Walsall should be backed to be quickest out of the blocks in their League One play-off match.
Whatever the outcome of the four League One play-off matches over the next seven days - and more so than any other division, it’s anyone’s guess - the one thing we can be sure of is a final between two contrasting styles. Bradford and Millwall are rugged and disciplined, operating within the realm of fine margins, these two take greater risks and prefer to be on the front foot.
In theory, this is a clash between top seed and bottom seed, with third-placed Walsall finishing the campaign ten points ahead of sixth-placed Barnsley. But in reality, they probably couldn’t be more evenly-matched, which means the value in an outright sense lies with the Tykes as outsiders at 10/3 rather than the Saddlers as 13/5 jollies.
The market is evidently taking its cue from results over the entire season when it might be more appropriate to attach greater weight to what has occurred since the turn of the year. At the midway point, Walsall were top of the table with 48 points, whereas Barnsley were just four points off the bottom. The gap then was 24 points.
Too much has happened at both clubs over the past nine months to chronicle all of it here. All you really need to know is that both teams are now in the hands of inexperienced but highly-respected backroom staff, leading talented teams assembled by previous managers who were headhunted either side of Christmas by Championship clubs.
But whereas for Barnsley the transition from Lee Johnson to Paul Heckingbottom couldn’t have been any smoother, Walsall had to endure a torrid three months under Sean O’Driscoll before Jon Whitney was called upon to rekindle the winning culture that surfaced in the latter days of Dean Smith. If the Saddlers miss out now, they will undoubtedly rue that in-between spell.
Ironically, it was a 3-1 home defeat to Barnsley in March that prompted the Saddlers to dispense with O’Driscoll. Since then, Whitney, to his immense credit, has guided the Midlanders to eight wins in 12 matches, scoring 21 goals in the process. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Scoreless defeats at Sheffield United, Oldham and Bradford have raised pertinent questions about character.
However, the latest of those setbacks, a 4-0 reverse at Valley Parade, appears to have been a watershed and Walsall have subsequently switched to a 4-1-4-1 formation that has yielded a maximum nine points and ten goals, albeit against bottom-half opposition. With seven of those goals struck unanswered before half-time, there’s value in the 11/4 about Walsall winning the first half here.
Ultimately, though, with only three defeats in 26 matches, you would expect Barnsley to take something from the game. The Tykes have been playing the same 4-4-2 system since November and have gone from strength to strength. They are better now than they were under Johnson, simply for the fact that the players are being trusted to solve their own problems, and consistently coming up with the right answers.
Last weekend, they come from a goal down to rain on Wigan’s title parade with a resounding 4-1 win at the DW Stadium and though the return leg of this tie will be played on enemy soil, the suspicion is that Barnsley will manage the changing dynamics across the two legs and finish in the ascendancy. This game might well be a microcosm of that, and the 15/1 about the Walsall/Draw half-time/full-time outcome is also worth pursuing.
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