Walsall 1-4 Swindon Town: Unseating the Saddlers in the snow

Adam Tanner travelled up to the Midlands hoping for a few festive cheers as Swindon Town faced Walsall in the snow...

Swindon Town approached the game defending a good recent record at Walsall, with two wins and two draws taken from the latest four visits. However, with Walsall having conceded only six goals in ten home league games this season, comfortably the best record in the division, Town looked set for a tricky afternoon.

Michael Smith was recalled, for his first start since the win over Bristol City six weeks ago. He replaced Jon Obika. Yaser Kasim, available for the final time before leaving for the Asia Cup, dropped to the bench. His place was taken by Raphael Rossi-Branco, who fortunately now seems to have made his peace with the club. Branco played in defence, with Jack Stephens moving forward into Kasim’s holding place in midfield.

Although Swindon often struggle for first half goals at home, with none since October, we have no such troubles away, and it took us only two minutes to breach Walsall’s defence. Massimo Luongo made good progress down the right, before laying a simple ball to Louis Thompson. His early cross was met by Smith, who guided a neat shot in off the far post. We have now scored in the first half of eight of our 11 away league games.

Things nearly got better still just minutes later, when another Smith effort, this time from a Ben Gladwin cross, was cleared off the line. Town looked threatening whenever they made it forward, and a fair few dangerous crosses, generally from Nathan Byrne, who was adding to his long list of excellent away performances, caused Walsall’s miserly defence problems.

In truth, however, Walsall were a match for Swindon throughout the first half, and on balance their 17th minute equaliser was deserved. Jordan Turnbull’s sliding interception of an attempted through ball unfortunately fell into the path of Walsall’s leading scorer, Tom Bradshaw, who suddenly had a clear sight of goal. His tidy first-time finish comfortably beat Wes Foderingham. Walsall stayed competitive, particularly for a 10-15 minute spell after their goal, during which they put a couple of decent chances off target, and the goal apiece half time scoreline was a fair reflection.

Few would have foreseen Town being three goals ahead by the hour, but some incredibly clinical play did the damage.

First, a Walsall corner in the opening seconds of the half was cleared to Byrne, who ran a direct 70 yards, tying the Walsall defence in knots as he went. He then laid a perfect ball to Luongo, who had done well to keep up, and his drilled left-footed shot beat the keeper at his near post. With two goals inside a fortnight, let’s hope that he now becomes a regular scorer, as any player of his quality really should be.

Within minutes, Andy Williams had added not one but two further goals, to leave all of his adoring fans (including me, of course) loudly chanting his name. The first was lifted neatly over the advancing keeper, and the second was calmly stroked past him and just inside the far post. Both were nicely assisted by the excellent Michael Smith. From nowhere, Swindon were 4-1 up, and, yet again, making light work of a tough away fixture.

Suddenly, the weather looked like a bigger threat to Town’s chances than Walsall. During the first half, some quite heavy sleet began to fall. It hadn’t made too much impact but, as Town had fired in the goals, it had turned into very heavy snow, which was settling on the pitch and making it difficult to see past the halfway line. At one stage, we had the surreal sight of the groundsman roaming around the pitch with a shovel whilst the game was (apparently) going on at the other end.  It’s fair to say that, around the 65-70 minute mark, the referee could easily have abandoned the match, and the away end went nervously quiet.

Walsall probably had more of the play at around this point, though it was by now difficult to tell from the away end, especially with Swindon wearing white. They certainly had one goal ruled offside, and Foderingham kept himself warm by making a good reaction save to push away a firm shot at his near post. But the lead never looked threatened. The snow fortunately began to ease off with about ten minutes to go, and the points were safe.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Defence

Now that Jack Stephens has spent a few games in midfield, I think it’s fair to say that he’s better suited to playing there than in defence, where he often looks vulnerable to being run at by quick players from wide areas. With Luongo and Kasim missing for the next month or so, he should get the chance to stay in the middle. This also means that there’s room in the team for Branco, which I’m very much in favour of. He adds some presence, and is certainly now a decent enough footballer to cope with our system.

Either way, we have now conceded only three goals in seven league games, despite having played several promotion rivals during that period. Perhaps the quietly excellent Jordan Turnbull, who has played every minute of every game so far, and reads the game brilliantly, deserves a bit more credit than he gets.

  1. Away Form

Whereas it’s very obvious that the away form has been good, perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how good. We’ve now won seven and drawn one of our last nine away league games. We have managed 23 points from 11 games, meaning that we have already exceeded our total for the whole of last season. Even in the 2011/12 title-winning season we only managed 33 away points all season, a figure which we are on course to comfortably beat.

At the start of 2014, we were still routinely being well beaten away to mediocre teams such as Stevenage and Gillingham. Something quite drastically changed during the earlier part of the year and, whatever it was, the transformation has been amazing.

  1. Strikers

I don’t help myself by continuing to criticise the selection of Williams as the goals keep flying in, much to the amusement of those around me. I’ll do my best to explain why I still think we should use him sparingly.

The stats heavily support the point that Williams is an ideal player to have on the pitch when the team is winning, which is perhaps why he is thriving in such a successful team. Eight of his 14 goals this season have extended an existing lead. Needless to say, the opposition are likely to press a lot of players high up the pitch, and he can use his pace to get behind their defence. On a similar note, 11 of the 14 have come in the second half of games.

We have been struggling for goals at home, and the last two fixtures, against Fleetwood and Doncaster, demonstrate the point that he isn’t the right man to start home games against teams which are likely to play a defensive system. Williams has played the whole of each game, but has made very little impact in either. Perhaps this is unsurprising as, despite his good form, he hasn’t scored inside the first 75 minutes of any home game since March 2013.

Although Smith and Obika also score plenty of goals, they are very different players, as the stats suggest. All of Obika’s seven Swindon goals have come inside the first hour of games that he has started, and none of Smith’s 18 league goals for Swindon have come from the bench. Surely it would make sense against Port Vale tomorrow to start with these two, on the basis that they are best equipped to get us in front. We can then send for Williams to do what he does best, and make the game safe from the bench.

What could possibly go wrong?…

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