Walsall 1-2 Cheltenham Town Six Things: Robins fly high as Saddlers suffer third straight loss

Varney bags the winner – @SkyBetLeagueTwo

Cheltenham Town maintained their excellent League Two form, as Luke Varney’s second half winner gave them a 2-1 victory at troubled Walsall. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Contrast in fluidity

The first half was even in terms of the volume of attacks Walsall and Cheltenham had; they took turns to have spells of pressure. The clear difference, though, was in where the two teams used that pressure. Walsall, in possession, went long from Liam Roberts’ goal-kicks to Rory Gaffney, who tried to link up with Josh Gordon on the right; while Gordon went close a couple of times, the Saddlers were unable to execute that combination play as well as their reliance on it suggested they should be able to. Cheltenham, by contrast, were not too tied to one method of approach play; they played out from the back at times with Jacob Greaves happy to carry it out, they sometimes went direct to Luke Varney, they sometimes got the exciting Ryan Broom in pockets between the lines and at other times, released wing-backs or Sean Long or Chris Hussey with a switch. Because Michael Duff has worked with the same group of players for a long time and maintains a consistent starting XI, every player knows their roles and thus they are able to pave several routes to goalscoring areas.

Tozer opener

Cheltenham looked a real threat when Long and Hussey crossed into the box, with Varney willing to challenge centre-backs James Clarke and Zak Jules for 50/50 balls; numerous chances came that way with Varney, Gavin Reilly and Jake Doyle-Hayes all going close. From Hussey’s corner on 35 minutes, Walsall were unable to clear their lines at the near-post, allowing Ben Tozer to turn home from close-range.

Walsall’s flashes with Gordon

Gordon looked the likeliest player to make anything happen for the Saddlers. He had two close efforts in quick succession midway through the first half, having rolled agonizingly wide of the far post after a misjudgement from Scott Flinders. The 25-year-old looked lively at the start of the second, winning a penalty following a foul by Hussey before converting with aplomb. If Walsall are to climb the table, one suspects Gordon could be a key part of that.

Varney’s winner

The 37-year-old collected Reilly’s pass to fire past Liam Roberts just before the hour mark, before serenading the away fans. In fact, Varney could have had a second half hat-trick, because he blazed narrowly over shortly after his goal and saw a header ruled out for offside. After Cheltenham missed their opportunities to kill the game off on the counter-attack, they could have been in for a nervy finale, so it is a credit to defenders Charlie Raglan, Tozer and Greaves, as well as the discipline of the team collectively, that they were never breached to the point of discomfort in the closing stages, allowing Duff, the players and staff to celebrate another three points.

Candid Clarke

Clarke questioned the “mentality” of his players post-match, but his disappointment in their “decision-making” was perhaps better-placed. There was not too much wrong with Walsall in terms of application, because we saw Stuart Sinclair put in an aggressive shift, we saw Gaffney work selflessly, we saw Gary Liddle do some decent covering work while James Clarke and Jules put in brave blocks. The bigger issue was how that application was directed and that is where we have to question two things. Firstly, the current squad and whether it possesses the quality to take Walsall forward. Secondly, the coaching staff should not be exempt from scrutiny for results and performances. Darrell Clarke and his backroom team have been very keen to change the culture of the club and try to re-connect with fans, which seems natural after a relegation. Equally, the team are not playing as though there are clear plans for what to do in possession and if Walsall’s form is to pick up, then that has to change.

Robins flying fifth!

What a difference 12 months makes. This time last year, Cheltenham were looking nervously over their shoulders and Duff’s reign as manager began with a nine-game winless run. Now, they are seven games unbeaten, they are the second-highest goalscorers in the division with 23 in 13 and are up to fifth in League Two. The key to this has been Duff’s realism. The Northern Irishman is not one for platitudes and clich├ęs, but rather is honest, down-to-earth and has proved the perfect person to get the Robins back on an upward trajectory.