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League Two: Walsall saddle up for promotion push

The race for promotion from League Two never disappoints and the 2023/24 season is no exception.

Five points separates the top four teams in the division, and if you glance further down the league table, there are just eight points between 6th and 16th.

With the standings congested, all it takes is an impressive sequence of results to propel you into promotion contention and Walsall are an outfit that have clicked at an opportune time.

Under the stewardship of former player Mat Sadler, Walsall recorded a fifth consecutive league win with victory over Doncaster Rovers and have been one of the division’s form sides in 2024.

It’s a run that’s helped them to occupy a play-off berth and after enduring years of mediocrity, Walsall fans are starting to enjoy themselves again.

The journey so far has not been all plain-sailing. From disappointing results to despondent supporters, Sadler has endured setbacks during his first managerial spell and yet he’s remained driven and meticulous, forging a harmonious environment at the Bescot Stadium.

Walsall are now 2/1 to finish in the top seven, with promotion priced at 12/1.

With less than a third of the season to go and a potential return to League One for the first time since 2019 on the line, we look at how Sadler has transformed the Saddlers’ fortunes.

League Two

To Win Outright

Climbing on the Saddle

After being in play-off contention at the turn of the year last season, a run of one win in 20 league matches ultimately cost Michael Flynn his job and saw Sadler step in on an interim basis.

The former Birmingham City and Watford defender had no prior managerial experience, having been a member of the Walsall backroom staff since retiring at the end of the 2021/22 campaign.

Walsall’s new ownership group Trivela pursued a number of candidates for the vacant managerial position, but failed to recruit any. Sadler was not a first-choice option on their list but presented a safe alternative; an individual who had extensive knowledge of the club and was striving for his first managerial break.

With a newly-implemented data-driven recruitment model at the heart of their transfer drive, there was a scent of optimism that Walsall could haul themselves away from a period of stagnation and push for a rosier outlook.

A win over one of the promotion favourites Stockport County in the second game of the season ignited hope, but it wouldn’t take long before Sadler’s authority come into question; Walsall won just five of their opening 20 league matches.

Approaching December, the Saddlers were winless in six, perched 19th in the table and seemingly heading in one direction. Frustration had intensified; Sadler was in a fight to keep his job.

A goalless draw away at National League North side Alfreton Town only heightened the discontent. As Walsall Co-chairman Ben Boycott hinted, an upturn in form was imperative.

It started with a victory over Notts County on Meadow Lane. The Saddlers displayed spirit, resilience and most importantly, were clinical. It was a platform from which they could build.

Finding a winning formula

Overcoming Alfreton in a replay, Walsall recorded back-to-back wins for the first time under Sadler by defeating Tranmere.

Losing to Accrington was a blemish on their record but the Saddlers responded impressively after Christmas, taking maximum points against promotion contenders Crewe and Wrexham before dismantling Grimsby Town 6-1 at Blundell Park.

But they were left wanting on their trip to league leaders Stockport County as they struggled to fashion many opportunities and were condemned to a 3-1 defeat.

There was further frustration in draws against basement side Sutton United and Crawley Town, which sandwiched a heavy 3-0 defeat at home to Newport County, but there was no greater indication of the unity within Sadler’s squad when Walsall delivered a statement win over Mansfield Town.

Against one of the meanest defences in the division they delivered a courageous performance, with goals from veteran forward Jamille Matt and on-loan defender Emmanuel Adegboyega securing a huge 2-1 victory.

The onus was on Sadler’s side to sustain that level of performance against Morecambe three days later and they duly obliged.

Matt and Adegboyega were on the scoresheet again as Walsall secured a 3-0 win over the Shrimpers. Next up were Harrogate, who were still licking their wounds from a 9-2 defeat to Mansfield despite holding Crewe to a goalless draw.

Willingly relenting possession, the Saddlers restricted Harrogate’s chances around their box and were clinical themselves, exhibiting the effectiveness of a fast and direct system to record consecutive clean sheets and comfortable victories.

Accrington averaged 8.28 shots conceded per match before their trip to the Bescot Stadium and yet Walsall created an abundance of chances, although they only found four of their 25 shots hitting the target.

Despite going a goal down through a Jack Nolan penalty, Walsall rallied superbly and displayed excellent persistence to turn the game on its head, with January recruit Adegboyega netting his third goal in four games.

In a division consistently inconsistent, to record five wins in a row should be applauded and they achieved that feat with a 3-1 triumph over Doncaster.

And with winnable fixtures on the horizon, there’s growing optimism that the Saddlers can maintain this run and seriously challenge for the play-offs.

Numbers behind the rise

Walsall’s underlying numbers have always been better than their league form suggests and from a data perspective, it should be of little surprise that the Saddlers are starting to click.

They boast the third-best xGA from open play in the division at 24.52, which is bettered by only Stockport and Bradford; evidence of a rigid defensive unit who can fortify their box effectively and minimise opposition chances.

What's fascinating is that, despite having conceded 14 goals from set-pieces, one of the key features in Walsall’s ascent is their attacking set-piece capability.

It was on show in the victory over Accrington, with both of the goals produced from a corner. Only Stockport and Crewe have scored more set-piece goals, while Walsall’s set-piece xG is bettered by only Gillingham.

Isaac Hutchinson’s precise deliveries are a major component in that. After an impressive debut season, the 23-year-old has taken his game to another level and is the key creator in Sadler’s ranks.

A return of 10 goals and eight assists just scratches the surface of Hutchinson’s influence, with the midfielder ranking fifth for shots in the division and averaging 1.3 key passes per match.

It says a great deal about Walsall’s form and their strength in depth that Ryan Stirk, a summer capture from Birmingham who was an influential member at the start of the campaign, has made just one start since returning from an ankle injury in January.

Hutchinson and on-loan forward Freddie Draper top Walsall’s scoring charts on 10 apiece but Sadler has enjoyed the luxury of goals coming from all over the pitch, with a total of 18 different goalscorers this term.

And another key figure in Walsall’s charge up the standings is Jackson Smith. The goalkeeper was second choice at the start of the season but found an opportunity to cement his place in the starting XI following Owen Evans’ injury in the defeat to Barrow.

In the following week, Walsall were 2-1 victors at Notts County with Jackson between the sticks and the Saddlers have won 10 of the 13 matches that the 22-year-old has started this term, conceding just 11 goals. Although his sample size is much smaller, he boasts the best save percentage in League Two at 79.5%.

Importantly, the defensive personnel in front of him are settled and that bodes well for the remainder of the campaign, having conceded just four goals in their last six matches.

With the division so competitive and other teams squabbling for points, Walsall have seized the initiative. They’re not getting carried away but if they can sustain this form, they will be knocking on the promotion door come the end of April.

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