It’s games like these that make you question why you even like football. 1-0 up in second-half injury time, the Sky Blues were on course for an important league win. Instead, a calamitous goalkeeping error from Lee Burge handed Walsall a late equaliser, before a controversial penalty decision minutes later turned the game completely on its head.
A New System
Having had 10 days to think through solutions to our recent winless run, Mark Robins made some big changes to personnel and the system for this game. The two key changes were dropping Michael Doyle and switching from the 4-4-2 that had been in place for most of this season to a 4-3-3.
The danger of taking a forward out of the side for an extra midfielder was that it would reduce our presence in the opposing penalty area. However, Robins utilised a versatile approach, with Jordan Shipley pushing out wide when we were in possession and Amadou Bakayoko pushing forward and centrally from his nominal left wing position.
Liam Kelly’s performance at the base of midfield fully justified the call to drop Michael Doyle. Not only did he act as a midfield shield, but his range and tempo of passing gave us a real dynamism in the centre of the park. This a performance more akin to the Liam Kelly that had excelled as a leader and midfield presence at Oldham Athletic and Leyton Orient, rather than the good cop to Michael Doyle’s bad cop that he’s mostly been since joining last summer.
For much of the first-half, this system gave us the midfield control that we had been craving in recent weeks, while also having a presence in the opposing penalty area. The opening goal came from a spell where we had flooded Walsall’s box with players, meaning that a poor attempted clearance from Junior Brown’s left wing cross landed to Luke Thomas in a position where he could score.
The Story Of The Season
The only concern about an excellent first-half performance was that we only had one goal to show for it. Even though the second-half performance saw a drop-off in the intensity and purpose with which we’d previously demonstrated, there were more than enough chances to score a second goal that would have killed the game off.
Jonson Clarke-Harris’ miss late in the second-half when through on goal epitomised just how close we came to finishing the game off, but Jordan Shipley, Luke Thomas and Amadou Bakayoko also contrived to fluff their finishes when in excellent goalscoring positions, while Conor Chaplin was simply a fish out of water as the lone striker. Moreover, the decision-making on the counter-attack let us down, with players seemingly over-eager or uncertain when in positions to make killer passes or pull the trigger.
The inexperience and lack of composure of this side at the moment was in full evidence in the second-half. While there appears to be a need for Mark Robins and his coaching staff to work on the technique of players’ finishing, building confidence and self-belief in the final third in competitive games is hard to achieve – which is why natural goalscorers are so invaluable.
It’s looking like Robins will have to make some big decisions in January, first in attempting to offload players who we need to find improvements on, secondly in bringing in the kind of players who can guarantee improvement. With a bloated squad, the first part is probably going to be the biggest challenge, don’t be surprised if Jordan Ponticelli and Reise Allassani come into the fold instead of new signings.
The second-half performance was very different from the first-half. The control we had of possession and the tempo of the game seeped away as we dropped deeper and deeper, handing the momentum to Walsall.
Whether this was an intentional tactical shift from Mark Robins to lure Walsall onto the counter-attack is difficult to say for certain, however, the failure to score a decisive second goal felt as if it contributed to the loss of belief in our initial approach to the game and made us increasingly panicky in defence.
Every failure to land that killer blow meant Walsall remained in the game, every ball forward that didn’t quite connect with a Sky Blue shirt gave Walsall a chance to unleash another wave forward, every moment of uncertainty handed Walsall the belief that a goal was set to come.
The two goals conceded were simultaneously avoidable and freakish. To concede from a long punt forward on a windy afternoon and then a soft penalty is unfortunate. Yet they were situations that we invited upon us by sitting so deep and handing control and momentum to the opposition – that the penalty was conceded by Abu Ogogo, the late defensive substitute, epitomised this retreat into a bunker of our own making.
Still, as much as the two late goals conceded were about the shift to a negative mentality, this was a game defined by our failure to take chances to kill the game off. As we saw in reverse at Charlton Athletic back in October, a game at 1-0 is never over despite how much one team has dominated the contest.