Welcome to the Coventry City 2019-20 league season. The Sky Blues are playing away from home, which means that they will take the lead but fail to win and concede in the final minutes. It is now December and the trend seems to show no sign of abating, with this latest game at Shrewsbury Town yet another example of the team’s inability to control an away game from a winning position.
When Taking The Lead Can Be Counter-Productive
An even and scrappy first-half where we had taken the lead could have been the platform to that elusive first away league win of the season. Instead, the second-half saw all the momentum with Shrewsbury Town, becoming a case of when, not if, our opponents would take at least a share of the points.
Despite the second-half seeming to be a change in pattern to the first, the opening 45 minutes set the tone for the rest of the contest. Shrewsbury Town’s pressing disrupted our rhythm when passing the ball out from the back, when we went longer to get out of our own half, Maxime Biamou was marshalled by three centre-backs, meaning that even if he won the first ball, Shrewsbury were favourites for the second. Shrewsbury’s added pace in the second-half made all the difference between frustrating us with the press and threatening us with it.
While the lead seemed to convince Mark Robins that the game-plan was working, it placed the emphasis on Shrewsbury to alter theirs in an attempt to turn the game around. Even when it was apparent that the momentum of the game had swung in Shrewsbury’s favour, nothing about our game-plan changed. We continued to pass the ball around riskily in defence and continued to then be forced into aimless punts forward towards a marked centre-forward.
This wasn’t a case of a Coventry City side taking a lead and receding into its shell to try and hold on. This was a case of a team stuck in second gear, neither slowing things down to protect the lead nor speeding things up to hit the opposition on the counter. We did neither and ended up with zero points from a winning position.
The (Lack of) Defensive Shape
Previous Mark Robins Coventry City sides had been almost synonymous for their stronger performances away from home, which has not been the case this season. Whereas before the focus seemed to be on building a team around a solid defensive shape, this side is much more focused on playing with the ball than without it.
With full-backs that are better going forward than they are defensively, adequate protection from the midfield is vital in stopping the opposition finding space between them and our slow centre-backs. However, the midfield is packed with technical players who look uncomfortable having to put in a defensive shift. This means that we are often quite open without the ball.
The caveat is that it is a sacrifice that has to be made in order to encourage better attacking play. However, not being clinical enough to extend leads into two goals means that there is pressure on the defence whenever we do take the lead to put out the fires that our lax defensive shape can cause.
Right now, Mark Robins seems content to continue to focus on our attacking play in the belief that if we can score more goals, our defending becomes less of an issue. If we continue to be wasteful and relatively unthreatening in attack, we could really hit the rails over the second half of the campaign.
Our Best Shape
After starting the season with a 4-3-3 system, Mark Robins was forced into changing things up to a 3-4-2-1 due to injuries, now that the injury situation has started to clear up, the manager has opted for a 4-2-3-1 over the past two games featuring five natural central midfielders occupying the two and the three in the formation.
There were moments in this game where the slightly odd set-up threatened to work, with Jordan Shipley and Callum O’Hare coming inside from their wings to play some nice exchanges around the Shrewsbury penalty area, however, those moments often fell flat from players attempting one too many flicks or not having their team-mates read what they were trying to do.
Perhaps this is a system that will work given time, but it feels awfully like an attempt to play as many of our best players as possible rather than something that is coherent within a wider game-plan. It seems likely that it will take one or two good players being dropped – or allowed to leave altogether – to make what is currently a collection of nice parts into something that functions more effectively as a whole.