Tuesday night was Groundhog Day all over again for Coventry City. Play well, create chances, fail to convert those chances, fail to get the result that was deserved. Just when this cycle will end is anyone’s guess, but just like Phil Connors, the Sky Blues’ only option is to seek iterative improvement until perfection is achieved.
An away trip to a Reading side in a parlous state both on and off the pitch looks as good an opportunity as could be hoped for to help Coventry City get back in the winning habit, however, this is a team that has found new and intriguing ways to contrive to not get results, so a win here is far from a given. With the absurdly congested fixture list and a thin squad that has been further depleted by injuries over the past week, neither can it be taken for granted that the Sky Blues will be able to maintain recent performance standards.
With such limited options available to Mark Robins, there is really very little that he can do in order to affect improvement by changing the team. It will be a case of changing a player or two or making a slight tweak to the system, rather than the wider-ranging changes a manager might ordinarily make in search for a result. It might not actually be the worst thing in the world to be forced to stick with a system and team that is, largely, working.
The most obvious piece of low-hanging fruit available to the manager right now is swapping out Jordan Shipley in advanced midfield for someone who may be able to make more of an impact. Nonetheless, the list of potential replacements for Shipley doesn’t really address the goalscoring issue this team has right now. From a Martyn Waghorn who just hasn’t got going at all at Coventry City, to a Jamie Allen who just doesn’t convince in front of goal, to a Jodi Jones who has yet to be trusted to start this season, to a Fabio Tavares who Mark Robins clearly doesn’t think is up to the required standard, it’s a much of a muchness in that area of the pitch until Matt Godden is back fit.
Elsewhere, any changes are likely to be dictated by fitness and injury issues rather than this quest for a solution to this team’s lack of a clinical touch. At the back, Michael Rose has gone a long way over the past two games to asserting his place in the side ahead of Kyle McFadzean, which probably rules out a change there. Todd Kane is probably the most likely to drop out of the side after he had to come off early on Tuesday night, while Gustavo Hamer may be one to watch as he sits precariously on nine bookings – ahead of a potential two-match ban for ten yellow cards – with Mark Robins perhaps considering when would be most strategic for the Dutch midfielder to miss those games.
Last Time We Met
It was back in the good old days of the opening months of the season when Coventry City played with the belief that they could score at any time, when Reading showed up at the CBS Arena. Despite the away side taking the lead from the spot in the first-half, there was an inevitability about the Sky Blues eventual comeback to secure all three points.
Increasingly in control of the second-half, a Fankaty Dabo cross was chested into the path of Jamie Allen who stepped up to score his first and, thus far, only goal of the season. Turning the screw as the game wore on, Reading had thought they had managed to hold out for a draw, only for some determined build-up play in the final seconds between Gustavo Hamer and Callum O’Hare sent Matt Godden through to put Coventry City ahead with virtually the final kick of the game.
The Manager – Veljko Paunovic
The Serbian looks to be holding onto his position at Reading by the very tips of his fingernails, with the Royals on the precipice of the relegation zone – albeit, with a six-point deduction playing a part in that situation. Having had such a big impact last season by keeping things simple tactically and motivating a small, but talented squad, Reading’s continued limitations in the transfer market – the result of previous poor financial management that had sent the wage bill skyrocketing – has eventually made Veljko Paunovic’s ability to put out a competitive team almost impossible.
Coupled with some horrendous luck with injuries, Paunovic has rarely had the benefit this season of a settled starting line-up. While Reading have a handful of stand-out performers at Championship level, things have taken a darker turn of late, with the team winless since the end of November and on a run of seven straight defeats. It is only the inadequacies of other teams that keep Reading out of the relegation zone, but an eighth loss in a row in this game would surely force the club’s absentee upper management into action with regards to Veljko Paunovic’s position.
Who To Look Out For?
Amid all of the rancour at Reading, there has been one clear shining light this season, John Swift. The Chelsea academy graduate has stepped up with his best ever individual campaign, with nine goals and 11 assists to his name from midfield, placing him among the most dangerous players in the Championship. While Swift’s form has declined of late, his grace and goal threat in the centre of the pitch is simply too good for Reading to do without him.
The powerful and skilful Lucas Joao in attack has been a key absentee through much of the season but has returned to fitness, although not form, of late. Along with a potential return for another quick and powerful attacking player in Yakou Meite in this game, Reading could well be a very different prospect going forward than the they’ve been over the past couple of months.
On top of that, the pace of Junior Hoilett is another string to Reading’s attacking bow, while the deadline day addition of Tom Ince, who was the best player in the Championship for a consistent period just a few years ago, provides the Royals with further skill and pace to their attack. Additionally, Watford loanee, Tom Dele-Bashiru, has provided a reasonable amount of goals and creativity from midfield.
At the back, Reading retain a core of really solid, sturdy defensive players. Led by the experienced Michael Morrison in central defence, a back-line featuring Andy Yiadom and marshalled by Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent in defensive midfield has the ability to sit in and frustrate if the Royals have something to hold onto.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
Reading are in a desperate state, which makes this a game that is likely to be about how they react to recent performances – as well as a protest against the owners from their fans – more so than how Coventry City attempt to rectify their struggles to convert performances into results. The Sky Blues are going to have to be prepared to face a team playing with intensity early on as they look to boost their survival prospects, with that desperation potentially making this a tougher game than it first appears.
If that can be managed, this really is a great opportunity for Coventry City to play themselves into form. Reading have the second-worst defensive record in the division and have a terrible habit of failing to hold onto leads. With issues with just who is their first-choice goalkeeper – between the academy graduate, Luke Southwood, who has had a decent season but is inexperienced and the less experienced Arsenal loanee, Karl Hein, who struggled on his debut in midweek – if the Sky Blues can’t take advantage of that lack of confidence at the back, the struggles in front of goal may well continue until the end of the season.
At the other end, Reading’s pace on the counter-attack will be the biggest issue to deal with. Despite taking the slowing Kyle McFadzean out of the side over the past two games, the goal that Blackpool scored in midweek demonstrated that Coventry City remain a tad slow and vulnerable to teams that can break on them quickly. Preventing counter-attacks may be a task made especially difficult by the need for Gustavo Hamer to avoid a booking.