The haphazard geography of the Banks’s Stadium meant Mark Duffy had plenty of time to fathom an alternative explanation before, nearly three quarters-of-an-hour after the final whistle, arriving in the media suite to dissect this unexpected result.
Whether it truly was a shock, given Walsall’s remarkable record of success against Sheffield United in recent months, remains open to debate. But the midfielder’s admission the League One leaders had been out-fought en route to their third defeat to Jon Whitney’s side since August did raise eyebrows.
After all, despite forging a reputation for playing scintillating football, Chris Wilder’s team is probably most admired for its attention to detail and fighting spirit.
“One of our strengths is that we’re a tight knit group and that we don’t often get out-battled,” Duffy said. “I thought, out there, we perhaps were a little bit. We showed in the game before, against Southend who are probably one of the most physical team in the league, that we can cope with that. But we weren’t really at it to be fair.”
Although Duffy’s version of events are unlikely to make enjoyable reading for Wilder, its brutal frankness will provide a degree of comfort too. United’s manager was in surprisingly sanguine mood after watching the visitors blow their chance of securing a seventh straight victory during a manic second-half spell. Jack O’Connell appeared to have put them back on course after Amadou Bakayoko’s early opener for Walsall before goals from Jason McCarthy, Joe Edwards and an Erhun Oztumer penalty put the match beyond their reach.
Recognising the unpredictable nature of the division, Wilder admitted there will always be “bumps in the road.” But, like Duffy, he also insisted United had been the architects of their own downfall rather than falling victim to some bizarre Black Country curse.
“They’ve won and well done to them,” Duffy continued. “But they haven’t carved us open or dominated the ball. I don’t know what the stats are but, for me, we’ve had more good possession and entries into the box. But we can’t leave ourselves wide open like that because, in this competition, anyone can punish you.”
TWENTY MAD MINUTES
As Duffy, Wilder and Whitney all acknowledged, the outcome of Saturday’s contest hinged on a 20 minute period after the break when United lost their defensive discipline and Walsall demonstrated excellent attacking prowess. But, had Billy Sharp not seen a shot on the turn cannon back off the crossbar moments before Bakayoko scored then the outcome might have been completely different. United, who arrived in the Midlands having scored 62 goals in their last 27 outings, looked to be set for another profitable afternoon when O’Connell turned home following a Duffy set-piece. Instead, a rare error from Simon Moore saw Walsall wrestle back the advantage early in the second-half with Edwards inflicting further punishment. Oztumer’s spot-kick, after Kieron Freeman had urged Moore to deal with substitute George Dobson instead of clearing the danger himself, capped what Whitney described as Walsall’s best performance of his 10 month spell in charge.
“I wish we could play like that every week,” the 46-year-old said. “I told the players beforehand that, against a side as good as Sheffield United, we can come up with all the tactical plans we like but, ultimately, it was going to come down to energy and belief. We had to believe we could beat them and we did.”
WHAT IS IT ABOUT WALSALL?
There is something about United that brings out the best in Walsall who, after winning October’s Checkatrade Trophy tie between the two clubs, also prevailed a month later in the league at Bramall Lane. Whitney’s men pass with precision and show great movement off the ball. Nevertheless, with three of their efforts being giftwrapped, United only had themselves to blame for this rare set-back. Moore’s protection had gone AWOL when Bakayoko darted upfield and smashed home during the opening exchanges and, despite deservedly equalising through O’Connell, United failed to maintain the momentum. Edwards was allowed to ghost across the edge of the area before sending a low drive into the other corner of the net after Moore, who had earlier made a superb save to deny Bakayoko, was beaten by McCarthy at his near post. The former Cardiff City goalkeeper is fallible after all.
TAKE NOTE AND BOUNCE BACK
When Dobson was sent tumbling, Oztumer seized the opportunity to end his 11 match barren streak. United, suffering their first set-back away from home since August, came within a whisker of grabbing a late consolation when Leon Clarke went close. Duffy accepted they had fallen short of their usual high standards but identified a relatively simple fix.
“It’s disappointing because we’ve lost to them for the second time in the league,” he said.
“For me, though, that was the story of the counter-attack. We knew what they were going to do. We mentioned it at half-time, that all they had was the counter-attack, and we fell for it twice more. I don’t remember a team scoring a goal of real quality against us, where they’ve put three or four passes together and then slid someone in. It does seem to be the counter-attacks and so that’s something we’ve got to work on.”
“We’ve got to dust ourselves down, and make sure we get the three points next time. We’ve bounced back before and we can do it again.”