The unbeaten run across all competitions was stretched to four games, as the Sky Blues grabbed a third victory of the season in our new surroundings of St Andrew’s. A controlled first-half display was rewarded via a Jordan Shipley effort after some forward-thinking play from Wesley Jobello, substitute Gervane Kastaneer then stepped up as nerves were fraying in a tense second-half with an emphatic power-strike to announce himself as potentially the new maverick in chief at Coventry City. Seven points on the board, zero goals conceded, it is looking increasingly like a positive start to the league season.
Diamonds Aren’t Forever
If there was a clear area where the battle of this game was won and lost, it was the space afforded down the flanks to our full-backs, the result of Bristol Rovers’ narrow diamond formation. Especially in the first half, both Brandon Mason and Fankaty Dabo were constantly available as the out-ball when we were in possession, with Bristol Rovers doing very little to close them down.
Mason and Dabo are both very technical and mobile full-backs, capable of receiving the ball under pressure and then carrying the ball up the pitch in a positive manner. Mason showed the intelligence in this game to come both inside and outside in running with the ball, while Dabo looks to be a slightly more direct carrier of the ball and much more willing to put crosses into the box – most notably, with a cross in the second-half towards Amadou Bakayoko that should have been rewarded with a goal.
It was not only in the way the duo stretched the play, but the way they linked with their team-mates that further stretched Bristol Rovers and created gaps elsewhere. This was a particular feature down the left wing, where Mason, Jordan Shipley and Jordy Hiwula showed signs of combining very effectively and looking like a key creative axis for this team.
If anything, we could have done even more with our full-backs to stretch Bristol Rovers and really turn the screw on them. Had we been a little quicker to build attacks on one side before quickly switching the ball to a full-back in space, our opponents could have stretched to breaking point and it may have lead to more, higher quality, chances than we created over the 90 minutes.
The Midfield Presence
Probably the biggest area for concern in this game is the lack of presence and control in central midfield, ahead of the imperious Liam Kelly playing that shielding role in front of the defence.
Although Jordan Shipley grabbed himself a goal and showed some good moments of link-play down the left side of the pitch, he was a little loose in possession over the 90 minutes. This could be excused in light of his goal, but this became an issue in the second-half especially because his midfield colleague, Zain Westbrooke, offered much less both with and without the ball.
In the second-half, the lack of movement and composure that Shipley and Westbrooke offered between the defence and forward-line meant that we were had to choose between passing the ball to little effect between our defenders or send long and hopeful punts towards a tiring front three. It allowed Bristol Rovers to press up a little higher, able to either force the ball back directly from pressing our defenders or to regain possession after an inaccurate longer ball.
There may be room for either Shipley or Westbrooke in a midfield three where the other two midfielders are more precise and assertive with and without the ball, with both of them together in the centre of the park, there seems to be a lack of craft, composure and presence that may become an issue against better teams, or in games we need to claw ourselves back into after falling behind.
Three Clean Sheets, More To Come?
We have achieved in three league games what it took us eight last season to do – keep three clean sheets. Not only that, but Marko Marosi has only really had a couple of saves to make across the 270 minutes of league football we’ve played thus far.
Nonetheless, it is too early to be overly confident about our defensive unit. The key reason being that it is impossible to tell thus far – although I have a suspicion as to the answer – whether we have defended well or have simply faced a poor quality of opposition.
On the positive front, Michael Rose looks to have settled in at centre-back very quickly and appears a calming presence at the back. Brandon Mason at left-back has dealt with being physically targeted by opponents very effectively – particularly in this game where Jonson Clarke-Harris looked a man on a mission to bully Mason – in addition to being positive further forward. Fankaty Dabo, meanwhile, has settled down on the other flank after a ropey start to look a very composed and energetic presence.
The two question marks about the defensive unit are Kyle McFadzean’s aggressive approach – which isn’t without its effectiveness, the concern is the gaps he leaves when things go wrong – and the defending of set-pieces and crosses into the box.
The set-piece and crossing weakness looks two-fold. Firstly, it seems that either our marking system is inadequate or we don’t have enough aerially dominant players to be fully confident repelling teams in these situations. Secondly, there have been a couple of moments where Marko Marosi has looked suspect claiming crosses, with one particularly notable flap during the second-half of this game.
So far, there is little to complain about our defending. Things should hopefully improve, from the strongest of starts, as the defence gets used to each others’ games and via time on the training pitch to iron out one or two collective issues. However, it looks like the key strength at the back thus far has been in avoiding the issue entirely, Portsmouth away on Tuesday night look set to put that under the microscope.