Walsall hosted Forest Green in the second round of matches from EFL League 2 with both sides looking to build on opening day victories. They both recorded narrow 1-0 victories in their opening matches and were looking to gather early momentum for a promotion push.
Despite the fact they only managed three shots in the entire match, Forest Green were able to come away with a 1-1 victory that will have frustrated the home sides’ manager Darrell Clarke. This tactical analysis will examine how Walsall were able to limit their guests to such few chances in the match.
Walsall lined up in a 3-5-2 and made just one change from their opening match with Gary Liddle coming into the side in place of Danny Guthrie. With fifteen summer signings, a degree of continuity in the starting 11 must be a priority to bed new players into the squad.
Forest Green also made one change from their opening fixture after an injury to George Williams, which will keep him out for five months, with Carl Winchester coming into the side. They lined up in a 3-4-2-1 formation with the width provided by wingbacks Joseph Mills and Dom Bernard.
Walsall’s pressing plan
Walsall were happy for Forest Green to have possession in their own half of the pitch, setting themselves up in a mid-block. As soon as Forest Green reached the halfway line, Walsall looked to aggressively close the spaces around the ball. They deployed a compact block, forcing Forest Green to play back towards their centre backs.
When Forest Green had a goal kick, however, Walsall attempted to engage them higher up the pitch with their two strikers Elijah Adebayo and Josh Gordon leading the press. The man nearest to the defender would apply pressure to the player in possession while the other striker prevented the switch to the far centre back.
This, however, was poorly implemented with the men in green able to easily play around them. This in part was due to the midfield positioning themselves too far away from the dropping Forest Green midfielder (in this case Winchester) who is able to receive the ball and turn to play forward.
When Walsall regained possession, they immediately looked to get the ball forwards to their strikers to exploit the spaces left by Forest Green. The forward line led by Adebayo would apply pressure to the Forest Green centre backs with the midfield moving forward and collecting the majority of the second balls.
This had two advantages, it removed the potential for Forest Green to counter-press and it enabled Walsall to establish possession of the ball in the attacking half of the pitch. Forest Green struggled to cope with these aerial duels, with a large majority of their successful headed interceptions being collected by a Walsall player.
Walsall’s pressing system
Walsall operated with a space orientated man-marking pressing system. This simply means that each player is responsible for a certain area of the pitch and should an opponent enter this zone the player will then man-mark them. If the player then moves away from the zone they won’t follow them.
When the ball was played into wide areas this was a pressing trigger for Walsall to adopt this pressing scheme. They would often close the space in the centre of the pitch and leave the wingbacks unmarked in wide areas. When the ball was passed into them Walsall would instantly press with the players closest to the ball marking the Forest Green players in the immediate vicinity.
Forest Green ‘U’ shape build-up
Despite having 50% possession in the match, Forest Green managed just three shots in the match, one of which was a penalty. This would suggest they had problems progressing the ball into advanced areas.
Forest Green were certainly trying to build their play up through the thirds, however, they encountered issues while attempting to do this. Often their build-up play would resemble a ‘U’ shape with the ball passed from side to side through the middle centre back. While the midfielders were attempting to position themselves between Walsall’s lines they were positionally poor as they offered no clean forward pass for the defenders.
There were, however, occasions in which Forest Green used some interesting build up combinations, taking advantage of being able to receive the ball in their own box from a goal kick. On several occasions, Lewis Thomas played the ball short to Nathan McGinley, who positioned himself on the left edge of the six-yard box. The ball would then be passed back to Thomas with space to dribble the ball into, while a midfielder dropped into the space created between the Walsall strikers and midfielders.
Darrell Clarke will undoubtedly be frustrated that his side was unable to win a match where they created far more opportunities than Forest Green. There were certainly encouraging signs that the players are adapting to his tactics as they demonstrated a clear plan in this match. The pressing and compact shape are promising early signs that they will be difficult to break down this season.
Forest Green, on the other hand, will be pleased to come away with a point from a game in which they struggled to create chances. Their neat and tidy passing led them to a point before it all fizzled out, in part due to Walsall’s excellent defensive work. Analysis will be needed by Mark Cooper to address the issues with their attacking play.
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