Port Vale travel to old rivals Walsall this weekend, but what sort of challenge will Darrell Clarke’s side present?
For an inside track on the Saddlers, we are grateful to Liam Keen, Walsall FC reporter at the Express and Star
What’s been the story of Walsall’s season so far?
It’s been a mixed one for Walsall. They started the season slowly with one win in 10 games and looked relatively solid at the back but struggled to create chances with the 5-3-2 formation.
With 16 signings and 23 players leaving the club, it was a huge overhaul in the summer and it has taken some time for everyone to click. The emergence of Wes McDonald meant the Saddlers moved to a 4-4-2 quite quickly and they’ve been much better since then.
But the story of their season comes down to consistency. They’ve been on several winning or losing runs this season, which has highlighted their struggle with consistency. The worst part of the season came in October (and the Swindon fixture on November 2) when they lost six league games in a row. It looked like the club would be facing a relegation battle at that point, rather than an immediate return to League One.
However, November, December and the beginning of January was largely very positive and their two first choice strikers, Caolan Lavery and Josh Gordon, started to hit some form.
It now looks likely that Walsall will finish mid-table with a nine-point gap to the play-offs. Most fans are happy with that after the terrible losing run earlier in the season, but the team has also missed a handful of opportunities – most notably the poor losses to Carlisle (twice) and Morecambe.
It’s still a work in progress and Walsall are capable of pulling out brilliant performances on their day, but when they’re off the boil they’ve had some poor showings.
How does Darrell Clarke like his team to play?
Darrell Clarke tends to change his system and personnel depending on the opposition. He started with a 5-3-2 but the team struggled to create chances and since then it’s largely been a 4-4-2. At times, however, the team have also played adaptations of the 4-4-2, such as a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1.
In terms of style, Clarke likes his team to press quickly and get in the faces of the opposition, particularly at home. But he has also set up defensively at times – mostly away from home but also in the first half on Saturday against Northampton. The 5-3-2 made a return in that game and the 0-0 draw with Newport before it.
Who are the dangermen to the Vale?
Left winger Wes McDonald has been a standout player this season. He is extremely dangerous on the ball, has speed and trickery and can pull off long range strikes at goal. Up front Caolan Lavery and Josh Gordon have formed a formidable partnership, scoring 10 and 11 times respectively. The pair work extremely hard to hassle defenders and are both skilled finishers.
Against a big team like Port Vale, Elijah Adebayo may get another chance after his best 90 minutes in a Walsall shirt last Saturday. He scored in the reverse fixture and offers more height and strength.
What’s the mood like among Walsall fans at the moment?
The mood is pretty content. Fans are generally pleased with the direction the club is going in and the people in charge. There’s plenty of work to do, however, and the expectation is for a promotion push next season, if they don’t squeeze into the play-offs this campaign.
Any injuries and the likely team and formation?
On-loan striker Rory Gaffney, captain and centre-half James Clarke and young left-back Callum Cockerill-Mollett have all been injured in recent weeks. Darrell Clarke doesn’t give any information on injuries out to the media or in the public domain, so there’s no telling whether Gaffney or Clarke will be available – but Cockerill-Mollett isn’t expected back any time soon.
In terms of formation, it’s unlikely the 5-3-2 will be back on Saturday. They’re more likely to play a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 with either Rory Holden coming in to play on the right wing or the number 10 role – or Josh Gordon will be pushed out wide. The only right winger in the club is 18-year-old Jack Nolan, who joined in January, but he’s yet to start a game.