Analysis: Scunthorpe show Walsall there is a way out of danger
There is no denying it, Walsall are well and truly stuck in a rut.
The Saddlers’ record in their last 15 league games reads won two, drawn four and lost nine.
That is the worst run of form of any team in the division. And now it’s clear the only aim this season is to avoid relegation.
In many ways, this clash with Scunthorpe told you everything you need to know about survival battles and football in League One.
From November to December, the Iron lost seven consecutive games.
But they secured a scrappy 1-0 win over Wycombe, brought in five new signings and suddenly they have won four matches on the spin.
They now have belief and confidence. But at the minute, Walsall have neither and that was evident here.
This was a clash severely lacking in quality from both teams.
In fact, there were only three moments worthy of the admission fee –and they all resulted in goals.
The first arrived in the 12th minute when Scunthorpe opened the scoring with a corner straight from the training ground.
Initially, George Thomas delivered the ball to the edge of the penalty box. And an unmarked Funso Ojo then brilliantly guided the ball into the net on the volley.
While the goal did have a touch of class about it, Ojo was left completely unmarked with Walsall again opting to defend zonally.
Dean Keates revealed afterwards that one of his players had mistakenly stood in the wrong position.
But that has been a recurring theme throughout the season.
And if he hasn’t got the players good enough to play that way, he may need to make things simpler by reverting to man marking.
From that point on, next to nothing happened in the half. Andy Cook turned well 18 yards from goal before seeing a low drive parried by Jak Alnwick.
The Saddlers also sent in a number of decent crosses – with Matt Jarvis in particular looking lively.
But while Scunthorpe didn’t seem to defend them well, they kept getting the ball away, with Walsall unable to latch on to second balls.
It meant, as the two teams made their way off at the break, Ojo’s goal had been the only chance of note.
With little to get excited about on the pitch, the atmosphere inside the Banks’s Stadium became incredibly flat. Walsall’s fans and players were in desperate need of a moment of inspiration.
And in the 53rd minute, Nicky Devlin provided it.
There didn’t seem to be a lot of when the full-back collected the ball 25 yards from goal.
But he burst past one player and then another to enter the box. And the Scotsman then lashed an unstoppable strike into the back of the net.
The goal had the exact affect you’d expect it to.
For the next 15 minutes, Walsall visibly played with more confidence.
They moved the ball with more urgency with Scunthorpe suddenly coming under heavy pressure.
It looked like they would be the team to go on and win the game.
But this side has a wonderful ability to shoot itself in the foot.
Midway through the second half, Scunthorpe put two or three passes together in the middle of the park.
They didn’t really need to move the ball with any pace. But it was enough for Thomas to be able to play in Lee Novak.
And the former Blues striker kept his composure to lift the ball over Liam Roberts and into the net.
Like with Devlin’s strike, Walsall’s confidence was visibly affected.
You could see the players’ heads drop following the setback.
And they couldn’t find a way back into the game.
With 15 minutes still to play, Scunthorpe boss Stuart McCall introduced centre-back Byron Webster for striker Kyle Wootton in a bid to see the game out.
As a final throw of the dice, Keates then introduced Belgian youngster Omar Mussa for his debut.
But the Iron held on comfortably to win what, overall, was a poor game of football.
Scunthorpe actually scored their two goals from having only two shots on target – with Roberts not making a single save.
But the same could be said at the other end, with Cook’s strike and Devlin’s goal Walsall’s only real attempts.
Overall, a draw would have been a fair result as neither side did enough to win the game. The Saddlers though still managed to lose it.
Now two things need to happen if Walsall are going to avoid falling further into trouble.
The first is signings. Even before the departures of Russell Martin and Jack Fitzwater, the squad needed strengthening.
Now it needs refreshing. The Saddlers need more quality, more steel and more nous. But they also need to be lifted, something new recruits can do.
Last January, Walsall lost James Wilson, Zeli Ismail, Dan Agyei and Tyler Roberts.
They replaced them with Julien Ngoy, Justin Shaibu, Krystian Bielik and Jack Fitzwater. They got weaker, not stronger. That cannot happen this year.
Keates needs to bring in the right players and better players.
And once he does, the team needs to grind out a win and then build on it – just like Scunthorpe have.
With Gillingham, Plymouth and Rochdale up next, the next three games have become crucial.
To get the points haul they want though, a lot of work needs to be done off the field – with new signings the priority.