Midweek Muse – Iron Sharpens Iron: Scunthorpe’s start to the season reflects a process, not major surgery

Scunthorpe United have lost just once on their way to the top of League One after 12 games. While this might shock outsiders who expected the likes of Bolton, Sheffield United and Millwall to take a stranglehold on the division, it has come as no surprise to the lower division watchers. Tom Simmonds explains.

A footballing cliché managers are fond of is that if you finish a season strongly, you will carry that form into next season and have a better chance of thriving in the next campaign. Step forward Scunthorpe, who are this season’s example, lending the statement further weight. Since Graham Alexander replaced Mark Robins in January, the Iron have been one of the country’s form sides, a springboard provided by their great end to 2015/16.

Scunny can consider themselves very unlucky that Barnsley, the team who pipped them to sixth place and the final League One play-off spot last season, were the country’s other in-form side in early 2016.  The Tykes, who enjoyed their own fast start to their Championship campaign after winning the play-offs last season, are another positive advert for finishing a season strongly.

Scunthorpe certainly did finish 2015-16 strongly. They have only lost four times in the league in 2016, and delivered promotion form in the second half of the season, with 12 wins and eight draws from 23 games. It’s a run that looked improbable after a 5-0 thumping by Blackpool on 16 January which cost Robins his job.

There are some analysts who believe the role of the manager in both success and failure is overplayed (read the chapter in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics for the full theory).

While this might be increasingly applicable to big clubs with massive infrastructures, it would be wrong not to give Alexander a large degree of credit for this astonishing turnaround, given what he inherited.

There are things that have gone Alexander’s way. He has been able to pick a settled side for most of this season, with ever presents in key positions – goalkeeper Luke Daniels, centre-back Murray Wallace, midfielders Neal Bishop and Stephen Dawson – which undeniably helps. Alexander has only used 20 players in 12 games and the creation of a small, tight-knit squad is something that managers have always wanted. Alexander has made that happen in quick time.

What also helps is having a forward in red-hot form. Josh Morris has bagged 13 goals in 15 games so far and been ably supported by fellow strikers Tom Hopper, Paddy Madden and Kevin van Veen.

Yet it takes an eye for a player to see the potential in somebody like Morris, who scored once in 13 games for Bradford last season and was loaned out five times by Blackburn before joining the Bantams in 2015. To ignore the stats on the page and demonstrate faith in somebody’s potential, as Alexander has done with Morris, is a risky thing. It is therefore all the more heartening when managerial calls like this one hit the jackpot, as they show things like good player management still matter, in a game that has been strangled by over-analysis at its higher echelons.

Of course, it could still fall apart for the Iron, as it can for any team who starts well.

League One is a division where luck with injuries and suspensions play a huge part in a team’s finishing position. However, those in the know were tipping Scunthorpe to challenge for promotion as early as March, when the Alexander-led transformation began to show.

There’s a long way to go, but this squad looks like it will take some stopping.

Do you think that end of season form is a good indicator for how a team will fare next time out? Scunny fans, can your team keep their great start up and achieve promotion come May?

Read more from Tom here.

Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahOnEarth

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