I will be reverting to bullet points in my match reviews this season as I feel, especially with the addition of full match replays on iFollow, it makes the content ‘flow’ better and read less like a match report and more akin to observations on both teams that don’t necessarily have to follow a set chronology.
- Both sides lined up pretty much as I’d anticipated, with a toss-up in midfield for the hosts between Callum Reilly and Tsun Dai and for the Saddlers up top, with Simeon Jackson getting the nod over Amadou Bakayoko. Nicky Ajose operated fairly far apart from Jermaine Beckford and the latter acknowledged after the game that their partnership (such as it was) is only in its embryonic stage and that a deeper understanding would take time to forge. Ajose for his part looked a little behind most of his peers in terms of sharpness and it will be intriguing to see whether his place is retained on Thursday. Beckford offered plenty of off-the-ball running and took his headed goal well, especially considering the path of the ball was altered at close quarters.
- Walsall were almost always neat and tidy on the ball until it came to chance creation; as expected, the onus fell extremely heavily on Erhun Oztumer to conjure something out of nothing with limited movement laterally or ahead of him. That said, he was still able to pick a couple of superb passes, particularly in the second half. One of them had Craig Jones watching him rather than his man, marking the only real time they got in behind the backline.
- Speaking of Jones, he turned in a good performance otherwise, offering a similar thrust to Greg Leigh in the transition to attack whilst never neglecting the need to track back and stick to the task at hand. His body language does suggest however that his injury troubles are never too far away; with Phil Edwards out of contention until at least the short trip to the DW Stadium to face Wigan Athletic on Sunday, the right-back berth looks to be an area in need of some attention already.
- Both goalkeepers were excellent when they were called upon. More overtly, Mark Gillespie did brilliantly with both penalties, especially Beckford’s. He wasn’t at fault for the solitary goal he did concede and looks on early evidence to be an assured presence between the sticks. His counterpart Joe Murphy’s distribution was top-notch, notably when kicking the ball out of his hands and calmly passing it along the ground.
- The aforementioned Reilly had an encouraging debut for the Shakers, covering ground alongside Stephen Dawson with no shortage of grit, determination and an eye for a forward pass. His more experienced colleague did exactly what was expected of him, including winning a penalty and openly voicing his thoughts to the referee. Expect to see both of these in high frequency throughout the campaign.
- Chris Maguire showed from dead balls (other than the spot kick) what Bury have been missing since the departure of Chris Hussey to Sheffield United last summer. Although his effort for the goal was deflected, the whip he was able to get on it from such a position will cause problems regardless if that standard is kept up during 2017/2018. The former Oxford forward grew into the match as it elapsed, offering a good platform for attacks in open play in the second half.
- Opposition manager Jon Whitney claimed after proceedings that his charges lacked a cutting edge up front, which will come as a surprise to precisely zero supporters of the West Midlands outfit. Their hosts had eight in the starting XI making their debuts (although in Ajose’s case, it’s actually his third loan spell at Gigg Lane) and in truth, didn’t produce anything scintillating, which is going to be par for the course whilst the squad knits together. Walsall had more cohesion and width but no real outlets and, relatively solid as they were as a back four, are going to need something more in attacking areas to put paid to the notion that it will be a year of real struggle.
- As for Lee Clark, he was mostly pleased with how the first match unfolded, especially how solid the new central defensive were in earning a clean sheet… but did seem to single out Zeli Ismail for some criticism in his post-match interview. The Albanian winger had looked bright in pre-season after returning from his own long-term lay-off and got into some good areas when he was summoned from the subs’ bench to replace Jay O’Shea, who seemed to take a knock a few minutes prior to the change. His end product was often found wanting because of poor decision-making, shaping to shoot when teammates were in space on the counter. His positivity with the ball did win him the second penalty and if O’Shea isn’t fit on Thursday, he might get the opportunity to start.
- The night before League One kicked off, the club announced the capture of Harry Bunn from Huddersfield Town is what is likely to be a club record fee (although the details of the deal were as ever undisclosed). Elliott Wheat-Bowen over on Talk of the Town wrote a deeply insightful piece on what fans can expect of the latest addition to the squad; there now exists an abundance of options in both wide and central areas behind the forwards; to that end, my next blogpost will be on the possible shapes, strategies and combinations Clark now has at his disposal to utilise over the course of the season.