The news today that Tom Bayliss has left the club provides the biggest blow to the quality available to Mark Robins within the squad that we have experienced this summer, much more so than missing out on the one or two potential final signings we have been linked with.
Curiously though, Bayliss leaves the club at a time where his status among several quarters of the Sky Blues fan-base is lower than it’s ever been. Perhaps he set standard too high in his first season that would be hard to realistically live up to, perhaps it’s just the classic backlash against young players who burst onto the scene – James Maddison being a prime example – that we see time and time again in football.
Bayliss is a curious kind of midfielder in his playing style. Arguably, his biggest strength is not in playing telling passes but in his ability to carry the ball up the pitch in the centre of the park. As a result, he is someone who finds it easy to get into dangerous positions but doesn’t quite get the goals and assists he has the opportunity to get.
Part of that is the result of being a young player who is still learning his trade. Often it would seem he would play passes that his team-mates weren’t anticipating, perhaps the result of Bayliss expecting others to be able to see the same game that he does. In his first season, this was less of an issue because there was more time and space in League Two football. At a higher level, he had to adapt to a finer level of precision.
Nonetheless, Bayliss’ ability to open the centre of the pitch up was a threat for us in and of itself. The number of central midfielders in League One who can carry the ball through congested central midfield areas is incredibly rare. Knowing we had a threat from a deeper-lying midfielder dragged opponents further forward to deal with Bayliss and opened up space for our other forwards to operate in.
The choice of Preston North End as the club that he moves to may feel depressing from a Sky Blues perspective that they are a bigger draw these days, but it is an intelligent one from Bayliss’ perspective as it should allow him to play regular football. This is similar to the decision made by James Maddison to move to Norwich City, which provided him with a more natural progression to Premier League football than moving to a big club early and risking being forgotten about. Additionally, this could well prove to be a career choice that benefits Coventry City as it should mean that a sell-on fee could be in the offing in a season or two with Preston themselves a club that have to sell talent to compete in their division.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bayliss is ready to play Championship football right now. The idea that he had a quiet, or even a poor, season last year belies a basic understanding of the game derived only from goals and assists. It may take Bayliss leaving for it to come to be understood just how important a player he has been for us since making his debut back in December 2017.
As ready as Bayliss is for Championship football, there is a debate to be had over why he has been sold at this juncture rather than waiting a year for him to further establish himself as one of the top talents in League One and seeing his value rise from the reported circa £2 million we have received for him.
In Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke, we have two perfectly serviceable options in the centre of the park to step into Bayliss’ shoes who could become better players with the regular football they look set to get. Although a more limited player technically, Shipley probably boasts more of a goal-threat from central midfield, especially as part of a three-man midfield. Westbrooke meanwhile appears to be kind of player who can help us retain possession more comfortably, while his set-piece delivery could become a huge asset if he plays regularly.
The wider debate around selling Bayliss right now will depend on how that money is reinvested in the squad. Last season, when we sold Marc McNulty, it funded moves for Conor Chaplin, Amadou Bakayoko and Jordy Hiwula, two of which are established first-team players who could get better this season, the other was sold for reportedly around £1million. By contrast, when Callum Wilson and James Maddison were sold, they were replaced with loan players or free transfer signings who provided little to no sell-on value and took the club backwards as a result.
At the moment, it is hard to see who in this squad would be the next big sale. In a context where we are playing outside of our home city and with diminished crowds, our ability to have players who can be sold on for profit is imperative for the financial health of the club – as unambitious as that sounds.
Whatever you may think Tom Bayliss’ importance to the team this season may have been, his sale during a summer in which we have already sold a player for a sizeable fee raises uncomfortable questions about the health of a club in exile. What happens next is crucial not only for this season but for seasons to come. While the squad looks a little short, making panic loan signings would only serve, at best, a short-term benefit. Is unique a player Tom Bayliss is, the task for the club now is to find the next one.