Analysis: There’ll be days like this for Walsall
If there is one thing predictable about the game of football, then it is its unpredictability.
Or – as bristling Walsall boss Darrell Clarke summed up succinctly after this hugely frustrating afternoon at the Banks’s Stadium – a ‘kick in the gonads’ is very often lurking just around the corner.
Walsall welcomed Salford City for their first ever meeting on the back of four successive wins in all competitions.
Reinvigorated, rejuvenated and rebooted to transfer that new-found confidence and momentum into chalking up a fifth successive win not enjoyed since the Dean Smith vintage of August 2015.
By comparison, Salford were supposedly on their knees.
Just one win in 10 in the league, two successive defeats conceding four in each, and still chasing a first success on the road in their first ever season in the EFL.
The result? Walsall 0, Salford 3. Huge disappointment against unbridled delight. “Men against boys,” as Clarke lamented afterwards. A strange and frustrating afternoon for all of a Saddlers persuasion.
Perhaps those two previous Salford results were the worst possible for a Walsall team still in the infancy of Clarke’s rebuilding job and shorn of three of the first names on the teamsheet in the injured pair Danny Guthrie and Caolan Lavery, and ineligible Rory Gaffney.
Stung by those hammerings, Graham Alexander’s men were fiercely organised, physical, determined and clearly with a more resolute mindset than against Crewe and Forest Green.
Walsall were laboured, lacked tempo, resorted too much to a direct approach which favoured the burly Salford backline, and as a result, produced one of their most disappointing 90 minutes of the season so far.
As Clarke surmised, echoing Van Morrison as he dissected the after-effects of such a crushing and frustrating defeat: “There’ll be days like this.”
Amid the manager’s understandable annoyance and unwavering demands on his players, a look at the match stats would suggest that this wasn’t a game which bore the hallmarks of a three-goal winning margin.
Considerably more possession for Walsall, more shots – 14 to nine – and the same number, six, on target.
But the big difference, as pivotal in such a competitive league so often driven by fine margins, was in both penalty areas.
The opening two goals, the first in Salford colours for Luke Armstrong and Jake Jervis on 21 and 49 minutes respectively, were aided and abetted by some Walsall defending which was as sloppy as it was uncharacteristic.
And the clinical side to the visitors’ finishing was perfectly illustrated by a superb first-time strike from Ibou Touray that effectively ended any Walsall resistance with 18 minutes remaining.
The Saddlers did have their chances – Elijah Adebayo’s early header tipped over by Kyle Letheren and then a volley deflected off target just before the break.
Wes McDonald was kept quiet for long periods, but in the lead-up to half time – Walsall’s most sustained spell of attacking – he skipped through the Salford rearguard and drew the keeper out without being able to find a team-mate with his pass.
Even at 2-0 down there were opportunities for a lifeline – substitute Alfie Bates, on his league debut, having a free-kick parried and then Josh Gordon’s screamer agonisingly thudding back off the angle of post and crossbar. It was that sort of day.
A team already struggling for goals is always going to miss its two main threats in Lavery and Gaffney, and, when the usually reliable defence has an off-day, then this is what can happen.
So the team adapting to life in the EFL adapted better on the day than the team adapting to a new challenge under a new manager, but just as few were getting carried away following four successive wins, few should go too far the other way after one disappointing afternoon.
Salford are a team probably occupying a false position thus far – a squad with forward momentum from recent seasons and now with the potential to find their own level of consistency thanks to the signing of experienced midfielder Craig Conway.
The Saddlers, who too regularly fell into the trap of a direct approach which made life comfortable for their visitors, will certainly be all the better for the more time spent on the training pitch and once any or all of that missing trio return.
On the positive side, the cameo from 18-year-old Bates was promising – albeit against a team which sat off protecting their lead – and the home crowd, aside from one or two murmurs of dissent, stayed with their team despite a tough afternoon.
Those fans will need to do more of that, and there will undoubtedly be more days like these, but anyone still doubting the ambition and drive of their manager should listen to his post-match interview.
“If people look at my history then they will know I won’t wait for anyone,” said Clarke. “And I will be ruthless when I need to be.”
There may be more unpredictability ahead, and the need for some more patience from the stands, but there won’t be any lessening of the demands from the manager and his staff.
Zak Jules admitted that there had been plenty of honest words shared in the post-match inquest, and there will also be more of that in the coming weeks and months as the squad continues to bed in.
First up though, the need to quickly regroup and be ready for Leyton Orient.
Predicting the result, on this evidence, is tricky, but after a week on the training ground it is difficult to believe that it won’t be a much-improved Walsall taking to the field at Brisbane Road on Saturday.