Walsall analysis: Shot-shy Saddlers no closer to a solution
It’s been more than 800 minutes of football without a win, around 350 minutes without a goal, and a case of deja vu for Saddlers fans after their latest outing against Bradford City.
If fans and those with a Walsall persuasion weren’t already aware, then goals are the problem for this side.
Darrell Clarke of all people knows this well enough, as he admits his team need to be more adventurous in front of goal.
Throughout the afternoon of their 1-0 home less to Bradford, fans lost count of the amount of times they screamed “shoot!”.
The players, however, didn’t listen.
Time and again they worked the ball into a good area and time and again it was sprayed out wide, or passed inside to a forward who was smothered by defenders, with no-one seemingly willing to shoot on sight.
The rare times they did shoot, they went close, with Rory Gaffney’s curling effort in the second half tipped around the post.
Clarke’s men lined up in a 4-4-2 to match an unchanged Bradford side coming off the back of a 2-1 comeback win against Northampton.
When the teamsheet was revealed it caused a stir among fans online, who noticed an abundance of defensively-minded players.
Clarke arrived in the Black Country with a reputation for attacking football, but his philosophy is yet to rub off on the players – perhaps hindered by the fact the team doesn’t have a set shape or formation.
At least four players were arguably playing out of position in Saturday’s game – and they happened to be both full-backs and both wingers.
And this set the tone for the match, with Walsall struggling for attacking width and a clear link with the front two.
But bizarrely it’s not all doom and gloom.
Walsall actually had the better of the chances throughout and out-performed an under-par Bradford side.
Gaffney worked hard to feed off scraps, hold the ball up, and involve his team-mates – resulting in an excellently-worked chance where Caolan Lavery tested the goalkeeper from the edge of his box.
But the frustration lies with the moneymaker, putting the ball in the back of the net.
Liam Kinsella, Rory Holden and Gaffney all had improved performances, especially when you compare it to the dire draw with Colchester a week ago.
But it feels as if this team has several central players, and not enough wide-men – particularly for a 4-4-2 formation.
Kinsella and Holden huffed and puffed out wide, and showed flashes of brilliance, but were restricted and isolated due to the players around them.
Gary Liddle and Zak Jules, two players better suited to centre-half, operated as full-backs behind them and offered little in attacking support – instead being used as a backwards pass, to the frustration of the home fans.
Stuart Sinclair and Danny Guthrie battled in the middle and created many of the counter-attacks by winning the ball back – before an inevitable sidewards ball diffused any attacking intent.
Clarke had previously called for better service and creativity behind the strikers, a call he is still waiting for an answer on.
But a new challenge ahead for the boss lies in the formation.
Reverting back to a 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2) relies on the wing-backs to offer that wide attacking option.
It was almost fate that in a game against a side playing 4-4-2, Walsall were forced to match them due to the players available to them.
But on Cameron Pring and Cameron Norman’s return, their performances will be key to the success of Clarke’s favoured formation.
If they come back in for the Morecambe game, and the 5-3-2 line-up returns, they could decide the future on the boss’s plans going forward.
That formation offers three midfielders, which at this level is often essential with several teams operating similar formations.
It also allows for consistency up top, with two strikers, but without improved wing-back performances it’s a pointless exercise.
In that case, Clarke could be forced to stick with 4-4-2, which against sides playing three midfielders, will leave the men in the engine room outnumbered.
It’s a scary thought that eight games into a league season, an effective system with the right personnel is still up in the air.
But if that clicks into place, alongside a relatively solid defence, it could prove the difference for Walsall.
And the saving grace for this team is their defence.
Although a consistent back four, or five, is yet to be established, the leadership of skipper James Clarke has been essential for a team that has conceded nine league goals – several fewer than the teams around them at the bottom of the division.
Whichever players slot in next to him are better off and generally have a better performance – making him an invaluable asset to the squad.
Liam Roberts has been a staple at the back for the reds and can be heard across the terraces as he organises the players in front of him.
It’s food for thought that without the defensive rigidity, this team could be in an even worse position than it currently stands.
For now, fans are still scratching their heads as to where they go from here, but an improvement in results needs to come sooner rather than later.
But if the results follow the performances, the breakthrough may not be far off.
The Saddlers are left in 21st in the league and the next two games could define their season, Morecambe and Scunthorpe are both below Walsall in the league and could become must-win games, even at this early stage.