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.

Preview: Burton Albion

It’s only been in the days since Tuesday night’s dropped points against Walsall that I’ve really come to terms with how much of a missed opportunity that really was. For at least the first 60 minutes or so, we were the better team and reduced a really good Walsall side to mere scraps going forward, creating several excellent chances to score a decisive second goal.

I have noticed in some quarters there has been a desperation to scapegoat a whole range of individuals for that failure to take all three points on Tuesday night. From my point of view, it really was a collective dropping-off, in position and mentally, that cost us the points rather than any noticeably poor individual performance. We tried going defensive but without making specific tweaks to make us more secure.

Walsall could not breach us down the centre but eventually used the width of the pitch by bringing on a right-sided attacking full-back to complement their left-sided one and had the ability to quickly switch the play. It’s something that’s been Walsall’s strength all season and Mowbray really should have been more aware of that, instead he set us up to defend narrowly and deeply which played into Walsall’s hands.

Despite that, it was only one really golden opportunity that Walsall created but we are at the stage of the season where the old ‘on another day…’ excuse cannot be used when points are dropped. Thanks to a few too many ‘on another day…’ performances recently, we have lost ground on our promotion rivals and not beating Walsall means that this is as close to a must-win game in January as you’re going to get.

The challenge for Mowbray is for the first time this season, to find a way to produce two high-intensity performances in a week. Whereas in the past he has rotated his squad to navigate these pesky two-game weeks, he has to make sure that the strongest team is on the pitch rather than being saved for other games, this is the game you save your best players for.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

James Maddison‘s exclusion from the starting line-up against Walsall was clearly with this game in mind though and there is no way he doesn’t start this game with Joe Cole dropping out of the team. With Mowbray’s predilection for rotation in mind, I can see either Jim O’Brien or Jacob Murphy being dropped. Stephen Hunt has been talked up pre-match making him the most likely candidate to replace O’Brien or Murphy.

In defence, it’s been finally confirmed (by Romain Vincelot in this interview) what’s up with Aaron Martin and that he is out for around 4 weeks. After another convincing Chris Stokes showing in central defence, Mowbray might keep things as is but could also hand Peter Ramage his debut with Aaron Phillips dropping to the bench.

Last Time We Met

Our one and only league meeting against Burton Albion witnessed our grittiest win of the season. After starting sluggishly, handing an organised Burton side the ascendancy, Aaron Martin scored an unfortunate own goal before we got any kind of foothold in the game. Our equaliser was a goal of genuine quality with Fleck making a defence splitting pass, Ruben Lameiras with a rabona pass to Jacob Murphy, who then squared it to Marcus Tudgay who slotted it into the bottom corner.

The winner came in initially controversial circumstances when it appeared that an offside Romain Vincelot got the final touch on Aaron Martin’s header from a set-piece. As it transpired, Vincelot was behind the ball after Martin’s header making the goal completely legitimate, to the confusion of most watching the game. Despite a few nervy moments at the back, the Sky Blues saw out the win, the first since losing James Maddison to injury.

How Are They Doing?

For much of the season it’s been a case of waiting for Burton to regress back to the mean. It’s not just that they’re Burton Albion that they’re perceived to be massively overachieving, but they have a squad made up of League Two stalwarts and have generally struggled to score, mustering just 32 from 24 games thus far. Added to that, they lost the influential Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink from the managerial dug-out just over a month ago, their resilience at the top of the league is genuinely befuddling.

What they do have is an absolutely rock solid foundation to the team, having conceded just 19 goals all season. Without having any particularly outstanding individuals, Burton are incredibly organised and hard-working in how they’re set up. Generally sticking to at least two banks of four, they are hard to break down and their forwards do tireless work closing down opponents which can make it tough to even get in a position to attempt to break them down.

BurtonhomeBur

Possible Line-Up

If there are stars in this Burton side, they are Mark Duffy (on loan from Birmingham) and Nasser El Khayati. Duffy has been influential this season with his directness down either wing and delivery from both open play and set-pieces. El Khayati is a languid presence who can play either out wide or behind the striker but is the kind of player who can produce a moment of magic out of nowhere. The pacey Lucas Akins is a threat too but it’s really Duffy and El Khayati who are the individual mavericks in a solid team-unit at Burton.

The recent appointment of Nigel Clough as manager adds an unknown quantity to the sturdiness of Burton, although they have yet to lose in the three games since his arrival. In contrast to Hasselbaink, Nigel Clough prefers a more open style of football and absolutely loves making tactical tweaks involving playing players out of position. Thus far though, Clough has resisted the temptation to change things, resulting in two wins and a draw since taking over.

