Paul Hurst: the mid-term review

With the team midtable in League Two, the season so far has not been the challenge for an instant return to League One that some might have hoped for, but nor has it been the disaster feared in early-September.

Paul Hurst has had eight months in charge.

With the team midtable in League Two, the season so far has not been the challenge for an instant return to League One that some might have hoped for, but nor has it been the disaster feared in early-September.

We look at three pros and three cons from the 45-year-old’s time in charge to date.

Pro: impressive four-month form

If the League Two season started on 8th September, the team would currently be in the top seven; the team is 14/1 with Betway as of 16th January to finish there in May.

In that time, Paul Hurst has identified a 4-4-1-1 system, with Lee Novak grafting in wide areas to create space for Kevin Van Veen to pick up goalscoring positions.

That setup has yielded positive results.

Pro: established the centre-back pairing

Andy Butler was the first signing of the summer.

The veteran, who reclaimed his status as club captain, was tasked with being a galvanizing presence after relegation, offering the aerial prowess and leadership qualities that were missing in last season’s defence.

Ironically, though, it quickly became apparent that the best centre-back pairing came without Butler.

An aggressive, front-foot defender in Harrison McGahey has excelled when partnered with the more conservative Rory McArdle, so it may be no coincidence that the team has kept eight clean sheets in 16 league games with that defensive combination.

Pro: working with an average squad

Scunthorpe have been making mistakes off-the-field for a long time.

Chairman Peter Swann’s devotion can never be questioned, nor his investment into the playing squad, for which fans should always be grateful.

On the flip side, the investment has often been made to meet short-termist aspirations, rather than long-term growth.

Lessons are beginning to be learnt and the introduction of an Under-23s squad is a big step forward, but still the team is facing the ramifications of the previous period of over-investment – including having a lot of high-earners on the wage bill.

A period of stability under a manager who led Shrewsbury to the League One Play-Off Final in 2018 could be the solution – he was good enough to inspire even perennial failures like Grimsby temporarily out of the doldrums!

Con: over-reliant on individuals

Iron have scored eight goals from outside the penalty area, which is the most in League Two; the team averages 6.4 shots in the 18-yard-area per game, the division’s 16th-most.

The team is not creating a high-volume of clear cut chances.

It is great to have a player like Abo Eisa, who has scored all four of his goals from long-range; likewise, Kevin Van Veen, who has scored from six of his eighteen shots from inside the box.

When one or both of those players are out injured, though, the team struggles to threaten.

Paul Hurst has been somewhat fortunate that Eisa and Van Veen’s razor sharp shooting, despite having very little to do with tactics or the standard of coaching, has often been enough.

Con: two holding midfielders

In the recent 3-1 home loss to Plymouth Argyle, the defensive midfield pairing of choice comprised of Levi Sutton and James Perch.

Sutton’s defensive positional awareness, and perhaps his willingness to put the odd challenge in, are arguably the only discernible strengths he brings to the team.

Perch, meanwhile, is solid and muscular but looks very limited in how he can influence the team going forward.

If opposing teams can nullify one or two attacking players in the side, therefore, it can be difficult to find alternative sources of creativity.

Con: unsustainable shot data

The team averages 1.16 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.41 Against (xGA), giving a Ratio (xGR) of 45.09%.

The 1.41 xGA ranks Scunthorpe as low as 18th in the league when it comes to denying opponents a high quality and volume of shots.

If there was evidence that Hurst’s preference for two sitting midfielders was getting efficient results defensively, then maybe the lack of creativity – and the overreliance on Eisa and Van Veen – could be more readily allowed.

The fact is that the defensive approach is allowing opponents to shoot frequently.

There is a possibility that, without Hurst changing his strategy, Eisa starts to fire off-target from distance, Van Veen starts needing five or six shots to score from inside the area rather than three whilst opposing sides become more efficient with their shooting.

In that scenario, Hurst will need to prove that he has the tactical nous to expand the team’s creative threat.

Gabriel Sutton

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