Analysis: Walsall only show up for first half in disappointing defeat
If the phrase ‘a game of two halves’ was ever the most fitting, then this was.
But Walsall took it a step further, it was like two different teams.
The first half from the Saddlers was dogged, determined and exciting – the second 45 was dire, a complete capitulation.
One thing is for certain, as far as the fans, the media, the players and more importantly Darrell Clarke are concerned, everyone is aware that was not good enough.
If you showed a neutral the highlights of both halves, you’d imagine they would believe they were watching two completely different games.
Walsall came out of the blocks firing, desperate to have a positive reaction to the drab 3-0 loss against Salford the week before.
And everything looked rosy by 3.45pm.
Impressive first-half performances from Wes McDonald, Rory Gaffney, Liam Kinsella and, particularly, goalscorer Stuart Sinclair meant the visitors were 1-0 up at the break.
It was, perhaps, the best 45-minute performance from Clarke’s men this season – they were fast on the break, got into excellent areas in front of goal and defended well.
They were everything but clinical and they paid the price for it.
As opposed to the first half, the second half was, perhaps, the worst 45-minute performance of the season. Total, utter capitulation.
To concede a goal within minutes of the restart, to undo all the good work from the first half, was criminal.
It was the worst time for Walsall to concede and it set the tone for the half.
The O’s had their tails up and so did their fans.
It all came to a head when a calamitous error from Danny Guthrie on the hour mark put Orient through on goal, leading to their second strike of the day.
When asked if that moment was the turning point in the match, Darrell Clarke said ‘big style’.
It was a momentary lapse of concentration, but it cost the team dearly. Players’ heads dropped and there was only one winner from that moment onwards. Those moments make games and it came from the team’s most experienced professional – these things happen in football, but at times it happens all too often for Walsall.
As previously touched on, this game had its positives and it’s always important to consider them, discuss them and praise those who performed.
The goalscorer, Sinclair, was at the heart of everything Walsall did right in the first half.
Playing further forward than he has ever done in a Walsall shirt, the midfielder played a number 10 role behind Gaffney and was the stand-out performer for the Saddlers. The 31-year-old had the energy of a man a fraction of his age.
He ran and didn’t stop running – whether they were piercing runs from deep beyond the Orient defence, or runs off Gaffney as the striker used his hold-up play.
He caused the hosts all sorts of problems. What was most evident, was his pride in the shirt. He played with passion, he cares.
Sinclair lives for football and that’s what has made him a favourite of the fans already.
Once his threat was nullified, however, Walsall’s attack died with it.
It’s testament to the fact that the strikers need to do more – a midfielder, not for the first time, carried most of the attacking intent.
Another important point, which has been discussed all season, is the travelling support.
Once again, for a team not yet competing at the top of the division, the fans were excellent.
The noise coming from the away end throughout the match was superb and they roared Walsall on during that impressive first half.
It was unsurprising, however, to see many of them head for the exit before full-time.
Who can blame them? They spend their hard-earned money, travel home and away whatever the distance, to support their team and they’re rewarded with a dreadful second half.
The communication from players, the management and the board to the fans has improved inmeasurably this season and those at the club will be hurting at how they have let down those supporters.
It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth to consider that delays to rail networks meant hundreds of fans spent several hours getting to the capital for the game, to lose in that manner.
So where does this leave Walsall now? Promotion is certainly still achievable, but in reality so is relegation.
This side are far too good to go down and it would be a travesty if they did.
But points are extremely tight in League Two, meaning the play-offs and possible promotion is not as far off as it seems.
Losing to two teams – Salford and Orient – who were both playing non-league football last season, doesn’t make for good reading.
But the nature of the beast that is League Two means that any team can win on their day.
If Walsall string together four wins on the bounce again, the outlook suddenly looks much better.
It’s a league of fine margins and Walsall can succeed with consistency.
If that can click and if the goals can flow, then the possibility of promotion could become the reality.
The strikers need to hit form and the defence needs to consistently keep sides out.
If it doesn’t click, it will be a mid-table finish and a rebuild for next season.
Consistency is the key, but it’s easier said than done.