Now that we’re just slightly past the official half-way mark of the season I though it would be good to take a look back at how the season has gone so far at Coventry City.
Casting your mind back to the pre-season and all was doom and gloom. Prior to the opening fixture of the season away at Crawley manager Steven Pressley was left with a skeleton squad featuring only one recognised centre-back in the form of Jordan Willis who had played only one league game in that position previously. Furthermore there were doubts over our manager’s capability to produce winning performances. His reign at that point had largely consisted of meaningless league fixtures featuring experimental line-ups as a result of a 10 point deduction after his third game in charge. To add insult to injury the day before the Crawley fixture began with the news that ‘Coventry City was in liquidation’ this was then revised to ‘Coventry City Ltd goes into liquidation’, due to the arcane ownership structure at the club this meant that there was a distinction between the two headlines meaning that the club itself was still in existence. However the cost of Coventry City Ltd’s liquidation came in the form of another 10 point deduction and transfer embargo. At this point many Coventry fans were anticipating a season which would at best see the team scrape survival in front of a dwindled and demoralised support in Northampton.
The contrast between expectations and the reality at the half way stage have been stark. Despite losing the first two games of the season, in the league against Crawley and then the League Cup against Leyton Orient, the team eventually raced out of the blocks with 7 points in 3 games, scoring 12 and conceding 9 against Bristol City, Carlisle and Preston. Quietly there was a growing sense that Steven Pressley was cultivating something special at the club. The team were playing a stylish and pressing style of football which coupled with the midfield control of Conor Thomas and John Fleck gave the team the element of surprise against sides expecting a walk-over against relegation fodder.
Coventry City 2 Colchester United 0 – Colchester may have had a depleted squad to pick from but the control and composure of the side to dominate the opposition, limiting them to just 3 shots (all off target), was indicative of what Pressley’s vision for the team. Cyrus Christie was unstoppable for large portions of the game with his raids from right-back, Colchester attempted to double-up but Christie’s pace, skill and physicality made him a force of nature on the day. John Fleck displayed exceptional defensive awareness with his positioning in front of the defence and his passing set constantly stretched the Colchester defense. Finally Callum Wilson’s pace and poise to score each of his goals was the cutting edge and ruthlessness that so many Coventry teams have lacked in the past.
Coventry City 3 Notts County 0 – Coventry once again displayed a ruthless streak against beleaguered opposition which saw Coventry achieve their 3rd win in a row, their first such run in three seasons. After a first half where Notts County contained a confident Coventry side, a rash challenge from Danny Haynes saw the Notts reduced to 10 men. From then on Coventry pummeled their opponents with possession, movement and shots. Coventry’s first came from Leon Clarke getting on the end of a Blair Adams cross, the second also came from Clarke punishing a poor back pass from Mark Fotheringham the final goal was a Callum Wilson classic as he characteristically rounded the keeper to round off the win.
Coventry City 4 Peterborough United 2 – Coventry had limped through December after consecutive thrashings at the end of November. A near full Sixfields, albeit due to a large Posh following, did not augur well as Coventry went head-to-head with one of the division’s supposed better sides. The pessimism continued with a thoroughly dominant display from Peterborough who took the lead from the surprising source of Sky Blues reject Shaun Jeffers, after having an Assombalonga goal questionably ruled out for off-side. After riding their luck Coventry equalised from a sloppy kick taken by Posh keeper Olejnik which Leon Clarke finished with aplomb. Content with seemingly surviving the first half level, Coventry immediately conceded from a Lee Tomlin goal to send the Sky Blues behind 2-1 at the break. The second half though was a complete 180 degree reversal of what had been seen in the first half with Coventry pressing a Peterborough side who subsequently fell to pieces. Leon Clarke equalised after Peterborough failed to clear a corner, the season’s top-scorer though he’d scored his hat-trick only to see it ruled out for off-side. Nonetheless Clarke then played a perfectly weighted through ball to play in Moussa to give Coventry a deserved lead. The drama didn’t end there with Peterborough forcing the ball over the line only to for it to be missed by the officials, capitalising on the Posh’s protestations Callum Wilson found himself released unmarked in the opposition half and tucked the ball away in his usual confident style.
