It was yet another draw between Coventry City and Birmingham City at St Andrew’s. In a contest where a combination of cynical fouls and soft tumbles from both sides led to a stop-start affair, a tied scoreline reflected the lack of cutting edge on show at either end of the pitch.
The first-half was the liveliest portion of the game, with either side vying for superiority before Sam McCallum recklessly lunged into a challenge in the penalty area to hand Birmingham City the chance to move ahead, which they took. The Sky Blues rallied from that set-back, starting to get on the ball and in behind the Blues defence, before scoring via Callum O’Hare chasing down a lost cause to keep the ball in play, before Ben Sheaf belatedly teed up Gustavo Hamer to level the scores.
Birmingham City improved in the second-half, as the Sky Blues tired, but couldn’t carve open a resolute and diligent Coventry City side, with the game ending level.
The change to a 4-3-3 system over the past two games hasn’t made for free-flowing football, but it has meant that the opposition haven’t been able to get into much of a rhythm either.
Aside from the threat of Ivan Sanchez out wide, Birmingham City struggled to cause the Sky Blues too many problems from open play. Perhaps more could have been done to prevent the number of corners and set-pieces that we conceded – which is where Birmingham came closest to scoring – but the stop-start nature of the game allowed our defence to play in a settled manner for much of the game.
The defensive performance was less about how the back four acquitted themselves than it was the work that the central midfield trio and front three put in without the ball. Matty James, Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf did a good job of competing for first and second balls, meaning that Birmingham couldn’t break through us in the middle of the pitch, and, on occasion, helped get us on the front foot.
The front three of Maxime Biamou, Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare were also diligent, chasing down loose balls, winning free-kicks and generally giving Birmingham’s defence little time on the ball. While the link-up play wasn’t quite there – with the amount of offsides a particular frustration – they never gave up and provided the team an outlet throughout the 90 minutes, even as it became clear that they were tiring.
Although it was a performance largely about effort over quality, there were signs in this game that there may be better things to come with this new shape. Playing in a midfield three really seems to suit Matty James and Ben Sheaf, buying them both a little extra time on the ball. In addition, Gyokeres’ movement on the left of the front three saw him get into good positions, while O’Hare seems to be playing with a greater sense of freedom slightly away from a central position.
The 4-3-3 seems to provide the platform for this team to play in a more combative manner that, at the very least, keep us in games. The caveat is the quality of opposition we’ve faced over the past two games, but it feels that if we can maintain this level of diligence, effort and a little bit of aggression in our performances, it will help us compete against the better teams in this division and garner the points to stay up.
Defending Wide Areas
For all the praise that just doled out for the resoluteness of this performance without the ball, the major area of concern in this game was how exposed we looked in wide areas.
It wasn’t just that Josh Pask and Sam McCallum were individually bested at times against Birmingham City’s quick and skilful wingers, but that they were left in one-against-one, and often two-against-one, situations due to how high up the pitch Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare were staying out of possession. Pask at least was aided by Gustavo Hamer eventually coming across from the midfield three to help him out, McCallum was not only up against a very adept opponent in Ivan Sanchez but had less support from his team-mates.
It was probably a case of Mark Robins assessing the risk Birmingham posed out wide versus the reward of leaving our front three high up the pitch to get in behind their high defensive line. In the first-half in particular, we found a lot of joy in running in behind the space Birmingham’s defence left and we could have punished them with more than the one goal that we scored with better decision-making.
While it is better to be strong at defending in the middle of the pitch than wide areas – where there is generally less danger – better opponents are going to be able to make use of the time and space we left out wide in this game. With the set-up as it is, we are relying on our full-backs winning their duel with their winger – as well as an overlapping full-back.
Brainless In The Box, Again
It was our another penalty conceded and, yet again, it’s hard to have too many complaints about the award of it. It’s our ninth penalty of the season conceded – three more than any other team in the division – and accounts for just over a quarter of the goals that we have let in.
It was an agonising and infuriating moment as Sam McCallum challenged for a loose ball with Ivan Sanchez in the penalty area. It was obvious to anyone watching that the worst thing to do in that situation was to lunge in, yet that it was exactly what McCallum did, failing to get to the ball and felling Sanchez to the ground in the process.
Once again, our players have failed to recognise that there is a different level of danger to challenges made in the penalty area and it has cost us two points here that could have had a huge impact on the season. The total amount of points we’ve lost due to penalties is six, which would have us in the top-half (I know, it’s not as simple as that).
Just what is responsible for this brainlessness in the penalty area this season is anyone’s guess, I’m sure it will have Mark Robins stumped. Perhaps a lack of experience comes into it, but even the most experienced member of the defence, Kyle McFadzean, has been making the same kind of errors in judgement. If the penny hasn’t dropped by now, will it ever?