Preview: Walsall

A third win in a row, and the first-time that we’ve won all three games in a three-game week since 2001 . The league campaign has really hit lift-off now, with this upcoming Checkatrade Trophy tie with Walsall feeling more like a distraction than a chance to mount another run towards Wembley.

With this being the fourth game in the space of 10 days – and with a league game to be played on Saturday – Mark Robins is almost certain to stretch the competition’s rules on rotating the side to the maximum. After losing the opening group game of this competition, if we lose this game and Shrewsbury win theirs, we are out.

Running through the potential changes to the side, while this game could be a good opportunity for the likes of Liam O’Brien and Dion Kelly-Evans to get a run-out, Robins may end up prioritising other positions in which to rest the incumbents in order to keep within the competition’s rules.

Possible Line-Up

Chris Stokes seems the likeliest member of the back five to be rested, and although Ryan Haynes has only just returned to training, Mark Robins can choose from Chris Camwell and Jordan Shipley – who have both acquitted themselves well at left-back in cup games this season. With Doyle and Kelly both likely to be rested, Ben Stevenson is certain to come into the team and his midfield partner probably depends on whether Shipley is used at left-back, with Callum Maycock more than capable as an alternative central midfield option.

This game is also a chance for Marc McNulty, Stuart Beavon and possibly Peter Vincenti to make returns to the starting line-up after recent injuries. McNulty is the likeliest player to come in for Nazon for the upcoming league game against Barnet, so Robins will surely will want him to get minutes under his belt. Maxime Biamou looked jaded towards the end of the Crewe game, which enhances the case for Beavon to start. Vincenti, if fit, seems likely to come in for Jodi Jones, who it wouldn’t hurt to keep fresh for more important games.

Last Time We Met

Although relegation had already been confirmed by the time we last played Walsall, the players produced a performance of character and quality to display that they hadn’t downed tools. Most notably, the forgotten man Vladimir Gadzhev had an excellent game in central midfield, and George Thomas scored the only goal, which ultimately further secured his future away from this club. There was also a red card for Walsall in the second-half of that game which effectively ended the contest.

How Are They Doing?

This season has seen Walsall continue their inconsistent form under manager Jon Whitney. Whenever things look like breaking out into all-out crisis, Whitney always somehow manages to stumble across a winning formula to ease the pressure on him – although Walsall have only won one game out of their past six in the league.

Possible Line-Up

While Erhun Oztumer is still, by far, Walsall’s key attacking player, their attacking options this season have been bolstered via the loan signings of Tyler Roberts and ex-Sky Blues forward Dan Agyei. Agyei seems to have improved slightly on the inconsistency he showed with us last year, but Roberts has stood-out more with his pace and direct-running adding an extra dimension to Walsall’s attacking options.

The nature of this competition though means that Jon Whitney is likely to give opportunities to some of Walsall’s more promising younger players from their fairly successful academy. The likes of Liam Kinsella and Reece Flanagan have had a fair few first-team opportunities in recent years without establishing themselves in the team, while there are hopes around the club that defender Kory Roberts and winger Maz Kouhyar (once on the books at Coventry City) will develop into first-team regulars over the next few years.

Prediction

Walsall as both the home side and the higher-division side start are favourites for this game by default. On any other occasion though, we would see this tie as a chance to spring something of an upset, but with Robins likely to name a heavily-changed side, it all depends on how seriously Walsall are willing to take this game too.

If Walsall name a full-strength XI, they’ll win this fairly comfortably. If some of their better attacking players are rested, there’s probably a fair chance that a spirited Sky Blues side packed with youngsters looking to stake a first-team claim could go out and get the win – especially given the fairly positive mood around the club. Being my usual pessimistic self though, I’m going for a 1-0 defeat.

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Preview: Walsall

Not that it really matters much now, but the performance on Monday against Rochdale was, by many accounts, one of the worst in what has been a terrible season for the club. With nothing to play for now, we head into the last home game of the season with the focus primarily on what’s going to be a long and arduous summer for the club – Wembley already seems like a distant memory.

