The Wrap: Brentford – 0-2

Another game against one of the better teams at this level, another defeat, another performance that offered little encouragement. If this team don’t improve, it’s going to be a long season.

The Sky Blues were fortunate to go in level with Brentford at half-time, with the hosts spurning several excellent opportunities with the Coventry City defence at sixes and sevens. Brentford’s profligacy in the opening 45 ultimately didn’t matter, taking the lead just after the break and soon extending it to completely take the game away from the Sky Blues.

Neither One Thing Nor The Other

When you’re the underdog in football, there’s two broad approaches you can take. You can either sit back in an attempt to restrict the opposition’s threat, or you push players forward in an attempt to unsettle them. With either approach, there’s always the likelihood that the opposition will win if they play to their expected standards, but you at least give yourself a chance of getting a result.

What was so dismaying about this Sky Blues showing was that we were neither particularly stern at the back, nor did we cause Brentford’s defence too many problems while the game was still in the balance. The only hope we had of getting a result was if Brentford had somehow failed to realise that they had yet to convert their dominance into goals.

Mark Robins’ biggest decision heading into the game was to go with two up front, which was something I suggested after the supine showing against Bournemouth. However, it didn’t work because the performance from the team overall wasn’t assertive enough to make having an extra body up front a factor in the game from an attacking perspective.

The midfield set-up was a particular issue as the trio of Ben Sheaf, Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare were unable to impose themselves on the game. With Ben Sheaf sitting deepest, he was often overwhelmed in his attempts to shield the defence and get the team moving forward in possession, with Allen and O’Hare struggling to figure out when to push forward to support the strikers and when to drop back and help out Sheaf.

From a defensive perspective, the concern with the goals we conceded – as well as the overall ease with which Brentford created chances – is that we had bodies in our penalty area. That wasn’t the issue, it was that we struggled to put pressure on the ball to prevent it getting into our penalty area. Part of that stems from moving to two up front, but we seem to have retained the mentality from last season that we can deal with balls into the penalty area without accounting for the better quality of delivery and movement from opposition forwards.

We’re either going to adopt a sterner approach in preventing opponents getting into dangerous areas, or we’re going to need to push players forward to gain the attacking threat to counterbalance a relative lack of quality in defence. Currently, we’re trying to balance our approach and have become a team that is neither particularly threatening nor resolute.

The Importance of the Wing-Backs

The two goals that Brentford scored today came from from our wing-backs failing to prevent their opponent from progressing the ball into the box. Much of the game was characterised by our wing-backs having dropped almost into line with the centre-backs, forming a back-five. Not only did this leave space in front of them in wide areas for Brentford to exploit, but it stymied our attacking threat.

This deeper positioning may have been driven by the opening stages of the game, where Brentford’s front three lined up directly against our centre-backs and wreaked havoc with their movement and combination play. By the wing-backs dropping deeper, it meant there were extra bodies on either flank to prevent that path to goal for Brentford’s wide forwards.

However, it wasn’t enough given the respective quality of our defenders against Brentford’s attacking play. Like attempting to pull a short blanket up to cover your body, you leave another part exposed. By attempting to protect the space between our centre-backs and wing-backs, we left that area in front of the wing-backs exposed.

The defensive positioning of wing-backs can be a difficult balance to strike, however, by dropping so deep it harmed both the defensive and attacking side of our game.

As we saw later on here, when our wing-backs could be brought into play in the opposition half, we were a genuinely threatening proposition. The last two defeats have been characterised by the lack of involvement of our wing-backs in attacking areas. It may be risky to potentially leave our centre-backs one-versus-one against Championship forwards, but if there isn’t much of a defensive benefit to gain by leaving our wing-backs deep, it’s surely a risk that has to be taken.

Searching For Positives

Although the improved performance over the final 30 minutes of the game came at a time where Brentford were comfortably ahead in the game, it could prove important if it is taken as a message to the players that they can influence a game against a team of the calibre of Brentford if they are willing to be bolder in their approach.

Adding an extra midfielder to return to the 3-4-2-1 seemed to provide the team with a level of familiarity with what they were attempting to do. In addition, having a more natural wing-back on the pitch in Sam McCallum – even on his wrong side – gave the team a much-needed additional outlet out wide, allowing the team to switch the play effectively.

Suddenly, players who have been reviled for much of the campaign – namely, Ben Sheaf, Jordan Shipley and Jamie Allen – looked imposing. Suddenly, we had control of possession. Suddenly, we were creating chances.

Going back to the caveat, it’s easier to take risks when you have nothing to lose. It was notable that Brentford put less pressure on the ball in our half during the closing stages of the game. The challenge is not only producing that final 30 minutes performance when it genuinely matters but against teams that look to press us – which has seemingly been identified as an area of weakness for us.

It’s still relatively early in the season and it’s important to remember that we have few players with much experience at this level. Things can go one of two ways from here; either defeats like this teach this side what is required to take the step up to Championship football or it festers into a losing mentality. With six games to come in the space of 18 days, the juncture where we learn where that scale will tip could be very soon.

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