It’s time for Plymouth Argyle to find a response. Don’t get me wrong, the start to this season has been generally delightful; you’d have to be a bit of a masochist not to be pleased with 41 points after 17 games. But after the trauma of losing 5-1, and indeed having to go to Grimsby, it’d be preferable to get the good times rolling again as quickly as possible.
One of the finest features of Argyle’s flying start to the season has been their ability to react to setbacks. After Peterborough United dumped them out of the League Cup, Argyle roared back to dominate and defeat them just three days later. After the other 5-1 defeat this season at Charlton Athletic, Forest Green Rovers would quickly be put to the sword with a 3-0 Argyle win in Nailsworth. Even after a disappointing second half saw Argyle draw 2-2 with Bristol Rovers, they’d find a come-from-behind win straight after against Shrewsbury Town.
It’s a trip to Lincoln City next for Steven Schumacher’s side. Those trends may suggest another away win is on the cards, but it’s unlikely to be smooth sailing. The Imps have already beaten Ipswich Town, Portsmouth and Barnsley this season, and are undefeated in the league at home. They also come into this game on the back of a superb 3-1 win at Bristol City in midweek. If they’re still on a high, this could prove to be a troublesome trip to Sincil Bank.
Style of play
Lincoln have played a 4-3-3 at times this season, but have reverted to an incredibly settled 3-4-3 in recent weeks. It’d be hard to claim this was manager Mark Kennedy’s first choice – injuries to Tom Hopper and Teddy Bishop rather enforced a change in shape since the start of the season. But the 3-4-3 has worked, delivering some notable results.
I’ve called it ‘incredibly settled’ because of its consistency. In fact, Lincoln have named exactly the same team in four of their last six league games. That naturally brings stability, but it helps that the defence provide a solid foundation. Paudie O’Connor and Regan Poole have both been ever-present in the league this season, and they’ve been joined in a back three recently by Adam Jackson. At the start of October, Jackson had just 38 league minutes under his belt. He’s played 540 since.
The wing backs have consistently been Sean Roughan on the left and Timothy Eyoma on the right, whilst the two central midfielders provide a solid platform for those further upfield. Max Sanders has recovered from an injury picked up at the end of August to regain his place in the side, and Matty Virtue has only missed one half of football since signing on loan from Blackpool on deadline day.
Up front, Lincoln have generally placed Danny Mandroiu and the excellent Sunderland loanee Jack Diamond behind central striker Ben House. Standing at 5 ft 9, Argyle shouldn’t face many of the aerial troubles with House that some strikers, such as Bristol Rovers’ Ryan Loft, have given them this season. But they should still be very aware of House’s talent on the ball.
It may have been a well-oiled machine in recent week, but Lincoln have run into a problem troubling plenty of sides in recent weeks: injuries. Mandroiu limped off against Port Vale and was replaced by a familiar face in Jordon Garrick. But Garrick himself missed the excellent win at Ashton Gate with an injury of his own.
And they’re not the only ones on the treatment table. Hopper is still absent, whilst an injury to House meant 18-year-old Freddie Draper started up front in the FA Cup loss to Chippenham Town. House is back now, and the recent return of Bishop in Chippenham was greatly welcoming, but the Imps were still able to name only six substitutes (out of a possible nine) in midweek. Lincoln’s shape will hold, but they’ll almost certainly be unable to name an unchanged lineup in the league again.
Whoever plays, Lincoln are a team comfortable without the ball. Only three teams in the league have a lower average possession than Lincoln’s 41%. Passing isn’t necessarily a strength, so they’re happy to sit back, let their opponents look fancy, and make an interception or tackle when required. They know that their back line, along with Virtue in particular from midfield, are all capable of winning the ball back with regularity.
And when they do have it, they may look to a few moments of individual brilliance rather than intricate patterns of play. They’ve completed the lowest number of crosses in the league, and the fact only Port Vale have only been caught offside on fewer occasions indicates they don’t try many delicate balls in behind. To put that into context, Exeter City’s Sam Nombe has been caught offside alone as many times as Lincoln have all season.
Instead, they’ll trust the likes of Diamond and whoever replaces Mandroiu to run and create chances of their own. Charles Vernam can do the same, as can Bishop, Garrick and Tashan Oakley-Boothe. Lincoln may not have many attacking options at the moment, but the ones they do have are all very capable.
Much of Lincoln’s recent successes have been down to Diamond. Due to a clause in his loan move from Sunderland, he’s been forced to miss the Imps’ two most recent fixtures in both cups. He’ll be desperate to get back out there and show exactly how he’s made such an impact since joining the fold at Sincil Bank.
Diamond has been at the centre of a great deal of Lincoln’s play. He’s their top scorer this season, and whilst that fact has to be contextualised by the fact that three of his goals came in a 6-3 win at Bristol Rovers alone, it’s still impressive considering he missed the first six games this season as a direct result of still playing for Sunderland. He’s no doubt happier these days.
