After Saturday’s win, you kind of felt ‘yeah, OK, I know it’s been seven unbeaten, including four wins, but if we can just make it five out of eight, then on Saturday six out of nine …’ There is just no satisfying fans. Then again, it has been a long time since we won away in the league, Lincoln despite winning on Saturday were not in the best of form it seemed, without a manager, so why not? In any event, this game would be a further measure of how we are progressing, hopefully with the outcome taking us closer to the top six. Instead we put in a below-par performance and were well beaten by a team which had either done its homework very well or just possessed the weapons to undo us – or both. Collectively they wanted it more than us.
We knew there would be at least one change to the side, given Aneke’s injury. In the event, Appleton made four, mostly involving a shuffling of the pack. Leaburn started in place of Aneke, while both Watsons and Tedic were moved to the bench, Asiimwe, Fraser and Campbell(T) stepping up from it to replace them, the vacant spot among the subs taken by Campbell(C). Not surprisingly it indicated no change in formation but with Camara and Campbell(C) presumably seen as possible wide position replacements and Tedic now likely to be deputising for the central striker spot.
We started brightly, probing and threatening, and within 10 minutes were ahead with a well-crafted goal. They played the ball out of defence but Fraser tracked their guy back and gained possession, turned, looked up and spotted Campbell making a good run across their back line. He slid through a perfect pass for him to run onto. The low cross came in and it seemed their keeper got a glove to it but not enough contact to divert it away from the incoming May, who still managed to get enough on it to bundle it home.
Lincoln were not surprisingly taken aback and we generally bossed the next 10 minutes or so, carving out another chance or two, including a decent shot from Dobson which was blocked. But as Lincoln regrouped and played their way back into the game that really was as good as it got. Before 20 minutes they had their first real chance, a long throw into the box half-cleared met by their influential guy with a shot which Maynard-Brewer did well to turn aside, the ball having come through a number of bodies. And there was a near repeat a few minutes later, this time the possibly goalbound shot being inadvertently blocked by one of their own, taking one for the opposition.
We were still competitive in this phase but it wasn’t a real surprise that Lincoln levelled things up after the half-hour. Asiimwe lost possession and the ball was moved to the other side. Cross came in from their right towards a guy marked by Jones. He clearly thought he could get to it first and head clear, but failed to do so, taking him out of the picture. Their guy controlled it well, turned, and hit home from close range. A couple of errors, not howlers but we paid for them nonetheless.
For the rest of the first half we were pretty much under the cosh and were relieved to get to the dressing room still level. Hector was caught flat-footed on the right side and the ball across behind our back line was wasted at the far post with a wild shot, then a Lincoln break caught us all at sea and their guy was in on goal on the right side. Maynard-Brewer stood up well and parried his effort, only for the rebound to hit him and go on to rebound off the post before being cleared. Then a Thomas error led to a blocked shot.
It had not been our normal dull first half, the stats showing 18 attempts on goal (11 for them). But there were similarities. Leaburn had struggled to get into the game, up against strong centre-backs, while Lincoln had done a good job nullifying our threat on either side, handling both Blackett-Taylor and Campbell well. Equally, with May in the No.10 role, Fraser was having to concentrate on the defensive side alongside Dobson. So we were, after the opening period, not creating much. Nevertheless, you felt that the game was there to be won by either side and that with perhaps an adjustment or two we could still emerge with the points. That wasn’t to be as we were second-best through the remainder of the game, looking increasingly jaded and dispirited.
Lincoln had a chance or two before taking the lead, while we regularly gave up possession when moving forward. A move down their right and a ball played behind Thomas resulted in their guy moving clear, he squared it for a tap-in. That was followed by a change as Leaburn was withdrawn and Camara sent on, with May moving up front, then with around 15 minutes left on the clock Campbell(C) was introduced for Campbell(L) and Watson(L) for Fraser. Before they could settle in we were three down as we gifted possession around the edge of our box and saw the ball break kindly for their guy to shoot home.
That was that. Lincoln not surprisingly focused on preserving what they had and, while we buzzed around outside their box, we created nothing of note to get us back into it. Tedic came on for CBT in the final 10 minutes, to provide more muscle in the central position, but the game was up by then.
It was, after Saturday, a surprising as well as disheartening performance. Too many were off the pace, even Dobson seemed out of sorts. The one word you would not use to describe our display was compact. We were stretched all over the pitch, allowing them to break to good effect, while the defending was back to timid and static. Dobson and Fraser were often outnumbered and up front CBT looked frustrated, Campbell too often gave the ball away, and Leaburn showed again that leading the line alone against tough opponents is asking too much of him as yet.
Any lessons to be learnt, or just a bad day at the office? Both I’d say. For me, if May is played as a No.10, to operate behind the front guy, you don’t play Fraser – and vice versa. Not saying Fraser played badly, but we want him pulling the strings in the final third, not helping out Dobson. Also, if we want to start with one central forward and Aneke is not available, there is surely a case for starting with Tedic in that role and having Leaburn come on through the game. It’s true we haven’t yet seen enough of Tedic to know if that would work. And Campbell(C) and Camara need game time to be fully up to speed.
Most apparent, while last night will have taught Appleton a thing or two about the squad, Saturday’s game will tell him more. How we respond to the defeat is crucial. All teams have off days – and as stressed elsewhere realising we were having one should have seen the focus switch to being much tighter as a unit before we fell behind. Bring on Saturday as we need to start another run.