Opinion: Lincoln City: A very different challenge

Having booked our trip to Wembley, let’s look at our final hurdle to promotion. Can the Pool beat Lincoln to become victorious in the play-offs once again?

On Saturday, Lincoln City beat Sunderland with a narrow 3-2 victory on aggregate and secured their spot in the League One play-off final. Many Imps fans will be expecting heartbreak. They have lost in all six of their previous play-off campaigns, and their failure in 5 consecutive seasons (2002-2007) remains a competition record. 

After a resounding 6-3 win over Oxford, decided in the first leg, Blackpool have (as we all know) now reached our 8th play-off final. In contrast to Lincoln, we are the most successful team in play-off history, having already won 5. It would be easy to assume that we’ll sweep the Imps aside, much as we did to Oxford.

Lincoln’s Defensive Style of Play

Unfortunately – Lincoln represent a very different challenge. Whereas Oxford press and harass attacking sides, Michael Appleton’s Lincoln prefer to drop back in defence and get themselves organised. Whereas most sides in League One allow less than 10 passes on average before they tackle or intercept the ball, the Imps allow 12. They are not concerned with quickly regaining possession and are content to let the opposition have the ball.

Instead, they use this time to get organised and frustrate the opposition by blocking any good opportunities to score. While Lincoln City concede more shots against them than most League One teams, the value of these shots are extremely low (i.e. shots from outside the box, headers from relatively tame crosses etc). The Imps have the lowest xG per shot against them in League One at 0.107 – meaning you have to shoot 10 times from these non-threatening areas before you can realistically expect to score.

If Blackpool want to win against Lincoln, attacking before they have a chance to get organised will be critical. Of the 4 goals we’ve scored against them this season, 3 were scored in transition while Lincoln defenders were hurrying to get back into position (the 4th was a chaotic scramble in the box following a set-piece-esque cross). Quick counter-attacks and aggressive pressing from Simms and Yates will be vital to create goal-scoring opportunities. 

Lincoln Going Forward

In contrast, Lincoln’s attacking play will be patient and with a focus on quick passing. The Imps have one of the highest passes-per-minute rates in the League, constantly moving it forward with short, sharp passes and running. While they try relatively few long-passes, they are 3rd in the league for progressive passes and 2nd for progressive runs. They’re able to constantly frustrate opposition defenders by teasing it around the box (they are ranked 3rd for completions in the final third of the pitch), gradually pulling defenders out of position before playing an incisive through ball. This goal, which we conceded against them in our last game, is a prime example. 

Penalties and set-pieces are Lincoln’s other main attacking threat. The Imps have won 16 this season when the League average is less than half that (6). They are also the most fouled side in the League. Part of this is due to their style of play. Constant movement from attackers, combined with patient probing, is stressful for defenders and can lead to impatient, rash challenges. Lincoln players also try their best to draw fouls – by any means necessary. For example, Brennan Johnson was booked for simulation as he looked for a penalty in their 2nd leg against Sunderland (before Lincoln were awarded one later anyway).

For a team like Blackpool, typically content (and proficient) at defending our own box, the overhanging threat of the penalty spot will loom large. In the home-leg against the Imps this season, we conceded two penalties – both of which Lincoln scored. We either need to have a masterclass in professional defending within the box, or press high and minimise the number of times they ever reach our third of the pitch. 

This game presents a unique challenge for Blackpool. We need to find a way to create transitions and hit them on the counter-attack, but Lincoln’s proficiency in the final third means we may concede one too many if we adopt our usual strategy of dropping back and exploiting the space in-behind. While a high-press would (theoretically) create both attacking opportunities in transition while stifling Oxford in their own half, this is not something Blackpool are known for and which cannot be taught in a week.

I’m still confident Blackpool can win. Our existing gameplan has brought us to the Play-Off semi-final after a disastrous start to the season, and it can win us this game. We just need to make the most of the chances we get from our counter-attacks, and hope our boys in Tangerine live up to their reputation as obstinate, error-free defenders. If we don’t, Lincoln may just break their play-off curse.

#UTMP

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Published by Conor Hamilton

Northerner working in finance. Blackpool FC fan. I write about football with healthy doses of tactics, statistics and data visualizations.

One thought on “Opinion: Lincoln City: A very different challenge

  1. Hi – Lincoln fan here. Just wanted to say impressive write-up and nice to see a comprehensive use of stats.

    It will be interesting how we set up as I imagine the metrics you outline (both around regaining the ball and how direct we are) vary between the games we’ve played 4-3-3 with McGrandles in midfield and when we’ve played with Johnson as an attacking 8 which almost looks like a 4-2-3-1 at times. I don’t have the stats to back it up but we seemed a lot more direct (and lost the ball at home) say, Sunderland at home with effectively that front four compared to our games earlier in the season. That system became more common recently but imploded a bit first half at the Stadium of Light as we couldn’t keep the ball at all and then had all the attacking personnel on the pitch struggling to hold them off.

    Especially recently we’ve been a bit more flexible and adjusted a bit more than earlier in the season when I think I found it easier to name our team and setup. The additions in January (Poole, Bramall, Rogers) and return of Morton probably made this more possible.

    I would also expect a different looking side to the one you faced last – I’d be very surprised if Edun played in midfield and expect him at left back, likewise Sanders and Morton likely to be on the bench and Jackson is not available at centre half. Might be more that system, just not the personnel.

    More broadly I also think there is a correlation between us playing less well in games and having more possession; your set up generally with less bodies in midfield seems problematic for us in that sense but I am not sure how much strength there really is in the data for my theory!

    Keep up the good work and good luck (apart from Sunday!)

    Joe

    Liked by 1 person

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