Port Vale 3 Coventry City 2 – For many fans who had chosen to boycott Sixfields this was their first chance to Steven Pressley’s enterprising Coventry City side. For the first half the travelling fans were treated to a display of confidence and control from the Sky Blues. Somehow though Port Vale managed to score a goal to make the score 2-1 and give the Valiants an opportunity to get back into the game. The second half saw the team lose their poise and control with Port Vale pressing and exploiting the aerial weakness of our defence to full advantage as they went on to win 3-2. Seeing Mickey Adams tactically outwit Steven Pressley made the defeat and performance that one bit worse
Bradford City 3 Coventry City 3 – The result in and of itself was not the disappointment just the manner in which it came about. Coventry scored twice in the opening 10 minutes as an out-of-form Bradford side were made to look out of sorts. In fact the early 2-0 scoreline flattered Bradford as Coventry could have been 4 up having fashioned score-able opportunities. However the defensive weakness that has undermined us at times this season was there for all to see in front of the Sky cameras as Jordan Clarke produced an air-kick which left Nahki Wells with an empty net from a long punt forward. Bradford’s equaliser came in similarly direct fashion, outlining the team’s inability to defend simple long balls once again. Despite the disappointment the team showed character to re-gain the lead and then create the lion’s share of the chances in a lower tempo second half. Naivety eventually cost the team what would have been a 4th consecutive league victory and taken us within two points of the play-offs. In the closing seconds Conor Thomas elected to keep a ball in play that would have been a throw-in for us in the opposition half, from this Bradford sent another hopeful ball towards the rugged target-man James Hanson and Jordan Clarke conceded a penalty for hand-ball in attempting to compete with him aerially. Wells completed his hat-trick as Coventry dropped points in what should have been an emphatic victory.
Coventry City 1 Tranmere Rovers 5 – Following the disappointment against Bradford we faced what should have been a simple win over an out-of-form and lowly Tranmere side. The disappointment wasn’t so much the performance but that our tactical set-up was exploited so perfectly by Tranmere. The statistics say it all, they had 5 shots on goal and scored each of them. The team failed to deal with Tranmere’s midfield runners isolating our defenders leaving simple opportunities to create chances. What’s worse was that despite ending the game with a man advantage we failed to assert the numerical superiority, instead conceding a final goal.
Players of the Season
John Fleck – For me, Fleck’s been the player of the season thus far. Fleck is a man transformed from the player that trundled around for the most part of last season. Fleck’s workrate and desire to make important tackles has been the most surprising aspect of his game this season. The way he can break up play with a well timed interception has been his most notable ability that’s been on display this season. Of course Fleck’s ‘meat and drink’ is his passing range which is mainly used to stretch the opposition defence. Unlike many midfielders at this level Fleck has the vision to see the whole pitch rather than a narrow plane just in front of him. Numerous goals this season have come from him spreading the play out to one of our raiding full-backs catching the opposition cold.
Leon Clarke – Leon’s influence in the side has been highlighted during his absence towards the end of November. Not only was his goalscoring ability missed as the side lost 3 out of 5 games but his ability to link the attack and midfield reduced the team’s impact in the final third. Leon has become one of the leaders of the side and this has been highlighted by the lethal partnership he has formed with Callum Wilson. You can tell just from watching the two celebrate their many goals that they love playing with each other. His ability to drop deep and hold the ball up has created space not only for Wilson but for Moussa and Baker as well, with those three now on around 30 goals between. Life without Leon seems an imminent possibility but hopefully one that can be delayed at least for a few months.
Blair Adams – Quietly and without drawing too much attention to himself Blair Adams has been one of our most consistent performers this season. Effective in supporting the attack, solid defensively, Blair Adams performances often go unnoticed but have been highly effective. Personally I am content with this state of affairs given the vultures that may inevitably be hanging around the club with their derisory bids for our star players. What has impressed me most has been the improvement in his crossing the season, after being ‘hit-and-hope’ to a large extent when he first arrived, his crossing has improved to the extent that he is now our first-choice corner taker.
