The Sky Blues eked out an important win over Cardiff City to move three points clear of the relegation zone. It was a game won thanks to the sheer levels of effort and concentration the team put into the defensive side of their game, perhaps at the cost of attacking threat, and could well represent a turning-point in the battle against the drop.
In a game of few chances, Tyler Walker seized upon an error at the back from Cardiff City to confidently hand Coventry City the lead early in the second-half. From that point onward, the Sky Blues managed the game with a level of composure that had been missing from previous performances this season.
Another Desperate Team Selection
Let me make clear that nobody is calling for Mark Robins to go. There is nothing that Mark Robins can do this season to get him the sack. The only reason he would leave is if he chooses to.
However, there have been signs from Mark Robins over the past couple of games that are similar to what managers do just before they get the sack. Specifically, the chopping and changing of team selections over the past few games could be construed as indicative of a man who has run out of ideas.
For this game, the starting XI consisted of a right-back, two central defenders, two left-backs, four central midfielders and a striker. It was hard to figure out just from seeing the team-sheet how that team would line up, with it being clear that at least one or two would have to be played out of position. It pointed towards a manager who has been forced to rip up his pre-season plan and was in need of a result to figure out the way forward.
In the event, that odd set of players lined up in a 4-3-3 shape, with left-back, Ryan Giles, being used as a right-sided forward and central midfielder, Jordan Shipley, as a left-sided forward – albeit, it is a position that Shipley has played in the past. To Mark Robins’ credit, the players looked much more comfortable in their roles in this game than they did last time out against Birmingham City.
The back four looked like they had been playing together for quite a while. At the same time, Liam Kelly, Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer rotated roles quite nicely in the centre of the pitch. It was only the front three that looked a little uncertain of what was expected of them.
It is crucial for any manager to back up deviations from their plans entering the season with results. Big changes can be necessary at certain points of the season but constantly chopping and changing often causes more harm than good. Taking four points and two clean sheets from the last two games lends credence to the big calls Robins has made recently.
Moving to a 4-3-3 may not have been his intended use for this set of players, but if it keeps us in this division, it won’t matter how Mark Robins has arrived at it.
12 Days Since Last Defensive Mistake
Conceding two goals a game was clearly unsustainable for any team hoping to survive in a division. While the step-up in quality has been difficult for us to deal with, the past two games have been a testament to how much a team can improve defensively simply by avoiding making mistakes.
Tactically, the switch to four at the back has allowed us to put more pressure on the ball in front of the defence – as discussed in more detail in The Wrap from the Birmingham City game. The improved of the side was strengthened here by the sheer willingness of the team across the pitch to stick diligently to their defensive roles.
A lot of credit for our defensive showing in this game has to go to the manner in which Kyle McFadzean led the back-line, the composure of Dominic Hyam alongside him, and the shielding job that Liam Kelly provided in front of those two. Cardiff City’s giant target-man centre-forward, Kieffer Moore, is clearly a difficult opponent to deal with, but between the three of them, they figured out whose job it was to challenge for the initial ball and whose job it was to drop-off and deal with the second-ball or push forward when the flick-ons went back into midfield.
McFadzean, Hyam and Kelly’s jobs were made easier thanks to the work put in by the rest of the team, particularly through the middle of the pitch. Tyler Walker’s relentlessness to challenge for long balls against Cardiff’s City giant centre-backs was crucial in grinding our opponents down – which led to Walker’s goal. While Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf were energetic in front of Liam Kelly in midfield to further slow down the supply line into Cardiff City’s attack.
We were exposed at times in wide areas, where both the full-backs seemed a little uncertain over their positioning and perhaps didn’t receive great levels of protection from their wingers either. However, because we were so strong in the middle of the pitch, it meant Cardiff either had to produce a moment of magic or hope for a mistake in order to score against us from open play.
We didn’t give Cardiff anything, which meant they had to work for any goal they might have scored here. That’s a crucial difference from what we’ve seen since the start of the campaign.
Scraps In Attack
The one area of concern from this game was that the front three were fairly peripheral as an attacking threat for much of the 90 minutes. If we are going to stick with this system, work is going to need to be done on our attacking shape – possibly involving changes of personnel.
For all of the credit that Tyler Walker deserves for a diligent performance up front and grabbing himself a goal, the concern is that he was barely involved for large swathes of the game due to a lack of support and a lot of hopeful, poor quality balls played towards him. There will be games to come where Walker doesn’t get to feed off an opposition error, that is when the service and support will need to be better.
Walker’s isolation was made worse by the Ryan Giles looking clearly uncomfortable on the right of the front three. Giles appears to be quite a one-footed player and struggled to control the ball at times when required to do so on his right-foot, which limited his threat. His best spells in the game came when he found himself on the left and could more comfortably drive directly at opposition defenders, however, he continued to play on the right for the majority of the game.
With Jordan Shipley simply not quick enough to provide a threat on his own as a wide-forward, it meant that there were extended spells where we played the ball forward with little conviction. It felt like the team could have done with the physical presence of Maxime Biamou or the energy of Amadou Bakayoko in that forward line just to ease some of the pressure on the defence.
While the lack of attacking threat may well go hand-in-hand with the increased defensive focus, it is the most obvious area of the team that can be improved upon in the weeks to come. If we lose defensive concentration or opponents produce moments of magic, we’ll need to go up through the gears in attack. We don’t appear quite ready to do so yet.