Coventry City came up short against West Bromwich Albion in a 2-1 defeat at the Coventry Building Society Arena.
The game was lost in the first-half, when the Sky Blues struggled to build any momentum and an intense West Brom side took advantage of that sloppiness for a two-goal lead, that could have been more. First, the Baggies pounced on a loose ball in midfield to slip through Karlan Grant to take the lead.
After spurning chances to add to that lead, the pressure eventually told as a short throw-in routine wreaked havoc in the Coventry City penalty area to allow West Bromwich Albion to make it two – albeit, with television replays showing a clear handball. With the Sky Blues looking out of sorts, it was apparent that the second goal would be a wound too many to recover from.
Despite having much of the ball in the second-half, Coventry City never really threatened the West Brom goal. Kyle McFadzean’s header from a Todd Kane goal with seven minutes to go could have made a game of it, but the Sky Blues lacked the poise and quality in the final third to affect the final result.
Plan A Fails
With Mark Robins having tactically outsmarted West Bromwich Albion boss, Valerien Ismael, when the Frenchman was at Barnsley last season, it was surprising that the Coventry City boss didn’t try to replicate the blueprint for that win this time around. Instead of dropping the ball in behind the opposition’s high defensive line and limiting their opportunities to press the Sky Blues, the home side attempted to spring the Ismael trap with a more intricate approach.
There were moments where that plan threatened to come off, with the Coventry City defence working the ball around West Bromwich Albion’s press neatly to play Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf into space, who had time to get the ball into the forwards. However, poor combination play from the team’s front three meant that promising openings were snuffed out by the West Brom defence before they could genuinely trouble their goalkeeper.
The problem with the precise approach was that it required high levels of concentration and precision to be maintained over 90 minutes. It only needed one lapse for the plan to come unstuck, which is what led to the first goal as West Bromwich Albion pounced on a sloppy pass in front of the Coventry City defence to go through on goal and score.
That goal clearly affected confidence from that point onwards, allowing West Brom to get on top as the Sky Blues laboured in possession, caught between sticking to their initial plan of playing it out from the back and the fear of presenting their opponents with further opportunities. It didn’t help that Matt Godden and Viktor Gyokeres were struggling to make the ball stick in attack, but, in retrospect, Coventry City could have done with playing it safer until half-time, rather than into the hands of their opponents.
This is what contributed to the second, killer, goal, where a throw-in was conceded in the team’s own half due to being under pressure from playing out from the back. While the goal itself might have been disallowed, it was part of a pattern of uncertain play from the Sky Blues following that opening goal that led to multiple openings for West Bromwich Albion to kill the game off.
Indecision Kills, Again
For all of the frustration over what was an, overall, sub-par performance, Coventry City weren’t that far away from making this a very different game. In the first-half, there were good opportunities to get in behind West Bromwich Albion’s defensive line that were spurned, while the second-half saw the Sky Blues largely in control of possession but struggled to carve out clear-cut chances.
Credit has to go to West Bromwich Albion’s shape without the ball and the individual quality of some of their defensive players. They squeezed the game rather intelligently, often letting Coventry City’s back three have the ball, but then working to cut off the passing lanes and make it difficult for the home side to do anything other than move the ball harmlessly from side-to-side. Furthermore, West Brom’s central defensive trio made a number of really good blocks and tackles when the Sky Blues threatened to get in behind.
Nonetheless, Coventry City were as stifled by their own decision-making as they were the defensive actions of their opponents. Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres have been key figures in the Sky Blues attacking line this season with their ability to get past defenders and create threatening moments in transition for the team, however, the two of them struggled here and it made it difficult for Coventry City to take advantage of a number of brief openings to threaten the West Bromwich Albion goal.
From not releasing the ball quick enough when there were chances to slip team-mates in behind, to making poor supporting runs that meant they often got in each other’s way, both O’Hare and Gyokeres looked somewhat out of sorts in this game. With Matt Godden the type of striker who can be peripheral when not in dangerous areas and the early loss of Gustavo Hamer’s ability to open the game up from a deeper midfield position, Coventry City looked short on avenues of attack.
It speaks to the individual quality of Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres that, despite being short of their top form, they were still the team’s most dangerous attacking players. It underlines just how limited Mark Robins’ options are that he is unable to take the duo out of the firing line without seriously hampering the team’s attacking threat. It will surely be an absolute priority in January to provide O’Hare and Gyokeres with the support to allow them to rediscover their form.
The Dabo-Kane Dilemma
Mark Robins has been reticent to drop Fankaty Dabo from the team over the past month, despite the defender’s form appearing to have dipped and with an alternative in Todd Kane who has largely performed well when called upon. While a suspension to Ian Maatsen at left wing-back and a recent shortage of centre-backs has allowed the manager the option to play both Dabo and Kane, that wasn’t an issue heading into this game, yet the manager persisted in shoehorning Dabo into the team.
It was not as though Fankaty Dabo was especially poor in the first-half when deployed at right-sided centre-back, just that the team would probably have been better-off with a natural player in that position. If the idea behind deploying him in central defence was to provide pace to cover against West Bromwich Albion’s quick front-line, that didn’t help with preventing the opening goal. Instead, it largely felt as if Dabo was playing by the seat of his pants at centre-back, which contributed to the team’s overall lack of fluency.
Maybe it is unfair on Mark Robins to characterise this decision as one out of a reluctance to drop an important player who could maybe do with a rest. With an illness having run through the camp during the week, it may have been a call forced on the manager. It might not even be that, perhaps Fankaty Dabo has shown the manager something in training to suggest he can be an adept option at centre-back.
In this instance, the team lost Fankaty Dabo’s ability to carry the ball up the pitch, which aided West Bromwich Albion’s ability to get on top in the first-half, which meant that Todd Kane was rarely in positions to provide the quality delivery in wide areas that he has shown recently. Ideally, Mark Robins would want to find a way to combine the qualities of his two options at right wing-back, but that simply may not be possible.