Relegation Diaries – Walsall

Like another club – Plymouth Argyle – joining them in relegation from League One, Walsall was safe from relegation before a couple of losing streaks sent them tumbling into the relegation zone. The Saddlers’ fall started a bit earlier, but not so early that they still had a chance to stave of relegation the last few weeks of the season.

However, their fate was sealed when they drew at Shrewsbury Town on the last day of the season, while the other three clubs above them managed to reach 50 points and leave them in the dust. It was a very competitive season at the bottom of the table, and Walsall just came up a bit short in the end.

Here’s a quick look at how the Saddlers ended up in this position:

What Went Wrong

After a 19 January win at Gillingham, Walsall was in 15th position with 35 points through 28 matches; they would accumulate only 12 points over the remaining 18.

It started with a five match losing streak that began the following week with a loss at Plymouth Argyle, and at the end of the slide, the Saddlers had fallen to 18th place. A brief 2-1-0 unbeaten stretch returned them to 16th, but then they lost seven of their last ten matches down the stretch, and entered the relegation zone for good after a 2-1 loss at Sunderland on 16 March.

Averaging just over a goal per match (49 goals scored; 1.07 gpm) is never a recipe for success, and scoring less than a goal on the road (19 goals in 23 matches; 0.83 gpm) makes it hard to find points. Still, they reached the middle of April with a solid chance to remain safe, and three more points – and another goal – would have allowed them to stay in League One for next season.

What Went Right

The Saddlers started the season on a seven-match unbeaten streak (4-3-0), and were in 5th position as late as 6 October after a 6-4-2 opening to the season. But those six victories accounted for half of their win total on the season, and it was a slow tumble down the table from that point on for the season.

Despite only scoring 49 goals on the season – tied for 22nd in the league with last place Bradford City – club Player of the Year Andy Cook scored 13 goals to pace the squad, a stellar debut in his first season above the National League and hopefully a string indication of what he might provide for the club next season. Otherwise, positives were hard to find this season from the Saddlers.

Recent English Football League History

This relegation ends a 12 season run for Walsall in League One, a stretch that saw them average a 14th place finish – though they did finish in 3rd during the 2015-16 season (they lost as in the playoff semifinal to Barnsley). Their last visit to League Two was a short one – a one season stop prior to that 12 season run – that resulted in a League Two title in 2007.

Of the last five clubs relegated from League One in the 22nd position, only one – Blackpool (2015-16) – is currently playing in League One next season, with the other four remaining in League Two for another season. The best performance this past season from those four clubs came from Carlisle United (11th), who finished 22nd in League One back in 2014. Walsall’s last two seasons in League Two were that title in 2012 and a second place finish way back in 1995, so I don’t expect them to make their stay in the fourth tier a long one.

Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?

New manager Darrell Clarke – formerly of the Bristol Rovers – has made quick work of his roster, releasing eleven players who were at the end of their current contracts. four players had substantial playing time with the club, playing in more than 32 matches. Leading the way were defenders Luke Leahy, who played in 44 league matches and added three goals, and Jon Guthrie, who had 42 appearances and two goals of his own. All told, 15 goals will be leaving the squad from this batch of players, nearly a third of all goals that the Saddlers scored during the season.

Chances of a Quick Return?

Walsall’s recent history in League Two is short, as they have spent the bulk of the past 20 years in League One. I don’t expect them to spend a lot of time down in League Two this time around either, but it will all depend on the quality of players they are able to recruit as a new League Two squad. Expect the additions this season to be of the free variety or loaned players.

As it stands at the moment, the Saddlers would be the 6th-best team in next season’s League Two (per the current Global Club Soccer Rankings at FiveThirtyEight). Per those rankings, they are the “best” club being relegated from League One, with a 15.1 ranking – Bradford City (13.5), Plymouth Argyle (14.2) and Scunthorpe United (12.5) settle in behind them.

Those rankings are constantly changing, and are likely to be adjusted after player movement is complete, but it appears that Walsall will at least be in position to fight for a playoff position at the moment. The last time the Saddlers played in League Two they walked away as champions; can they repeat that feat next season?

Until next time…

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