Reading are looking to get back to winning ways on Saturday afternoon following a defeat and draw at home in the last week, but to do that, we’ll need to do what we’ve struggled to do this season: take three points on the road. It won’t be easy - this weekend’s opponents are Lincoln City, who sit three places and five points outside the top six.
To find out more about them, we spoke to Nigel from Vital Lincoln City. He discussed the Imps’ season so far, new manager Michael Skubala - who took over from Mark Kennedy last month, Lincoln’s core strengths and weaknesses, and plenty more.
How would you sum up your season so far?
Mildly frustrating to be candid. We thought we had made some astute signings during last January and this summer’s transfer windows - the likes of Ethan Erhahon, Ethan Hamilton and Tyler Walker to bolster the midfield (a long-term achilles heel) and increase our short-handed attacking options.
We thought and expected to see the side push on and become more progressive and attacking. It hasn’t happened, and in spite of steadily picking up points, the football remained safe and dull, with rumours of Mark Kennedy losing the dressing room and a lack of on-field unity seen on the pitch during the embers of his tenure.
In fairness to Kennedy he was dealt a huge blow, effectively losing all three of his striking options long term, ‘bang on’ the transfer window shutting. We have found ourselves relying on a teenage striker (Jovon Makama) who was reportedly destined for a loan to National League North level, which had to be hurriedly cancelled given the striker crisis, and a young loan from Blackburn Rovers (Jack Vale, once he recovered from his own injury woes).
We did OK in the League Cup - knocking out Sheffield United on penalties at their place and putting up a decent performance against West Ham United. That’s as good as it got in the cups, having gone out with a whimper to Morecambe at home in the FA Cup, and a ‘strong’ Imps side losing to a scratch Accrington Stanley outfit during a midweek debacle in the EFL Trophy.
What did you make of the appointment of Michael Skubala?
I don’t think anybody saw that one coming, maybe one person on our message board mentioned him tenuously and he is quite a left-field appointment. My take is that he has been brought in due to his experience at coaching young players with the potential to develop them for the benefit of the club and future sales.
The football had become very stale under Kennedy and, long term, his brief will be to make us a lot more attacking and entertaining with a view to captivating the supporters while ensuring the club remains an attractive option for young players looking to develop and progress.
Skubala certainly fits our model of appointing progressive coaches rather than tried and failed ‘dinosaurs’, and whilst he aims to change the playing mindset, he has publicly admitted that is not going to happen overnight.
How does he set Lincoln up tactically?
Reportedly he favours a back four but apart from when chasing a game we have seen little evidence of that. The club is well stocked with very solid centre-halves and, for the past 18 months, have used a defensively effective three at the back. Given the lack of pace and genuine full-back options I don’t see that changing in the short term. We will aim to see the wing-backs being pushed higher up the pitch now Skubala is in charge.
Our midfield lynchpins are the two aforementioned Ethans, with Erhahon sitting deeper to protect the defence - and watch out for Hamilton breaking forward to pepper the goal from the edge of the box.
Nominally we play a front three but it has been a huge issue getting players forward in support of an often woefully isolate lone striker. Skubala has stated he wants to retain possession higher up the pitch - who knows, perhaps Saturday will be the day we start to see that being implemented more effectively.
How’s former Royal Ben House getting on at Lincoln?
Having come in during January the season before last, he was restricted to cameo appearances but showed some decent strength and technical attributes, to the extent that last season he quickly saw off club captain Tom Hopper and made the number nine spot his own.
Last year was his break-out season and he was undoubtedly one of our better players, being linked with Championship clubs before signing a contract extension. Whilst not prolific or great with his back to goal he is very strong, front-foot, incredibly hard-working, quick enough and highly astute - becoming renowned at effectively closing down opposing defences. His technical ability means that he has it in his locker to score with some very astute finishes but he too has suffered from the curse of being the isolated lone striker.
If he has somebody ahead or alongside him I can see Ben becoming a very dangerous number 10, getting on the ball in the pockets of space and pushing on to harass the defence when we are out of possession. Perhaps that will happen if Skubala changes to a back four. However, it’s a moot point given that he is one of strikers that was injured at the end of August and, following a hip operation, probably won’t be seen until the end of the season.
What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this Lincoln side?
We are very much an out-of-possession side who look to counter. The core of the side with three at the back and the two Ethans in the middle are usually very effective at frustrating the opposition. Without the ball, more often than not the side are highly disciplined, keep an excellent shape and work hard.
Our problem remains an ability to effectively transition through the midfield, get players forward and retain the ball higher up the pitch. As a result we create relatively few chances and goals are at a premium.
Our forwards rarely score and we often rely on Lasse Sorensen from wing-back or Hamilton long shots to pose our main attacking threat. Danny Mandroiu is our inconsistent wild card, capable of moments of breathtaking skill one minute, but equally he can go missing for most of a game, so he can be both a strength or weakness depending upon which Danny turns up on the day.
Defensively we lack a bit of pace at the back and, when we do concede, a shockingly high percentage have come from corners, where for unfathomable reasons we haven’t been winning enough headers or second balls and that has to change!
How do you see the rest of the season playing out for you at this stage?
Unless Skubala can deliver on his stated ambitions to make us a more effective, potent attacking force, I can see us remaining a solid mid-table counter-attacking side destined to finish a place either side of last year’s 11th. One vestige of hope is the January transfer window when he should at least have the option to address the ridiculous injured-strikers situation, but unless he can enshrine some more creativity into the side they won’t be getting much service.
How will the game go and what will the score be?
I can’t really make sense of Reading’s form; as an outsider looking in you seem to be quite streaky, whether that is scoring or conceding which makes it a tough call. Given that we don’t concede or score remarkable numbers ourselves, I’m going for first goal wins it.