It seems odd to be waiting a week between games after our recent run, although it is good to take a bit of a break before our visit to New Meadow on Saturday.
Shrewsbury feels like it will be a tough game. They are in a similar position to us and likely need one or two wins to be sure of safety. Once you get to the sharp end you begin to see which teams have the resiliency to finish strongly. You’d perhaps say we qualify to be credited in that way. Certainly, since the low of the Gillingham game, the Imps have shown a lot more grit and ambition. The opposite camp might, for example, include Wimbledon who are struggling to escape a run of bad losses. The Shrews look to be creating a more positive trajectory, having pulled out two strong wins including a pretty incredible one away at Rotherham last weekend.
I am a little bitter about their success against the top-of-the-table. Rotherham felt like a free pass before our encounter but a sore miss after it. They relied on physicality more than anything else and could have had two reds against us – that was something the Shrews benefited from (a nasty elbow left trailing into a face) before, on paper, thoroughly outclassing the “best” team in the league. I’ve watched parts of the match. It’s true Shrewsbury had a good game, but many of the flaws we saw in Rotherham contributed along with the absence of the talented Ogbene. In short, then, it doesn’t make me concerned for Saturday but does leave me very sore it wasn’t our win.
Beating the Shrews would be a great result. Obviously for the win, but it would also leave us even on points with them plus a game in hand. Mathematics aside it feels like that leaves us in the right sort of position, in charge of our own destiny. Regardless, it will be a tough game. Salop have hit form at the right moment and seem to be a club that get behind their players and managers. They are also very familiar with this territory as they tend to finish in the bottom half of the table (another eleven points would represent their best finish for a few seasons).
Salop will line up with three at the back with either four or five in front of them. They actually look to be a very tight defensive unit. Watching some recent games, the back three spend a lot of time defending within the six-yard box in very close formation. If the pace is slowed and they can find their shape then it’s quite a tough approach to break down. You can see this in the stats. At home, they’ve conceded an average of 0.95 goals per game compared to an xG conceded of 1.46. For us, the wide players will be key in breaching their formation as many of the goals they do concede are on the break. Quick counters, of the sort we can play, pull that unit apart and create quite a bit of space in the box. If they play an attacking formation (3-4-2-1 for example) then this could work further to our advantage.
Going forward they are converting pretty much as expected (scoring 1.32 per game against an xG of 1.49) and top-scorer Daniel Uhoh is on eleven goals for the season. Again from clips, my sense is they have a similar tactic in attack as defence – get three into the six-yard box as tightly as possible. Udoh and Ryan Bowman (the main strike partnership) joined by one of the wingers seem good at getting into dangerous positions. A number of the Shrews’ goals are classic tap-ins or poachers’ goals. Our back three, assuming we carry that formation into the game, will need to hold the line strongly and get their foot to the ball first. Actually, I am feeling fairly positive about that – all season we’ve been weaker against players driving into the box, carving out space for a shot or well-worked set pieces. On the other hand, we’ve defended well against the sort deeper crosses I’d expect to see Saturday.
I like the look of Bowman. He has nine goals for the season and looks to be a similar sort of hold-up striker as Hopper is for us. The Shrews aren’t a long-ball team but look out for Bowman tracking across our defensive line to take a pass on the break. He and Udoh seem to have developed a close partnership in and around the box which is paying off in goals. Bowman has scored in his last three appearances and is looking to have hit solid form for the end of the season.
It doesn’t look like manager Steve Cotterill has any major injury worries and so will be fielding his strongest squad, which does include some interesting talent. For example, Notts Forest loanee Tyrese Fornah who looks like a sharp midfield player (possibly their Tyler Walker?).
I don’t need to dive deep into our history with Shrewbury after Malcolm’s wonderful revisiting of our encounters at Gay Meadow. We have an odd sort of recent form with them though. For example, in the space of seven days in 2020 we thumped them 4-1 in a cup game before slipping to a 1-0 home league defeat a week later. By the way, our miserable 4-0 away thrashing at Sunderland that I mentioned last week was in between those games. Roll forward nearly eighteen months and the world (and least the Imps world) does not look quite as bleak; a competitive home draw against a strong Sunderland team (incidentally also Defoe’s final professional appearance) and spring is in the air. Who knows, perhaps it sets the scene for a win on Saturday.