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.
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.
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.
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.