Preview: Walsall

After a six-game unbeaten streak in the league, we head into FA Cup action. While this may represent a distraction from what is an increasingly promising league campaign for some, getting on an FA Cup run akin to last year has the ability to further stoke the feelgood factor that is building around the club, garnering the belief that this side can compete against the best.

The nature of the FA Cup, at least in these early rounds, falling on Saturdays means that there is little reason for Mark Robins to rest players for the sake of the league. Unlike the League Cup and Checkatrade Trophy, continued progress has less impact on our league schedule, meaning there is more to be gained than lost from going another run in this competition.

Aside from throwing back-up goalkeeper Liam O’Brien into the side, Mark Robins should be looking to avoid making too many changes. Luke Thomas being made available by parent club Derby County means we can keep the starting XI as similar to recent weeks as possible. Probably the biggest decision will be whether to hand Jodi Jones a full 90 minutes for the first time since recovering from injury, although it would be harsh to take either Thomas or Jordy Hiwula out, based on current form.

Possible Line-Up

It is unclear at this stage whether Dujon Sterling and Tom Bayliss will be fit enough to start this game, both of whom were missed for their attacking thrust in their respective positions last week against Accrington Stanley. While Abu Ogogo or Liam Kelly in Bayliss’ central midfield berth and either Jordon Thompson or Jack Grimmer are able deputies, the back-ups for Bayliss and Sterling undoubtedly offer less verve and impetus, albeit that’s slightly harsh in particular on Jack Grimmer.

Finally, it will be interesting to see whether Mark Robins is tempted to throw Amadou Bakayoko into the starting line-up in the belief that his desire to prove a point against his former club is of any value. Logic says to stick with the settled attacking duo of Jonson Clarke-Harris and Conor Chaplin, but there remains an underlying sense that giving Bakayoko a go for this game may just be the right choice.

Last Time We Met

This may not have gone down in the memory, but our last clash with Walsall came last season, in the Checkatrade Trophy. It was an important game for Marc McNulty and Jordan Ponticelli in notching confidence-boosting goals in a nominal first-team game, however, a late goal for Walsall from former Sky Blues loanee Dan Agyei meant the game ended in a penalty shoot-out – proving to be the difference between progress and dropping out of the group stage, despite our triumph on spot-kicks.

How Are They Doing?

To be sitting 11th in the division after losing their star player last season in Erhun Oztumer and investing relatively little in the squad represents a solid start for Walsall. More recently though, Dean Keates’ side have been on a run of just one win in their past five with morale really starting to sink.

Keates – a club hero as a player – had brought a clarity of vision initially after arriving at the club back in March to turn around the side as they sunk into a relegation battle. Keeping the side in a rigid 4-4-2 based on work-rate with and, especially, without the ball, Walsall were a hard-working and honest side, which carried over initially into the new season.

The downturn in form has coincided with a tactical shift designed to get the best out of creative midfielders George Dobson – formerly of Arsenal and West Ham – and Connor Ronan – on loan from Wolves. Shoehorning the duo into the centre of the park in a 4-3-3 has left the team more exposed defensively without the benefit of further attacking spark. Keates restored the 4-4-2 on Tuesday, only to see his side comprehensively outplayed by Charlton with confidence levels seemingly shot to pieces.

Possible Line-Up

At their best, Walsall are a very energetic side that put their bodies on the line in defence before breaking with pace and getting crosses into the box. With fast, skilful wingers in Zeli Ismail, Kieron Morris, and Josh Ginnelly, Walsall have the ability to hurt us down the flanks – along with the barrel-chested forward Morgan Ferrier who is a real wildcard up front. Centre-forward Andy Cook, signed this summer from Tranmere after several prolific seasons in the National League, thrives off crosses, making keeping him tightly-marshalled a key priority.

Walsall’s weakness is at the back, where they lack experience, a level of quality and, importantly, confidence at the moment. Former Norwich City man Russell Martin was brought in to address this, but his inclusion has coincided with a run of seven goals conceded in three games. Goalkeeper Liam Roberts has stepped up from the academy over the past 12 months impressively, he could do with being handed less work from the players in front of him.

Prediction

While Walsall are on a downturn in form, they are the type of side who’ll make life difficult for us if they can get themselves ahead and focus on staying in shape rather than having to come out to beat us. However, with ourselves in much better form and with a stronger squad than our opponents, this goes down as a game we should be looking to win.

I’m reasonably confident we can come live up to our status as favourites for this tie. As for a score prediction, 2-0 in our favour.

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