It was a goalless draw at Bramall Lane as both Coventry City and Sheffield United laboured in the final third, with neither team doing enough to win the game.
Nonetheless, the Sky Blues may feel that this was an opportunity to claim a valuable away win at a recently-relegated Premier League side pass them by. Largely on top for much of the opening hour of the game, Coventry City struggled to convert possession into quality chances, with Sheffield United looking to be there for the taking.
By the same token, the Blades will feel that they let the chance to secure a potentially season-changing victory over a top-six side get away from them. Gaining momentum as the game wore on, it was only some errant finishing and heroic Coventry City defending that denied them the three points.
One Up Top Versus Two Up Top
Having struggled away from home for much of the season, playing largely with two strikers in attack, Mark Robins saw the benefits and drawbacks of a change in system. Sacrificing a striker for a midfielder, Coventry City were on top for large spells in a potentially difficult away game. However, the lack of chances created necessitated a switch back to two in attack.
Playing with one up top largely worked for the Sky Blues for much of the opening 60 minutes because of the energy that Jamie Allen, Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres provided the team. Their presence between the line of Sheffield United’s defence and midfield made it difficult for their back three to establish a rhythm for the home side in possession. Many of Coventry City’s best moments of the game came from turnovers of balls played from Sheffield United’s defence into midfield.
Coventry City’s efforts were aided and abetted by strong showings from Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer in central midfield. Largely on top of their respective opponents in red and white, the duo added composure on the ball that allowed the Sky Blues to control periods of the game with possession and work the ball into dangerous areas.
However, the downside was that there was a lack of a presence in the penalty area to turn dangerous moments into chances. All three of Coventry City’s most advanced players were guilty of coming short to the ball, or drifting away from the penalty area, instead of ensuring there was an option to play the ball quickly into the box. The lack of chances was less about outright poor decision-making and more about a lack of options for players when in promising positions.
That lack of goal threat made the switch to two up front more or less imperative, however, it was a move that contributed to the team’s eventual loss of control. Perhaps Mark Robins could have mitigated the extent to which control was lost by not introducing both Tyler Walker and Matt Godden in tandem – mainly because neither are particularly adept at occupying defenders in the same manner as Viktor Gyokeres – but Coventry City ended up opening themselves up without the benefit of adding to their attacking threat.
Just what Mark Robins can apply from this game going forward remains to be seen. While playing with two up top may well have contributed to the team’s poor away form this season, this game highlighted that a one-man attacking system isn’t a solution in and of itself.
Personnel Or Tactics?
Leading on from that previous point, being disappointed to come away from a recently-relegated Premier League side highlights how far this Coventry City side has come this season. However, the fact that the Sky Blues weren’t able to take advantage of what was a largely positive display at Bramall Lane highlights where this campaign could run aground.
There is only so much Mark Robins can do to get the best out of players and this was an occasion where a lack of quality in the execution of a game-plan was probably equally as important as the game-plan itself. Most notably, the decision-making from the attacking players, Viktor Gyokeres, Callum O’Hare and Jamie Allen, when the team was on top meant that opportunities to create opportunities passed the team by. When a change was needed, there were few options on the bench of the quality to affect a game at Championship-level.
As much as Tyler Walker and Matt Godden endeavoured, they were unable to provide the focal-point in attack that Viktor Gyokeres gives the team. Similarly, Mark Robins was forced to play a right-footer at left wing-back due, costing the team attacking fluidity, due to a lack of squad depth. On top of that, there wasn’t really the option of replacing Callum O’Hare on an off-day for the attacking midfielder, while the midfield suffered because Gustavo Hamer had to be taken off for a less-talented player due to the risk of him getting sent-off.
By contrast, the point nearly slipped out of Coventry City’s hands because Sheffield United were able to bring on players of proven Championship quality, in David McGoldrick and Ben Osborn, who provided their team with the upping of gears that the Sky Blues could not replicate.
There will be times this season where smart tactics, motivation and team spirit will be able to overcome the lack of relative talent in this squad. While there are maybe things Mark Robins could have done better to affect the game, this was a performance where Coventry City could simply have done with a spark of quality that wasn’t available to them.
Ben Sheaf Steps Up
This is an important season in Ben Sheaf’s career. There were moments of promise last year, but it was overridden by sloppy lapses of concentration that often cost the team goals and points they could ill-afford in a relegation battle. The mitigation was that it was Sheaf’s first season at Championship-level, but another similar campaign would have forced the former Arsenal youngster to have to kick-start his career at a lower-level.
It hasn’t quite yet been the great leap forward for Sheaf this season that he would have been hoping for, but his past two showings have shown a player that is stepping up to the challenge of maturing in a difficult league. This was one of Ben Sheaf’s most impressive displays yet, on both sides of the ball.
With the ball, Sheaf not only produced a handful of moments of quality to get his team-mates into the game but, alongside the similarly impressive, Gustavo Hamer, gave the team a level of control with his efficiency in possession. While this is within Ben Sheaf’s wheelhouse, he was executing his natural talent in a switched-on manner, avoiding slipping into the comfort zone that can see him lose concentration and give the ball away needlessly in dangerous areas.
Adding to that sense that this was a truly switched-on Ben Sheaf in the cauldron that Bramall Lane can be, was just how many important challenges he made to win possession in the centre of the park. Against much more experienced and vaunted central midfield opponents in John Fleck and Conor Hourihane, Sheaf made his presence known.
This was one of Ben Sheaf’s most complete performances in a Coventry City shirt. It wasn’t simply a few good moments that hinted at the player Sheaf could be, this was someone realising just how much of an influence they can exert on a game and wanting to do so. Off the back of a similarly positive performance against Bristol City, this is hopefully the start of Ben Sheaf delivering performances rather than showing potential.