The concerning defensive trend at Hartlepool United that rival League Two teams are looking to take advantage of

This season has been a learning curve for Hartlepool United so far.

Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 12:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 12:11 pm

While questions have been persistently asked of their attacking players given the lack of goals, the defence has got off relatively lightly in comparison.

There is certainly a perception with experienced professionals such as Neill Byrne, Gary Liddle, David Ferguson and Jamie Sterry making up a back line that it is reasonably solid.

Generally, that has been the case. But with injuries and defensive changes kicking in recently, there has been a worrying trend that has developed over the past few matches.

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Hartlepool United's Zaine Francis-Angol takes a throw-in during the Sky Bet League 2 match between Hartlepool United and Exeter City at Victoria Park, Hartlepool on Saturday 25th September 2021. (Credit: Mark Fletcher | MI News)

Ahead of Tuesday night’s trip to Bradford, Pools have conceded 18 goals in 15 games in all competitions this season.

Not a brilliant record though hardly an alarming one.

But in each of the last four matches, they have conceded four goals from the exact same source – throw-ins.

Yes, it’s a very minor detail to focus on. But most teams would go full seasons without conceding more than a few goals following throw-ins – so conceding four in as many matches is a developing trend that is hard to ignore.

Six players in and around the ball when the throw in came into the box against Salford City yet no Hartlepool player is close to Matty Willock when the ball falls to him on the edge of the area a second later.

Last season in the National League, Pools conceded just four goals from such throw-in situations over 48 matches. This season, they have already managed to surpass that total with just a quarter of the campaign played.

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Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Salford City saw the hosts secure victory as Ibou Touray’s long throw into the penalty area was flicked into the path of Matty Willock on the edge of the box. The midfielder proceeded to find the bottom right corner of the goal to secure the three points for The Ammies.

Looking at the goal back, you notice six Pools players in the box and near the ball yet only three Salford players. This allows Willock to collect the ball on the edge of the penalty area with no player within five yards of him. The fact three players were left without a man while a Salford player was in so much space in a dangerous area is puzzling to say the least.

Hartlepool concede a goal at Stevenage eight seconds after taking an attacking throw-in into the Stevenage half. A failure to win the initial ball and players switching off at the back led to the side conceding a goal that would put the game out of their reach.

The week prior, there was a similar situation against Northampton Town as another throw into the box was flicked on and Sam Hoskins arrived in space to volley the ball into the goal. Fortunately, Hartlepool were able to respond this time as they scored two second half goals to win 2-1.

Before that, Pools conceded against Morecambe in the Papa John’s Trophy following a quick long throw which caught the defenders off guard as Shane McLoughlin ran through to chip Johnathan Mitchell.

The second goal Hartlepool conceded at Stevenage was slightly different, this time it was their own long throw-in – yet eight seconds later the ball would end up in the back of their own net.

Luke Hendire’s throw towards Luke Molyneux was easily intercepted in the Stevenage half with the loose ball falling straight to the feet of Elliot Osborne. Osborne was able to turn quickly and play a well weighted through ball for Elliott List to finish and put the game beyond Pools’ reach early into the second half.

Manager Dave Challinor highlighted his frustration with that goal in particular following the 2-0 defeat at The Lamex Stadium.

"I was disappointed with our throw-ins and we conceded from that,” he said. “Of all the goals we’ve conceded it’s probably one of the poorest in terms of us being responsible for it.”

Still, all four of these goals required a certain level of quality from the opposition – either in the form of well-taken finishes or pinpoint through balls. They’re certainly not glaring errors on Pools’ part, just a combination of sloppy defending, failing to pick up runners and not dealing with first or second balls.

But it does highlight a lack of awareness, organisation and even commitment to gain possession during these key moments. These are situations Pools may have been able to get away with in the National League, but in League Two they are being punished regularly.

As a result, we’ve seen Pools’ opponents in recent weeks try long throw-ins more and more frequently with the knowledge that it’s a potential weakness.

It is almost ironic that a team managed by Challinor – renowned for his world record long throw-in during his playing days – are being undone by that very thing.

Is it a coincidence that all of these goals have been conceded during Gary Liddle’s absence from the side? Perhaps, but the stats suggest otherwise.

With Liddle, Pools kept four clean sheets in eight League Two matches. Yet while the experienced centre-back has been unavailable Hartlepool haven’t been able to deny their opponent from scoring.

And with Liddle in the side Pools conceded once from a long throw-in, at Barrow. It was a goal manager Dave Challinor felt shouldn’t have stood due to goalscorer Offrande Zanzala fouling Liddle in order to break away and cut inside before finding the net.

Otherwise, defending following throw-ins wasn’t really an issue with Liddle on the pitch.

The 35-year-old has been missed in the side with his calmness and organisation rubbing off on his fellow defenders. Without him, Pools certainly appear more reckless and disjointed at the back, as they did for parts of last season.

While a failure to deal with long throw-ins may seem like a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. It’s a developing trend that highlights deeper defensive problems in the Pools side that need to be nipped in the bud as soon as possible.

Whether Liddle’s return will make a difference or not remains to be seen. Fortunately, he is expected to be back in contention very soon.

For the time being, learning to deal with throw-ins more effectively is just one more thing Hartlepool will have to pay attention to on the training ground.

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