Coventry City secured a last-gasp point at home to Preston North End in a frustrating and testy encounter at the CBS Arena.
Despite starting brightly, the Sky Blues failed to capitalise, which saw Preston generate most of the game’s best chances. Had it not been for some excellent goalkeeping from Simon Moore, this could have been a comfortable victory for the away side.
With North End’s performance characterised by a number of cynical and aggressive fouls, they eventually saw Liam Lindsay sent off for two yellow cards, seemingly handing Coventry City the momentum to win the game late on. However, a silly foul from Fankaty Dabo from a Preston counter-attack cancelled out that advantage and allowed the away side to score from the spot.
Looking devoid of ideas in the game’s closing stages, the Sky Blues somehow found a late equaliser thanks to a fantastic strike from youngster, Fabio Tavares, providing a moment of quality out of keeping with the team’s overall performance.
More of the Same
This is a point that I could cut and paste from any number of Coventry City performances. Once again, the Sky Blues played some very good football and got into some very good positions but were struggled to find a way to convert them into quality chances, with Preston North End’s Daniel Iversen only tested with Fabio Tavares’ late goal.
Tiredness and a heavy playing surface remain mitigating factors for Coventry City, but the players need to ask themselves whether they could do more to turn good possession into good chances and, ultimately, into goals. As well-organised as Preston North End were, there were moments of opportunity for the Sky Blues to get into good, shooting positions, which consistently passed the team by.
While decision-making on the ball is an issue, something that has seemingly become apparent in recent home games is a lack of good movement around the penalty area. From the wing-backs not pushing up quite as high as they could do, to the forwards making runs towards the goal when in the penalty area, rather than pulling back into space, Coventry City’s attacking players can be a little too easy to mark. In this game, that meant that the Sky Blues were reduced to either searching for that extra pass around the penalty area or firing in crosses that had little hope of generating testing efforts on goal.
Another issue for the Sky Blues in this fixture was simply the amount of heavy touches and passes the team committed. That is surely down to fatigue (as well as the playing surface), because these players have shown over the course of this campaign that they have the ability to play quick, snappy football at the CBS Arena.
With no midweek fixture, priority number one for Mark Robins and the players will surely be to have a well-earned rest. Secondly, there is work to be done on converting good possession into good chances. Just how much of a difference a week can make remains to be seen, but this Coventry City side is running out of time to sort out their inherent toothlessness.
Two Up Top A Hindrance?
For much of last seasons, the narrative around Coventry City had been the necessity of playing two up top, this year, the reverse may well be the case. Whereas before, it solved the team’s issue of not being able to play from back to front with efficiency, with a more considered build-up play this time out, losing that extra option in possession may well be a hindrance.
After playing one in attack had worked so well on Tuesday night against Bristol City, it was something of a surprise that Mark Robins didn’t test it out in the following game. However, the manager was justified in reverting to two up front for multiple reasons.
Firstly, it would have been a lot to expect the same XI as Tuesday night to put in another strong 90 minute performance given the hectic run of fixtures of late. Secondly, a, theoretically, more attack-minded approach makes sense in a home game. Thirdly, playing Ian Maatsen at left wing-back makes more sense if the onus is on the team to attack.
However, playing two strikers in this game didn’t really suit the Sky Blues in this game. Losing a body in central midfield both cost the team an option in possession and allowed Preston to overload Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf in the middle of the park. Moreover, another body up front did nothing to add to Coventry City’s attacking threat.
How much of that goes down to the fact of two being played up front or was down to the performances of the two players being played there is the key question. Viktor Gyokeres and Martyn Waghorn showed earlier in the campaign that they can be effective as a strike partnership, but both looked to get out of sorts here, for differing reasons.
Viktor Gyokeres is clearly running on empty and it showed on more than a few occasions. For all the effort he put in, he wasn’t quite able to burst past or muscle off opposing defenders in the manner he usually would. Along with suffering from the general heavy touch-itis that his teammates did, Gyokeres’ effectiveness in this game was severely limited.
As for Martyn Waghorn, he looks like a player with little idea as to what he should be doing on the pitch. His general approach seems to be to try to drop off the front-line to link the play, but he has neither the physical strength to hold off defenders nor the technical ability to play that role effectively. When given the opportunity to run in behind, his touch and lack of pace let Waghorn down severely. He looks to be suffering from a lack of confidence but with one goal in 18 games, and at 31 years old, declining physically and lacking in technical ability, the question just what he can offer this team going forward.
It should also be noted that the team’s performance did not improve when the move was made to return to the system that had worked so well last time out. Notably, Ian Maatsen seemed to struggle to get into space between the lines, unable to exploit his natural pace to burst past defenders and carry the ball up the pitch. The more it is analysed, the bigger issue was simply that there were too many tired players on the pitch not capable of their usual standards.
Moreover, Fabio Tavares’ goalscoring contribution underlines that Mark Robins does not have to persevere with Martyn Waghorn and Viktor Gyokeres as a striker partnership if that doesn’t look to be working currently. That’s even before Matt Godden’s eventual return to fitness is factored in as well.
After starting off with such an emphatic point, my argument is that it would be silly to write a formation off on the back of just one game.
Crossing The Line
It would be remiss to write about this game without mentioning of Preston North End’s incredibly aggressive approach in the challenge. Committing 20 fouls and picking up five yellow cards (including the second for Liam Lindsay’s red card) doesn’t quite encapsulate how cynical and clear the away side’s game-plan was. Their intention didn’t just seem to be to break up the rhythm of the game, it looked to be something a little more unsavoury.
Teams are, of course, entitled to play in any manner that they want and will face the consequences if that turns out to be a counter-productive approach. If Preston’s strategy was solely to knock Coventry City out of their rhythm, it clearly worked. While Sky Blues fans have a right to be annoyed at the nature quite a few of the challenges North End put in, being aggressive in the tackle is something most fans want to see from their team and can be effective, above and beyond simply committing cynical, rhythm-breaking fouls.
Furthermore, for all of the pearl-clutching at Preston North End’s approach, it was ultimately one that they were punished for. While the red card for Liam Lindsay eventually led to the away side taking the lead, their job of holding on for victory was made more difficult due to being down to ten men. Additionally, the free-kick from which Fabio Tavares eventually levelled the scores from came as a result of yet another foul committed by Preston North End.
Where it may be considered to have crossed a line is the fact that an opposing player, in Callum O’Hare, was forced off injured from the repeated aggressive challenges that he faced. Without committing any truly shocking and reckless tackles, O’Hare’s injury reflected that Preston North End were looking to do a little more than make their presences known on the pitch.
Ultimately, there is nothing that can be done about how a team approaches the game. While fans don’t really want to see cynical play or time-wasting (primarily, if it’s from the opposition), it is a simple fact of the game that teams can play in the manner they want, with the referee deciding how that fits into the sport’s laws.
For the way that Coventry City want to play, it is about outshining such opponents through the quality of their play. On this occasion, the Sky Blues lacked the ability to do so and were, for the most part, second-best to Preston North End.