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.
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.
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.
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.