Young Players of the Season
Callum Wilson – His rise to prominence this season has hidden just how unremarkable he was as a reserve player over the large majority of his Coventry career. Approaching 22, Callum Wilson has only made 35 appearances thus far for Coventry City. However the circumstances over the summer catapulted Wilson into a prominent role for the start of the season. Wilson’s pre-season performances were so impressive that it forced Pressley to alter his tactics to accommodate two strikers. He has seized his chance this season and sees himself now firmly ensconced in the League One scoring charts. A remarkable breakthrough season and his two month spell with a shoulder injury will be a massive blow to our play-off chances.
Aaron Phillips – An injury to Cyrus Christie eventually saw Aaron Phillips stake his claim for a starting spot after ousting competition in the form of the composed Jordan Willis. Phillips has shown himself to be fierce competitor with a genuine love of making well-timed sliding tackles. Another remarkable rise to first-team prominence given that he started the year on loan to Conference side Nuneaton Town where he played a massive role in saving them from relegation. The seemingly inevitable sale of the first-choice right-back Cyrus Christie will surely see Aaron Phillips become a first-team regular and there looks to be a bright future ahead for the youngster.
Billy Daniels – Daniels started his season off in emphatic fashion with two goals against Bristol City. The striker’s inclusion as a right winger in the team came as a surprise to many but he displayed great energy to protect his full-back and eventually get himself into the penalty area for his two goals. Previously Daniels had been played out of position as a central midfielder where he looked struggled to assert himself. Unfortunately as the season has gone on, injuries have seen Daniels’s chances limited to cameos. When he has returned to action he has struggled to repeat the feats he achieved in August but a promising display against Barnsley in the cup may see Daniels regain his place in more regular first-team action for the second half of the season.
This has perhaps been the one area where Pressley hasn’t particularly impressed thus far. Albeit he’s been under considerable restrictions with multiple deals in the summer scuppered due to the transfer embargo. I’ll go through one-by-one to try and delve deeper into the failures and successes of Pressley’s transfer dealings.
Mathieu Manset – The enigma of the season so far, relatively impressive during his substitute appearances until November when he fell off the face of the earth. A clear lack of fitness and his frustration of being behind Wilson and Leon Clarke in the strikers queue has left him frozen out of first-team affairs.
Andy Webster – Was meant to bring experience and composure to the defence but if anything has cost the team more goals than the supposedly poorer defender Jordan Clarke. However his aerial ability have been an asset to a side generally lacking in height and cannot be solely blamed for a lack of protection from midfield. A solid signing overall but maybe disappoints due to the expectations of him when coming in.
Stuart Urquhart – Yet to be included in the first-team even during defensive crises, one for the future.
Jamar Loza – Short-term loan signing to cover for the disappearing Manset but never really given a chance to play.
Chris Dagnall – A willing runner and worker more than anything. Had good games and bad games during his loan spell including telling contributions against MK Dons and Peterborough but ultimately won’t be missed upon his return to Barnsley.
Danny Seaborne – Signed during our worst run of the season and helped steady the ship defensively. Not an influential or dominant centre-back nor did we see any noticeable defensive improvement but he did help get both Webster and Jordan Clarke out of the firing line during a sticky spell. Ruined his loan spell with a dumb suspension for aiming a punch at Jonson Clarke-Harris against Oldham.
Chris Maguire – Went from hero during the MK Dons game with two brilliant goals from direct free-kicks. Followed that up with a mediocre display against Crewe, then dropped for the Swindon game and eventually recalled by Sheffield Wednesday. Technically an outstanding player but lacks the work-rate to fully integrate into Pressley’s style of football.
Denzel Slager – Signed at a rush due to an injury to Callum Wilson and loan spells ending. Underwhelming against Barnsley but too early to judge him.
A remarkable season thus far that has seen all the usual characteristics of a Coventry side turned on its head. Typically a Coventry team and manager would have used the summer’s tribulations as an excuse for under-performing. Steven Pressley though had forged a strong collective mentality and a style of play based on hard work as well as skill. Almost all of the players who remained from last season have improved this season as what should have been a relegation struggle has become a possible charge for promotion.
The squad remains small and it seems imminent that Pressley will change his tactics or make a big signing in order to overcome the potential problems that having a small squad may cause in the run-in. The blip during the end of November was a sign of the doom and gloom that many predicted and thus survival remains the ultimate priority. Financially though the cup tie with Arsenal may allow the club to prevent insulting offers for the star players at least until the summer so we should be able to have a proper go at achieving at least play-offs this season.