Prediction

The situation of having the nominal advantage of fitness over our opponents has been reversed with Burton not having played since January 2nd. Burton should be heading into this game fitter and much better prepared for the contest than we are. Furthermore, this is probably the club’s biggest day out in a league game in terms of away following, stature of opponent and gravity of fixture in their history. Don’t be surprised to see an ultra-motivated Burton side race out of the traps, looking to play up to the occasion.

Really though, I think we have a better team than they do and the fact that they are currently top of the division is driving me a little crazy. Tuesday night’s dropped points can be forgiven somewhat if we not only show Burton what the best side in the division plays like but then put together a series of victories over the ensuing games. This has to be the week where we stop messing around and assume the mantle that the quality of this side deserves.

As ever, I’m feeling uncertain as to whether we have that killer instinct to take advantage of this opportunity that awaits us. But I’m going to remain positive and predict a 2-0 victory.

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.

Preview: Walsall

It was late, it was great, but did we really need to go through all that fuss to beat Crewe?

After putting in a fantastic showing against Crewe, in a game where the expectation had risen and we were up against a team that had begun playing for a point from the very moment their coach left the training ground, the two goals we conceded were a timely reminder to this team that we’re not going to have everything our own way this season. In that sense, it was encouraging to see the team set about their business quite relentlessly despite the setbacks the two Crewe goals provided. It was clear that the players on Tuesday expected to win and even conceding two sloppy goals didn’t affect them that much.

It’s another tick on the ‘are we actually a good team’ check-list but there’s a long old way to go. There is a fair argument to say that Tuesday night was purely the product of a team playing at the top of their confidence. Being able to replicate it against better or luckier opposition on a consistent basis is still the major question mark hanging over this squad right now.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This Walsall game is our first test against a team with genuine momentum behind them and playing with confidence. They will have that extra spring in their step at both ends of the pitch that comes from being at the top of their game right now. They’re unlikely to arse around with the ball as much as Wigan did, they’re unlikely to completely capitulate like Millwall did and they’ll at least have 50% more quality than Crewe did to cause us genuine problems.

Don’t expect to see any changes to the starting line-up from Tony Mowbray though. The last run we had of a settled XI was during that searing run of form we produced under Steven Pressley at Sixfields. There are partnerships developing all over the pitch as players’ understanding of each others games improves, which is the exact hallmark of a team in form. There is simply no need to disrupt it right now.

Last Time We Met

Despite a chastening 4-0 defeat in the post-points-deduction-era during an otherwise promising 2012-13 season, we have generally done rather well against Walsall since we dropped into League One. Our last game against the Saddlers came at the very start of the year where an experimental line-up from Steven Pressley featuring a young back four of Aaron Phillips and Ryan Haynes with Matthew Pennington and Jordan Willis in central defence provided a glimmer of hope after a dreadful calendar year of 2014. Marcus Tudgay, transfer-listed the day before, missed a penalty but scored the crucial second goal to seal the win that eventually proved to be yet another false dawn.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned above, Walsall are in excellent form and are unbeaten since the start of the season. On Tuesday night, they outplayed Rochdale at Spotland which is something that few teams will do this season and is a major confirmation of their credentials as one of this season’s surprise packages.

Manager Dean Smith has been very flexible thus far with his tactics and team selection, displaying that despite my insistence that a settled starting 11 is crucial, there are other ways to skin a rabbit. It’s all been centred around giving star striker Tom Bradshaw the necessary support that he was lacking last season, where he still managed 17 goals in 29 appearances. Bradshaw is a quick-footed and intelligent forward who can both get in behind the defence as well as tuck away classic poacher’s goals in the box.

Walsall’s play in supporting Bradshaw this season has been rather enthralling and similarly fluid to the way we have played in attack so far. Dean Smith has an array of options to choose from, academy product Kieron Morris and ex-Chelsea attacking midfielder Milan Lalkovic caught the eye on Tuesday night but Smith can still pick from the enigmatic Romaine Sawyers, the creative Anthony Forde, the inconsistent James Baxendale and the quick Jordan Cook. In a deeper, but free-roaming role, Sam Mantom has taken off where he left off before an injury-plagued last season and offers creativity and dynamism to Walsall’s midfield.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, ex-West Brom youngster Paul Downing continues to progress into a talented centre-back for this level of football. He plays alongside James O’Connor who has spent much of his career at full-back but has been used in the centre following the retirement of James Chambers in the summer. Attacking full-back Rico Henry is another one to watch if selected, the youngster’s pace and drive to get forward has forced Dean Smith into considering a wing-back formation which in turn has led to the dependable left-back Andy Taylor to be deployed in a central defensive position.

