The Wrap: Sunderland – 1-1

Another big game, another big performance from this burgeoning Sky Blues side. Against a Sunderland side that showed, in spells, that they belong in a division higher, Mark Robins’ charged produced an energetic display to prevent the visitors dominating the contest. Jonson Clarke-Harris’ equaliser earned the team a well-deserved point, but a late miss from Conor Chaplin, when clean through on goal, denied the team a famous three points.

A Point Salvaged

While Mark Robins is still yet to win a home game from a losing position in his second spell at the club, he was an unfortunate miss from Conor Chaplin away from doing so against one of the most talented teams we’ve faced over the past 18 months.

There are a number of explanations as to why we have struggled to salvage wins from losing positions under Mark Robins, with the chief one being that the manager tends to be risk-averse in setting the team up and in making changes throughout the game. The approach tends to be predicated on preying on opposition errors rather than swarming teams with spells of pressure. Furthermore, very little about the approach changes once we fell behind in games, except for late desperate substitutions bringing on strikers to play out wide.

Similar could be said about the performance both before and after falling behind in this game, except that it seemed the players took it upon themselves to press further up the pitch and take more risks. It was emblematic of this bolder approach that the equaliser came via Dujon Sterling pressing aggressively up from his unfamiliar left-back berth, causing Sunderland’s defence to dither, before squaring the ball for Jonson Clarke-Harris to sweep home.

Part of the reason why we were able to get back into this game is perhaps because Sunderland didn’t seek to kill the game after going in front, whereas a more pragmatic away side may have sat deeper, wasted time and tried to hit us on the counter-attack.

However, it is a promising sign that we saw a determination from individuals to move up through the gears and cause a side featuring a couple of players who were Premier League regulars two seasons ago genuine problems. In particular, Tom Bayliss is such an asset for this team when he gets on the front foot from the centre of the park, Luke Thomas is a real dynamo down the right flank, and the strike partnership of Jonson Clarke-Harris and Conor Chaplin is dangerously close to clicking in a lethal manner.

The Merits Of A Settled Line-Up

The first five or six games of the season were characterised by chopping and changing of the starting XI from Mark Robins and some very disjointed performances. It is no coincidence that the team has improved – barring last week’s horror show at Bristol Rovers – since Robins has opted for a much more settled starting XI in recent weeks.

While new signings such as Conor Chaplin, Luke Thomas and Dujon Sterling are starting to bed-in, some of the more promising performances have been from players who were around last season. Dominic Hyam’s development at centre-back this season has been remarkable compared to the nervous, error-prone youngster who initially came to the club. Jordan Willis and Lee Burge seem much more reliable performers than 12 months ago, while the understanding between Michael Doyle and Tom Bayliss gives us a platform in midfield.

In particular though, it has been the performances of Jonson Clarke-Harris in recent weeks that have really shown how a run of games can transform a player. Barring a handful of decent showings last year, Clarke-Harris had struggled to convince after arriving on loan in January, he was third-choice in attack by the time the play-offs came around and seemingly relegated further down the pecking order after the summer signings of three new strikers.

Although the injury to Maxime Biamou has provided him with less (or, zero) competition for the target-man role this year, Clarke-Harris is playing with a level of purpose that fully justifies his staring place. Last year he seemed unsure over whether he was a target-man striker or someone looking to run in behind to unleash that powerful left-footed shot of his, now that he has been given a defined role as the pivot point in attack, we’re beginning to see why he was a club record signing for a Championship side four years ago.

A Bad Miss

It would be remiss to leave out Conor Chaplin’s high-profile miss when clean through on goal in the final stages of this game. The former Portsmouth man has made an undeniably positive impact on this side, but he was signed to score goals and he is now five games into his Coventry City career without one in open play.

It will be interesting to see how much patience is afforded Chaplin’s way if his goalless streak continues. With Amadou Bakayoko and Jordy Hiwula waiting in the wings, along with Tony Andreu who offers a slightly different option, there is competition for his place in the side.

For now, the suspicion is that Mark Robins will be as patient with Chaplin to play himself into form as he was with Marc McNulty last year. At the same stage in their respective Coventry City careers, Chaplin has offered more than McNulty – who could almost be described as a passenger for his first 10-15 appearances – not only as a goal threat but as someone who can link the play in attack and facilitate the goalscoring of others.

Right now, Chaplin can be afforded some lee-way as he is at least doing the right things to get into goalscoring positions – which Hiwula, Bakayoko and even Tony Andreu struggled to do earlier this season – but this could soon become a test of Mark Robins’ faith in his big summer signing as well as the self-belief of a young player if five games without a goal in open play goes on for much longer.

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