THE FOOTBALL LAB: Walsall FC Season Preview THE FOOTBALL LAB: Walsall FC Season Preview
Posted by: Bescot Banter

THE FOOTBALL LAB: Walsall FC Season Preview

With the 2015/16 Sky Bet League 1 season due to kick off this weekend, Gabriel Sutton and 'The Football Lab' have asked a supporter from each league club to answer some questions about their favoured side. Saddlers fan, and Bescot Banter columnist, Pete Sadler was the man called up to take part, and courtesy of 'The Football Lab', you can read his answers inside!

With the 2015/16 Sky Bet League 1 season due to kick off this weekend, Gabriel Sutton and 'The Football Lab' have asked a supporter from each league club to answer some questions about their favoured side.

Saddlers fan, and Bescot Banter columnist, Pete Sadler was the man called up to take part, and courtesy of 'The Football Lab', you can read his answers inside!

Walsall ended the 14/15 season in a similar position to where they finished the year before. On league form alone, would you describe the campaign as good, bad or indifferent?

On league form alone I would say indifferent…on their day the Saddlers can and do beat any team in the league but equally they can struggle against any team also. There were shock positive results at MK Dons away and Preston at home to name but two, but that against Leyton Orient and Scunthorpe at home were pretty bad.

The club reached Wembley for the first time in its history. Were you disappointed that the team did not put up much of a fight in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final? Or was the main achievement merely getting there?

It was an amazing day out right up to the point of kick-off and credit to the team for getting there in the first place, of course it is an achievement for a club of Walsall’s size. I wasn’t disappointed with the performance, Bristol City were the best team in the division by some distance and I don’t think we honestly had a chance of winning.

Walsall would have finished last season 8 games unbeaten, had it not been for Bristol City’s flurry of 2nd half goals on the final day. Can you take heart from the way the 14/15 campaign climaxed?

As per the previous answer, I think that Bristol City are going places and with the investment they have behind them it wouldn’t surprise me if they went straight up in the Championship too. If we keep our injuries to a minimum we are competitive but strength in depth is not our forte.

Goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell has dealt Walsall a blow by rejecting a new deal in favour of a move to Wigan Athletic. Do you believe Craig McGillivray, or new signing Neil Etheridge, will be able to step into O’Donnell’s shoes?

Hopefully more gloves than shoes! When O’D came to the club he was far from the keeper that left this summer. Credit has to go to Richard himself and I genuinely wish him the best (save as for 2 games a season) but also to Neil Cutler, who let’s not forget is still here. I would back Big Cuts to enhance MacGillivray’s and Etheridge’s skills and I’m a massive fan of healthy competition for starting places.

New signing Jason Demetriou is an attack-minded right-back, whereas the outgoing Ben Purkiss was more cautious. Given that most teams in the modern game have attacking full-backs, do you think Dean Smith was right to make that change?

I liked Purkiss as a defender but that is correct about his attacking ability. I’ve not seen Demetriou so I wouldn’t want to judge how he will fit in until I’ve seen him…hopefully everyone else gives him time to prove his worth and settle in.

Manager Dean Smith has built up a strong relationship with midfielder Adam Chambers, having worked with him at Sheffield Wednesday and Leyton Orient. Do you think Smith sees Chambers as somebody he can trust to help lead the team?

I think Adam is a fantastic example of a professional footballer and leads from the front. His intelligence and work-rate can’t help but inspire others at the club and I’m happy that he has signed on for another year.

Adam’s brother, James, has retired, after 16 years in the professional game. Will Walsall miss his experience this season?

As with Adam, whom I have mentioned above, James’ reading of the game and tenacity in competing for everything is infectious. Yes it will be a miss, how could it not be, but I’m happy with how the club dealt with it and let James leave on his own terms. Time for the remaining crop to step up and for a replacement to be found…both will be difficult granted.