Following the summer departure of key goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell, Walsall have turned to the tall ex-Fulham youngster Neil Etheridge. Etheridge, who has 44 international caps with the Philippines, has seemingly been forever a promising young player who has rarely been handed opportunities at first-team level. This is his first season as a number one keeper where he has looked like a solid shot stopper although he did concede a soft goal against Rochdale after the ball was headed right into his palms.

Prediction

The theme of this preview has been, Walsall are rather good. This game has all the makings of a classic with two teams setting out to play good football, and in the final third of the pitch. It’s going to be a real test of this team to play up to the challenge against a side that are a year or two ahead of us in terms of having a playing style bedded in, although on more limited resources than we have at our disposal.

There is also a nervousness about going out and winning a fourth league game in a row, which is something that few other clubs seem to worry about. In a week where we just about overcame that hoodoo surrounding Crewe, perhaps that is a sign that Tony Mowbray is starting to defeat the mentality of what Coventry City are and aren’t supposed to do. My prediction though is that the game will finish as a 2-2 draw.

A Most Difficult February

In most other circumstances, a point at home against a high-flying Rochdale side would have been perfectly acceptable. In fact, the two goals from new signings Dominic Samuel and Sanmi Odelusi would have had many optimistic that a corner could be turned. The fixture list though has thrown up a dauntingly difficult February with trips to Preston North End and Sheffield United interspersed with home games against an improving Scunthorpe United and promotion-chasing Milton Keynes ‘Dons’.

Failing to get the result on Saturday, alongside similar near-misses against Yeovil and Gillingham, has meant that we are firmly in a relegation battle. Having not won since that Walsall away game early in January, we could very well find ourselves in March without a win in eight games and in the bottom four.

There is a suggestion that this Coventry City side will benefit from being the underdogs for the next month. However a look at our record this season against teams in the top-half suggests otherwise – 2 wins, 5 draws and 7 defeats is the fourth worst in the division. It appears then that our hopes of being in a decent position for the ‘easier’ fixtures in March will depend then on the results of the teams above and below us. This article is a look then at how February will pan out and where we will be come springtime.


February 3rd 2015

Key Fixture – Barnsley vs Oldham

Tuesday night sees Barnsley, just a point ahead of us, take on Oldham Athletic as the Tykes play one of the games in hand they hold over us. Oldham could move into a play-off spot with a win against an inconsistent Barnsley side. However, the Latics have been poor away from home this season and a win for Barnsley here will see them move out of the relegation reckoning for the time being.

Prediction: Barnsley win

Gap between us and the relegation zone: 3 points


February 7th 2015

Key Fixtures – Colchester vs Crewe, Doncaster vs Walsall, Gillingham vs Sheffield United, Preston vs Coventry City, Rochdale vs Leyton Orient, Scunthorpe vs Oldham, Yeovil vs Crawley

The form of Lee Burge on Saturday will be crucial to kicking off a difficult month on the right foot.

The form of Lee Burge on Saturday will be crucial to kicking off a difficult month on the right foot.

Our trip to Deepdale could be a strong indicator as to how this month may pan out for us. If we can get a result of any kind here, it should give the team confidence that they can take points from the other tricky fixtures ahead. If we are beaten heavily, it could really drain the confidence of the team as we plunge further into a relegation mire. Lee Burge will have to step up massively from the level he was at when he last played for us and although Preston are winless in the league since Boxing Day, I still fancy the Lilywhites to win comfortably.

Four of the five teams below us all face each other this weekend which means that we will stay above the drop-zone regardless of what happens. Colchester face Crewe, the U’s have improved over recent weeks whilst Crewe have lost their key striker Uche Ikpeazu and succumbed 5-0 to MK ‘Dons’ at home last Saturday, Colchester win. Yeovil face Crawley with both sides desperate to maintain touching distance with the rest of the league, both struggle in front of goal and I can see this being a scrappy draw.

Leyton Orient travel to Rochdale desperate for any kind of win and looking more of a shambles with each passing week. They’ll be desperate but Rochdale are very street smart though and should at least take a point from this game. Walsall travel to an improving Doncaster Rovers side but should be good for a point. Scunthorpe are improving at an alarming pace and should be good enough to beat Oldham at home. Finally, I can’t see Gillingham taking anything from their visit to Bramall Lane.

