Walsall have been one of the more attractive Football League clubs for a while now- from their attractive football that develops young players- to their community ticket schemes that have earned them plaudits from all corners of the media, they are certainly perceived as a model club by many around them. No one had really expected them to go up, but in November and December dreams looked set to become reality as they were comfortably in the top two whilst playing an attractive brand of football. The turning point however was the departure of Dean Smith as he left to join Brentford’s money-ball revolution in South London. There was a void to be filled as Smith had the team playing good football and he had the respect of the players.
The man they chose was Sean O’Driscoll- the man who nearly led Bristol City to oblivion (League two to the rest of us)- the appointment made some sense at the time as he isn’t a long ball manager and he knew the squad. Four months down the line, he has been sacked as he showed everyone his Bristol City self as opposed to his Doncaster Rovers self. The appointment was an absolute disaster and it really could have hampered Walsall’s promotion chances.
Dean Smith played good football with Walsall, it was high tempo, on the ground football making full use of young wide players such as Rico Henry and Kieron Morris. He was somewhat criticised for having predictable passing patterns but nonetheless- the team played great football and fully deserved to be in the top two in League One. The wide play was excellent and players looked to be playing with real freedom.
Sean O’ Driscoll is considered by many to be a great coach who tries to play good football wherever he goes, the problem he has often had is that he hasn’t really had great players. At Walsall the job should have been a piece of cake- he had well coached players who were confident and used to showing off what they can do- sadly he completely messed up the task at hand and it has arguably derailed Walsall’s season.
The former Doncaster manager prefers his teams to player slower and more mechanical football based on taking time on the ball before making a pass, this was the polar opposite of Smith’s Walsall side who played with pace and power all over the pitch. Walsall’s performances became dull and they ran out of ideas in the final third. At Bristol City, SOD was known for playing with 4 central midfielders whilst using attacking full backs and small strikers to provide the width. Unsurprisingly, this football doesn’t work below the championship because players are generally not brilliant decision makers who possess amazing technical ability. There are of course exceptions, but it is nearly impossible to play that slow football in League One as players will not buy into it.
Walsall’s board have acted decisively, but I do wonder if Walsall’s window to get out of League one has been slammed shut courtesy of some inept management from Sean O’Driscoll. League One is weak this year, Barnsley somehow find themselves in 6th place despite being in the relegation places just two and a half months ago and the powerhouse clubs such as Coventry City and Sheffield United have been plagued by inconsistency. This was arguably Walsall’s greatest chance but events have fallen in such a way that they might miss out.
O’Driscoll is now arguably unemployable in the lower leagues- his football requires too many specialist players that simply don’t slip into League one all that often. This is not to say that you must play direct football to be succesful, but playing a slow system without width won’t work with most lower league squads. His football at Bristol City often resulted in long balls to Sam Baldock because the back four didn’t know what to do with the ball when they had it. An up tempo system makes defenders and midfielders feel much more comfortable.
Walsall still of course have a chance, they are only a couple of points off the automatic promotion spots- but they will need to act quickly because Burton are deep into those spots and Wigan are on a roll at the moment. Walsall fans should be thankful they have a board that acts decisively and admits their mistakes- many other clubs would kill for that.