Walsall 2-1 Gillingham Six Things: deserved win for The Saddlers

Morgan Ferrier – what a performance! expressandstar.co.uk

Walsall were excellent value for a 2-1 win over Gillingham that continues their bright start to the 2018-19 League One campaign. Here’s Six Things from the game.

Ferrier’s brilliance

Walsall maintained a steady structure early on and looked for diagonal balls into the left channel for Morgan Ferrier, who often exploited the gap between Gillingham right-back Luke O’Neill and centre-back Max Ehmer, who was left isolated against the forward. At Dagenham and Boreham Wood, Ferrier was known for his pace and power: while he consistently showed those qualities, he also showed excellent technical ability. On one of many breakaways on 12 minutes, the 23-year-old held the ball off Ehmer before curling a sumptuous shot past Tomas Holy for the opener.

Imbalanced Gillingham

Steve Lovell’s side had a narrow midfield quartet of Mark Byrne and Billy Bingham at the base, then Regan Charles-Cook and Josh Parker given freedom to move further on. They therefore relied on full-backs for width but Luke O’Neill, despite delivering one or two accurate crosses from deep, was not especially quick and while Bradley Garmston is speedier, he wasn’t utilized enough in the first half. The theoretical advantage to this narrow setup was support for Tom Eaves but instead, the target man’s flick-ons from Tomas Holy’s long goal-kicks found nobody, with strike-partner Brandan Hanlon struggling to replicate his influence against Burton last week.

Osbourne’s nous

Dean Keates said in his programme notes that he was pleased to re-sign Isaiah Osbourne, who adds “experience and knowhow” to a young squad. Osbourne offered those things here, and more: the desire he showed to close off spaces was impeccable; the Aston Villa academy graduate sets a great example for George Dobson, who shared the veteran’s knack of being in the right position defensively whilst offering a slightly wider range of physical and technical qualities. Osbourne though, fully deserved his 42nd-minute goal, which he side-footed into the far corner off the post after some good play from the energetic Kieron Morris.

Wilkinson’s impact

Gillingham substitute, Conor Wilkinson, was not especially popular with home supporters after a controversial encounter with Luke Leahy, but his arrival certainly helped the visitors; and his strike-partner. For three-quarters of the game, Saddlers centre-back Jon Guthrie only had to mark Tom Eaves out of the game, leaving partner Jack Fitzwater spare to mop up loose balls, which suited his composed qualities. Once Guthrie and Fitzwater had to contain Eaves and Wilkinson, they needed help from an increasingly conservative midfield, meaning options opened up for the likes of Byrne, Charles-Cook and Garmstone. After Wilkinson had twice come close with headers, Eaves halved the deficit by nodding home in injury-time, but by then it was too late. Perhaps, had Wilkinson come on at half-time, the away side’s resurgence might have been better timed.

Tweaks needed for Gills?

Given that Gillingham were doubted by some in pre-season, it would be wrong to say that six points from a possible nine represents anything other than a positive start. However, Saturday’s below-par display might have given Steve Lovell, who has done an excellent job over the last 10 months, some food for thought. If the Kent outfit are to stick with their diamond system, they may need to coax more productivity out of their full-backs; especially when spaces in advanced areas don’t open organically.

Super start for The Saddlers

After such an impressive performance, the only disappointments for Keates will be that his side were not rewarded with the clean sheet they deserved, nor a scoreline that reflected their superiority. However, this could go down as one of the most complete displays of the former captain’s tenure in charge. Not only did The Saddlers show excellent work rate and desire, they had pace in forward areas and in their passing, there was also a certain level of intelligence that hasn’t necessarily been seen over the last two seasons. It’s early days, of course, but sustain those performances with a modicum of consistency and 2018-19 could be a very exciting season in WS1.