Walsall 4-0 Hartlepool United: Key takeaways from heavy opening day defeat
As opening days of the season go, it was one to forget for Hartlepool United.
Paul Hartley’s first outing as a Football League manager could not have been much worse as he watched his side succumb to a 4-0 defeat at Walsall - their heaviest opening day defeat in over 30 years.
Brandon Comley opened the scoring when his effort found its way through a number of bodies before deflecting off Josh Umerah beyond the helpless Ben Killip.
And it soon became 2-0 when Isaac Hutchinson was allowed to travel the length of the field before teeing up Danny Johnson who, at the second time of asking, found a way past Killip.
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Pools weren’t at the races in the opening 45 minutes with Umerah’s dragged effort wide the closest they came to threatening Owen Evans in the Walsall goal.
But things did not improve after the restart with the Saddlers effectively ending the contest on the hour mark as Hutchinson’s cross from the left found its way to Johnson who fired in emphatically.
The former Gateshead man completed his hat-trick when getting in front of Nicky Featherstone to convert Manny Monthe’s knock down.
And here are some of the key takeaways from a chastening afternoon in the Midlands.
First game shortage
As was the case for several games towards the end of last season, Pools were forced to go ahead with less than their full-quota of players in the squad with Hartley only able to name six substitutes despite 13 new arrivals this summer.
Injuries to Joe Grey, Marcus Carver and Mikael Ndjoli, along with Rollin Menayese being ineligible, meant Pools were a man short in their squad.
And, with that said, not being able to fill the bench on day one of the new season is far from the kind of message you want to put across.
Hartley has continued to stress his desire to strengthen the squad and with a month of the transfer window left to play out, the focus will be to ensure this does not become as problematic as it did towards the end of last season.
Although things may not have played out much differently, and despite a fairly promising pre-season, Tom Crawford was left out of Hartley’s starting XI at the Poundland Bescot Stadium.
Crawford has been deployed in a slightly different role ahead of the new campaign, operating in a more advanced position, and has grabbed a couple of goals to mark the change.
Crawford, particularly against Sunderland, could be seen breaking beyond the lines, sometimes the first line of defence for Pools, but Hartley opted against starting the 23-year-old.
Instead, it was a midfield trio of Callum Cooke and Mouhamed Niang alongside captain Featherstone, with all three enduring difficult afternoons.
As much as Hartley and assistant Gordon Young have drilled Pools this summer, they seemed way off the level of Walsall.
Michael Flynn’s side have plenty of physical presence within their side with the likes of Monthe and Donervon Daniels, but the Saddlers were first to almost every ball throughout the afternoon and looked a yard sharper than Pools all over the pitch.
While goals can dictate things in that regard, it was concerning the ease with which they were able to control things.
The midfield battle
Essentially, this was a non-entity for 90-minutes with Walsall dominating the midfield from start to finish.
Liam Kinsella and Comley looked comfortable at breaking play up and recycling possession for the Saddlers, while Hutchinson and Taylor Allen caused Pools no end of problems throughout the afternoon.
But the moment which will disappoint Hartley the most is likely to be Walsall’s second goal where Hutchinson was allowed to pick the ball up on the edge of his own penalty area and advance to within yards of Pools’ 18-yard line, unchallenged, before assisting Johnson. It was far too easy for the hosts, but even more so less than half an hour into the first game of the season.
It’s no secret Pools had issues at both ends of the field last season.
Only two teams scored fewer goals than Pools’ 44 in 2021/22, with five conceding more than their 64.
Hartley has already alluded to the need to rectify both of those figures if they are to progress to where he wants this season, but the early signs here were far from encouraging.
Pools registered just four attempts at goal, only two of those on target, to Walsall’s 21.
Umerah did OK in spells at holding the ball up and winning the physical battle, but to little avail as Pools struggled to get bodies around him.
Pools might have enjoyed more possession, but that possession was often inside their own half with little creativity and progression in the final third.
The attacking threat of Jake Hastie was nullified, but for one or two early breakaways, while youngster Ellis Taylor struggled to make an impact in the game before being substituted.
Architects of downfall
At times you can tilt your cap to certain moments in games - Johnson’s second for example was a fine strike, albeit the build up will again frustrate Hartley.
But Pools will need to eradicate errors from their game moving forward as they were often the architects of their own downfall.
Too often Pools were loose in possession, or caught dwindling on the ball inside their own half, with Niang twice escaping a loss of possession on the edge of his own area.
Prior to Johnson’s second of the game, Cooke had advanced wide into a fairly promising position before turning back into danger and losing out to Kinsella who started the attack which then led to the goal.
Reghan Tumilty, who had a debut to forget, played a stray back-pass to Killip in the first half under limited pressure which eventually led to the corner in which Walsall opened the scoring.
They're simple errors which ultimately led to Pools’ undoing.