Coventry City slipped to defeat upon their return to action at the CBS Arena. In a performance lacking energy, craft and guile, the Sky Blues can count themselves fortunate they only lost by the one goal.
The first-half was desperately lacking in inspiration and composure from Coventry City. Uncertain in possession and wobbly at the back, they were fortunate to still have 11 men at half-time when Ben Wilson charged off his line and was deemed to have fouled Troy Parrott with the Preston North End forward clean through on goal.
Slightly better after half-time, Coventry City fell behind with 15 minutes to go after the ball fell to Emil Riis Jakobsen in space in the penalty area after a spell of Preston North End pressure. Lacking ideas in attack, the Sky Blues looked in little danger of troubling the away side’s eventual victory.
Winless in four games to start the Championship season and with home form a particular concern this calendar year, something needs to desperate change at Coventry City to avoid a grim season ahead.
Lacking A Plan
The absence of Callum O’Hare has proved an absolute hammer-blow to Mark Robins’ plans. It’s less what O’Hare provides as an individual and more that there has been no replacement for him in the team. A lot of Coventry City’s struggles in possession in this game could be attributed to the O’Hare-shaped hole in the team.
After trying both Jamie Allen and Kasey Palmer in the role, Martyn Waghorn was next up in this game. The forward was not without his moments of promise, but he struggled to provide the same speed of movement and energy in the press that O’Hare has. It wasn’t that Waghorn played particularly poorly, it was just that he was uncomfortable in the role being asked of him.
Playing a striker in a midfield role also meant that the midfield and wing-backs needed to provide extra creativity to link up with the attack, which the players who were selected were not quite capable of. With Jamie Allen in central midfield and Josh Eccles at right wing-back looking unsure in their touch and use of the ball, Ben Sheaf and Jake Bidwell were left to stitch things together, it was too big of an ask.
It not only left Matt Godden and Viktor Gyokeres isolated on a difficult night for the duo, but the defence often found themselves under pressure in possession. Only Callum Doyle looked comfortable in being asked to bring the ball out of defence, when he did, there was little movement ahead of him to utilise. It was endemic of the performance in the first-half in particular that Doyle was the first Coventry City player to have an effort on goal, nearly 40 minutes into the game.
The team’s options in open play were often limited to harmless, short passes or hammering forward into well-marked centre-forwards. It began to change when Gustavo Hamer came on and offered some energy and purpose in possession, but it was too little too late. It was hard to see the argument for Hamer not starting this game, other than for Mark Robins prove a point after the player’s recent red card. At this moment in time, actual points on the board would be preferable.
Shapeless Without The Ball
Another key issue for Coventry City in this game was how poor the team’s shape was without the ball. Maybe it didn’t help that, in Martyn Waghorn and Josh Eccles, they were two players out of their preferred positions. The bigger issue seemed to stem from from a lack of a clear identity or plan to what the team was trying to achieve overall in this game.
Were Coventry City looking to press? If so, they lacked urgency and commitment in doing so. Were Coventry City looking to sit back and soak up pressure? If so, they were too easily drawn towards the ball and left themselves open to switches of play. It felt that a few too many were left to play on instinct, with an organised Preston North End side picking that off.
The goal epitomised how this Coventry City were merely reacting to situations as individuals without the ball, rather than trusting each other to take charge of their areas. There were three phases of play but too many Sky Blues players were around the ball and not enough paying attention to where Preston North End’s were. The ball kept on falling to the opposition and not away from danger because there were too few in a Coventry City shirt anticipating the next phase of play.
As much as this team may be rusty after an unexpected stint out of action, shape without the ball is something that should have befnefitted from additional time on the training pitch. From strange team selections to a lack of a clear plan with and without the ball, it’s hard to see what Mark Robins and his coaching staff have been working on with these players since the end of last season – there has been a lot of time to do so.
Doyle Offers Some Promise
To end on a positive, Callum Doyle was probably the only main source of something in that direction in this match. While the Manchester City loanee looks somewhat slight in his physical duties as a defender, he competed well enough and was able to offer the team a level of drive and purpose with the ball that was otherwise lacking.
It was apparent from early on that Callum Doyle’s colleagues trusted his ability to bring the ball out of defence and he became an increasingly important outlet in possession as the game wore on. Both in terms of his passing ability and his desire to carry the ball into midfield, Doyle formed important relationships between first Ben Sheaf and then Gustavo Hamer as Coventry City looked to get going in possession. When things aren’t quite clicking, I feel it’s telling which players other turn to and Callum Doyle was one of them here.
In the absence of Callum O’Hare, it is imperative that Coventry City find other sources of creativity. Doing so from centre-back is somewhat unconventional but it may go some way to giving the team a route to goal that they otherwise appeared to lack in this game.
The test for Callum Doyle now is to continue to prove his importance to this team over a stretch of games, all while under the rigours of being tested physically and mentally in an unforgiving division in what may be a struggling team. Cian Harries from Coventry City’s League One relegation season feels a potentially apt comparison.