Can Scunthorpe Find the Right Blend of Attack and Defence?

Image Source: James Moody via Twitter
Heading into November, only three teams are able to boast a better defensive record in League One than Scunthorpe United. 
The Iron have conceded just 13 times in 16 games and kept a number of clean sheets during the early part of the campaign, however defensive errors have started creeping in. 
Eight of those 13 goals have been conceded during October and Graham Alexander must ensure his side return to their defensive best during the run-up to a busy Christmas period.
Scunthorpe are aiming to bounce back from disappointment in the playoffs at the end of the 2016-17 campaign where they were narrowly beaten by Millwall across two legs. 

Alexander’s side allowed the Lions to find the net three times at Glanford Park with the hosts undone by a determined Lions side. 

Millwall went on to beat Bradford at Wembley and secure their promotion to the Championship with Scunthorpe moving swiftly to secure the services of Bantams defender Rory McArdle.
The centre-back had been an integral part of the West Yorkshire’s side success with Stuart McCall’s team conceding just 43 times during the 46 game season, the joint best defensive record in the division.

McArdle has been a revelation since he made the short hop to Lincolnshire and has featured in each of the club’s 16 games.

His commanding performances have not gone unnoticed and he has been deservedly called up to Michael O’Neill’s 23-man Northern Ireland squad.

The 30-year-old hasn’t appeared for his country since 2014 but his organisation, determination and reading of the game have proved sufficient enough for him to receive the nod and he will be hoping to play some part in their two crucial World Cup Play-Off matches.
He recently informed local reporters of his determination to return to the international set-up and his hard work and dedication appears to have paid off.

McArdle is not the only star of the Scunthorpe back-line with the Scot Murray Wallace also an ever-present in Alexander’s side. The Glasgow-born defender hasn’t missed a single minute in League One and has also featured twice in the EFL Cup and his partnership with McArdle has flourished as a result.

The defensive duo aided and abetted by Matt Gilks in the Scunthorpe goal have secured seven clean sheets this season and the club boasted the best defensive record in League One at the end of September.

The Iron toiled to consecutive 1-1 draws against AFC Wimbledon and Rochdale at the beginning of the season as Alexander experimented with a 3-4-3 formation but this was soon abandoned.

Although they created plenty of chances, the side appeared a little unbalanced and they were clearly a work in progress.

Fans discussed the new system through various channels and forums with mixed opinions on the effectiveness of the unfamiliar formation.

Image Source: Matt Dean via Twitter

The boss had plenty of thinking to do and reverted back to a more familiar 4-4-2 formation halfway through the club’s 9-8 penalty victory over League Two Notts County in the EFL Cup and his side appeared to take it in their stride.

This alteration prompted a run of four consecutive clean sheets with 1-0 victories over Oxford, Bury and Plymouth whilst holding Blackpool to a goalless draw at Glanford Park. Despite slipping up against Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn, the Iron racked up another three shutouts with Portsmouth, Gillingham and near-neighbours Doncaster all failing to find a way past Matt Gilks.

The Iron sit fifth in the League One table at the beginning of November and will have their eye on another promotion bid.

The more ambitious Scunthorpe fans will be dreaming of automatic promotion this campaign, however, another crack at the playoffs looks a more realistic possibility.

Wigan are the favourites to return to the Championship and have attracted huge interest in the betting markets, but the Lincolnshire club aren’t far behind in the latest betting odds and could serve as an interesting use of one of the many free bets available via Oddschecker when looking at the promotion markets.

For all of their defensive prowess, Scunthorpe appeared to be lacking a spark in the final third with the club only able to score more than a single goal against Portsmouth and Plymouth. The club have plenty of attacking talents and have recently added Welsh International Simon Church to their squad to bolster their options.

Lee Novak has also proved a savvy addition to the squad with the veteran frontman netting four times already this campaign. Josh Morris has seemingly found his feet following a slow start to the season and the talented wide-man has scored five times including a late winner from the spot against Peterborough on October 21st.

Alexander has tweaked the system following concerns about his side’s profligacy but it appears to have opened them up at the back. Since a goalless draw with lowly Gillingham at the end of September, the Iron have failed to register a clean sheet and conceded twice against Oldham, Shrewsbury, Wigan and Rotherham.

The former Fleetwood boss has experimented with the line-up once again although Rory McArdle, Murray Wallace, Neal Bishop, Josh Morris and Funso Ojo have all been regular fixtures in the side. Against Richie Wellens side, Cameron Burgess was drafted back into the side and some eyebrows were raised when the Australian took up his position at left back.

Any concerns were soon assuaged as put in a commanding performance and provided the side with plenty of width helping them to a 3-2 success at Boundary Park.

After the match, Alexander praised the defender saying “Cameron has been extremely patient and in him, we have a really good asset to our team” before adding “I thought he looked really comfortable at left-back and I thought he was superb”. Whilst Murray Wallace and Rory McArdle are yet to miss a match this season, Burgess’ versatility allows him to move across if necessary and he will be an important member of the squad especially during a hectic Christmas period which includes trips to Ewood Park and Bloomfield Road.

The former Burnley defender has a bit of a conundrum on his hands as he aims to finely balance his side. Scunthorpe are scoring goals and winning games at the moment and very few fans would complain if their current form was to continue across the campaign. However, their lack of clean sheets during October is a slight concern.

Whilst many of the matches during the early stages of the campaign may have lacked entertainment, Scunthorpe were keeping the opposition at bay and rarely looked like conceding. Josh Morris, Lee Novak and even Paddy Madden are back amongst the goals but the new system has left them increasingly open at the back. At the end of last season, Alexander suggested his side needed to improve defensively and the addition of McArdle has certainly helped his team but there is still work to do.

It’s been a hugely positive start to the new campaign and the Scunthorpe can be pleased with their progress however they still need to find the right blend of attack and defence. Graham Alexander seems keen to retain the 4-4-2 formation and the Iron should be able to bounce back from their play-off disappointment in May if they continue to flourish using this system.


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