Possible Line-Up

Although performances and results don’t really matter at the moment from a fans’ perspective, Robins still has important lessons to learn about his team from these final few games. Perhaps it was beneficial to have been reminded on Monday just where this set of players are weak, having already learnt what their strengths are during the recent run of wins.

It isn’t helpful that Robins hasn’t been able to pick from a fully-fit squad, but it has provided him an opportunity to look at the various options available to him. Presuming that Stuart Beavon, Kwame Thomas, George Thomas, Ruben Lameiras, Jodi Jones and Kyel Reid are all fit for this game, Robins has a difficult decision to make over the complexion of his attacking line-up. In defence, it would be useful to focus on players who will be around for next year – although it’s likely that Robins won’t have as much control over who stays and goes as he might like.

Last Time We Met

It was in the midst of that upturn in form under Mark Venus when opposition managers were commenting on us that we wouldn’t be around the relegation zone for long that we faced Walsall at the Bescot Stadium. A decent first-half performance saw us take the lead via Andy Rose, only for a typical wonder goal from Walsall’s Erhun Oztumer to earn the home side a share of the points after they produced an improved second-half performance and possibly should have gone on to win the game.

How Are They Doing?

Having lost almost the entirety of a squad that narrowly missed out on automatic promotion last season, Walsall fans should really be content with a comfortable mid-table finish given that’s really about par for a club of their resources. However, with some of the players they had been able to recruit over the summer and some decent runs of form over the campaign, there’s also a genuine sense that they should really have been able to at least trouble the play-offs.

There are doubts surrounding manager Jon Whitney who stepped up from his role as physio to manager last season following Sean O’Driscoll’s disastrous reign at the club. The main bone of contention from Walsall fans is the sense that he’s tactically naive and has been unable to make the most of the talent at his disposal. Nonetheless, a switch to a back three formation around January led to an excellent run of form and suggested that Whitney was learning the ropes as a manager.

While the diminutive attacking midfielder Erhun Oztumer is the star of this side – he’s scored 14 and assisted seven this season despite being in and out of the team at times – Walsall have several other useful attacking players that have meant they’ve been able to get results when their star man hasn’t been picked. Winger/attacking midfielder Kieron Morris has been in good form of late, Franck Moussa has intermittently demonstrated the inspiration he showed during his time with the Sky Blues, and the playmaker Florent Cuvelier has had a strong season in midfield after overcoming injury issues that have previously dogged his career.

As mentioned earlier, a switch to a back three enabled Walsall to produce their best form of the season between January and February. Key to that working has been the form of wing-backs Jason McCarthy on the right and Joe Edwards on the left. Remarkably, neither McCarthy or Edwards are natural wing-backs, with the former having played much of his career in central defence and the latter being a right-footed central midfielder. Nonetheless, they have supplied the width and energy required to make a back three a truly effective formation.

Another key player for Walsall this season has been Neil Etheridge in goal, one of few survivors from last season’s team. However, Etheridge has missed the past few games with injury which could well mean that he has already played his last game for the club. In his stead has been Craig MacGillivray who has had to be patient in waiting for an opportunity after arriving at the club around three years ago and has been solid in his recent appearances for the side.

Prediction

This is a game between two teams with little to play for – we’re already down and Walsall are safely ensconced in mid-table. That being said, Walsall have been able to pick up results over the past few weeks to demonstrate that they’re not already on the proverbial beach, while Mark Robins has shown since he came back that he’s not going to tolerate a dip in standards despite our fate having looked already sealed.

Nonetheless, the mentality of either side heading into this game is up for question and it’s going to make it a difficult game to predict. I’m hopeful though that our players will maintain the effort they’ve shown in the recent home games and the should be enough to win this. I’m calling this as a 1-0 win for us.

Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – Mid-Table Mediocrity

Top Scorer: Chris Maguire (9) Most Assists: Chris Maguire (6)

Top Scorer: Chris Maguire (9)
Most Assists: Chris Maguire (6)

Oxford United (12th Place)

It’s been a frustratingly inconsistent season for Oxford United thus far. There have been signs that the squad assembled by Michael Appleton has the ability to push on into the play-off hunt, but not on a consistent enough basis to escape the moorings of mid-table. Inconsistencies in tactics, team selections, as well as the form of several individual players had made it hard for Oxford to build that all-important launch pad towards the top six.

This is a fairly strong squad with Chris Maguire orchestrating things in attack, the pace of Rob Hall and Marvin Johnson (currently playing at left-back) out wide, the powerful Kane Hemmings in attack and John Lundstram sitting deep in midfield screening the defence and helping build attacks. However, some defensive lapses and a lack of cohesion at times up front has held the U’s back. They are by no means outside of the play-off hunt, but they require a big improvement over the next few months to make up the ground.

Top Scorer: Tom Elliott (8) Most Assists: Dean Parrett (7)

Top Scorer: Tom Elliott (8)
Most Assists: Dean Parrett (7)

AFC Wimbledon (13th Place)

A month or so ago, AFC Wimbledon looked like dark horses for a top six finish, however some poor form over the festive period has seen them drop back into mid-table. With the impressive Neal Ardley in charge, Wimbledon have managed to maintain the core of a promotion-winning squad from last season while adding that extra touch of quality to establish themselves at a higher level. Aggressive and physical, but with the ability to mix things up from time-to-time, AFC Wimbledon will always give any team in this division a tough game.

The summer signings of forward Dominic Poleon and midfielder Dean Parrett have proven to be revelations. Poleon looks like he’s added that all-important final product to the searing pace that he possesses, while Dean Parrett’s set-pieces have been a valuable source of goals for Neal Ardley’s side. In addition, the ungainly target-man Tom Elliott has discovered a rich vein of scoring form this season, having played a fairly minor role last time out. With the spirit and quality in the squad, it’s hard to see them being overly affected by some disappointing recent results.

Top Scorer: Erhun Oztumer (8) Most Assists: Erhun Oztumer (5)

Top Scorer: Erhun Oztumer (8)
Most Assists: Erhun Oztumer (5)

Walsall (14th Place)

Are Walsall a poor side over-performing? Or a good side under-performing? That’s the question that many Saddlers fans will have been asking themselves for much of this season. Despite losing the core of a team that finished in third last season, the summer signings of Erhun Oztumer, Franck Moussa and record transfer Andreas Makris signalled that Walsall were looking to quickly rebuild. There is the feeling around the club that the manager, Jon Whitney, is not getting the best out of the squad at his disposal.

Whether that’s a fair criticism or not is up for debate, it was always going to be difficult to deal with such a large turnover of players, however, Whitney has named some very odd teams at times this season. Unless Walsall drop into the relegation battle, Whitney probably won’t be under serious pressure to save his job. With Erhun Oztumer producing moments of inspiration in the final third, and keeper Neil Etheridge bailing the team out at times, there’s enough about them to keep Whitney in the job, for now.

Top Scorer: Alex Jones (9) Most Assists: Sam Foley (5)

Top Scorer: Alex Jones (9)
Most Assists: Sam Foley (5)

Port Vale (15th Place)

For much of this season, Port Vale looked to have been defying the pre-season expectation that signing a load of foreign players with no experience of English football would prove to be a disastrous idea. Although their excellent start to the season was fueled by young, English talent in the centre-back pairing of Nathan Smith and Remie Streete, with Alex Jones banging the goals in up front, Port Vale’s grand experiment looked to be working.

However, the manager, Bruno Ribeiro, struggled to find a formula for away wins and as soon as teams started beating them at home, Vale dropped like a stone. Ribeiro resigned on Boxing Day, with chairman Norman Smurthwaite essentially accusing him of lying about his ability to bring in loan players from his friends at Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United, and Michael Brown has stepped into the breach on a caretaker basis. Brown appears to have steadied the ship for now and is likely to get the job until the end of the season, there should be able to avoid slipping into a relegation battle, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility.

