After opening the League One campaign with a perfect record, confidence was high within the camp and the Sky Blues were looking to make it four wins on the bounce at the Bescot. The City supporters were out in force again to cheer on their side, but it wasn’t quite to be.
In my pre-season preview of the division, I tipped Walsall for a playoff push to many people’s surprise – today justified my thoughts. City struggled to gain a foothold in the affair and the home side punished a defence who showed their frailties in parts of the game. It wasn’t all bad though and I’m sure it’s only a blip – we still have 126 points to play for!
With both sets of supporters in good voice, the game got underway at a fairly high pace and it was Walsall who were quickest out of the traps. Dean Smith’s side tested Lee Burge for the first time after 3 minutes, it was Sam Mantom who let fly from 18 yards but the ‘keeper held well.
This set the tone for the first half where Walsall were on the front foot for the majority. The main talking point amongst City fans came on 7 minutes though when James Maddison was replaced by Jacob Murphy, the youngster was seen later on hobbling on crutches with a protective boot in place-let’s hope the extent of the injury isn’t too severe.
With the lack of Maddison’s incisive play, the away side struggled to open up a solid Walsall defence. Jim O’Brien did force Neil Etheridge in to a save from a free-kick on 8 minutes before Jacob Murphy brought out a superb save from the ‘keeper following a neat move on 17 minutes, but that is as close City came all half.
The home side turned up the heat from this point and the Sky Blues were inches away from conceding just a minute later, an initial low cross evaded everyone before Milan Lalkovic saw an effort from a tight angle blocked on the line by Romain Vincelot. Walsall continued to probe forward but they saw a few efforts well blocked to deny them an opening.
With 23 minutes played, some tidy play between Reda Johnson and Murphy saw Adam Armstrong get a shot in for Coventry but this was also well blocked. Miscommunication then caused the Sky Blues problems up the other end just minutes later as another cross was delivered from the left, the defence all then inexcusably left the ball and it bounced off Anthony Forde and behind for a goal-kick.
A few more chances came and went for the home side as Lalkovic tested Burge on 33 minutes, Tom Bradshaw then saw an effort travel way wide. Their superiority was finally rewarded on 40 minutes however as they broke the deadlock. Following a City forward move, Walsall countered and Jordan Willis was left on the ground by Lalkovic and he rolled the ball to Forde who finished neatly past Burge. Chances were limited in the final minutes of the half and the whistle was soon blown to leave City trailing at the break.
With a goal advantage to their name, the Saddlers looked confident early in the second period and another menacing cross wasn’t capitalised on with only a minute gone. Another chance was fashioned on 48 minutes and it was only a smart reaction save from Burge that denied Bradshaw from close range.
These wake-up calls weren’t enough to kick the Sky Blues in to life however and Walsall doubled their advantage on 52 minutes. Willis was caught napping and another cross was whipped in from the left wing, Lalkovic’s initial effort was brilliantly saved but Burge could only parry in to danger and Bradshaw was on hand to drill home from 12 yards.
As the Sky Blues looked for a way back in to the game, they almost got it almost immediately after the restart. Only the crossbar thwarted Adam Armstrong who saw his brilliant free-kick bounce away to safety. With the next move on 57 minutes it was 2-1 however as Murphy conjured up a real piece of brilliance, a short corner was played to the substitute and he skipped inside before thundering a vicious effort in to the top corner past a helpless Etheridge to send the Sky Blues wild!
The goal did lift Mowbray’s side as another corner allowed Reda Johnson to head wide on 62 minutes, despite a period of dominance the away side couldn’t make it count. Walsall began to knock the ball around confidently as they looked to frustrate Coventry, they nearly widened the scoreline on 70 minutes too as a sublime passing move lead to Kieron Morris striking narrowly over from 18 yards.
The final 20 minutes wasn’t going to win any prizes for entertainment as chances began to dry up. Walsall did go close twice through Lalkovic and Andy Taylor but they started to sit a little deeper soon after as their main aim was to control the ball. Reda Johnson was thrown up front for the away side late on but nothing came from the move and Walsall had the better of the latter chances as Jordan Cook drove in to space before somehow failing to hit the target to keep the score at 2-1.
After the leaving the ground empty-handed, the Sky Blues will undoubtedly be gutted to have lost the game but focus will swiftly switch to the next fixture as we aim to put things right. City showed their class in parts but the game was largely dictated by a slick Walsall side.
I think a few too many players were ‘off the boil’ so to speak and this allowed the home side opportunity to pounce. Credit has to go to them, Dean Smith set his side up superbly and although the Sky Blues did have an off day, Walsall didn’t allow us to settle in to the tie.
The main concern throughout the match was our inability to defend effectively out wide, countless home attacks went down the left wing and Jordan Willis-who didn’t enjoy his best game-was left exposed. Both of their goals came from that side and they were easily avoidable, we’ve got to defend better but I have every confidence that we’ll rectify our mistakes.
Mowbray’s decision to pull off Jim O’Brien must ring alarm bells for the midfielder though, he must be more organised if he wants to remain in side. Don’t get me wrong, I love his commitment and he’s a superb player, I just think Mowbray perhaps wants him to perhaps be more disciplined.
Once James Maddison had been forced off through injury, we lacked someone in his role to plug the gap between midfield and attack. Play began to be rushed at times and Armstrong had nothing to work with, the movement behind him perhaps wasn’t as free-flowing but I thought Walsall did a superb job in marking him out of the game.
We have every reason to remain optimistic though, we’re sitting third in the league as the division’s top scorers – it’s a very good start. With over a week until our next game, Mowbray has plenty of time to work with the squad and ensure we are fully prepared for another test against Southend. The test is now whether we can bounce back, and I’m fully expecting us to do just that.
Lee Burge – 7
Jordan Willis – 5
Reda Johnson – 7
Sam Ricketts – 7
Chris Stokes – 7
John Fleck – 7
Romain Vincelot – 6
Jim O’Brien – 6
James Maddison – N/A
Ruben Lameiras – 7.5
Adam Armstrong – 6
Jacob Murphy – 7
Bryn Morris – 6
Aaron Phillips – 6
Coventry City: Burge, Willis (Phillips 52), Ricketts, Johnson, Stokes, O’Brien (Morris 45), Vincelot, Fleck, Lameiras, Maddison (Murphy 6), Armstrong.
Unused Substitutes: Charles-Cook, Martin, G.Thomas, Tudgay.
Walsall: Etheridge, Demetriu, O’Connor, Downing, Taylor, Chambers, Forde (Morris 62), Mantom, Sawyers, Lalkovic (Cook 73), Bradshaw.
Unused Substitutes: Baxendale, MacGillivray, Henry, Preston, Flanagan.