Having been embarrassed for 44 minutes by a non-league side on Thursday evening, just why we thought we should beat a third-tier team, albeit one propping up the table, is a mystery. Parkinson’s excuse for the first-half against Luton was the disruption to training and rustiness; presumably today it will be about fatigue. Fact is there was no good excuse for a dire display that got what it deserved, just possibly a reason. Call it what you will: complacency, arrogance, poor mental attitude. Make no mistake, this was a far worse defeat than Brighton. We’ve just come off the back of two regrettable performances against Luton, albeit with the second one partially redeemed in the second half, and we’ve seen it before this season against teams at or around the bottom. Football isn’t that complicated a game. If the commitment and energy levels drop and players don’t work hard enough to create space, you’re running risks against determined opposition with something obvious to play for. Played crap and lost.
I don’t know if the recent run and going second has encouraged a view among the players that we are good enough to play within ourselves and still grind out a result. But through the first half today I kept remembering how the first season in the Championship went and a period during it when we managed to win games by fairly narrow margins and without going flat out. I thought then for a while that that team had enough about it to get away with it. As it turned out it didn’t and the end-result was a loss of momentum and failure. If you want an easy ride in a game against lowly opposition you impose yourself and win the game, then coast if you must. You don’t amble around for much of the game expecting something to happen. Today far too often the player with the ball, often a defender, looked up to see nobody moving, coming short, making available an easy pass, or making runs further up the pitch. The result was usually a hoof forward because that was the only available alternative. Avoiding aimless balls forward isn’t about instructions; it’s about players putting in the graft and making space.
Walsall played the better football, passed the ball, had forwards who held the ball up and laid it off to willing runners, and had midfielders and defenders ready to hussle us and scrap for possession. It isn’t rocket science, just basics. Our recent run was sparked by reaction to the Brighton game and if today is to become just a bad day at the office there needs to be a similar reaction, starting at Hartlepool (what happens at Brentford is irrelevant, what happens at Spurs is only relevant for the bank balance).
With Elliot and Benson passed fit and Dailly still suspended, the team lined up as would have been expected, the same as the starting X1 against Luton. That meant Martin, Reid, Sodje and Abbot on the bench, alongside a goalkeeper with a number 40 according to the announcer (presumably Worner wasn’t fit, which meant Elliot being pressed into service come what may). And the first half bore a passable resemblance to Thursday night. Walsall had more of the play and showed some good movement, although Fortune and Doherty seemed in control in and around our area. With us struggling to get anything going, the period rather came and went. Wagstaff had an early shot from a good position which went wide, Jackson hit a decent strike but the save was routine. It basically added up to a wasted 45 minutes, a period which encouraged Walsall to believe that they could get something out of the game.
Parkinson had seen enough and at the break Anyinsah and Fry were replaced by Martin and Reid, with Jackson dropping back to full-back. It promised a more creative approach and for a period it seemed as if it might work. Reid clearly worried them, but they’d done their homework, doubled up on him when necessary, and gradually regained the control of midfield they had enjoyed in the first half. Martin initially made a difference through his mobility, but after a while he and Benson just got outmuscled.
The outcome of the game turned on two chances within a minute – and despite our overall performance we could have won the game if we’d taken the first proper chance that came our way. A ball was played through for Benson to run on beyond the defenders. The angle wasn’t great, but he only had the keeper to beat. He put the shot wide of the post. I’m a fan of Benson on the grounds that he’s a goalscorer and should be judged on that rather than his hold-up play, which hasn’t been great so far. But the miss proved costly. The ball went up the other end, their right-winger got in a decent cross to the far post which was nodded back to their guy running in to score.
That was the cue for Sodje to replace a disappointing Wagstaff, who as on Thursday night failed to provide the basics of a winger’s job. His goals have been a big bonus, but neither against Luton nor today did he give the impression of being able to beat his man, make a telling delivery, or create space. Martin moved wide right and Sodje’s greater physical threat held out the promise that we could still get something out of the game. However, as play became increasingly stretched nearly all the decent chances were created by Walsall, who might easily have scored a couple more. Elliot saved well in a one-on-one after their guy had waltzed through, other chances went begging. There was a last-gasp opportunity which fell to Benson, but when the ball dropped to him in the box he tried to lay if off instead of shooting.
In the programme, one of the Walsall commentators remarked that “if the Saddlers are to get anything today, they will need veteran keeper Jimmy Walker to be on top form”. How wrong can you be? He had to make one basic save in the entire game. Not good enough; even in the final desperate minutes there was no great sense of urgency. It’s for Parkinson to assess whether certain players are tired and whether those in the wings provide a better option. Nobody expects champagne football every game, but the past couple of weeks suggest to me that we aren’t as good as some might have started to think. Time for another response because today was a setback in every sense of the word.
Elliot: 8/10. His kicking clear, especially in the first half, was poor, but I don’t know if that can be put down to whether he was truly fit. No chance with the goal, couple of good saves after we’d gone behind.
Francis: 6/10. Distribution wasn’t great, but again I’m inclined to blame those in front of him and others for that.
Fry: 6/10. Like Francis, could have got forward more but was only around for the first half. He’s done nothing much wrong, but there has to be a case for Jackson dropping back to allow in Martin or Reid, especially for home games.
Fortune: 7/10. I thought at least before the defensive side of our game went awol towards the end he had a good game. Commanding in the air and seldom troubled.
Doherty: 7/10. Much better today than in the rather shocking first half against Luton. A couple of excellent interventions from crosses and generally assured. Today wasn’t about defensive lapses for most of the game.
Jackson: 5/10. Seldom featured as an attacking threat in the first half, although he had one decent shot. With Wagstaff not finding space, our threat down the flanks was muted.
Semedo: 5/10. Put in the expected harrying and tackling when we didn’t have the ball, but this was a game where we failed to exert any control of midfield and I can’t remember him doing anything in possession.
Racon: 4/10. Disappointing game as he was generally crowded out and the game passed him by. I don’t know if he’s tired, but he looked it today.
Wagstaff: 4/10. Perhaps we’ve become over-reliant on the goals coming from him and Jackson and they’re viewed from that perspective rather than their contributions as wide men. Today he was completely contained by their defence and too often wasn’t there out wide to make space.
Anyinsah: 5/10. Some effective running in the first half and had to work on scraps, but looked rusty and I doubt whether their defenders will have an easier first half all season when against him and Benson.
Benson: 4/10. He was poor against Luton and poor again today. Missed the chance that could have won us the game and he has to be judged as a goalscorer.
Subs: Martin (5/10 – Added more movement when he came on, but also struggled against a well-organised defence); Reid (5/10 – Much the same as Martin; the fans expect a lot from him when he comes on and today, after early promise, he was contained); Sodje (6/10 – Did at least unsettle them in a way that hadn’t happened before he came on).