Top Scorer: Alex Revell (7) Most Assists: Matthew Taylor (6)

Top Scorer: Alex Revell (7)
Most Assists: Matthew Taylor (6)

Northampton Town (16th Place)

Northampton looked to have overcome the potential hammer-blow of losing manager Chris Wilder in the summer, along with key midfielders Ricky Holmes and Danny Rose. Rob Page did an excellent job in the first few of months of the season in maintaining an element of solidity that they had last season in League Two while making a few smart additions to the squad in the form of wingers Matthew Taylor and Paul Anderson, and with big Alex Revell in attack.

Yet, things seem to have come unstuck over the past couple of months for the Cobblers as they have struggled to rediscover the consistency that they’d had at the start of the campaign. Rob Page’s cautious approach has meant they’ve struggled at home this season, which could become problematic if things don’t improve over the next month. They’re in danger of dropping into the relegation battle and Page may not last the season.

Top Scorer: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (8) Most Assists: Bradley Dack & Ryan Jackson (4)

Top Scorer: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (8)
Most Assists: Bradley Dack & Ryan Jackson (4)

Gillingham (17th Place)

Having looked to have strengthened a squad over the summer that had narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, Gillingham looked like a decent tip for promotion heading into the campaign. Not only that, but they had a smart, up-and-coming young manager in Justin Edinburgh who had shown that he could produce top-drawer performances from a relatively unheralded group of players.

Perhaps that is why things went wrong for Gillingham and Edinburgh over the first half of the season, the big egos of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Paul Konchesky and the quickly-departed Jamie O’Hara went against the policy of attempting to polish rough diamonds that the club had pursued in the seasons before. Edinburgh has paid for this failure with his job and has quickly been replaced by former Forest Green manager Ady Pennock, which seems an odd move given the other names linked to the job. If the gamble on Pennock doesn’t work out, Gillingham are in relegation danger.

Top Scorer: Kieran Agard (6) Most Assists: Three Players (3)

Top Scorer: Kieran Agard (6)
Most Assists: Three Players (3)

MK ‘Dons’ (18th Place)

For many, MK ‘Dons’ entered the season as one of the promotion favourites thanks to the stability and style of play offered by the then-long-incumbent manager Karl Robinson. However, that promotion from this level two years ago is starting to look like something of an outlier from several seasons of mediocrity the club had been through in the years prior. A poor start to the campaign, especially at home, where the team lacked a presence both in attack and defence saw Robinson pay the price with his job with MK ‘Dons’ in a relegation battle.

Robbie Neilson was surprisingly tempted away from his job at Hearts but it yet to make much of an impact thus far. Although his Hearts side were accused of being overly physical and cynical in Scotland, Neilson appears to have kept to the template of fast, passing football in his first weeks in charge. The next month could be where Neilson begins to attempt to assert his own blue print on the club. With players like Kieran Agard, Chuks Aneke and Ben Reeves in attack, they should push on into a comfortable mid-table spot come the season’s end.

Preview: Walsall

Two wins of differing quality in a week and we’re starting to look like a team that could quickly move up the table. It’s fair to say that we had our fair slice of fortune against both Oxford and Rochdale, but it was pleasing to see the team apply themselves with so much dedication in order to ensure that we held onto six very valuable points.

This not-really-or-maybe-it-is-derby against Walsall is going to be a good indicator of this team’s ability to pull away from danger. There was pressure to get the wins last week, whereas a defeat in this game wouldn’t be such a disaster. It’s one thing motivating yourself for a game where you absolutely have to win, but being able to summon up the levels of concentration and determination on a week-to-week basis is going to be the difference between a season of struggle and pushing towards the higher reaches of this division.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

A massive part of last week’s victories was a sense of continuity in team selection and formation. However, the injury to Chris McCann may force Mark Venus to make a tactical shift, especially after Ruben Lameiras made the difference against Rochdale when shifted into a central position. As well as Lameiras played last week, the overall performance wasn’t good and losing the presence of McCann in the centre of the park contributed to that. It’s a genuine dilemma whether Venus maintains tactical continuity or makes changes to get the best out of one player.

