MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the first League One play-off semi-final first leg from Oakwell.
Barnsley v Walsall | Saturday 17.30 | Sky Sports 1
It’s quite astounding to think that Barnsley were rock-bottom of League One in early December. The Tykes had suffered eight successive league defeats for the first time in 56 years with then-boss Lee Johnson under fierce pressure.
Barnsley weren’t always as bad as their results suggested but nobody in a million years expected the South Yorkshire side to produce such a miraculous turnaround.
No third-tier team picked up as many points as the Tykes in 2016 (W15-D5-L3) with Saturday’s hosts securing their top-six position on the final day with a 4-1 thumping of champions Wigan on the road.
The Reds are finally being rewarded for their dominant displays and across those 23 fixtures this calendar year their shot ratio figure is above the 63% mark – their share of the total shots in matches – a hugely impressive and division-leading figure.
Paul Heckingbottom took over the reigns following Johnson’s departure for Bristol City and the first-time manager has already tasted Wembley success in the JPT final. But the Barnsley boss has played down suggestions that Barnsley have the most momentum coming into the play-offs.
Sixth-placed finishers have won promotion from League One just once since 2003 but as well as their strong recent run, the Reds have performed superbly when taking on top-six sides this season (W7-D1-L2) – comfortably the best return of the play-off contenders.
At Oakwell, the hosts have W8-D2-L2 in their last 12, averaging 2.00 goals-per-game and in Sam Winnall they boast arguably the league’s best marksman. Winnall struck 21 goals (and created six assists), playing a key role in 39% of Barnsley’s league goals this season.
But Winnall isn’t the only threat. Manchester United youngster Ashley Fletcher knows where the goal is whilst Ivan Toney is capable of turning a game when arriving off the bench. From midfield, classy Josh Brownhill, wing wizard Adam Hammill and set-piece specialist Conor Hourihane boast match-winning quality.
Walsall were one point away from automatic promotion having spent nearly four-and-a-half months in the top-two this season. However, the Saddlers collected 14 points fewer than their hosts in 2016 (W10-D6-L7).
The Midlanders managed to stay on track for the most part of the campaign despite interim boss Jon Whitney being the third head coach to lead the group. After a sticky spell under Sean O’Driscoll, Whitney appears to have come across the most effective Walsall formula once more.
The Saddlers have been utilising a 4-1-4-1 formation with four attack-minded players supplying 20-goal man and Welsh international Tom Bradshaw. Defensive midfielder and skipper Adam Chambers is an essential part of the cog, mind, and scooped both Player of the Year awards for his efforts.
Whitney released the shackles in recent weeks to stunning effect with the visitors re-introducing their attacking mind-set that was first seen in early autumn under Dean Smith. Ten goals have been scored in three successive victories and the Walsall manager is keen to continue the theme here.
Speaking in midweek, Whitney said, “We are ready. I wish it was tomorrow. We will celebrate the achievement of getting to 84 points this week but keep the reins on a little bit. Then when we get to Barnsley we will let it go.
“Every game we try and attack. Look at the players we have got. That is the team we are. Of course we will respect Barnsley but they have to try and contain us. We are not going to go there and shut up shop.”
Whitney was at pains to point out much of Walsall’s good work comes from a solid defensive platform – and it does – but the Saddlers are a far more fearsome beast when playing front-foot football.
Only Wigan and Peterborough scored more goals than the Saddlers’ 71 whilst no third-tier team fired in more shots-on-target in games as guests. The visitors lost just four games on their travels, kept nine clean sheets and picked up more points than any League One rival (W13-D6-L4).
Most impressive of all, though, Walsall W6-D3-L2 away to top-half teams including shutting out Wigan, Burton, Millwall, Barnsley and Scunthorpe in that sequence. Nevertheless, three of their four road losses came in their most recent five away days so they’ll need to be aware and ready for the threat posed by Barnsley.
Play-off semi-finals are notoriously cagey games as neither teams wants to concede and with no away goals rule, there’s no necessity to come away with an advantage when travelling for the first leg. But I’m just not convinced this tie will follow previous patterns.
Both sides are at their most effective when going forward and I reckon we could see a few goals here. Both Teams To Score is a little too short at odds-on quotes for my liking so instead take the 21/20 (BetVictor) on Exactly 2-3 Goals being scored instead.
I’ll be surprised (and gutted) if this game fails to fire as the two legs have the potential to produce the most watchable play-off semi-final across the Football League this season.
Barnsley v Walsall – Exactly 2-3 Total Goals (21/20 BetVictor)