Lincoln have a shot at shocking Arsenal in the FA Cup: Here's how they do it
Surely, Saturday's match will be a step too far for Lincoln City. The first nonleague club to reach the quarterfinals of the FA Cup since 1914, facing the mighty Arsenal, on their own turf, four divisions and 87 league places between them.
In the dugouts, a former PE teacher full of youthful exuberance in his first year of full-time management, faces an old warhorse, Arsene Wenger, wounded but still standing, a man for whom defeat would surely herald the end. Lincoln know Arsenal are hurting, that anger is brewing. And if we know anything about this Lincoln side, it is that they will go to the Emirates believing that they can cause the greatest upset in FA Cup history on Saturday.
Could it happen? Here is how maybe, just maybe, it can be done.
1. Inspiration vs. exhaustion
Lincoln's manager, Danny Cowley, and his brother and assistant, Nicky, who, until last summer were both teaching PE at FitzWimarc School in Essex by day and coaching National League Braintree Town by night, are making quite a name for themselves. The pair are already being tipped to go on to bigger things.
Engaging and friendly, their unwavering positivity is an anomaly in football but in return, their players approach each challenge set before them with the disciplined and adventurous spirit they request. The Cowleys appear to have the rare but priceless commodity of being able to draw every last sinew of effort and commitment from those under their watch, making their players want to play for them.
Those basic human traits are very powerful and they will be needed more than ever on Saturday. Contrast that spirit with the performances of Arsenal's players for Arsene Wenger recently and it is safe to say that the teams will enter the game with very different mindsets.
2. Make it a battle
Even before the demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League, one thing Arsenal have not been renowned for is their heart for a fight. Against Burnley in the last round, a team regarded as having anything but a soft centre, Lincoln flew out of the traps (and flew into a few early challenges, too) unsettling the Premier League side and letting them know that it wouldn't be a comfortable afternoon.
Lincoln striker Matt Rhead worked in a JCB factory for 10 years but has been troubling centre-halves in lower-league football with his considerable stature for years. Physicality knows no level and he will offer a test to Arsenal's defenders unlike any they are used to in the Premier League. Alan Power and Alex Woodyard in midfield will harry and harass; Lincoln will need to rattle Arsenal at every opportunity.
3. Use the counterattack
In all likelihood, Lincoln won't have very much of the ball. They'll be compact, organised and stubborn as they have been thus far, applying pressure when they can but only in the right areas of the pitch. Their biggest threat when in possession, however, is their speed.
Goals against Ipswich and Brighton in the third and fourth rounds came from deadly breaks; Nathan Arnold, a winger who earns a little extra money as a barber on his days off, scored the winner against Ipswich and set up another against Brighton in a fleet-footed counterattack. His blistering pace and eye for a spectacular goal means he is a handful for any defender on his day.
Rhead is the focal point, though. He holds the ball up and brings the supporting cast of Arnold, striker Jack Muldoon and winger Terry Hawkridge into the game, all of whom offer a threat with their direct and willing running.
4. The book of set-plays
During an interview with the Cowleys earlier this season, they took me through a folder full of original and inventive set-plays. They're meticulous in their preparation for every game, making use of all the stats and analysis tools that clubs at the top level deploy. But they also spend hours on end working on set-plays, making use of their broad knowledge having taught other sports.
"Game calls," such as those used in rugby and basketball, are trigger words they use to prompt a particular set-play from their playbook. In training they drill the routines into the players, shouting out game calls (cluster, stagger and shoehorn, to name a few) from a varied and evolving selection. It is no surprise, perhaps, that central defenders Luke Waterfall and Sean Raggett have 13 goals between them this season.
That duo made the difference against Burnley at Turf Moor. A deep corner in the 89th minute was met by Waterfall, who had peeled away and evaded his marker. He headed the ball back across goal for Raggett, who knew just where it would be. That goal took put Lincoln in the quarterfinal and they will have more up their sleeve on Saturday, I'm sure.
5. It's truly a once in a lifetime shot
Walking out in front of 60,000 people on such a stage will be the career highlight for every single Lincoln player. The thrill of being involved in games of such magnitude, where even the surroundings are a fantastical novelty, gets the adrenaline surging like never before.
Before playing at Wembley in playoff and cup finals, teams are given a tour of the stadium the day before the game. You take your photos on the pitch like tourists, in the luxury of the vast changing rooms, with your shirt hanging proudly on your peg. You pause to absorb the surroundings before shutting that door in your mind until after the final whistle has blown the following day. It would not surprise me if Lincoln did something similar, arriving early to familiarise themselves with their unlikely surroundings.
Then it's mind on the game. And maybe, just maybe...
Gregor is a former professional footballer who played over 300 games in the English Football League. Twitter: @GregorRoberts0n.