Coventry City rattled back into a confident mood with a stirring second-half performance against a talented Fulham side at the Coventry Building Society Arena.
After falling behind in the first-half from a corner-kick routine, it was hard to see the Sky Blues getting themselves back into the game. Too ponderous and lacking in ideas in possession, the absence of midfield playmaker, Gustavo Hamer, was keenly apparent.
The second-half could not have started better, with Fulham calamitously playing themselves into danger around their penalty area and Viktor Gyokeres converting after excellent work from both Matt Godden and Callum O’Hare. Godden then took a tumble in the penalty area soon afterwards and converted the spot-kick to quickly turn a deficit into a lead.
From then, Fulham looked shell-shocked and Coventry City were full of energy and inspiration. Ian Maatsen produced a thunderous finish to add a degree of comfort to the Sky Blue lead, with Viktor Gyokeres wrapping up the victory by poking the ball into the net after a latching onto an excellent Matt Godden pass.
Maybe the Sky Blues were still hurting from Wednesday night’s heavy defeat at Luton Town, but the first-half performance was a long way short of the kind of positive, dynamic showings that fans had become accustomed to at the Coventry City Building Society Arena. As much as it was apparent that Fulham were the better team in terms of technique and skill, they were able to take the lead without having to get out of second gear and looked untroubled while holding the lead.
Coventry City were clearly missing Gustavo Hamer in midfield, but also the link-play in attack that Martyn Waghorn has provided for much of this season. Liam Kelly and Ben Sheaf in the centre of the park provided neither penetrative passing nor the forward surges that Gustavo Hamer, as well as Jamie Allen, usually give the team. With Matt Godden in attack struggling to get into the game, the Sky Blues looked bereft of creativity.
It meant that the onus for Coventry City in the first-half was firmly on Callum O’Hare, as well as the wing-backs, Ian Maatsen and Fankaty Dabo. The trio were more than willing to take that responsibility, and produced some good moments, but a lack of supporting runs around them meant that they had to hold onto the ball a little longer than usual and allowed Fulham to get defenders back to snuff out promising moments.
The effort in Coventry City’s performance was there in abundance, but it was missing a level of inventiveness, dynamism, purpose to parlay the effort into a genuine threat. It was hard to see a turnaround coming in the second-half, especially without changes to either personnel or the system.
Those changes weren’t forthcoming at half-time, thus it can only be presumed that it was Mark Robins’ words in the dressing room that engendered such a stirring second-half comeback for the Sky Blues.
There may have been an element of fortune about the two goals that turned the game on its head – two Fulham players getting into a tangle for the first, Matt Godden conning the ref with a dive for the second – however, they were opportunities that were engendered by Coventry City being more proactive and assertive in their approach to the game.
Most notably, the forward unit of Callum O’Hare, Viktor Gyokeres and Matt Godden pressed as a pack, forced Fulham into errors in playing out from the back and disrupted the rhythm with which the Cottagers had played in the first-half. Moreover, some of the combination play between O’Hare, Gyokeres and Godden was sublime. Godden demonstrated that there is more to his game than finishing with key contributions to the first, second and fourth goals. There were some very encouraging passages of play between Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres that suggested that the duo are starting to strike up a strong relationship.
The performance of the front three was aided and abetted by the efforts of those behind them. Liam Kelly and Ben Sheaf asserted themselves in the middle of the pitch, making it difficult for Fulham to get quality possession in the Coventry City half. Fankaty Dabo consistently won his duels, while the back three forced Aleksander Mitrovic away from the penalty and into midfield out of pure frustration. Ian Maatsen not only produced a wonderful finish for his goal, but his switch of the play in the build-up was just as fantastic.
Sometimes games of football are decided by key, often subtle, tactical decisions made by the managers. This game was an example of just how important the motivational aspect of it can be. In the first-half, Coventry City looked like a side that feared Fulham, a team that had just been relegated from the Premier League. In the second-half, Coventry City played like a side that believed it was on a par with its opposition, and won. Just why that was the case, maybe even Mark Robins would struggle to explain.
Kelly & Sheaf – Something Different In Midfield
With Gustavo Hamer suspended for this game, Mark Robins opted to change things up completely in central midfield. Jamie Allen will count himself as unfortunate to have missed out after some strong recent performances, but it provided the opportunity for Liam Kelly and Ben Sheaf to demonstrate what they can offer in central midfield.
For the first-half, however, the wisdom of Mark Robins’ decision in the middle of the pitch seemed questionable. Neither Liam Kelly nor Ben Sheaf seemed comfortable in pressing forward from central midfield, which left the team’s attacking players short on options, contributing to the team’s creative issues. To make matters worse, neither of the midfield duo seemed to have taken the mantle of defensive midfielder either, with Fulham able to play though and around the Sky Blues in the middle third of the pitch with relative ease.
In the second-half, there looked to be a clearer defining of roles. Liam Kelly dropped a little deeper and Ben Sheaf pushed further forward. That dynamic appeared to suit Ben Sheaf in particular, whose aggression and assertiveness – qualities rarely seen in the former Arsenal youngster in his time at Coventry City – was a key reason that the team managed to get on the front foot.
In contrast to the pairing of Gustavo Hamer and Jamie Allen, Liam Kelly and Ben Sheaf provided the team with a physical presence in the middle of the pitch that allowed them to largely shut down a talented opponent in the second-half. The creative issues in the first-half of this game suggest that Kelly and Sheaf may not always be the best pairing when the task is to break a team down in possession, however, they could prove to be a useful option to have as a potential solution to Coventry City’s current issues away from home.
It is another encouraging aspect to this opening period of the season that another useful option for Mark Robins has emerged. It helps garner that extra belief that maybe, this Coventry City side has staying power at the top end of the table.