After a week that saw the club miss out on a key transfer target, sold it most talented player and kick-off another spell outside of Coventry, getting the campaign off to a winning start was more than welcome. It may not have been the kind of performance to get overly excited about as thoughts turn to what may be possible in a new season, but it is one that helps ameliorate the increasing anxiety around the club. Especially for such a new-look team, getting three points on the board at the first attempt allows a little breathing room into the opening few weeks of the campaign.
Adrenaline, Energy Levels and Nerves
Opening day games are typically strange affairs dictated more by adrenaline, energy levels and nerves than by the factors that decide how the rest of the season unfolds. The Sky Blues controlled much of the game but it was a control that generally relied upon energetic moments of pressing or quick attacking interchanges over sustained and measured spells of pressure. Once the energy levels dropped towards the end of each half, Southend United built some momentum of their own and may feel they could have salvaged something having been second-best for the majority of the 90 minutes.
It was the performances of Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke that were probably the most crucial in the victory. The most advanced midfielders in Mark Robins 4-3-3 formation, Shipley and Westbrooke had a lot of work to do with and without the ball. Without the ball, they had to press the opposition while also aiding Liam Kelly in protecting the back four. With the ball, they had to both help retain possession and make runs into dangerous areas in order to support the front three.
It wasn’t an easy job, especially while still short of the energy levels required to last 90 minutes comfortably. Both players demonstrated that they are not only good technicians but that they have the determination to impose themselves on the pitch. Of the two, it was Westbrooke who shined most due to his consistent composure throughout the 90 minutes. His goal was richly deserved, as does the chance to establish himself in the starting XI over the next few games.
All over the pitch, it was a case of players attempting to cover over a lack of fluency as an attacking and defensive unit with work-rate. It saw us fashion some decent chances but not with the frequency to earn more than a one goal victory. Defensively, there were a few lapses in communication that could have led to chances for Southend had players not put in the effort to cover their, or their colleagues’, errors.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was unlikely to be on day one with so many new faces and with fitness short of peak levels.
The Risks and Rewards of Playing Out From the Back
It is clear from this opening day performance that playing out from the back is going to be a key feature of our play this season. Kyle McFadzean and Michael Rose are centre-backs who are confident in their ability to receive and pass the ball, while Marko Marosi in goal was often quick to sweep up and distribute in a ‘sweeper keeper’ role.
When executed well, the major benefit of playing out from the back is that it draws the opposition further up the pitch and creates gaps between and behind them that can be exploited. Many of our better moments in the game came from the goalkeeper and centre-backs on the ball receiving the ball under pressure before lofting passes into the midfield three to begin quick transitions up the pitch.
The downside to playing out from the back is that when things go wrong, it tends to lead to clear-cut chances for the opposition. When Southend made the change to go with two men up front, it put that ball-playing unit at the back under a lot more pressure than they had been accustomed to. Southend’s forward, Stephen Humphrys, seemed to sense Marko Marosi could be caught out dallying with the ball at his feet, blocking a clearance early on which seemed to provide the signal to take fewer risks playing the ball out.
However, the pressure later on in the game came when the team started to look for longer balls over and behind the Southend defence a little too eagerly and without willing runners. Along with the drop in energy levels, it meant that Southend had an easier time building attacks and could start again pretty quickly once moves broke down.
Having doubled-down on a more possession-oriented approach over the summer, it should be expected that we will concede some soft and avoidable goals playing out from the back. However, this game was also a demonstration that, as both an attacking and defensive approach, it could be the best use of the squad at our disposal, if executed correctly.
A New Chapter In Exile
It would be remiss of me not to comment about the atmosphere and feeling around the game as the club begin this new, depressing, chapter in its history.
The overriding feeling about the atmosphere was positive. In contrast to Sixfields, the setting felt more akin to the Ricoh Arena, while having everyone packed tightly into one stand seemed to help generate the kind of noise that was often absent in Northampton.
Whether it can be maintained once the novelty factor wears off remains to be seen. The situation the club has found itself in as a farce and one that will grow each second that a return to the city cannot be found. A decent atmosphere and three points counts for very little in the wider scheme of things. I’m sure both those who did go and those that didn’t would agree that a miserable loss in Coventry is far better than any number of victories in a scenario where somewhere else is home.