City lost out to high-flying Derby County on Thursday night in the final away game of 2023.
Michael Skubala named two changes to the side that drew with Reading on Saturday. Lukas Jensen retained his place in goal. Alex Mitchell came into the back-three, in place of TJ Eyoma, alongside Adam Jackson and Paudie O’Connor. Lasse Sorensen and Jack Burroughs retained their places as wing-backs, while there was a return for Ethan Erhahon in midfield. Ted Bishop partnered the Scotsman as he made his second consecutive League One start. Jovon Makama continued his run in the team, and was supported in attack by Danny Mandroiu and Ethan Hamilton.
The big conversation around team news was the omission of TJ. It seemed very harsh to drop him initially, as he’s been our best player since Skubala came in and he’s probably enjoying the best period of his Imps career as a permanent player but the logic behind it was understandable. Judging on what we saw during the game, Derby are a side that want to get the ball into the box and target their strikers very directly, so bringing in Mitchell at the back was the logical thing to do. My point still stands though, very harsh on TJ.
Going into the game, I think we all expected Ted to be part of the front three but it was actually Hamilton. An interesting tactical call from Skubala and it worked in the early periods of the game. Hamilton’s energy caused problems down the Derby left and he linked up well with Lasse too. Our first opportunity of the game came from Hamilton, and it was certainly a very encouraging opening ten minutes at Pride Park. Hamilton, Lasse and Jovon linked up well, opening up space for Hamilton to strike at goal. The former Accrington Stanley midfielder’s shot was tame though, and ended up in the gloves of Joe Wildsmith.
Once Derby settled down and got into the game, they found a rhythm. We were defending well though, Jackson made a few blocks and Mitchell was enjoying a good game on his return to the side. Derby were really growing into the game at this point and in the 26th minute, the hosts took the lead. The goal comes from a loose touch from Hamilton following a straight ball out of defence from Jackson. Mitchell dealt with initial ball from Joe Ward but there wasn’t an Imps player to pounce on the second ball, which allowed Conor Hourihane to fire home into the top left corner.
Following the goal, I felt we lost our way in the game. Lots of balls from the back were aimed up to Jovon and the 19-year-old was unable to help us retain the ball and take that pressure of the defence – something that Ben House or Tyler Walker could use their experience to do. The blame isn’t on Jovon for that, he’s still learning his trade in senior football and although at the moment, it might not sound important, I hope he’s learned a lot from tonight that he can not only take into the next few weeks but later into his career. No one would’ve predicted that he would’ve been leading the line at Pride Park for us this season, and it’s not easy for a young player to come into a side and perform at the best of their ability every single week, in the same way we expect a seasoned professional to do so. I have full faith that Jovon will come good, just as Freddie Draper is doing at the moment, but we’ve got to be patient with him.
Despite not seeing much of the ball in the second quarter of the game, we managed to win a penalty late into the half. After a spell of possession, Erhahon found Paudie in behind the Rams’ defence. The City skipper’s overlapping run caused the hosts problems; Ward’s sliding challenge was ill-timed and caught the central defender as he was about to slide the ball into the 18-yard box. The run from Paudie showed what a back three is all about, the outside central defender getting beyond the wing-back to create an overload. We haven’t seen enough of that, and I feel if we are going to stay playing this formation, that needs to be something we see more often.
The referee pointed to the spot and awarded the penalty, much to the delight of the 1900 travelling fans. Danny stepped up to take the penalty and fired low into the bottom right corner, sending Wildsmith the wrong way. The Irishman is turning into quite the penalty taker, scoring four out of four this season.
Danny’s spot kick meant we went into the break on level terms, and I felt it was a fair reflection of the half. Lukas hadn’t been forced into many saves and we had Derby playing in front of us for a large amount of their dominant periods. When we did have the ball, we wanted to be positive and with a bit of quality we could’ve potentially had a few chances ourselves.
We came out fired up in the second half, and started really well. Whatever Skubala said at half-time to the players had worked, and we found ourselves in control of the game at 1-1. It was the same old story though, we struggled to convert our pressure into chances and apart from a few teasing crosses into the area, we didn’t make life difficult enough for Derby, who really looked off their game at the start of the half.
Football is all about moments, in the first-half the moment was our penalty against the run of play and in the second half, it was all about the Rams’ second goal against the run of play. Derby had a rare second half attack, which led to a corner. The following set piece was taken short Nathan Mendez-Laing, and the ball into the box found substitute Kane Wilson. The former Forest Green fullback’s header looped over Lukas into the back of the net. Mitchell got close to clearing off the line with an acrobatic effort, but he just couldn’t quite stop it going in the back of the net.
Following the goal, Jack Vale replaced Jovon, while Louie Sibley came on in place of Tyrese Fornah for the hosts. As we searched for an equaliser, Skubala turned to the bench once again with a double change. Sean Roughan and Hakeeb Adelakun replaced Burroughs and Ted respectively, meaning Hamilton moved into his more conventional midfield position alongside Erhahon.
Derby’s goal once again turned the game on its head and the hosts found themselves in control once again, and they could’ve finished the game almost instantly after going ahead. Luckily for us though, following a quicker counter attack and save from Lukas, Sibley put his effort wide of the goal.
We did end up conceding the third though, and it was a tough one to swallow. The goal comes from when we were counter attacking up the other end. Haks tries to find a pass to Danny on the left but his pass is easily cut out by Wilson, who surges up the pitch before playing James Collins in behind our defence. The experienced centre-forward finished low past Lukas and wheeled away in celebration as he wrapped up all three points.
There’s a lot to unpack in the goal, so I’ll start with where we lost the ball. We actually lose the ball when we are on a dangerous attack. If Haks finds Danny, we are through on goal, but his pass didn’t have any conviction at all and ended up with a Derby player. In just a few seconds, we go from potentially creating a good chance to get the game to 2-2 to being 3-1 down. That’s football for you. The second thing to look at with the goal is the offside decision. From where I was watching, it looked offside. The replay doesn’t provide any clarity either as you can’t quite see the Imps defender on the right hand side.
I thought we performed well until the third goal, some won’t agree but that’s the beauty of football. One thing I think we can all agree on though is that there is work to do. The silver lining is, despite not winning in three games in the league, we are ninth and still in touch of the playoffs. We still have a chance of doing well this season, and with the right additions in January and some players getting back from injury, we will get better. I trust Skubala is the right man to take the club forward and I’ve thought that from the first time I met him. Projects can be seen as cliches in football, but this really is a project and at the moment we’ve got a new head coach that is unable to change the philosophy of the football club with the current personnel. We don’t need too many players and changes, but we need a few and I think we’ll see a big difference after January.
My biggest takeaway from the game was that we have two thirds of a top quality side. Our defence is sound, and our midfield ranks are similar quality to the likes of Derby. We just need that cutting edge in the final third, and hopefully we can get that from Jack Moylan and any other new additions that join us in the January window. I feel like Skubala is managing us with one hand tied behind his back because of our injuries, it’s not an excuse, it’s a reality but I’ve seen and heard enough from him to look to the future with positivity.
We may have lost tonight, but let’s keep the faith. Up the Imps.