Predictions: Colchester win, Walsall draw, Crewe loss, Gillingham loss, Coventry loss, Leyton Orient draw, Scunthorpe win, Yeovil draw, Crawley draw.

Gap between us and the relegation zone: Two points


February 10th 2015

Key Fixtures – Coventry City vs Scunthorpe, Crawley vs Doncaster, Crewe vs Yeovil, Leyton Orient vs Notts County, Peterborough vs Gillingham, Sheffield United vs Colchester

Bombed out in 2013, McSheffrey will have a point to prove to Steven Pressley.

Bombed out in 2013, McSheffrey will have a point to prove to Steven Pressley.

The home game against Scunthorpe is absolutely massive for us, barring any miracles at Deepdale, we will enter this game without a win in five league games. Not only are Scunthorpe a team in form, but in the form of Mark Robins, Gary McSheffrey and Jordan Clarke will be looking to exploit the ‘curse of the ex-player’ – the latter two especially against the boss who so unceremoniously discarded them. Scunthorpe will be massively up for this game and we will have to exceed that level of intensity. Somewhat optimistically, I am predicting a draw.

Crewe vs Yeovil is the only fixture between two teams around us in this round of games. Both will be looking to give their season a much-needed shot in the arm but Crewe have home advantage and have demonstrated some commendable battling qualities, probably as a result of using local players rather than Yeovil’s cavalcade of temporary and loan signings. I can see this being a home win for Crewe.

Crawley are generally better at home, preying on unsuspecting visitors expecting an easy contest. This game against Doncaster will be vital in keeping them in touching distance of safety and could scrape a draw against manager Dean Saunders’ old side. Leyton Orient face a badly out of form Notts County at home and this might be the game to kick-start their season. Gillingham travel to Peterborough who look to have awoken from their typical mid-season hibernation but I can see the Gills taking a point at London Road

Finally, Sheffield United are looking like they will have a big hand in the relegation battle this season. They face Colchester United in this round having played Gillingham the week before. After a stuttering start to the season, Sheffield United are starting to build a head of steam and should have too much for an improving Colchester to handle.

Predictions: Coventry City draw, Crawley point, Crewe win, Yeovil loss, Leyton Orient win, Gillingham draw, Colchester loss

Gap between us and the relegation zone: 1 point


February 14th 2015

Key fixtures – Chesterfield vs Leyton Orient, Crawley vs Barnsley, Crewe vs Fleetwood, Doncaster vs Yeovil, Gillingham vs MK ‘Dons’, Oldham vs Colchester

With no Coventry City game on Valentine’s Day weekend and with none of the teams around us actually playing each other, we could find ourselves in the bottom four after this round of fixtures.

Leyton Orient have the opporunity to put us in the relegation zone on Valentine's Day.

Leyton Orient have the opporunity to put us in the relegation zone on Valentine’s Day.

Crewe host Fleetwood and will be looking to put distance between themselves and the bottom four. Fleetwood are notoriously stingy in defence and should hold Crewe to a draw. Colchester travel to Oldham in what will be a test of such an inexperienced side’s mettle, Oldham will still be hoping to reach the play-offs and should defeat the travelling U’s. All Sky Blue eyes will be on how Leyton Orient do at Chesterfield, the Spireites are in play-off contention and should be too good for Orient.

Gillingham host MK ‘Dons’ which should be an away win for the promotion-chasing side from Buckinghamshire. Yeovil will travel to Doncaster hoping for a win but may be happy enough with a point. Crawley host an inexperienced Barnsley side and could scrape another decent result at home with a draw.

Predictions: Leyton Orient loss, Crawley draw, Crewe draw, Yeovil draw, Gillingham loss, Colchester loss

Gap between us and the relegation zone: 1 point


February 17th/18th 2015

Key Fixtures: Doncaster vs Crewe, Leyton Orient vs Bradford

Doncaster will have a big say over the relegation battle over the course of February, they will be looking to mount a late play-off push but have struggled badly at home over the course of the season. They face Crewe who may well be organised enough to frustrate Donny into sharing the points at the Keepmoat Stadium

Leyton Orient host Bradford hoping to get the win to jump out of the relegation zone and plunge us into the bottom four. Whilst Bradford will be coming off the back of another excursion in the FA Cup, they might still have the legs to take a point away from Brisbane Road.

