Shrewsbury’s FA Cup heroics: out of the Blue & Amber or a sign of things to come?
Shrewsbury drew 2-2 with world champions and runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool in the FA Cup 4th Round.
Of course, the Reds did rotate their squad but their XI still possessed a respected Premier League stopper in Adrian San Miguel, a Champions League final settler in Divock Origi, a World Cup finalist in Dejan Lovren, a prodigious talent in Curtis Jones, a £39 million player in Fabinho and a 2019 CAF Team of the Year member in Joel Matip.
Oh, and Mo Salah plus Roberto Firmino came off the bench.
Why is it that Salop can at least compete with and often look like the better team against that lot – but still be in the bottom half of League One?
Clean sheet specialists
Part of the reason could be the way that Sam Ricketts sets his team up.
His strategy necessitates a defensive block of seven or eight outfield players, depending on whether it’s a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 formation, then quick counter-attacks via the remaining forwards.
This has allowed the Shrews to so far keep 10 clean sheets – the fifth-most in League One – and in most games they are very well-organised.
Centre-back Aaron Pierre, typically on the left of the defensive trio, uses his athleticism superbly, is strong in the air and can produce one or two impromptu moments of trickery, making him arguably Salop’s best player.
Ro-Shaun Williams, on the right, is the most efficient defender in possession while Ethan Ebanks-Landell can excel when it comes to heading away crosses from deep and often, Shrewsbury’s organisation limits his remit to just that.
A lot of managers using wing-backs would pick attacking ones.
The problem for Ricketts is that the adventurous wing-backs he could pick, Shaun Whalley and Ryan Giles (prior to the latter’s recall by Wolves) are not truly wing-backs – they are wingers by trade whom he deems not strong enough defensively to play there.
The 38-year-old has therefore veered towards Donald Love and Scott Golbourne.
Love is tidy enough and Golbourne is streetwise and steady, but neither offer much thrust going forward – although Love recovered admirably from his error against Liverpool.
When Shrewsbury face sides at their own level, they can suffer from a lack of width and fixing that will be key to improving their current goalscoring return of 24 in 25.
Josh Laurent has been among Salop’s best players so far this season. When they are without the ball, Laurent tends to be the player closest to the main striker(s), supporting the press.
The former Hartlepool midfielder is competent in the air, having competed this season in 82 aerial duels – the third-most out of 122 central midfielders to have played in League One this term.
Unusually for somebody 6’2”, though, the former Hartlepool midfielder is also agile and full of energy.
The 24-year-old has been linked with a Championship move – Reading are reportedly interested – and with a touch more consistency, he could play at that level… who knows, that could be for Shrewsbury?
Callum and Cummings combo?
Callum Lang was arguably Shrewsbury’s brightest attacking spark in the first quarter of the season, before the injury that ruled him out for three months.
Having impressed last year at Oldham, the Wigan loanee has stepped up comfortably to League One level and looks a Championship player in waiting.
Lang might only have scored a solitary goal to date, but his skill, mobility and link-up play between the lines makes him a huge asset.
Jason Cummings, meanwhile, is a poacher who could be about to enjoy a purple patch.
Cummings looks like an individualistic character who needs the boost of scoring to aid his all-round game, so a brace against Liverpool after coming off the bench could do wonders for his confidence.
Lang and Cummings have only started simultaneously on two occasions this season, but the team scored a combined four goals in those games: they beat Southend 4-3 and both players went close in the 3-0 home loss to Fleetwood.
Ricketts might have difficulty persisting with a character as unhinged as Cummings and may be wary of pairing him with Lang from the outset, for fear of it hindering the press that has led to the 10 clean sheets.
If he can strike a balance, however, that allows Salop to pose a greater threat whilst maintaining their current organisation, his side could find some momentum.
Can they push on?
As of late January, Shrewsbury are eight points off the play-off places and could take inspiration from Newport County. The Exiles excelled in this competition last season, beating Leicester and Middlesbrough en route to the fifth round.
After exiting the competition with an honourable defeat to Manchester City, Michael Flynn’s side took huge confidence and mustered 28 points from their final 15 games.
Newport’s squad then had a similar skill level to Shrewsbury’s now, relative to their respective levels – if anything, Salop are arguably a touch stronger, especially if they make the right additions between now and deadline day.
If Rickett’s side manage the same form that Newport did in their final 21 games, they would reach 73 points, a tally that was enough for Doncaster to make the play-offs last season.
We are not saying it is likely as such, but if Shrewsbury’s cup heroics gives them a feeling of invincibility to enable them to scale greater domestic heights, there could be some value in getting them onside.
Shrewsbury do not play current top-six opposition until mid-March, by which point the picture could start to look very different.
League One – Shrewsbury to finish in the top-six (17/1 Betfair)