Are we simply a stepping stone for staff? Of course, you’d rather have staff other teams like over those they do not, but it does have a knock-on effect if you can’t have a settled team for six months. I worked in teams in my old industry that featured lots of good people constantly moving, and whilst they furthered themselves, it left the organisation weaker. It also puts strain on resources and time, having to recruit in areas that are not on the field. Football fans judge a club purely on players and results, but players won’t – they’ll look at the bigger picture, and a high turnover of staff could be misconstrued.
If we’re attracting good staff (and we are) we need to find a way of keeping them in key positions. I recall a change of assistant manager having a catastrophic impact in 2008, when Neil McDonald left, and Iffy Onoura came in. Iffy wasn’t a bad bloke at all, but the team dynamic changed through one key member of staff switching. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but consistency is a huge factor in success.
I don’t want you to read this and think it’s all doom and gloom – it isn’t. We’re six points off the bottom four, and when players are fit, we have the makings of a decent squad. We’ve shown fight and resilience at times, and I’m writing this during a transfer window, so the outlook can change really quickly. If we’ve bagged a couple of attacking players in three weeks and won two of the three matches we’ll have played, everything will seem rosy again. Of course, we’ve now drawn with MK Dons, making the next two home games huge – four points are required as a bare minimum, given who the matches are against.
However, I have always written what I feel, and at least three of the last sixmatches have left me feeling a little concerned. I’m sure that these issues are ones the club, players, and staff are all aware of and are working tirelessly to resolve.