The international break was certainly something the Sky Blues needed, with performances waning under apparent fatigue. Ahead of one of the toughest runs of fixtures of the season, it is imperative that Mark Robins and the players have taken the opportunity to recuperate and return with fresh vigour and ideas to keep Coventry City in a lofty position by the time the midway point arrives.
While a trip to a team placed 17th in the division doesn’t necessarily seem like the start of a tough run, a visit to Bramall Lane to take on Sheffield United has never been a straightforward prospect for the Sky Blues. This is a test against a team desperate to claim Coventry City’s place in the top-six by the end of the season. Once again, the challenge will be to find a level of intensity to the Sky Blues’ performances that has been missing on the road this season.
The key personnel change is the one caused by the absence of Ian Maatsen through suspension. It means that Mark Robins will be forced to improvise with a right-footed player at left wing-back. Having signed Todd Kane for this exact purpose, it has become apparent that Fankaty Dabo is the better option on the left out of the two. Maatsen’s absence could prove fortunate for the out-of-form Dabo, who may have been in line to lose his place on the right to Kane, who impressed from the bench against Bristol City.
With Jake Clarke-Salter taken off last time out due to injury, it’s unclear whether he will be fit enough to start this game. While there have been question marks against the Chelsea loanee’s recent form, the balance he provides the back three with his left foot and the pace he offers in cover means that a potential back three without him looks weaker. If Clarke-Salter is absent, it will provide a chance for Dominic Hyam to quickly reclaim his place in the side.
In midfield, strong performances from Ben Sheaf and Liam Kelly against Bristol City will only have made Mark Robins’ decision over his best central midfield pairing that bit harder. Kelly’s experience and nous could be useful for a tough away trip, however, he tends to make the team look less dynamic in possession when he plays. A duo of Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer looks the most likely, with Bramall Lane providing a big test of the pair’s respective mettles.
Last Time Out
It seemed cruel to have made Coventry City return to the reality of the torturous relegation season from League One just a few short days after a sweet taste of glory at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy. Requiring an absurd run of wins to have hope of survival and against the league leaders, Sheffield United, it was all a tired Sky Blues side could do but to slow the Blades’ eventual victory.
Just to make an occasion that all but confirmed Coventry City’s relegation to the fourth-tier more bitter was the fact that both goals were served up by former Sky Blues. First, Leon Clarke turned in a John Fleck cross in the 70th minute, with the latter going on to put the gloss on the Blades’ victory with a goal of his own a few minutes later.
The Manager – Slavisa Jokanovic
Sheffield United’s decision last season to part ways with the man, Chris Wilder, who had led them from League One mediocrity into the top-half of the Premier League, seemed a disastrous decision, however, the appointment of Slavisa Jokanovic underlines the club’s seriousness at returning to and establishing themselves in the top-flight. The Serbian is double promotion-winner at this level, who likes to play the kind of progressive football that is the natural evolution from Chris Wilder.
It has been a rocky start to life at Bramall Lane for Jokanovic, experiencing teething issues with his possession-oriented style of play, with the Blades a little too blunt in attack and sloppy in defence too often this season. This period following the international break seems crucial for Jokanovic’s reign at Bramall Lane, although he will point to a slap-dash summer in the transfer market and the fact that his Watford and Fulham teams started slowly before winning promotion as key mitigation factors for this slow start.
Who To Look Out For?
While there may be questions as to just how good individually the Sheffield United side that finished ninth in the Premier League two seasons ago was versus the collective strength Chris Wilder instilled, at Championship level, this is a squad packed with talent and one that has been strengthened further in recent years.
Most notably, Sheffield United have an embarrassment of riches in terms of strikers. Billy Sharp’s incredible form, especially as a creator, at the age of 35, has relegated younger, more talented forwards in the form of Rhian Brewster and Lys Mousset to bit-part roles – where their pace can change games up from the bench. In addition, former Sky Blue hero, David McGoldrick, remains an excellent link player in attack.
Further strengthening that link between midfield and attack is Wolves loanee, Morgan Gibbs-White. A lanky, yet physically strong and technically-gifted, attacking midfielder, Gibbs-White offers a glide and drive between the line of opposing defence and midfield that can be hard to stop. He has been supported this season by the emergence of youngster, Iliman Ndiaye, in a similar area of the pitch.
In central midfield, Sheffield United boast dominant ball-players in John Fleck, Oliver Norwood and Conor Hourihane. Furthermore, the Blades look set to be bolstered by the return of the box-to-box Norwegian, Sander Berge, who is probably only still at the club, and not in the top-flight, due to an injury picked up early in the campaign.
At the back, John Egan dominates central defence, with Liverpool loanee, Ben Davies, there to offer the cover for Egan to aggressively get on top of opposing forwards. At full-back, both Enda Stevens and George Baldock are excellent at overlapping, having played primarily as wing-backs for much of the past four seasons.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
This is likely to be a game where Coventry City are going to have to deal with being without the ball for long periods. The strategy in such situations this season has often been to withdraw Callum O’Hare into midfield and for the wing-backs to drop alongside the back three. While this has made the Sky Blues sturdy through the middle, the overlapping runs and delivery of Sheffield United’s full-backs, Enda Stevens and George Baldock, could be the key danger area, particularly given the Blades’ quality in midfield to dominate the ball and bring their wide threat into the game.
With that likely to be a key theme of the game, defending crossing situations effectively is likely to be crucial to Coventry City’s defensive strategy. The back three are going to have to keep track of their runners well, while the midfield and wing-backs will need to make sure to close down crossing situations, where possible, without leaving space behind them for someone like Morgan Gibbs-White or Sander Berge to take advantage of.
An area of opportunity for the Sky Blues is that Sheffield United still look to be adapting to playing with a back four, rather than a three. With their full-backs used to pushing up the pitch with abandon and a lack of an out-and-out holding midfield player, there will be opportunities to isolate the Blades’ central defenders against Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres. Furthermore, Sheffield United have had issues in goal this season with Robin Olsen, who could be set to miss this game, having struggled and his back-ups, Wesley Foderingham and Michael Verrips, having done little better.