Peterborough United are becoming the Graeme Hick of League One. A team of flat-track bullies who batter weak opposition, but come up short against the best.
Posh have played eight games against the current top eight in League One now. They haven’t won any of them. In fact they’ve picked up just two points.
It’s a situation that needs to change pretty quickly. The next four League One matches are against fellow promotion contenders which would be tough enough without a worsening injury situation and the distraction of the January transfer window.
But a repeat of today’s performance might actually turn the tables. Posh more than matched the League One leaders on their own patch, and were so dominant after the interval, the concession of two goals in the final 10 minutes, one to a cruel deflection, was mightily annoying to the players, manager and the tremendous away following.
Praise for Posh came from the usual source (Graham Westley), but also from unlikely parties as Walsall manager Sean O’Driscoll admitted they were the best League One side he’d seen and goal-scorer Jason Demetriou said they were unrecognisable (in a good way) from the team the Saddlers faced at the ABAX Stadium in September.
Small consolations admittedly, but ones that shouldn’t be discounted entirely. Playing away at a side who have lost just three of their 23 League One matches this season just 48 hours after the first festive fixture was a tough ask and Posh gave it a good shot.
Unfortunately Posh are a team who appear to need numerous chances to score a goal and against sides with well-organised and disciplined defences like Walsall’s they just don’t come around that often. Missing against Luton or Chesterfield doesn’t really matter as another opportunity will arrive soon enough - it’s a different story against teams at the top, or at Sheffield United where Posh must travel this weekend with two of their first-choice back four missing.
Michael Bostwick’s departure, on his 51st appearance of 2015, on the hour mark was a huge blow. He had formed a rock-solid centre-back partnership with surprise selection Miles Addison, but a muscle injury forced a re-shuffle that did Posh no favours once the home side came out of their shell in the final stages.
Addison was largely excellent, but he moved to the left side to accomodate substitute Ricardo Santos, and was exposed by the absence of emergency left-back Marcus Maddison when home full-back Jason Demetriou advanced into the Posh penalty area. One suspects Bostwick would have closed the full-back down quicker, but Addison, who was making just his second appearance of the season, is less mobile and Demetriou’s shot deflected off his leg and past Ben Alnwick with just 10 minutes to go.
Posh never recovered and conceded a second goal two minutes from time when Kieron Morris wriggled to the by-line and pulled the ball back for George Evans to poke home from close range. Lalkovic had earlier been denied the second goal by a brave Alnwick save after the Walsall forward had breezed past Santos.
The late action really made a mockery of the previous hour or so. Walsall enjoyed good spells in the first-half and saw Sam Mantom strike the outside of the post from 20 yards, but they were always restricted to shots from that sort of range, apart from a low Jordan Cook drive that Alnwick diverted past a post. If the table-toppers have a flaw, it’s the absence of a potent striker when top scorer Tom Bradshaw is absent.
Posh, who left out their midfield wizard Erhun Oztumer for on-loan teenager Martin Samuelsen, weren’t fluent in possession before the break, but they did piece together a quite brilliant move five minutes before the break when Maddison and Samuelsen linked before feeding Michael Smith. His excellent right-wing cross was headed firmly goalwards by Conor Washington from six yards out, but Walsall ‘keeper Neil Etheridge tipped the ball superbly over the bar.
Otherwise Etheridge was only required to beat away Chris Forrester’s 20-yard strike, but he became much busier in the second-half.
In fact Etheridge almost handed Posh the lead in the opening minutes when spilling Bostwick’s fierce cross onto the head of Lee Angol, but the Posh striker didn’t have the pace on the ball to direct it into the net and the impressive Jason O’Connor headed off the line.
Other chances came and went, most notably for Washington whose outstanding control of Alnwick’s huge free-kick was spoilt by an errant finish, and for Addison who jumped too early when meeting Maddison’s free-kick in an unmarked position close to goal and headed the ball well wide of goal.
Maddison forced another spectacular Etheridge save with a swerving 25 yard shot as Posh kept their hosts pinned back, but they couldn’t breach a defence that has now kept four clean sheets in succession.
For Posh the promise of November quickly turned into a disappointing December. Failing to beat Shrewsbury and Blackpool meant avoiding defeat at Walsall was key if automatic promotion was to remain on the agenda.
Instead Posh find themselves 11 points behind ‘The Saddlers’ who have played a game fewer. Posh have collected just four points from their last four matches and no amount of opposition love for the level of their performance can mask those facts.
O’Driscoll admitted he changed his formation to stop Posh playing. It’s a very respectful move, but it’s one opponents can make in the knowledge they will still probably create chances at the other end.
Posh: Ben Alnwick: Michael Smith, Marcus Maddison, Miles Addison, Michael Bostwick (sub Ricardo Santos, 61 mins), Chris Forrester, Harry Beautyman (sub Erhun Oztumer, 82 mins), Martin Samuelsen, Jon Taylor, Lee Angol (sub Souleymane Coulibaly, 78 mins), Unused substitutes: Erhun Oztumer, Jordan Nicholson, Jack Baldwin, Andrew Fox, Dion-Curtis Henry.
Walsall: Neil Etheridge, James O’Connor, Paul Downing (sub Matt Preston, 14 mins), Andy Taylor, Jason Demetriou, George Evans, Jordan Cook (sub Kieron Morris, 88 mins), Sam Mantom (sub Anthony Forde, 74 mins), Romaine Sawyers, Adam Chambers, Milan Lalkovic. Unused substitutes: Luke Kinsella, James Baxendale, Liam Roberts, Rico Henry.
Goals: Walsall - Demetriou (80 mins), Evans (89 mins).
Caution: Posh - Washington (foul), Smith (foul), Forrrester (scuffling).
Walsall - Sawyers (scuffling).
Referee: Darren England 7
Attendance: 6,142 (1,045 Posh).
Alan Swann is at the Banks’s Stadium for the Peterborough Telegraph so follow all the team news, LIVE commentary, match report and match reaction here click here