EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his thoughts on Saturday's League One showdown between Walsall and Barnsley.
Walsall v Barnsley | Saturday 23rd March 2019, 12:00 | Sky Sports
The last time Walsall hosted Barnsley came back in May 2016, when they suffered a 6-1 aggregate defeat in the League One play-off semi-final.
Then, Jon Whitney’s Saddlers had lost out on automatic promotion to Burton on the final day, but their big-game disorganisation re-occured against the in-form Tykes, who blew them away with a Championship-level attacking trio of Lloyd Isgrove, Sam Winnall and Ashley Fletcher en route to promotion.
One might suggest Walsall have never truly recovered from controversially losing Dean Smith earlier that season.
Not only have they languished in the bottom half for the subsequent three seasons, they have also slightly compromised the principles on which they made steady progress in the first half of the 2010s.
Barnsley also suffered from an unpopular managerial departure, when Paul Heckingbottom’s ill-fated exit for Leeds last season culminated in relegation.
The club does, at least, have the right man in Daniel Stendel to lead them back to the Championship, with an instant return this term looking a very realistic target.
Will Walsall beat the drop?
Walsall current position of 21st in League One is slightly deceptive.
There is arguably more optimism that they will stay up now, than there was after mid-February’s 1-0 home defeat to AFC Wimbledon left them 17th.
That is partly because the bottom half of League One is incredibly tight: Dean Keates side, although occupying a relegation zone, are only three points shy of 12th-placed Plymouth.
Equally, performances have considerably picked up over the last five games, which started with last month’s hosting of relegation rivals Bradford in which the Black Country boys passed the ultimate test of character and unity.
After seeing key target man Andy Cook sent off prior to going a goal down, Walsall were starring down the barrel of a sixth straight league defeat – but instead a spirited team performance including a brace from Josh ‘Flash’ Gordon and goalkeeping heroics from Liam Roberts inspired them to a 3-2 win.
A positive second half performance subsequently at Burton, where Luke Leahy and Matt Jarvis came very close to profiting from Zeli Ismail’s resurgence, ended in a 0-0 draw before set piece specialism secured a 2-0 triumph over Fleetwood.
Of course, that mini-run has been followed by narrow back-to-back defeats – but Walsall can take heart from competitive performances against Portsmouth and Sunderland.
Crucially, Dan Scarr and Jon Guthrie are starting to make contributions in both boxes while the reduced reliance on early balls into Cook has enabled energetic midfielder Joe Edwards to get on the ball more, while technical partner Liam Kinsella has relished a well-earned run of games.
Barnsley’s promotion challenge
Barnsley have recently been hit by news that Kenny Dougall will be out for the rest of the season with a broken leg – one hopes he can recover next term.
A blow, of course, to lose the ball-winner, but at least his absence coincides directly with the return from suspension of Cameron McGeehan.
The energetic midfielder can rediscover his excellent pairing with Alex Mowatt, who has a sweet left foot and showed he can also do the ugly side of the game in last week’s 0-0 draw at Doncaster.
Jacob Brown, who is also back from a ban, is likely to reclaim a wide right role as Daniel Stendel deploys the 4-2-2-2 system he has trusted for much of the season.
Mike-Steven Bahre and Cauley Woodrow are likely to act as almost a false nine duo, with one or both at times dropping into pockets to allow the likes of Brown and Mamadou Thiam to break beyond them.
Certainly, the Tykes have been at their best when they start with that quartet – at least while Kieffer Moore has been absent through injury.
Victor Adeboyejo, who started last Friday’s 0-0 draw at Doncaster, is the type of forward that likes a tap-in and perhaps that makes him better as a substitute when space opens, rather than as a starter when forwards are required to contribute more in different phases of play.
Defensively though, the Reds have arguably the division’s best centre-back pairing in Ethan Pinnock, who has a real presence about him and Liam Lindsay, an intelligent operator.
Dimitri Cavare is an excellent right-back as well – his athleticism and drive allows him to almost do the work of two players on one flank, as we saw in the 3-0 win at Southend earlier this month.
The Betting Angle
As much as Barnsley are an excellent team – and gets this blog’s pick for automatic promotion – one of the golden rules of EFL betting is not to back an away team at odds-on.
Instead, we’re looking at the first half market.
Nine of Walsall’s 19 home games have been level at half-time, as have eight of Barnsley’s 19 away fixtures.
That would imply there is approximately a 44.8% chance of this game being all-square at the interval.
Bet365’s 13/10 on a repeat of that occurrence implies a probability of 43.5%, which the stats suggest gives us a smidge of value.
Plus, throw in the fact that four of Walsall’s last five games have been all-square at half-time as well as the fact that favourites Barnsley have not scored or conceded a first half goal in any of their last three away games and this looks an appealing bet.
Walsall v Barnsley – Half-Time Draw (13/10 Bet365)