Why is Boston United's defence struggling to match its form of the past two seasons?

The Pilgrims' backline has not been as miserly as previous campaigns, but what is the reason?

Matt Tootle and Jake Wright snr have both suffered injuries this season, and they're not alone. Photo: Oliver Atkin
Matt Tootle and Jake Wright snr have both suffered injuries this season, and they're not alone. Photo: Oliver Atkin

In a shock plot twist few saw coming, Boston United's defence has found itself coming under scrutiny in recent weeks.

Manager Craig Elliott has hinted at changes, describing his back line as being 'found wanting' following Saturday's 4-1 defeat at Southport, the second week running the Pilgrims shipped four goals on the road.

Skipper Luke Shiels - who missed the 4-0 defeat at Chester but was back in the side for the reverse at Haig Avenue - also had his say on the matter.

"We can't seem to defend," was his blunt response.

The Boston defence has prided itself on being one of the meanest in the National League North over the previous two seasons so the leaky nature of the back line comes as a shock to management, players and fans. But should it?

Some statistics may suggest otherwise. But first it seems sensible to add context to the current predicament.

In the 2019-20 season, United conceded 41 goals in 45 matches in all competitions - working out at 0.9 goals per game.

Last season (2020-21) Elliott's side picked the ball out their net 14 times in 17 games - an improved 0.8 goals per game.

This term the rate has almost doubled to 1.5 goals per game, conceding 27 times in 18 matches, the highest number in the goals against column in the league's top nine.

If you were to include the game at Darlington last season - abandoned in the 87th minute with Boston leading 2-0 and the Boston camp arguing the scoreline should have stood - you would note Boston have let in an extra 13 goals (one fewer than double) in the same number of games played this season compared to last.

It took United an extra nine matches - 27 games in total - to concede the amount of goals they have already shipped this campaign in the 2019-20 season. Goal number 27 was the opener in their 2-1 FA Cup defeat to Rochdale arriving in December.

But it's not just heavy defats that are costly for Boston. They are also struggling to keep clean sheets right now.

Their stoic defence enjoyed 17 shut outs in 45 games (37.7%) in 219-20 and a staggering eight from 17 last season (47% - again factor in the Darlington contest and it's nine from 18 and a whopping 50%).

This season United have kept four clean sheets, 22.2%.

So why are Boston United's defensive stats so different this year? For me, to put it simply, consistency.

Elliott had the fortune to play a regular, unchanged, defence in the majority of matches last season, a stark contrast to this year.

Firstly, look at the number of starts made by his defenders - and goalkeepers (denoted by a *) - last season compared to this:

2020-21: Luke Shiels 17, Ross Fitzsimons* 16, Matt Tootle 15, Scott Duxbury 13, Scott Garner 11, Pierce Bird 5, Tyrell Warren 2, Josh Askew 2, Lewis Gibbens 1, Peter Crook* 1.

2021-22: Scott Garner 16, Luke Shiels 14, Keenan Ferguson 11, Matt Tootle 10, Peter Crook* 9, George Sykes-Kenworthy* 9, Jake Leake 8, Scott Duxbury 7, Jake Wright snr 3, Loick Ayina 2, Andy Butler 1.

The importance of consistency becomes even more apparent when you not only realise the chopping and changing enforced this season but also when you compare the line-ups with the results.

The back five of Fitzsimons, Duxbury, Tootle, Garner and Shiels started seven games last season; three wins (Leamington, Telford, Southport), three draws (Guiseley, Gloucester, Chester), one defeat (AFC Fylde), four clean sheets.

The back five of Fitzsimons, Duxbury, Tootle, Bird and Shiels started five games last season; two wins (Alfreton, Farsley), three draws (Fylde, Kettering, Bradford Park Avenue), no defeats, two clean sheets.

These sets of results are certainly not to be scoffed at and it's fair to suggest that - given the nature of team selection - that Duxbury, Tootle, Shiels and Garner was Elliott's first-choice back line, apart from during Bird's loan spell from Eastleigh, when he was selected ahead of Garner.

That would mean Elliott selected his favoured back five 12 times from the club's 17 games last season - and he could have done it even more so had players not been rested for victories over Evesham and Blyth Spartans (Fitzsimons and Tootle in the FA Trophy and Duxbury on both occasions) and a preferred back three selected with Duxbury omitted against Chesterfield.

The luxury of having the option of picking your favoured defence 15 times from 17 matches is something the Boston manager would have loved this term.

It would also be fair to say that - although Crook and George Sykes-Kenworthy have both been Elliott's favoured number one at different stages this term - Garner, Shiels, Duxbury and Tootle would be his first-choice defence when available.

However, how many times would you guess - off the top of your head - Elliott been able to select those four together?

The answer is just three times from 18 matches - against East Thurrock, Gateshead and Blyth Spartans. These games saw a return of two wins and a defeat in the north east (Sykes-Kenworthy given the nod for the first of those two contests). On the two occasions this defensive line was broken up the changes were enforced by an illness to Tootle and injury to Shiels.

With long-term injuries to Tootle and Duxbury and also time on the sidelines for Shiels, Ferguson and Wright snr - and not forgetting Crook, twice - plus the loss of marquee summer signing Andy Butler before league season began, Garner the is the only defender who has been available for selection every game. In-game injuries have also played a part, of course.

There are times when Elliott has changed his line-up tactically or to bring back a favoured player, but often his hand has been forced. Casting an eye over team selection, Elliott has had to make enforced changes to his defence due to illness, injury or suspension six times so far this season - a third of all matches. In those 18 games the Boston manager has named eight different back five line-ups, not ideal in a sport where defensive familiarity rarely breeds contempt.

The longest run a settled back five has been able to make this season was a spell of five games between August 28's victory over Curzon Ashton and the home victory against Guiseley on September 25. Consistency paid off with four victories recorded plus a defeat at Leamington.

But even then that back five of Sykes-Kenworthy, Ferguson, Shiels, Garner and Leake would arguably not have been first choice had Crook, Tootle and Duxbury not been sidelined.

But as Boston United prepare for the arrival of Chorley on Saturday there may be a silver lining emerging. Duxbury is back from suspension and if Shiels came through his return from injury at Southport unscathed, Elliott may - touch wood - have the option of picking those two in a back four alongside Tootle and Garner for just the fourth time this season.

Ayina and Ferguson, however, may have something to say about that.