Despite not being one of the favourites to go up this season, Lincoln City currently sit second in the table having started the season with two wins from two games and are also unbeaten in the cups.
The Imps were also largely unfancied in many previews going into the season but have been performing to a level above what many expected so far.
Of course, Lincoln did start last season well too before the Cowley brothers were poached by Huddersfield. Michael Appleton then looked like a solid appointment, but his record last season was poor and he couldn’t keep the Imps fighting at the right end of the table, instead seeing them just above the relegation zone when the season was suspended.
When Appleton was appointed, one year ago yesterday, Lincoln’s slow decline had already started. They had dropped to 10th but were still only three points off 5th. Appleton’s league record last season saw eight wins, five draws and 12 defeats from 25 games before the season was cut short.
Is this bright start a repeat of last season? It is often the way things go in football. Sides will often start in a similar way and go through similar patches as in previous seasons. Morecambe in League Two under Jim Bentley, for example, would usually start the season in great form before dropping off, and then would usually finish the season strongly as well.
It seems unlikely that this season will be a copy of last season for Lincoln though, given how big a turnover there has been at the club this summer. 13 players have left Sincil Bank over the summer, with 12 new players coming in.
Some of the departures were quite high profile ones, with Cian Bolger, Michael Bostwick and Neal Eardley all leaving, but the Imps have made some impressive signings too with Alex Palmer, Callum Morton and Liam Bridcutt just three of the additions that catch the eye.
Appleton last season did not manage to build his own squad suited to his style of play, and it is a very different style to that used most frequently to the Cowleys, which could explain why Lincoln struggled last season.
The managerial career of Appleton is an interesting one. Starting out at Portsmouth before moving on to Blackpool and then to Blackburn Rovers, three clubs who at the time all had a lot of fan discontent because of how things were being managed off the pitch.
Appleton’s reputation, among football fans, at this point could not have been much lower. It was surprising when he then turned up at Oxford United, who were then mocked by some for the appointment.
Oxford finished 13th in Appleton’s first season in charge, but by this point he had built his own squad and they won automatic promotion the following season – as well as reaching the EFL Trophy final. Appleton then led Oxford to eighth in League One, and another Trophy final, before departing for an assistant manager role at Leicester.
Appleton’s Oxford were excellent. Many of his signings have gone on to play in higher divisions, and Oxford may well have gone on to be promoted again had he stayed at the club. Having now built his own squad at Lincoln, if they can be as effective as his Oxford United side were then they should do well this season, but given it took two seasons to build his squad at Oxford, will Lincoln be able to maintain their good early season form?
As well as wins against Oxford and Milton Keynes in the league, Lincoln have beaten Crewe and Bradford in the Carabao Cup and beaten Scunthorpe after a penalty shootout in the EFL Trophy.
Lincoln face their toughest test of the season tonight against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, but also face a difficult next couple of league games – hosting Charlton Athletic before a trip to Blackpool.
On paper, Appleton’s side have had a tough start to the season, but they have won their opening two games and will probably feel confident going into their next two league games.
Despite winning both of their opening games, no side in the league has had less possession than Lincoln so far, and only Bristol Rovers have taken less shots. Lincoln’s four goals this campaign have come from just 14 shots, but while on one hand this may look clinical, it could also be used to argue that they have had a fortunate start to the campaign.
However, even when winning 5-0 at Bradford in the last round of the Carabao Cup Lincoln only had 42% possession, which suggests it is tactical – or that Bradford passed the ball around to avoid making the score worse, but actually most of Bradford’s possession came in the first half.
One thing that has been key for Lincoln so far is set pieces. Of the 12 goals the Imps have scored, five have come from set pieces. Three from freekicks, one a penalty and one from a corner. But, something that has played a bigger role is Lincoln’s crossing, five goals have come from crosses from open play, and then the freekick goals and corner were also all crossed into the box meaning nine of Lincoln’s 12 goals have come from a cross of some form.
Jorge Grant has four assists to his name already, with Anthony Scully and Harry Anderson also registering two each from out wide. But despite Lincoln’s reliance on crosses so far, these are players who are just as happy cutting in off the wing and shooting from distance, something Lincoln have also done this season, albeit with less success, with James Jones’ goal against Bradford the only shot Lincoln have scored from range so far.
It is too early to say whether Lincoln will be able to maintain their good start to the season, but comparisons to last season can be written off due to the scale of the turnover since then. Lincoln’s stats have not been in their favour, but stats do not always tell the full story of a game, and Michael Appleton’s system seems to be working well to this point.
While the table means little at this point, five of Lincoln’s next six league games come against teams currently in the top half. That might not mean these are the best teams, given there has only been two games played, but it does mean they have had the best starts.
Games against Ipswich, Blackpool and Fleetwood will be tough, and Argyle and Charlton should provide stern tests too. But after wins against Oxford and MK, Lincoln will probably not fear anyone going into those games.