We’re still at an early stage of the League One campaign, but Shrewsbury Town’s season is under threat of unravelling with just one win in the first seven games and tough trips on the road ahead.
This time last week, Sam Ricketts’ side had stolen a last-gasp winner at Loftus Road against AFC Wimbledon. A priceless first win of the season – with very winnable home games to come – it felt like a possible platform to build.
But instead, Town are back to square one, wondering where to next.
Supporters are not inside Montgomery Waters Meadow or any professional English stadia this season, but the reaction in the online forums, on social media – yes, take it with a pinch of salt to an extent – and radio call-ins was telling.
Positives were at a premium. Charlie Daniels, the high-profile free transfer who joined 24 hours earlier after leaving Bournemouth, was excellent and showed his class. Him aside, it was slim pickings.
Fans were desperately unhappy after Ricketts’ side began OK but fell behind with a whimper after some woeful defending.
There was an element of bad fortune in Ollie Rathbone’s early opener, as Marlon Fossey’s clearing header cannoned off the visiting midfielder, but the right-sided cross should never have been allowed to travel that far.
Town failed to recover. Their response and reaction to falling behind was concerning. They seemed to lose their way. Heads dropped. The basics got away from Shrewsbury and it was Brian Barry-Murphy’s visitors who looked like adding to their lead.
Rochdale could have made it two before the painfully simple goal Salop shipped to Alex Newby, brother of former AFC Telford player Elliot.
One long ball and one flick on from Matty Lund had Newby racing clear of the worryingly sluggish Aaron Pierre and lifting over Harry Burgoyne with ease.
Town looked shell-shocked. Heads drooped, skipper Ollie Norburn commanded the ranks to ‘show some mettle’ – in slightly more industrial language.
Pierre should have reduced the arrears with a thumping header that rattled the crossbar before meeting another quality Daniels corner to head home in first-half stoppage time.
It was a good time to get a goal back ahead of what should have been a rousing second half.
Ricketts needed his players to dig deep and find a response to turn the tide. The first 45 minutes had not been good enough.
The second, unfortunately, was not much better.
A downward Pierre header that floated harmlessly over aside, Town didn’t truly threaten Gavin Bazunu’s goal until the 82nd minute, when the young Manchester City loanee made a fine stop to deny Fossey.
Into eight minutes of added time and Ro-Shaun Williams flashed wide after a spot of pinball as a corner wasn’t cleared.
But that was it. Shrewsbury needed much more.
Rochdale were organised superbly. Their 4-5-1 formation worked a treat all afternoon. Each player knew their role and carried it out perfectly.
And so Town’s record reads one win from seven in the league to start the campaign. A poor start leaves Shrewsbury in 20th. With trips to Fleetwood, tomorrow evening, and second-placed Peterborough on Saturday to come. There is a worry it could unravel further.
Where do Ricketts’ side go from here? The manager was defiant in his belief that Shrewsbury were dominant against Dale, much like in the defeat to Bristol Rovers five days earlier.
Against the Gas, Shrewsbury created more than enough chances to win the game as the front three worked well together.
This time, there was less to be enthused about.
But the Salop chief will not down tools and remains confident in large parts of what he is seeing from his side.
Town, again, had the lion’s share of possession. Sixty-seven per cent to be precise. Some of it got them in decent positions.
But possession alone doesn’t win matches.
Town had 20 shots, as Ricketts was at pains to highlight. But not enough, perhaps no more than three aside from defender Pierre’s goal, were clear chances.
What can the manager do to change things? He will be tireless and relentless in plotting how to change Shrewsbury’s fortunes.
But, due to his confidence in the manner of much of the performance, could it be the case that the former Wrexham boss sticks to his guns and principles?
Town supporters will want to see something different, something more effective, beginning at Highbury Stadium tomorrow.
Ricketts will argue his side are still working out how to make their new formation and new style work.
He has three goalscoring forwards playing in a 4-3-3. It’s an open system. But it isn’t working at the moment. Jason Cummings, in particular, looks lost and a shadow of his best.
The forward line, and midfield, require more urgency, more incision, a bit more craft and imagination. The forwards should be breaking their neck to get on the end of deliveries – which need to be better.
Left-back Daniels, 34, provided decent service from open play and dead ball situations. He looks a fine acquisition but, as it stands, is only here for two months.
He the latest high-calibre individual to join Town. A second player who was playing Premier League football last season after Leon Clarke.
The ambition from the club is clear. There is a solid argument that this is the strongest Shrewsbury squad in a long time.
But with that comes expectation. The bar is raised. Town should be much better than 20th this season.
Shrewsbury need more. More from their defenders who have been slack and sloppy. More from their midfielders who are not creating enough. And more from their forwards who aren’t scoring. Town, with five goals from seven games, are League One’s lowest scorers.
Ricketts has to produce more.