Predictions: Crewe draw, Leyton Orient draw

Gap between us and the relegation zone: 1 point


February 21st 2015

Key Fixtures: Barnsley vs Crewe, Colchester vs Bristol City, Leyton Orient vs Oldham, Sheffield United vs Coventry City, Swindon vs Crawley, Yeovil vs Gillingham

Just one of many bad Sheffield United memories.

Just one of many bad Sheffield United memories.

It will have been a nervous 10 days waiting on other results and we will travel to Bramall Lane with that deafening sound in our ears of squeaking bums. We’ll face a Sheffield United side looking to cement their play-off spot and given our overall poor away record against the Blades, this should be an easy home victory. It will be all about the manner of the defeat that Pressley will have to cling on to.

At this point, three teams below us will be capable of catching up with us and this might at last be the weekend where we drop into the relegation zone.  Crawley travel to Swindon which should be an easy home win. Colchester host Bristol City and you would favour the promotion-chasing team there too. The attention once again will be on the fortunes of Leyton Orient who host Oldham. A point would be good enough for the O’s to leap-frog us but I can actually see them going one better and winning the game.

Crewe travel to Barnsley that weekend which I can them losing to keep them in the relegation battle. Yeovil will host Gillingham and know that a win will put them within touching distance of safety having looked marooned at the bottom for so long. I can see Gary Johnson’s side getting that vital win which will make the relegation battle even more nervy than it was before with the bottom seven teams separated by four points.

Predictions: Crewe loss, Colchester loss, Leyton Orient win, Coventry City loss, Crawley loss, Yeovil win, Gillingham loss

Gap between us and safety: 1 point


February 28th 2015

Key Fixtures: Coventry City vs MK ‘Dons’, Crawley vs Sheffield United, Crewe vs Swindon, Doncaster vs Colchester, Gillingham vs Barnsley, Scunthorpe vs Yeovil, Walsall vs Leyton Orient

Apparently, Carl Baker now plays his football in Milton Keynes.

Apparently, Carl Baker now plays his football in Milton Keynes.

It looks like we will face the free-scoring Milton Keynes ‘Dons’ at a nervous Ricoh Arena with many expecting Carl Baker and co. to waltz their way to all three points. I too cannot see anything other than a comfortable win for the franchise club, you can only imagine how nasty the atmosphere will turn come the final whistle.

Above us, Gillingham host Barnsley which they might just be able to win to put some daylight between us and them. Leyton Orient travel to Walsall which is a tough game and one that I can see the Saddlers winning. Crewe host Swindon which could an equally as heavy defeat for the Alex as our one against Milton Keynes ‘Dons’ looks like being.

Below us, Colchester travel to Doncaster where the U’s will fancy taking at least a point. Yeovil travel to a Scunthorpe side that could at that point be eyeing that final play-off spot, a win for the Iron. Finally, Crawley host Sheffield United which should be an easy win for the Blades.

Predictions: Coventry City loss, Crawley loss, Crewe loss, Colchester draw, Gillingham win, Yeovil loss, Leyton Orient loss.

Gap between us and safety: 2 points

Predicted League Table on 1st March 2015

Pos. Played Team Points GD
18 33 Gillingham 36 -11
19 33 Leyton Orient 34 -7
20 33 Crewe Alexandra 34 -30
21 32 Colchester United 32 -18
22 32 Coventry City 32 -19
23 33 Yeovil Town 30 -22
24 33 Crawley Town 30 -27

I caveat this long piece then is that football results at this level can be notoriously tough to predict. Who saw Crawley Town beating Preston North End with a Lee Fowler winner coming this weekend? The relegation picture is likely to be completely different to the table you can read above, teams will win games they shouldn’t but also lose games they shouldn’t. With the entirety of this division either scrapping for survival or going toe-to-toe for promotion to the Championship, there will be added nerves to almost every game this coming month.

So what was the point of this exercise? Mainly it was a bit of fun speculating where we might after a difficult month. Partly though it was to illustrate that if we cannot win a single game this coming month, as appears likely, we should at least be within touching distance at least of safety. This is a tough month and it may distort slightly where we are as a football team, the important thing will be to try and keep as calm as possible whilst we await the supposedly ‘easier’ fixtures.

We could enter March without a win in eight league games, our worst run of the season. It’s vital for us not to get too downhearted if we do find ourselves in the bottom four. Our final 14 games of the season only feature two games against the current top six which gives us a good chance of building momentum for what looks to be a nervous run-in.

Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.