Walsall 3-0 Peterborough United Six Things: spirited Saddlers show staying power

A star display from Josh Gordon in a united team performance – saddlers.co.uk (Credit: David Linney)

Walsall kept themselves in with a realistic chance of staying in League One last season with a 3-0 win over Peterborough United, as Josh Gordon bagged a brace. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Cagey start

When Marcus Maddison made a direct run down Peterborough’s right within the first 30 seconds, Walsall fans could have been forgiven for wondering if they had left themselves in for a daunting afternoon. The Saddlers did not start badly as such, but there was something slightly tentative about the way they began the contest, as visiting striker Matt Godden put himself about early on and Alex Woodyard was first to a lot of loose balls in midfield. The home side’s centre-backs, Connor Johnson and Dan Scarr, did enough solid work to stop the Posh creating any clear chances.

Cooper’s injury

Peterborough’s early threat had subsided before George Cooper’s 24th-minute injury, yet one cannot help wonder whether that alteration hindered the balance. The number 10 role Cooper held was now occupied by replacement Ivan Toney, a striker by trade who was less comfortable dropping into midfield and offering another short option in possession. That trend gave Walsall some encouragement to gain an even stronger foothold on the middle third and they went ahead shortly before half-time, when Scott Laird’s deep-flighted cross from the left was turned home at the back-post by Andy Cook.

Saddlers’ strong second half

In the 20 minutes that followed the re-start, Walsall’s pressing was outstanding. Nicky Devlin got stuck in from right-back, George Dobson and Joe Edwards were typically energetic in midfield while Liam Kinsella made some intelligent runs into the left channel, creating space for Josh Gordon to threaten goal. After some lackadaisical defending from Bennett, Gordon’s winding run allowed him to bore down on goal, taking advantage of Aaron Chapman’s questionable positioning by poking across an effort that was turned home by Daniel Lafferty. From that goal onwards, it was all about counter-attacking for the Saddlers and Gordon slotted home on the break on 74 minutes; he could have had the hat-trick his hassling merited but for a headed effort saved by Chapman.

Disjointed Posh

Peterborough’s system for the final 25 minutes, after Lee Tomlin and Joe Ward came on, was a 4-2-2-2; but with a tendency to flip to 3-4-1-2 when Ward got further forward from right-back than Josh Knight did from the left. The problem with that setup was the dearth of an exciting left wing-back who could offer the pace, drive and width. That shortcoming congested the space and meant that Marcus Maddison had less room to manoeuvre and was shouldering a hefty proportion of Posh’s creative burden. Everything Maddison tried to conjure up, every cross he tried to put into the box, was simply turned away, which is credit to Walsall’s centre-backs, including substitute Jon Guthrie after Scarr picked up a knock.

Summer prep

The advantage of replacing Steve Evans with Darren Ferguson in late-January was that supporters are more likely to support their greatest 21st century manager than somebody more divisive. The disadvantage though is that Ferguson has been working towards a short-term goal without having a squad that suits his methods. Darragh MacAnthony had committed himself to Evans last summer by signing 14 new players, many of whom being best suited to a rigid system. Peterborough may need to cash-in on Maddison, their stand-out player, in the summer in order to finance another re-build and assemble a squad with which Ferguson’s methods will work. Without the budgetary advantages of Barnsley or Sunderland, Posh will need to recruit sensibly.

Walsall rally

From Walsall’s perspective, the afternoon highlights football’s enduring capacity for surprise. There were pre-match suggestions – substantiated or not – that supporters might turn against the team for a perceived lack of effort, or the board for a mentality too stagnant for many (a debate for another day). One or two small details perhaps fell in Walsall’s favour in a quiet first half, but to the players’ credit they heeded the encouragement they got and the bravery with which they managed the second period was admirable, combined with some excellent forward play from Gordon. Just when they needed to, the Saddlers gave their fans something to believe and take pride in – to the extent that locals were singing Martin O’Connor’s name by the end. For all the talk of protests, this was a team that rallied.