Come-from-behind wins are starting to become a habit for Mark Robins’ Sky Blues at St Andrew’s. A makeshift Coventry City side, featuring two youngsters making their first ever starts in the Football League, recovered from being caught on the counter in the first-half by Rochdale to turn a game around that they largely controlled without looking particularly threatening in front of goal. A moment of brilliance from Liam Walsh, running from the half-way line and beating four defenders, looks set to be what a hard-fought win will come to be remembered for.
The Freewheelin’ Shipley & Westbrooke
With just one out-and-out striker in the starting line-up Amadou Bakayoko and our other attacking options either injured, suspended, not trusted by Mark Robins or youngsters not ready for first-team football, the manager’s solution was to play Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke in much more advanced positions than they’ve played in their careers to provide Bakayoko the attacking support. Building on strong performances last week in the FA Cup, the duo seemed to revel in the freedom that playing further forward afforded them, linking up expertly for the equalising goal just before half-time.
Although Jordan Shipley was the goalscorer, it was Zain Westbrooke who arguably put in the more impressive performance. Westbrooke’s movement and use of the ball was intelligent, coming short for the ball when needed, using the ball intelligently and also getting forward as an attacking option when required, much of what was good about the team performance came through him. Shipley had less of an overall influence on the game, but in scoring for the second game running, demonstrated his effectiveness as an advanced midfielder.
While there was a lack of conviction once we got into the penalty area, the effectiveness of Shipley and Westbrooke in those advanced roles meant that we seemed at times to have four central midfielders and three forwards. What had looked an uncomfortable adaptation to the players currently available is beginning to look like something worth persevering with once we have more attacking options available.
Passing With Tempo
With the team packed with midfielders, there was a strong chance that this performance would be defined by a tedious passing tempo with little threat. As mentioned above, while we struggled to put away the chances we created, we weren’t any less creative despite only having one out-and-out forward on the pitch. This was because we moved the ball around quickly and used the width of the pitch effectively.
Beginning with the centre-backs who were all comfortable in possession, the ball was being moved out of defence quickly and with intent. The wing-backs were constantly available in wide and advanced positions to supply the attacking width. While there was movement and intelligence in midfield that meant we were rarely simply passing the ball in front of a set opposition defence.
There were a number of presentable crosses and cut-backs that we worked through our purposeful build-up play that, with a better quality centre-forward, could have made for a much more comfortable win. Unfortunately, with that lack of a goalscoring presence in the penalty area, it was going to take a moment of individual brilliance to make the decisive breakthrough in the second-half with Rochdale seeming to sit-off us – likely in the belief that it was unlikely that we were going to score by playing through them.
While it could perhaps be described as lucky that a winning goal came via a scarcely believable run and finish from Liam Walsh, we did enough of the right things in possession to feel as if we merited that kind of luck. The lack of a killer touch in front of goal remains our biggest concern, but if we can find it, this kind of performance suggests that we have the quality elsewhere to consistently control games and play through determined opposition.
Stopping The Counter
For all of the encouraging build-up play, this was a game that we could very well have lost had the opposition been more clinical in front of goal themselves. In the first-half in particular, it seemed that any time we lost the ball would be punished by a Rochdale counter-attack and chance on goal, it’s hard not to feel that the lack of a defensive-minded midfielder in the side played a role in this fragility.
With Rochdale playing with a front three, it meant that the three central defenders could be isolated against their forwards in transition with both Liam Walsh and Josh Eccles struggling to impose themselves physically on the game. The young debutant, Declan Drysdale, felt particularly vulnerable, making two high-profile errors in succession that eventually resulted in Rochdale’s goal.
Had Rochdale taken just one more of the chances they got on the counter-attack, it would have brought into sharper focus the need for protection in midfield for the defence. Heading into some difficult fixtures in the weeks to come, having Liam Kelly back in the side will be important.