It was a frustrating evening at Deepdale for the Sky Blues who threatened to throw off the recent defensive shackles and play some good football but were undermined by a lack of a final pass and defensive errors to slip to a tame 2-0 defeat against an experienced and capable Preston North End side.
A bright opening period to the game was let down by Ben Sheaf getting caught on the ball by Preston’s Daniel Johnson on the edge of the penalty area to put the home side ahead. After rallying fairly well from that set-back, Preston punished some loose passing at the back in the build-up to a free-kick that they converted after some indecisive defending. From then on, the result was in little doubt.
The Benefits Of The 3-5-1-1
After three games in a row without scoring, something had to be done about our lack of attacking threat. On the face of it, persevering with a 3-5-1-1 system that had left the centre-forward incredibly isolated didn’t address those issues in attack, but there was clearly a more proactive mindset in the way the players took to this game.
In the first-half in particular, the benefits of having a midfield made up of energetic, technical players in Ben Sheaf, Gustavo Hamer, Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare looked like it was starting to come to fruition. While Sheaf was nominally the sitting midfielder, Hamer and Allen the wider midfielders and O’Hare playing just behind the striker, there was a great deal of freedom with which the four players interchanged positions to create openings around the penalty area.
Like the 3-4-2-1 of last season, this 3-5-1-1 may prove to be more than something forced by happenstance of injuries. As we’re not the most physically pre-possessing of teams, it may play to our strengths to pack the middle of the pitch and look to open up teams with the technical quality and movement that our midfielders are capable of producing. Additionally, it would be hard to drop either Dominic Hyam, Kyle McFadzean or Leo Ostigard from the defence, we have good attacking wing-backs, while Matt Godden has shown he can score goals as a lone forward even if he isn’t massively involved in the build-up play.
It was telling in the second-half, when we put on extra attacking players at the cost of that midfield shape, that we looked a lot less fluent and struggled to put Preston’s goal under sustained pressure. We struggled to move the ball forward as swiftly, we were outcompeted in the area in front of the defence and were left to hope that Maxime Biamou, Matt Godden and, later on, Will Bapaga, could win the ball against Preston’s physical back three.
This game showed that there may well be something in this system, but that it could take a little time for the players to get used to it and figure out useful combinations. At least, the calls for two up top may die down for a little while.
Ben Sheaf & The Habit Of Being In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time
If there is one player who could sum up this game for Coventry City, it is probably Ben Sheaf.
The Arsenal loanee may well feel that, in general, he had a pretty good game. He kept things ticking over in possession at the base of midfield nicely, got forward when he saw the opportunity to and broke up play fairly well in front of the defence – albeit, there were a few moments where he was outmuscled to leave the defence exposed. However, this will be another performance from Ben Sheaf that will be defined by the costly mistake he made. It may be harsh, but football is a low-scoring game where one minute can matter more than the other 89.
In Ben Sheaf’s defence, the error that he made in dallying on the ball in the build-up to Preston’s first goal isn’t entirely his fault. Dominic Hyam probably should have known better than to play a pass to a player with an opponent on his shoulder at the edge of the penalty area. In fact, a lot of the costly mistakes Ben Sheaf has made this season aren’t entirely his fault – the penalty he conceded recently against Wycombe Wanderers comes to mind.
The issue is that it has become a recurring theme that Sheaf often finds himself in the wrong position at the wrong time in games – or, the correct position to make a costly mistake. Once or twice can be forgiven, but when it happens continuously the question becomes whether a better player would just not get themselves in positions to make mistakes.
Risk Without Reward
For the positive that we approached this game with a brighter, more proactive mindset, we come out of it having conceded two goals from attempting to play out from the back and without having created much more than we have in recent weeks.
In terms of shots, we took five more than we did against Huddersfield, three more than we took against Stoke, and three fewer than we did against Sheffield Wednesday. In terms of Expected Goals, we only registered 0.64 (at the time of writing), which is the second-lowest since the Birmingham City game. In those terms, it’s hard to argue that there was any benefit to this change in approach.
As much as this game demonstrated some of the possible benefits from this 3-5-1-1 system, the two big issues in our build-up play was both the lack of bodies in the penalty area and the lack of willingness to take shots when half-openings presented themselves. There was a level of uncertainty in our attacking play, which could be a remnant of having been so defensive in recent weeks but could also simply belie a lack of quality.
We are not going to suddenly become an effective attacking unit in the Championship, the balance Mark Robins has to strike is in gradually evolving this team until it reaches a point where it can consistently take the games to opponents with picking up the results that will guarantee we’ll have another year to figure this division out. This game probably demonstrates why this team is not at the stage to be able to approach games at this level with an attacking mentality.