Four wins in a row, four goals at a ground we hadn’t won at since 1959, the Sky Blues cast off their struggles in front of goal this season to put a beleaguered Bradford City side to the sword. While it wasn’t as straightforward a win as the two early goals suggested it could be, this was a win emblematic of a side at the peak of its confidence.
An Uncomfortable Comfortable Victory
It all began with those two early goals – a header from a corner and a direct free-kick – that had a direct impact on how the rest of the game unfolded. We were two goals up in a game where we hadn’t played particularly well, Bradford were in desperate need of a response.
With an extra man in midfield, three in attack and constant diagonal balls in the area just in behind our back four, Bradford threatened to overwhelm us for much of the first-half. Dominic Hyam and Junior Brown in particular appeared to struggle with Bradford’s approach, while Michael Doyle and Tom Bayliss were simply bypassed in the centre of the park.
Having got to half-time with our two goal lead intact, Bradford’s belief had waned while we started to control the contest. That was until Bradford’s centre-back, Anthony O’Connor, scored the game’s best goal – a flick of a heel from a cross into the box – and our control of the game was briefly lost.
Control was swiftly restored when Conor Chaplin released Jordy Hiwula on the counter-attack minutes later and the forward squeezed a finish into the back of the net. Tom Bayliss then rolled the clock back to the 18th of May as he surged forward from midfield and clipped a daisy-cutter from the edge of the penalty area to make it 4-1 – game over, surely.
Bradford – in a parlous state off-the-pitch, in terrible form on it, three goals down – somehow refused to accept defeat. The preternaturally clinical defender O’Connor smashed home a half-volley after we struggled to clear a corner, before Luke Thomas’ took on the spirit of Jordan Clarke from this fixture back in 2013 in slicing a clearance perfectly into the path for Bradford to score from, only for the referee to disallow it for hand-ball.
It was an uncomfortable comfortable victory. For once, we showed a clinical edge in front of goal, yet we could easily have scored two or three more. It was a defensively stoic performance in the face of a team throwing the kitchen sink at us, but we still managed to concede two, nearly three, goals fairly shambolically.
The Value Of Set-Pieces
It is estimated that a team that is good at set-pieces can win as many as 10-12 points more over the course of the season than one that is average at them. There is a tendency to be sniffy about set-piece goals as they are viewed as independent from the rest of the game, but it is a perfectly valid source of goals that a team that struggles to score from open play cannot afford to turn their noses up at.
This season has seen a marked improvement in our productiveness from set-piece situations, coinciding with Michael Doyle taking command of the deliveries. For a player not associated with the accuracy of how he strikes the ball, he is certainly doing the business this season.
Had it not been for two set-pieces, we probably wouldn’t have been so comfortably in the lead in a first-half in which we struggled to exert control over. Had it not been for a set-piece, we wouldn’t have taken the lead against Southend on Saturday, or beaten Barnsley last month. That’s nine points already this season that have been won almost directly from set-piece situations.
As a result, we are now eyeing up a place in the top six if we can win on Saturday. In a parallel universe where we continued last season’s struggles from dead-ball situations, we could have been worrying about relegation.
Four league wins in a row is a rare feat at this football club, with Tony Mowbray’s vintage of 2015/16 the last to do so. Despite replicating what that enthralling side did at its very best, it still feels like this current side has improvements to make if it is to be viewed as being on a similar standing in future years.
Partially, it’s the result of this streak only taking us to just outside the play-offs, whereas that Tony Mowbray side won four games to go top of the division. Partially, it’s because this side feels less explosive, more goal-shy, more workmanlike than a team featuring Adam Armstrong, Jacob Murphy, Ryan Kent and John Fleck.
This run has come almost out of nowhere and has been, until this game, a series of narrow hard-fought victories. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, it’s quite encouraging – but it doesn’t quite create the same aura around this team that Tony Mowbray’s charges had.
Winning games becomes a habit, as much as losing games does, which may well have been the difference between the two sides in this game. The strength of this team is work-rate, collective rather than individual strength, and the belief that it can find ways to win.
Whether we can make this five wins in a row on Saturday, we’ll soon find out. Now that we’ve got ourselves into a good position with this excellent run, the true indicator of this side’s quality will be whether we can maintain the current standards we’re setting when we face the inevitable set-backs that happen over the course of a league season.
Right now, I don’t particularly care what’s coming around the corner and where we might be at the end of the season. It is mightily rare for Coventry City sides to win four in a row, I’m going to revel in this feeling for as long as possible.