Preview: Walsall

This season we’ve either kept clean sheets or conceded three goals, no middle ground.

Whether Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Oxford United is a good draw away at a potential play-off contender or a capitulation from two winning positions will depend on whether you’re a glass half-full kind of person. After a third week in a row of Saturday-Tuesday fixtures and the signs of fatigue during our most recent game, Mark Robins is likely to use this EFL (Leasing.com, formerly Checkatrade) Trophy tie with Walsall as a chance to rest as many as possible before we return to league action on Saturday against Blackpool.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

There are rules governing just how many changes Mark Robins can make to the side, however, they are so flexible as to give the manager plenty of leeway to weaken the team as much as he wants to.

For the sake of thoroughness, four players have to be included in the line-up who count as;

  • Having started the last league game
  • Set to start the next league game
  • In the list of 10 outfield players to have started the most games this season
  • Having made 40 or more senior appearances during their career
  • On loan from a Premier League club

That covers most of our first-team squad, meaning that Mark Robins could pick essentially an under-23 side, with a few of the senior players senior players who haven’t been involved in recent games to provide guidance – such as Kyle McFadzean, Maxime Biamou and Amadou Bakayoko – without falling foul of the criteria.

Given the way Mark Robins has treated this competition over the past two seasons, expect the weakest team possible.

Last Time We Met

It looked like being our day against Walsall back in February at the Ricoh Arena from the moment Amadou Bakayoko leapt to nod home his first goal in five months. Goals from Jordy Hiwula and Bright Enobakhare made it our most convincing home victory of the campaign – one of only two by more than a single goal – against a doomed Walsall side who offered little of the fight and spirit that had seen them beat us twice earlier in the season at the Bescot Stadium.

The Opposition

Manager – Darrell Clarke

The man who turned Bristol Rovers around after relegation into non-league, Darrell Clarke is attempting to stamp a similar mark at a club in Walsall that has been drifting ever since the departure of Dean Smith as manager back in 2015.

Having made sweeping changes to the squad in order to inject leadership and organisation into a side that has desperately been lacking it in recent years, it has been a slow start to the campaign, winless since the opening day of the season as a new-look squad gels as a unit.

Who To Look Out For?

Whether Walsall’s struggles for fluency as a team-unit will compel Darrell Clarke to name a strong line-up or place his focus solely on the league campaign will have a huge impact on this game against what is likely to be a weak Sky Blues side.

Clarke’s preferred system tends to be either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-5-2 (either playing a holding midfielder or dropping that deepest midfielder into a defensive three) based around defensive solidity and energy levels, making it little surprise that sturdy centre-back/right-back James Clarke and the prodigiously bearded Stuart Sinclair have followed Clarke from Bristol Rovers to the Bescot Stadium for their qualities of leadership and versatility.

With Walsall having lacked spark and cohesion as an attacking unit for much of the season, Clarke may want to use this game as an opportunity to inject some confidence into the likes of Elijah Adebayo, Caolan Lavery and new signing (and another former Bristol Rovers man) Rory Gaffney.

Areas To Exploit

With little resting on this game, the very least Mark Robins will be hoping to achieve from this game will be in the performances of fringe players hoping to press their claim for first-team football. It will be an indication of the mental fortitude of the likes of Maxime Biamou, Amadou Bakayoko and Gervane Kastaneer if they view this game as a chance to show their worthy of playing regularly or play with little interest knowing that the stakes are so low.

The combination of Walsall’s lack of confidence and how little there is resting on this game is likely to mean that an early goal will kill off any motivation they have to play themselves into form. Similarly, if they were to move ahead, it’s hard to seeing a thrown-together Sky Blues side doing anything other than accepting defeat.

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