Elsewhere, we’re probably going to be looking at a settled side. The defence is improving, without looking fully convincing, thanks to Jordan Willis really stepping up to the plate over the past few games. The balance of the front three of Sordell, Agyei and Lameiras doesn’t feel quite right, but it seems better to stick with a winning side rather than make changes in the elusive search for improvement.

Last Time We Met

Our meetings against Walsall last season saw us up against what was probably the best footballing team in the division over the course of the campaign. A trip to the Bescot on one of the last hot days of summer 2015 saw the Saddlers teach a Sky Blues side high on confidence after winning its first three league games a footballing lesson, pretty much playing us off the park in a 2-1 scoreline that flattered us.

It was much closer at the Ricoh Arena back in January of this year where Tony Mowbray’s Sky Blues were the better team for around 60 minutes, taking the lead via a Chris Stokes header from a Joe Cole set-piece, but crucially failing to add to that slender advantage. An attempt to sit on that lead was undone when a classic Walsall combination from last season earned the Saddlers a point, the mercurial Romaine Sawyers switched the play to the enterprising Rico Henry, who had the freedom of the left-side of the pitch, Henry’s cross was then turned home by the goal-poacher Tom Bradshaw.

How Are They Doing?

Like ourselves, Walsall have had to completely rebuild their team following a failure to secure promotion and have been inconsistent for much of this season, although to a lesser extent than the Sky Blues. Manager Jon Whitney stepped up from caretaker manager towards the end of last season but is still to fully convince as a manager in his own right, constantly making big tactical and personnel changes from game-to-game.

Walsall have however found some form in recent weeks and have lost just once in the last nine games. While that run seems to be related to Whitney playing a more settled side, it’s fair to say that the decision to sign Erhun Oztumer to replace Romaine Sawyers has played a large role too.

Although both Oztumer and Sawyers occupy the ‘sometimes misunderstood, mercurial, lower-league playmaker unlikely to ever fully fulfill their potential but will be all the memorable for it’ role, the two are as contrasting as it’s possible to be within that spectrum. The lanky Sawyers dictated play from high up the pitch, providing momentum and openings for other players to score goals The tiny Oztumer is more interested in the spectacular, shooting from ridiculous distances and taking risks most other players wouldn’t even think of taking. Oztumer has seven goals and three assists already this season, Sawyers managed five goals and eight assists in the entirety of last season.

Despite a summer exodus, a combination of smart recruitment and players already at the club stepping up has given Walsall a squad bountiful in useful attacking options. Academy-produced youngster Kieron Morris has built on a decent supporting role last season with three goals and two assists as a regular starter this time around.  Franck Moussa is someone Sky Blues fans will know all too well, a player on that Oztumer-Sawyers spectrum, who frustrates you until he goes out and wins a game on his own.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Walsall also have another, less fondly remembered, former Coventry City player in their ranks in Simeon Jackson. The decision to replace Tom Bradshaw with the Canadian forward was roundly mocked but Jackson has five league goals to his name this season which probably suggests he was a victim of poor service during his season at the Ricoh Arena. The giant Amadou Bakyoko has stepped up from the academy after several nondescript non-league loan spells over the years and has provided an alternative figurehead in attack from time-to-time. There’s also record signing Andreas Makris to call upon, but he’s struggled for form since arriving in the Black Country from Cyprus this summer.

Walsall’s defence this season has been the least functioning part of the team, with Whitney’s predilection for tinkering leading to some disjointed performances. Centre-backs Jason McCarthy and Kevin Toner have regularly been used at full-back, but the leadership of James O’Connor and the goalkeeping exploits of Neil Etheridge have seen things settle down defensively for Walsall in recent weeks.

Prediction

This is quite a strong Walsall side but one that can be beaten if we play with cohesion, and get some luck along the way. Given the different manners of the wins last week, there’s no reason to not to believe that we can’t make it three wins in a row but it still feels like there are defensive errors waiting to happen and our attack is still far from convincing.

I’m going to sit on the fence with this one and predict a 1-1 draw.