Shrewsbury Town v AFC Wimbledon: fresh challenges for Salop

Paul Hurst – shrewsburytown.com

A crucial part of Shrewsbury Town’s impressive automatic promotion challenge has been their defensive unity. A week ago, they had conceded just eight first half goals in League One, highlighting their collective resilience.

More recently though, they have had to show a different type of resilience after being punished for below-par first half displays against Scunthorpe and Northampton by falling behind.

Paul Hurst felt his side were too pedestrian at Glanford Park, where they would have gone two goals down were it not for a penalty save from Dean Henderson, who is now away with England Under-21s.

Ben Godfrey went off with a first half injury that will also keep him out here, although after the midfielder was replaced by striker Carlton Morris, Shrewsbury played with the kind of urgency we have come to expect from them.

Jon Nolan showed neat feet to slot home the leveller while Payne netted the winner from the spot in an improved second period. Similar could be said of the performance at Northampton the following Tuesday, but the outcome this time was a 1-1 draw which was marred by Abu Ogogo’s sending off.

There may be more information to come from the midfielder’s confrontation with John-Joe O’Toole, but in footballing terms, his four-game ban does little to help his side’s cause.

With Ogogo and Godfrey both sidelined, Hurst may decide to partner Bryn Morris with Nolan, giving the latter a deeper role than usual. Bryn Morris is a perfectly hardworking midfielder while Nolan provides creativity, but one might not have overwhelming confidence in that duo’s capacity to out-power the opposition.

At least, not against the players they face: AFC Wimbledon’s central midfield consists of three bruisers. Former Millwall battlers Nadjim Abdou and Liam Trotter partner Tom Soares, who has featured in the Premier League with Iain Dowie’s Crystal Palace and Tony Pulis’ Stoke City.

Those players have their limitations but have contributed in part to a healthy defensive record. The Wombles have kept 10 League One clean sheets: more than 11 other sides and the same number as four others including play-off outsiders Portsmouth.

The main criticism of Neal Ardley therefore, might be his side’s lack of imagination in possession. That issue hasn’t been helped by midfielder Dean Parrett’s recent fitness issues, nor will striker Cody McDonald’s more recent injury be of benefit.

The goalscoring burden therefore rests squarely on Lyle Taylor. As well as his relentless harrying and consistent penalty-conversion, Taylor poses a threat on the break and can spot goalscoring opportunities that other players can’t. His tight-angled strike in a brace at Plymouth and his long-range goal against Bradford provide fine examples of a forward ready to play at a higher level.

The attacking options available to support Taylor though remains scarce, so Ardley bolstered his squad this week to sign experienced winger Lloyd Sam. The 33-year-old retains a degree of pace and might be well-used on the left, allowing him to combine with Jonathan Meades, who likes to press high up the pitch where possible, as we saw in the build-up to Joe Pigott’s winner against Bristol Rovers.

Targeting that left flank might be Wimbledon’s best way of unhinging Shrewsbury, who will be without key right-back James Bolton. Luke Hendrie filled that role unconvincingly on Tuesday, before being taken off on the hour-mark in a switch to three-at-the-back.

Should Hurst favour the same system on Saturday, he would have to play Shaun Whalley – an attack-minded winger – as wing-back, which might provide as many questions as answers.

Shrewsbury, who don’t have quite the same squad depth as their competitors, will be without four first team regulars. Henderson, Bolton, Godfrey and Ogogo have started a combined 122 games this season and each of them will be tough to replace against a Wombles side that have already won at Blackburn this season and lost just three of their nine away trips to top half opposition.

While Shrewsbury’s powers of recovery in the last two games have been admirable, therefore, the demanding nature of the promotion race dictates that they cannot afford another off-colour first half.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 1-1