In what was a dull affair in front of the Sky TV cameras, the Sky Blues eked out a 0-0 draw with Birmingham City. It was a game of few chances, but one where our opposition had the best chances to win the game.
The point and clean sheet are welcome, but it was clear that significant improvements will be needed if this Coventry City team is to survive at this level this season.
The King’s Gambit
For the second Friday night game in a row, Mark Robins’ team selection raised a few eyebrows. It wasn’t so much about what changes were made but why there were made that was so perplexing. Having looked much more competitive in a 3-5-2 formation over the past few games and with no injuries to any important players – although it may have been driven by Michael Rose and Leo Ostigard not being available to train with the team over the international break – it was strange for Mark Robins to make such a big change to the system.
It was hard to tell from the team-sheet just how the players selected would line up. What was apparent was that four defenders, five midfielders and a striker had been chosen, but there were several potential ways in which those players – particularly the midfielders – could align themselves on the pitch.
From early on, it was apparent that the switch had been made to something close to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ben Sheaf and Liam Kelly were sitting alongside one another in central midfield, Jordan Shipley was on the left wing, Callum O’Hare through the middle and Gustavo Hamer in a right-sided position.
The decision to move Hamer away from the centre of the pitch for large spells of the game was the strangest decision. Hamer’s best attribute is his passing ability, moving him away from much of our build-up play didn’t seem a wise decision – even if he often floated into central areas. This was evidenced by Hamer creating just one chance in this game, whereas he created an average of four in the three previous games, when he was playing on the right of a central midfield three.
It felt like the players spent much of the game attempting to adapt to the change in system. We lacked fluency in possession – despite having an extra midfielder on the pitch – which seemed to be a result of players being utilised in unfamiliar positions and not knowing what runs to make and when. It was a particular issue in attack, where Tyler Walker made several excellent runs in behind Birmingham City’s defence but couldn’t convert them into chances as players weren’t making runs around him into dangerous positions.
Ryan Giles’ ability to turn the opposition with his bursts of pace down the left flank was missed, as was Maxime Biamou’s physical presence in attack. It was unsurprising that our best spell going forward in this game came when Mark Robins switched to a more familiar 3-4-1-2 shape for the final 25 minutes.
Defending With A Back Four Versus A Back Three
The main benefit to the change in system was that we contained Birmingham City fairly well before we reverted to a back three for the closing stages of the game. Three of the five shots that Birmingham City had in our penalty area came after the 68th minute – when Robins had changed to a back three. Even though playing with a back three (or five) means you are playing an extra defender, it doesn’t necessarily make you more effective defensively.
The key difference that we saw here between defending with a back four versus a back three is that a back four gives the team an extra player to put pressure on the ball in front of the penalty area. Birmingham City struggled to create chances through the middle of the pitch, tending to attempt to double up in wide areas to create crossing situations. The extra player in midfield meant we had a player on either flank to come across and prevent Birmingham overloading us on the wings.
The downside to playing with a back four is that you are more prone to counter-attacks as you have one less player back to cover when you lose the ball in possession. The most likely way Birmingham looked like getting chances when we were playing with a back four was through our defence and midfielders giving the ball away sloppily in dangerous areas – which we did quite often and went unpunished for.
Being able to switch between a back three and back four for different games could add to Mark Robins’ tactical armoury this season. When we’re likely to keep possession, playing a back three for the additional attacking threat may be the best decision. When we need to soak up pressure, a back four may be more suitable. Although the tactical switch hampered the quality of our performance in this game, it doesn’t mean that we should never use it this season.
Some Clean Sheets Are More Impressive Than Others
This was another game where our opponents had better chances than ourselves. While the shot count between the two sides was almost even, the Expected Goals for this game – at the time of writing, 11pm on 20th November 2020 – gave Birmingham City the edge, at 1.41 versus our 0.65. Most notably, Lukas Jutkiewicz had three excellent chances to win the game for his side.
Sometimes you keep a clean sheet by stopping the opposition scoring, sometimes you keep a clean sheet because your opponents don’t score. This game was the latter, from a Sky Blues perspective.
Having conceded at a rate of around two goals per game prior to this match, the clean sheet, regardless of the somewhat fortunate circumstances is more than welcome. Once again, Dominic Hyam stood out as our best defender, making a series of timely interventions to prevent Birmingham punishing our sloppiness at the back. In addition, Marko Marosi made one excellent save and seemed a little more commanding of his six-yard box than has been for much of the season.
Just how much this clean sheet and point matters depends on our performances and results over the next month. Any game against a team in the bottom-half of the table needs to be seen as an opportunity to win, which we didn’t do here. However, stopping the run of losing games and leaking goals that we were on represents a modicum of improvement.
We have had some fundamental issues this season, particularly in defence, that are unlikely to go away overnight. It will be a slow and steady march towards improvement, however, we have to make sure that when we get there, we are still in a position to survive in this division.