Walsall’s centre-backs, Paul Downing and James O’Connor are not the strongest in the air. Would you like to see the club sign a defender in the Andy Butler mould?

I have said for a while that we seem to struggle against teams with a strong target man who is good in the air, Hanson and Pope the two that spring to mind immediately. Yes a centre half should be a priority but one that can play the ball and is comfortable with bringing it out from the back would be my preference.

Andy Taylor looks a good crosser of a ball. Given that Mal Benning has left for Mansfield, do you think Taylor is nailed on to start at left-back?

Yes. That’s hard to debate or discuss, probably one of the first names in the starting XI. I hope that Rico Henry pushes him though and is given some game time experience.

Walsall are a disciplined side that do not commit many fouls. Do you sometimes feel that more tenacity and aggression is required from the players?

I don’t agree that fouls are a good measure of tenacity or aggression and neither are cards. What I would like to see is more intensity and faster movement of the ball in the final third.

Midfielder Sam Mantom returned from a long-term injury last season. Having had a few months of football and a full pre-season to settle back into the team, can we expect good things from him this season?

Absolutely. Nobody was more gutted for Sammy last season than myself. To have gone from Player of the Season to injured for most of the season must have been very hard. Harder still that he is a local lad that holds the club in high regard. I would back him to regain his top level of performance that influences games which will bring suitors knocking on the door by January.

Walsall scored just 50 goals last season, yet only 6 League One teams had more shots per game last season than the Saddlers (11). Are goalscoring problems related to a lack of quality, or an inability to get into dangerous areas?

For me because the ball moves slowly in the final third it allows the opposition time to set their defensive lines, which makes it hard to score. Without a tall target man in the middle, which Bradshaw is clearly not, it reduces us to long range shots or playing an extra pass that breaks down. Quicker play and/or a strong target man would help.

Only 2 players scored more than 5 goals for Walsall last season, and they were both strikers. Would you like to see more goals come from midfield?

I think there is a lot of pressure on Tom Bradshaw to get goals and the team, to an extent, is set up to get him goals. I have no problem with this but if he does get an injury it is difficult to change system. So long as the team is winning games and continues to create changes/goals I don’t mind who scores them…strikers, midfielders or defenders.

Forward Jordy Hiwula made a reasonable impact on loan at Walsall last season. Were you disappointed not to get him back? And if so, does the signing of Milan Lalkovic make up for this?

Realistically I did not expect to have Jordy back this term, his fine end to the season with the Saddlers ended that. Good luck to him at Huddersfield and I hope he gets the chance to perform at that level he deserves. Milan returning to the club is positive and should help with the pace/directness in attack. In addition he has a point to prove, so I’m happy.

Tom Bradshaw scored 20 goals last season. Do you think tying him down to a new contract was the club’s most important piece of business this summer?

Maybe the second most important piece of business…a new goalkeeper was probably number one. Tom was fantastic for us last year and hopefully the on-field relationships he began last year will continue to bear fruit and be as profitable for the club this season; I’d hate to have lost him so soon!

Walsall aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Who do you think will do well? Which teams might struggle?

I think the coming season will be as close as ever. The teams that have come down from the Championship are not that strong, save as for Wigan who I predict will go straight back up. Burton Albion have all the facilities of St George’s Park and everything in place to succeed and Bury had made some shrewd signings. I think Port Vale and Crewe will struggle as will Southend on their return to the league.

You predicted an upper midtable finish for Walsall last season, and they finished 14th. What is your prediction for this campaign?

I would love to see a push for the playoffs, which is what I say most years, however anything is possible right down to a relegation dog fight. I’ll predict 9th on a conservative basis. Happy to be wrong if they finish higher of course, promise not to gloat if I’m right.

The Football Lab's season prediction - Walsall have finished lower midtable in recent seasons, and breaking into the top half is the next step for the Saddlers. To do so, they need to maintain their strong defence, add a bit more power in midfield, and reduce the goalscoring burden on Tom Bradshaw. - 12th
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