Before I get into the meat of this article, I thought I’d begin with an anecdote – and I’ll keep it short. A couple of weeks ago I was running with my neighbours’ dog in a nearby field at midnight and got wiped out by a branch that hit me square in the left eye.
This story obviously needs some context, as I’m sure there are a number of questions that you want to ask, but I actually believe it’s more entertaining if I leave you to fill in the blanks.
Why on earth was he walking his neighbours’ dog at midnight? And what was he doing running? It left me with an eye that looked as though it had a small plum trying to grow out from behind it, like a weird scene from Alien that never made the final cut.
Anyway, with impaired vision and strict instructions from optometrists not to drive, read books or use screens to avoid straining my good eye, it left me with a frankly disgusting amount of time to think about things.
And after Town’s depressing defeat to part-timers Braintree on Tuesday night it got me thinking about how we never seem able to dispatch teams the way we do before January.
It’s always felt to me like we post big scores in the months before Christmas, and then we sort of nudge past teams from January until the end of the season, with a nervousness that seemingly comes from nowhere (but probably comes from Paul Hurst tinkering with the squad in January, bringing in players, not using them, benching his 30+ goal striker and shutting up shop for a point when we should be going for all three).
So I decided to look into our margins of victory before and after Christmas over the past four seasons (from all competitions) to see if there was a pattern:
- 2012/13: 2.27 before Christmas, 1.77 after
- 2013/14: 1.83 before Christmas, 1.36 after
- 2014/15: 2.19 before Christmas, 1.57 after
- 2015/16: 2.5 before Christmas, 1.92 after
Yes, I’m aware this season isn’t over yet, but I’ve included the figures as there are only three (possibly six and the FA Trophy final) to go. Also, we tend to play more games before Christmas than after, but I’ve used averages so that should be a fairer way of representing the numbers.
Even I can see – with my one good eye – that our margin of victory drops every season after Christmas. And here are those drops as percentages:
- 2012/13: 22.1%
- 2013/14: 25.7%
- 2014/15: 28.4%
- 2015:16: 23.2%
That’s a staggeringly consistent average drop of 25%. And here’s another statistic for you: across the four seasons that I’ve analysed, we’ve won by a margin of three goals or more on 35 occasions before Christmas, and just 8 after. As percentages, that’s 35.4% before Christmas, and just 15.7% after.
I’d have thought it would be the other way round; winning cautiously early in the season as the squad takes time to gel and suss out the opposition, and then accelerate in the new year when partnerships have had time to develop.
It’s not a case of us winning fewer matches in the new year – it’s just that we’re not winning them as convincingly, or by the margins that we were from August to December.
So why the dramatic drop? Is this phenomenon unique to Grimsby, or does it happen more widely as teams adjust their style of play according to the situation? Does Paul Hurst suddenly become a different person when January arrives? Does he tell his players to ‘go easy’on the opposition once we edge in front?
For this to happen so consistently over four years makes me believe something is occurring. This suggests, with some clarity, that we play more cautiously when taking the lead in matches after Christmas. Hurst is changing his approach – consciously or unconsciously, whether he likes to admit it or not.
What is he changing? How is he changing it? Why is he changing it? Like my running in the field with the neighbours’ dog at midnight, this story is missing a few vital pieces.
But there’s one common denominator in all of this, and that’s the transfer window. We emerge the other side a slightly different team, season after season.