Once he gets the ball, he’s a very effective dribbler. He’s completed 18 dribbles in League One since joining Lincoln, with only seven players in the league having completed more. That’s even more eye-catching when you consider that the seven men above him have all played at least 250 minutes more in the league this season. I mentioned that Lincoln rely on individual brilliance, and Diamond can certainly deliver in that regard.
The one word I’d use to describe him above all else is “involved”. That obviously applies to his proficiency on the ball – I’ve already mentioned his dribbling, and it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s also had more shots than anyone in Lincoln’s side. But it’s also relevant off the ball. He’s been involved in more, and indeed won more, ground duels than any Lincoln player. It shows he’s never too far from the action, and helps his side defend from the front.
Talking of defending, I believe you could argue that defence has been Lincoln’s main strength all season. The settled nature of their back line helps, but they’ve taken advantage of that in a way some sides would fail to do so. Their figure of 19 goals conceded is not too shabby at all, particularly when you consider that’s exactly the same number shipped by table-topping Argyle.
I’ve been particularly impressed by the sheer number of interceptions Lincoln have made. It’s 260 in all, more than any other team in the league and a chunk ahead of Bristol Rovers, who sit in second with 220. Six Lincoln players feature in the league’s top 25 for interceptions, with Poole and O’Connor in the top four. I therefore expect a defence that is particularly problematic to play through, much like we saw when Argyle faced Shrewsbury at Home Park.
The final thing I’d note as a strength is Lincoln’s proficiency from the penalty spot. They’ve scored three league penalties this season, with only Portsmouth netting more. But, as a proportion of their total goals, Lincoln take top spot. Argyle have conceded a fair few penalties against Lincoln over the years, a number of which have been in somewhat dubious circumstances. But whether it’s drawing fouls in the box or conning the referee, Lincoln are clearly still good at it. Argyle will have to be wary of any tackles they attempt in their own penalty area.
I’ve mentioned Lincoln’s defence as a major strength of their season. But it’s hardly led them to the heights of the league table. It stands to reason, therefore, that their attack has been lacking.
The stats go a long way to explaining why. Lincoln have taken 120 shots this season, the fewest of any side in the division and 25 fewer than MK Dons, who sit 23rd on that particular list. And truthfully, there hasn’t been enough creativity in the side to significantly add to that number.
Nobody at Lincoln has created more than two big chances all season, and that’s led to them having the 22nd-highest number of big chances as a whole. Lincoln may rely on individuals coming to the fore, but when they’re kept quiet, there’s no real plan B to take them forward. The fact Lincoln have an xG of 11.48 this season, with only MK having a lower figure, comes as no surprise when you consider how relatively toothless they’ve been.
That’s reflected in the expected points table too, which has Lincoln in 21st place on 16.17. They’ve had a solid start to the season, sitting in mid-table and just four points behind Derby County in seventh. But the quality of the chances they’ve created and faced really ought to see them as one of the early battlers against relegation.
That needs to be contextualised. Because whilst our expected points model lists Lincoln as one of the weaker sides in League One, they find themselves where they are in the league for a reason. Their shot accuracy rate, and indeed their shot conversion rate, is currently the second highest in the league. Besides, Argyle themselves are 11th in the expected points table, but you’d hardly say they don’t deserve to be top of the league based on the football we’ve all seen them play.
With that being said, I think Lincoln are more likely to drop off than Argyle. With the Imps, the underlying stats suggest that their peak will meet a trough at some point in the near future. Argyle may be outperforming their expected points, but they are not at all lacking in possession, shots or big chances. Lincoln are deficient in all of those areas.
Away from that, the final thing I’ve noticed for Argyle to look to take advantage of is the timing of Lincoln’s goals. They have been known to start like a house on fire, with two goals in the first 15 minutes against both Fleetwood Town and Bristol Rovers this season. But if you can get through the early wave of pressure, the game may well be yours for the taking. Lincoln are one of just two teams, along with Peterborough United, not to have scored a single goal beyond the 75th minute of games this season. There have to be serious questions about their ability to keep their spirits up for the duration of the game.
There was a similar school of thought with Exeter City. We all saw the number of goals they conceded in the second half, and the points dropped from winning positions, and wondered whether Argyle’s bench could play a defining role. And that’s exactly what happened, with Ryan Hardie emerging and putting the inferior Devonians to the sword. Lincoln, meanwhile, have a different kind of second half problem, losing what little attacking impetus they have as games draw to a close.
Could substitutions prove to be key again? There’s every chance. And we know how good Schumacher is when calling on his bench.
Lincoln are unbeaten at home this season, but just one of their seven games at Sincil Bank hasn’t ended in a draw – a 2-0 win over Derby. And you’d hardly say the goals have been flying in. The Imps’ last six league games have ended 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 1-0, 1-0 and 1-1. I’ve therefore been prepared all week to predict a draw of some kind.
However, the more I think about Lincoln’s struggles going forward, the more confident I feel. Argyle are top of the league, and whilst the defeat in Grimsby hurt, there is still an abundance of talent in this side. The optimistic part of my brain reckons that’ll be just enough to inflict Lincoln’s first home defeat of the season, possibly with a late winner. 2-1 Argyle.