Football is back and, this time, we actually get to live, breath and see it. The first Coventry City league game in front of Coventry City fans in 18 months, the first Coventry City league game in Coventry in two years and four months.
At some point, that joy of being back will give way to the anxieties that come with a full season of football, but this is the moment that we have been waiting for. With Nottingham Forest bringing a sizeable away following, this game promises to provide the sense of occasion that comes with Championship football that was the reward for the club’s eight-year quest to return to this level that was missed out on last year. It’s now up to the players to make this occasion a memorable one.
After a challenging pre-season both in the transfer market and with various players missing periods due to Covid, the squad enters this first league game of the season looking a little undercooked. While Mark Robins will be able to get out a team close to what he is likely to see as his first-choice XI, it probably won’t be the full demonstration of what this team may be capable of due to a lack of fitness across the squad.
The defence is the biggest area of concern in that regard as Dominic Hyam and Michael Rose have missed the majority of pre-season. There are reports that suggest Chelsea centre-back, Jake Clarke-Salter, may arrive in time for this game but it would probably be less optimal to throw a new player into the mix in defence than go with a back-line that is lacking fitness but has an established understanding between one another.
Simon Moore looks set to start the season in goal. With the former Sheffield United man having played precious little football in recent years, he will likely want to lean on that understanding between the back three in front of him. As ever with goalkeepers, a few early mistakes can tar the impression fans have of their abilities, which can be hard to come back from.
In midfield, injuries to Liam Kelly and Josh Eccles for the first month or so of the season mean that Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer will start the new campaign as first-choice default. Both players will have a point to prove this year, with both ending last season out of favour for different reasons. A concern over that potential midfield duo is whether there is enough of a presence and physicality about them to take hold of the centre of the park at Championship level.
Up front, Viktor Gyokeres and Martyn Waghorn appear to be the men in favour with Mark Robins over pre-season. It is a combination that will provide the team with plenty of energy and a nuisance factor in attack, the question is whether either possess enough goals to make themselves a genuinely threatening strike partnership – especially with concerns as to whether Callum O’Hare, playing just behind them, can score goals himself.
Last Time We Met
This Coventry City side is likely to feel that they owe Nottingham Forest for the six points that were lost to the East Midlands in frustrating circumstances last season. The first game, at the City Ground, saw the Sky Blues react positively to falling behind, with Ben Sheaf producing arguably his best performance in a Coventry City shirt to take the game to Forest, only for a sloppy last minute penalty to hand the home side the win.
The most recent meeting, at St Andrew’s, saw the Sky Blues take the lead, only to retreat into their shell and allow Forest to turn the game on its head just after half-time. From that point onwards, Coventry City were well on top, with Julien Dacosta impressing mightily from right wing-back, but couldn’t find the breakthrough to earn a share of the points.
The Manager – Chris Hughton
A man almost synonymous with winning promotion from the Championship, Chris Hughton has found himself with a rebuilding job to do at Nottingham Forest. Taking over the club at a low ebb last season, Hughton steadied the ship enough to keep Forest in the division but never quite looked fully comfortable with the squad at his disposal.
Any hopes Hughton might have had of completely rebuilding a bloated Nottingham Forest squad over the summer have been shelved due to the difficulties of the Covid-impacted transfer market. With just one new player added to the squad, who is the back-up goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, this is a Nottingham Forest side that feels similarly undercooked to this Coventry City side. Perhaps more so, having had to cancel two friendlies over the past week due to a Covid outbreak at the club.
Who To Look Out For?
In the absence of new signings, the fresh energy in this Nottingham Forest side comes from academy graduates, Brennan Johnson and Alex Mighten. Johnson, an attacking midfielder, impressed mightily at Lincoln City in League One last season with his ability to carry the ball forward in central areas, with a more than a touch of skill and eye for a goal. Mighten is a pacey winger who has been around the squad for a few years as an impact substitute but looks set to take a big leap forward this season.
Making up that line of three behind the striker in Chris Hughton’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation is likely to be Joe Lolley. After a difficult, injury-hit, campaign last time out, Lolley’s directness and end product as a wide player shouldn’t be underestimated. It makes for a very exciting, dynamic Nottingham Forest attacking unit that the Sky Blues need to be wary of handing too much space to counter into. Similarly, Forest’s leading man in attack, Lewis Grabban, is off the back of a lean year in front of goal but has been the kind of striker at Championship level who can win games with just one touch.
At the back, Brice Samba in goal is one of the best in his position in the Championship. A charismatic presence between the sticks, while Samba can be somewhat erratic at his worst, he is someone with the bravery and confidence to dominate his penalty area and pull off eye-catching, acrobatic saves. Just in front of him, Joe Worrall at centre-back is dominant presence who has been courted by top-flight clubs for a few years, with either Tobias Figueiredo or Scott McKenna very capable partners for the academy-produced defender.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
With two rather pragmatic managers coming up against one another in Chris Hughton and Mark Robins, combined with the sense that neither team will be up to full speed for this game, this has the potential to be a pretty stodgy contest.
From a Nottingham Forest perspective, the concerns heading into this game is a lack of a ball-playing central midfielder – with Manchester United loanee, James Garner, yet to be replaced – a lack of cover for Mighten, Johnson and Lolley in attacking midfield areas, and a lack of fit, senior full-backs. It is likely to make Chris Hughton’s plan for this game to be primarily about sitting back in order to provide the opportunities for Mighten, Johnson and Lolley to hit the Sky Blues on the counter. The key question for this game may be whether Mark Robins willing to take the risk of pushing Coventry City up the pitch to dictate the game, risking being punished with Forest’s counter-attacking pace.
For the Sky Blues, being able to get in behind Nottingham Forest’s full-backs would be a key area of opportunity if the team played with wide players. As much as Mark Robins wants to set the team up to press with energy through Martyn Waghorn, Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare, that could be difficult for them to do against a likely six-man defensive phalanx of Nottingham Forest made up of a cautious back four and two defensive midfielders.
As was apparent towards the back-end of last season, this is the kind of game where set-pieces could be decisive in the final result. Without Sam McCallum’s long throws and with two new likely set-piece takers in Ian Maatsen and Martyn Waghorn, just how threatening the Sky Blues will be in those situations on the first day of the season is in question.