Preview: Walsall

A much-needed win last week at Rochdale helps stymie the concern that we could sink into an unexpected relegation battle, but following that up with another three points this week would pretty much kill off any realistic prospect of us sinking into danger. To do so, we have to overcome a recent mental block of ours in putting away a struggling side at home. That this is something of a local rivalry match against our opponents, Walsall, should hopefully provide the extra motivation to get the result in this upcoming game.

Possible Line-Up

Expected Line-Up

With the extent of Lee Burge’s injury unclear, we do not know yet whether the emergency loan of David Stockdale will be extended. While the experienced Birmingham City outcast is of a calibre higher than any goalkeeper we could otherwise sign, it appears that Football League regulations (54.4.1) dictate that an emergency loan keeper comes at the cost of loan spot in the matchday squad.

Provided Stockdale’s arrangement is extended for a further week, that leaves Mark Robins with a decision to make as to which of our other loan players to exclude from the line-up. Dujon Sterling and Luke Thomas would appear to be the most untouchable, likely to make it a toss-up between David Meyler and Bright Enobakhare. Meyler is probably the most expendable given our central midfield options and his current lack of fitness, however, Enobakhare could well be taken out in favour of playing a more orthodox strike pairing in attack.

Caveat, I may have interpreted the rules incorrectly and this discussion is entirely moot.

Elsewhere, it seems unlikely that Mark Robins will make any changes to a winning line-up from last week, aside from replacing the injured Tom Bayliss in central midfield. This is likely to mean that Amadou Bakayoko will be given a chance to prove a point against his old club,  and if he doesn’t score in this game, he might well fall short of 20 goals this season.

Last Time We Met

Walsall found two dramatic ways to beat us in our previous meetings this season. First, in the FA Cup, they recovered from losing a two-goal lead to make premature pitch invasions from our fans look a little silly. Then in the league game a month later, they turned a defeat into victory in stoppage time via probably the only costly error Lee Burge has made this season, then what can be charitably described as a ‘soft’ penalty, with Coventry-born left-back Luke Leahy scoring both goals.

The Opposition

Manager – Dean Keates

Having arrived at the club towards the end of last season with a great clarity of vision in instilling discipline and hard-work into a rigid 4-4-2 template, Dean Keates appears to be really losing his way at Walsall over the past few months. After starting this campaign fairly well, Keates has probably over-reacted to a few poor results by tearing his tactical template apart, signing and selling players for the sake of it and changing the line-up radically on a game-by-game basis.

Following a defeat at home on Tuesday night to rock-bottom AFC Wimbledon, Keates’ position as Walsall would appear to be in some jeopardy – although it may take a few more bad results for him to get the sack. This could well provide Keates and his side the motivation to throw every last thing they have at us in this game in an attempt to kick-start their season, but this does look an ideal time to be taking on Walsall.

Possible Line-Up

Who To Look Out For?

Andy Cook in attack is clearly Walsall’s biggest danger-man. The target-man, plucked from Tranmere after a promotion-winning season in the National League, has made the step up to League One with ease, perhaps unexpected given his decidedly non-professional footballer physique.

Cook thrives on crosses into the penalty area – which has often been a weakness for us this season – while occasionally scoring some screamers from outside the box. One of Walsall’s biggest problems at times this season has been how reliant they’ve been on him, making it simple to shut down their attacking threat by marking Cook out of the game, which means Walsall not only lose a penalty-area presence but their main way of playing out of defence and getting up the pitch.

The sale of winger Josh Ginnelly to Preston in January has robbed Walsall of an important alternative attacking presence to Cook. The big-name loan signing Matt Jarvis is still rusty after a lack of football in recent years, although still possesses excellent delivery which Cook could thrive on. Pacey forward Morgan Ferrier has lost his early season form, while exciting QPR loan signing Aramide Oteh is yet to hit the ground running since joining at the end of January but is a potential game-changer for the Saddlers.

Areas To Exploit

Walsall’s defending this season has often been shambolic, which hasn’t been aided by Dean Keates’ transfer business since the end of the summer. First, the addition of the experienced Russell Martin in October unsettled rather than steadied the backline. More recently, Keates has chosen to push attacking full-backs Nicky Devlin and Luke Leahy into midfield, however, their replacements in defence – Scott Laird and Cameron Norman – have hardly been any better defensively, while centre-back recruit Dan Scarr has already cost the side goals in just three appearances for the club.

Walsall are increasingly desperate for a result, which means we’ll have to match their intensity to impose ourselves in those game. Marshaling Andy Cook in attack will be our prime task, but it looks set to be another home game where we’ll have a lot of the ball in the opposing half, we’re going to need to make our dominance pay because Walsall are going to hang on for grim life if they can squeeze anything out of this game.

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