It may be overly dramatic to describe ourselves as needing a win, but another defeat in this upcoming game against Walsall would cast an even starker light on our recent form. With 10 days since the drubbing at Fleetwood Town where it looked like we would never score again, Mark Robins has to have used this interstitial period to rebuild confidence, re-think his tactics and re-establish a sense of purpose to what this team is trying to do.
While there are only so many changes that Mark Robins can make, this feels like it will be an occasion where the manager will look to change things up from the formula that brought us four successive league wins back in October. There are two big issues to resolve, the first is how do we create and take more chances, the second is whether to re-jig a midfield that is looking increasingly haphazard with Michael Doyle directing things at the base.
All eyes will be on whether Mark Robins continues to back Conor Chaplin to play himself into goalscoring form, or decides to hand him a rest in the hope that his confidence can be rebuilt with a spell out of the side. Although Jordy Hiwula and Amadou Bakayoko are both potential strike partners for Jonson Clarke-Harris, it seems likely that any move to take Chaplin out of the side will result in tweaking tactics to bring an extra midfielder into the side – likely to be either Tony Andreu or Jordan Shipley.
While an extra man in midfield should put less pressure on Michael Doyle to dictate things from deep in midfield, it also takes a forward out of a side that struggles to score goals. This has the potential to make us even more plodding than we were in the second-half against Fleetwood, we have to hope that any tactical tweaks are thought through and have been worked on extensively in training.
Elsewhere, the likely returns of Tom Davies and Dujon Sterling to the defence not only should improve our solidity at the back but, in differing ways, will supplement our attacking threat, putting less pressure on our attack and midfield to put the opposition to the sword.
Confidence was high when we last took on Walsall, having come at the tail-end of our six-game unbeaten run. However, an Andy Cook header and a defensive howler from youngster Jordon Thompson put the Saddlers 2-0 up in this FA Cup tie. Happily, Walsall were also in charitable mood, with a defensive howler of their own allowing Jonson Clarke-Harris to reduce the deficit before half-time, then Luke Thomas equalising thanks to a goalkeeping error from Walsall’s Liam Roberts.
With a bumper away following, that should have been the cue for us to take the ascendancy and advance into the Second Round, however, we strangely seemed to drop-off and allow Walsall to rebuild their confidence. They eventually won the game via a thunderous strike from their right-back Nicky Devlin, making the pandemonious scenes after Luke Thomas’ equaliser look rather silly.
Manager – Dean Keates
Keates has quickly built a reputation as being a manager with a clarity of vision since taking the Walsall job back in March. Generally sticking to a template of a rigid 4-4-2 and demanding high levels of work-rate and organisation from his charges, Keates has done well to keep Walsall bobbing along in mid-table despite a relative lack of backing from his board over the summer.
While Walsall are on a longer winless league run than ourselves, Keates at least seems to have re-instilled a sense of purpose and belief in his preferred system. Having dallied around with a 4-3-3 system to shoe-horn in the talented loanee Connor Ronan, Keates has returned to the 4-4-2 and there are some promising partnerships developing all over the pitch.
Ones To Watch
The key issue for Keates that has seemingly been resolved by the switch back to 4-4-2 is the balance in central midfield. The introduction of the energy of academy graduate Liam Kinsella has provided the ball-playing talents of George Dobson with greater freedom to get on the ball and dictate proceedings for the Saddlers.
Moreover, there is a promising developing relationship up top between the physical presence of Andy Cook – who Tom Davies will have to attempt to mark out of the game – and the pacey Josh Gordon. With further pace out wide in the form of Josh Ginnelly and either Zeli Ismail or Kieron Morris, backed up by the attacking thrust of Luke Leahy and Nicky Devlin from full-back, Walsall have a very clear plan of working the ball into wide areas in order to put crosses into the box for Andy Cook to thrive on.
Areas To Exploit
Walsall’s big weakness of late has been defending, particularly after taking the lead. Despite the signing of the experienced Russell Martin, Walsall have continued to leak goals in rather naive fashion. While we need to start taking the leads in games, this contest would be far from over were the Saddlers to go ahead.
Additionally, Walsall have played two additional games since we were last in action. In theory, this hands us an advantage in terms of fitness, although football is rarely that simple.