Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
In the first half of the season, Burton Albion’s home form had been a real strength with seven wins from their first 12 league games at the Pirelli – and that is before we throw in those memorable EFL Cup triumphs over Aston Villa, Burnley and Nottingham Forest.
In their last five home league games, however, they have taken no wins and a meagre three points against teams outside the top six, with the only team above them they hosted in that sequence being eighth-placed Fleetwood, to whom they lost 1-0 last time out.
That match highlighted Burton’s difficulties in breaking down stubborn, deep-block opposition.
If we think of them at their best this season, it has been high-octane displays with quick, incisive transitions in Nigel Clough’s 4-3-3 setup.
They played early balls into the channels for hardworking striker Liam Boyce to graft for and vacate spaces for wide forwards to move into goalscoring positions, not unlike Stuart Beavon during the back-to-back promotions to the Championship.
Marcus Harness started his Brewers career as a dependable if unspectacular left-sider often used as a substitute but, after a productive loan spell at Port Vale proved he could use his left foot to greater effect when cutting in from the opposite flank, he has been moved to the right, from where he bagged a hat-trick in the 4-0 win at Rochdale.
— Burton Mail Sport (@BurtonMailSport) February 27, 2019
Equally, right-footed David Templeton joined from north of the border in the summer and likes to cut in from the left, bagging five times himself in all competitions.
The problem is that it can be difficult to bring that trio into play when there is less space in advanced, central areas; even if Clough shifted to 4-4-2 last time out to incorporate Lucas Akins up top.
In games against teams who set up as Fleetwood did, there is more space out wide, plus centrally in the first two thirds – and the question is whether Burton possess the tools to exploit those areas.
Yes, they look strong in the left-back position with Colin Daniel impressing since joining on an 18-month deal from Peterborough last month – and youngster Reece Hutchinson is an excellent understudy.
However, John Brayford, although a strong character, perhaps does not quite have the pace and drive we saw during his Sheffield United days from right-back.
Plus, while Jamie Allen loves to break into the box with a lot of energy, Burton look short of somebody with a touch of composure and class in the middle of the park, who can open up teams in a slightly different way.
Last week’s 3-2 win over Bradford does not take Walsall out of the relegation mire, by any means at all.
However, it could yet be remembered as a turning point in their season.
The Saddlers went into that game off the back of five consecutive defeats, with a meagre two goals scored in that period – to make matters worse, they went a goal behind shortly after seeing key target man Andy Cook sent off.
It could though be that, although Cook is a very influential part of this Walsall team – he grafts incredibly hard for the team and bagged a hat-trick in January’s 3-0 win at Gillingham – that him going off the pitch indirectly benefited them.
In the preceding games, each forward pass seemed to go the former Tranmere man’s way – the success of almost every attacking move had therefore depended on whether he could hold it up to initiate combination play with the likes of Aramide Oteh and Joe Edwards.
Towards the end of some of those games, Cook looked jaded and burdened by that responsibility – as if he had been metaphorically carrying the weight of the whole team with him.
When he went off, the very fact that none of the other attacking players on the pitch could do what Cook does meant they had to find an alternative strategy – one that centred itself around counter-attacking.
Whereas in the 1-0 home defeat to AFC Wimbledon, technician Liam Kinsella and box-to-box man Joe Edwards were limited by playing to the big man every time, here they had to make more independent decisions and that suited them.
— Joseph Masi (@JosephMasi_Star) February 27, 2019
If all-rounder George Dobson comes back into the central trio at Burton, then Walsall have the bulk of a reasonable midfield, with Cook’s suspension meaning Josh ‘Flash’ Gordon could act as a false nine flanked by Zeli Ismail and either Oteh or Matt Jarvis on the break.
Considering that Walsall have a lot more to play for in this all-Midlands clash, they look good value to avoid defeat.
Double Chance: Draw/Walsall 19/20