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Shrewsbury Town have enjoyed a first half of the season beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic Salop supporter.
Sitting pretty in second place – having come off a campaign in which they looked consigned to relegation for much of it, yet bravely battled back for survival – the task in this transfer window for manager Paul Hurst is more evolution than revolution, as he was forced to do this time 12 months ago as he looked for a winning formula in their quest to avoid the drop.
Yet, as with most teams, there are still some areas that require strengthening, especially if the Shrews are to maintain their against-the-odds push for promotion.Embed from Getty Images
Biggest gap plugged
The most obvious void in Town’s squad came as a result of an injury to the consistent left-back Junior Brown. Prior to the season’s start Hurst had made it clear that left-back was the one position in which he felt there was no out-and-out competition, with Brown the only recognised player capable of fulfilling the role.
Mat Sadler had been a revelation since his move inside to the centre of defence, and whilst still being able to do an adequate job there – for it is that position in which he had spent the entirety of his career prior to his change 18 months ago – at 32-years-old, whilst being able to read the game superbly to account for any technical deficiencies in a central role, he may be caught out more against quick wingers in a one-v-one situation. Added to the fact that his partnership with Toto Nsiala was a crucial part of their survival last year, then Hurst may have been reluctant to break up his ever-dependable duo.
Summer signing Omar Beckles has been the man to mostly fill Brown’s shoes since his injury on October 21, yet he himself is again more suited to a central defensive role. At 6’3” tall his size can limit him from being as much as a natural attacking threat as Brown – a role that was a huge part of the 28-year-old’s game and gave great balance to his side.
Additionally, the former Accrington Stanley man is also not naturally left-footed, meaning that when receiving the ball in that position he often looks to come inside onto his stronger foot as opposed to running for the byline. With Hurst having a strong preference for width in his team, the lack of a natural left footed full-back has removed their ability to really dominate a game out wide and down the wings.
However, it must be mentioned that Beckles’ defensive positioning and one-v-one defending has improved considerably since he was thrust into the unfamiliar role, and in recent weeks he has proved himself capable of inhibiting some of the best wingers in the third tier.
The addition of Max Lowe from Derby County will provide Shrewsbury with that much-needed attacking outlet down the left-hand side, whilst still maintaining that defensive solidity displayed by Beckles in recent weeks.Embed from Getty Images
Width key for Hurst
Throughout his time in the dugout Hurst has made no secret his love of fast, direct wingers, no matter what level of the football pyramid he is managing. That has not changed this year, and whilst he has altered from his previously-favoured 4-4-2 – opting for a 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 – the two attacking mainstays have been Shaun Whalley and Alex Rodman out wide, both of whom have impressed with their displays so far this campaign.
Yet there is a lack of depth and competition for the widemen, with Hurst stating that he believes they have been able to perhaps get away with a drop in performance more so than other members of his squad as a result of the limited options behind them.
The enigmatic Arthur Gnahoua, recruited in the Summer from National League North outfit Kidderminster Harriers, is the only genuine option pushing messrs Whalley and Rodman, yet as a consequence of his limited Football League experience there have been doubts as to his defensive capabilities. A great facet of the two wingers’ play is their work-rate, frequently tracking back with opposing full-backs to demonstrate the intense work-rate demanded by Hurst and assistant Chris Doig.
With Gnahoua still learning the ways of the professional game, whilst there are obvious signs of his offensive capabilities – being equally comfortable on both feet, having express pace and being able to tie defenders up in knots with his skills – there are still doubts as to his desire to go the other way.
As such, Hurst has often called upon top scorer Stefan Payne or midfield maestro Jon Nolan to fulfil the role out wide when either of his first choice speedsters are removed, and that then affects the balance of the side elsewhere as a consequence.
If Hurst can add another dangerous option out wide, then it will present him with another tool to utilise in their hunt to stay flying high in the table.Embed from Getty Images
Another option up front?
In Payne, Carlton Morris and Lenell John-Lewis, Hurst has three centre forwards who will all look to bully defenders and use their physical capabilities to give opponents a torrid time. Whilst Payne and Morris in particular also possess the speed to get in behind, there may be a space for a genuine quick man who can look to get on the end of flick-ons from the big men and present a different task for centre halves.
Niall Ennis was drafted in on a season-long loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers in August, yet a knee injury put pay to his stay at Montgomery Waters Meadow.
He looked to use his pace to be a direct option in behind, and if Hurst could secure a player akin to Ennis then it would give him a different choice should he wish to go that way.