Tonight sees bottom versus top of League One meet each other at Gigg Lane and it’s reasonable to suggest that most pundits would’ve had these sides’ positions reversed if you were to tell them that this would be the current state of affairs. The reality is that there are 27 points separating them after just 18 games, which is quite frankly astonishing (and depressing from a Shakers perspective). Football isn’t played on paper and in my preview of Salop’s campaign, I feared that they might be involved in another relegation scrap and would struggle for goals. Not a bit of it. Whilst not the prolific side at this moment in time, their success has been built on Paul Hurst’s astute management and severely restricting the number of chances their opponents create and subsequently hitting them on the counter.
Ryan Lowe is a familiar name to Shrews fans, having spent five years in Shropshire at the turn of the century and whilst he didn’t hit the heights he would do later in his playing career, he is still well-regarded. That said, there will be little sympathy shown for his travails in caretaker charge and his fortunes are unlikely to change come the final whistle. Openly questioning some of the players’ desire once more after the second 3-0 home defeat in a week, he knows his time in charge is probably coming to a close in a match no-one expects him to win.
When he changed the shape to a more solid-looking back four, it seemed to have the desired effect of at least keeping the scoreline from being more embarrassing. Neil Danns is almost certain to miss this battle and the weakest area of the squad remains in central midfield. Rohan Ince could be restored to the starting XI in his absence and his physicality will be vital in preventing the defence from being overloaded when Shrewsbury go on the attack. Callum Reilly and Andrew Tutte looked all at sea against Rovers but few alternatives exist to come in for them who are suited to their roles.
Chris Maguire had a modicum of impact from the substitutes’ bench and his intelligence will need to be at its most potent if he is to do damage to the bulwark in orange. He will need to make runs wide to prevent the lineup from becoming too narrow and be in good areas to receive the ball from Michael Smith’s knockdowns.
Hurst really has his side who, on the face of it, lack ‘names’ playing to their strengths and as units throughout the ranks. Dean Henderson, on loan from Manchester United, has been hugely impressive between the sticks, filling his teammates with confidence every time he comes for crosses and initiating the turnover with his ability to throw long and accurately. Abu Ogogo will be serving the first of a three-game suspension, so Mat Sadler will be entrusted with the armband and his organisational skills are key in a conservative backline. Aristote Nsiala is a colossal figure alongside him and often displays controlled aggression to either win the ball back or shepherd the man he’s marking away from dangerous situations.
Junior Brown’s season-ending injury hasn’t been the massive blow it could’ve been. Omar Beckles has a completely different playstyle but has slotted in to a role on the flank despite almost always playing in the centre up until this point for his previous clubs. On the right, Joe Riley is a steady presence and offers ample support for Shaun Whalley. Youngster Ben Godfrey has made the most of his gametime whilst at the New Meadow and has become a vital component at the base of the midfield, frequently (and successfully) recycling possession to his more advanced teammates and just sitting in front of the back four at all times.
Bryn Morris is a likely candidate to come in for Ogogo and he will assist Godfrey on the occasions they will be on the back foot; his good range of passing will feed the agile Alex Rodman; both he and Shaun Whalley get up to support Stefan Payne with their quickness and flair on the ball. The latter remains one of the fastest in the third tier at the age of 30 and he will be keen to add to his five assists in 2017/2018 with his whipped crossing for the frontman.
Payne likes to drop off from his marker to create space for the wingers and the late runs from midfield (Jon Nolan being the most prominent of those). His bustle rarely gives the other team a moment of peace and he has seven goals to his name in just over 800 minutes in League One. Not many sides play a striker so isolated tactically and yet they make sure he is well-supported when required.
As for a prediction, I fear it will be a third straight 3-0 defeat. Town are strongest in midfield and in the last 10 minutes of matches; many of their points have been picked up in the dying embers and together, these two things are Bury’s greatest weaknesses. A roster bereft of personal belief in themselves and from the stands is not conducive to turning things around and I expect Hurst to take full advantage and enhance his own managerial stock in the process.