You can only admire Jon Whitney’s unrelenting positivity and it should come as no surprise that he hasn’t given up on this League One semi-final just yet, despite the fact his Walsall side trail by three goals from the first leg at Oakwell. Given what a convincing motivator he can be, the Saddlers should be taken seriously. They are going to come out all guns blazing.
But as the market braces itself for goals, and lots of them, there’s one small but compelling trend being overlooked. Over the past three months, Barnsley have travelled to Bury, Crewe, Walsall, Fleetwood, Port Vale, Burton, Sheffield United and Wigan, conceding just three goals in those eight matches.
If you remove this game from its broader context and bring it back to being just another a game of football between two teams and their respective strengths and weaknesses, then that statistic is probably the most significant piece of information to be found. Clearly, the Tykes have developed an effective way of playing on the road and the timescale is relevant because the departure of Lee Johnson has been pivotal.
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Talented manager though Johnson is, the consensus around Oakwell is that he was too controlling of his players and tinkered too much with tactics. Since Paul Heckingbottom stepped into the role, continuity has taken precedence and Barnsley have gone from strength to strength. This young squad is thriving on the responsibility of solving its own problems.
When you pass ownership of a strategy over to willing players in this way, it doesn’t just breed confidence but also consistency. Everybody buys into what they’re supposed to be doing. The players have taken it upon themselves to employ a high pressing game and four goalless draws in the last 15 matches - three of them away - illustrate a level of discipline in seeing the job through.
Whitney remarked upon how much Walsall struggled with the press at Oakwell, forcing them to go long up to Tom Bradshaw far more than they would have liked. So it will be interesting to see if they deviate from the 4-1-4-1 formation that has brought a glut of goals in recent weeks, or whether they just take stock of Saturday’s performance and be braver with their passing.
Either way, expect Barnsley to adjust to new any new challenges and find their own answers. Their game-management has progressed in leaps and bounds since Johnson departed and though they might not be too concerned with throwing bodies forward whenever counter-attacks present themselves, they have enough about them to keep a clean sheet at 4/1.
If Barnsley reach the interval goalless, then you’d expect Walsall to gradually run out of steam and the same level of reasoning also applies to a bet on the 0-0 at 14/1. It might be made to look silly if Walsall’s early push pays dividends. But you get your rewards in the size of the price if the visitors weather that initial storm.
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