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.

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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.

Preview: Walsall

Part one of a season-defining week is upon us. While I stressed in my half-way review that we’ll neither be assured or incapable of achieving promotion until the season reaches its climax, but it would be churlish to say that the results this week aren’t going to have a big say over what we achieve come the end of the season. Come Saturday evening we can either be top of the league or level on points with 5th place Wigan.

It says a lot about the change in mentality around this football club this season that you would back this team to get both results this week. After some wobbles following the Gillingham win, the manner in which we professionally despatched Crewe most recently was the mark of a top side. I can sense a real determination in this side to win promotion, which is in stark contrast to previous times when we’ve been near the top of the various leagues we’ve played in.

Recent transfer activity has hammered home that intent we have to seize this opportunity. In and of themselves, Peter Ramage, Stephen Hunt and Andy Rose say very little about our ambitions, together, and with further signings on the way, they add strength in depth to what was a squad that might have been able to win promotion anyway. We’ve got players we don’t particularly need but they’re there to address situations that may occur between now and the end of the season, we’re not taking the chance that we might we be able to cope.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Despite the strengthening of the squad, there are only likely to be one or two changes from the side who so convincingly thrashed Crewe. If Aaron Martin is fit again, I would expect him to take Ryan Haynes’ place with Chris Stokes reverting to his more natural left-back position. Should Martin fail to prove his fitness in time, Peter Ramage would set for his debut, although Mowbray may prefer to play both, dropping Aaron Phillips in the process, to give the team another experienced head for such a big game.

The one other possible change revolves around whether to continue with Joe Cole from the start or save him for the equally as important clash with Burton on Saturday. On the one hand, it would be frustrating to tinker once again with that attacking line-up having found one that looked to be working so well. On the other, Walsall are susceptible to the pressing game which may make someone like Jim O’Brien more suited for a starting role than Cole.

Last Time We Met

As mentioned above, Walsall’s performance against us earlier in the season was one of the best we’ve faced thus far this season, second only to Peterborough’s first-half showing at the Ricoh Arena. It was clear which side had been thrown together in the summer and which had been more or less playing together for the past few seasons as Walsall confidently asserted their authority in possession, leaving us chasing shadows on a hot summer’s afternoon at the Bescot Stadium.

After crudely crocking James Maddison early on, Walsall took the lead after several early chances when Anthony Forde was sprung behind the defence and slotted coolly past Lee Burge. Tom Bradshaw doubled Walsall’s lead after the defence struggled to deal with one of their many crosses into the box just after half-time. Jacob Murphy scored a stunning goal to give us hope, but we never really got into the game and were justly beaten.

How Are They Doing?

After years of playing dull football and whingeing about budgets, Dean Smith had a side together at Walsall that was capable of overcoming their financial restrictions and entertaining the fans. It was surprising when Smith was lured away from reaping the rewards of his painstaking work to join Brentford in the Championship, leaving the potential for things to fall apart at Walsall.

In appointing Sean O’Driscoll as Smith’s replacement, Walsall have found someone with a similar coaching philosophy but with experience of winning promotion at this level. In the five games that O’Driscoll has overseen thus far, Walsall have won four and lost one. That one defeat though came in their most recent league fixture against Rochdale where they were beaten 3-0 without registering a single shot on target.

O’Driscoll has kept things pretty much the same although has moved towards a diamond formation compared to Dean Smith’s preferred 4-2-3-1. It has been an attempt to provide star striker Tom Bradshaw with more attacking support, although there have been gripes that the new formation leaves key creative presence Romaine Sawyers lacking in options  to pass to.

Sawyers is the man who really gets Walsall playing, enjoying his most consistent season to date where previously he had been a frustrating talent who provided moments of magic but never truly took hold of games. Walsall’s other main threat is their attacking full-backs, Jason Demetriou on the right and either the exciting Rico Henry or sturdier Andy Taylor on the left, who really stretch teams and provide excellent delivery from crosses.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This season for Walsall has also been the depth of quality in the squad, particularly in midfield area where they have a range of threats. In other seasons for Walsall, players like George Evans, Milan Lalkovic, Kieron Morris, Sam Mantom and Anthony Forde would be their outright star players, instead only really Evans and Lalkovic are anything like guaranteed starters.

Walsall do have weaknesses to be got at, as Rochdale showed recently. Mainly, they seem to struggle when teams press them high up the pitch as they don’t really have an out-ball to relieve pressure. Neil Etheridge in goal has at times been an excellent keeper for them but there is a suspicion that he is capable of making some routine errors too. You could probably say the same about us, on both accounts, but I imagine that would be where Tony Mowbray is looking to exploit Walsall.

Prediction

Everything is set here for a tense, pulsating and entertaining game between two sides at the top of the table both capable of playing some very attractive football. My personal feeling is that we have better individual talents than Walsall do, not to denigrate their own excellent attacking players, and combined with our home advantage, I’m pretty confident that we will win this game.

In such an important game for both sides, the individual moments are going to be more dramatic and visceral than they would otherwise be which is going to add a severe factor of unpredictability to the contest. An early goal either way is going to massively affect the balance of the contest and I can see this being a very open contest between two teams that know how to attack and are playing with confidence. I predict that we’ll win 3-2.