If the hope had been that Coventry City’s return to the CBS Arena would foment a charge away from danger, an insipid display against Preston North End on Wednesday night suggests that this team may be at the wrong end of the table for a while yet. An away trip to second-place Norwich City is far from the kind of game the Sky Blues need right now to bolster confidence, but this team isn’t in a position right now to be picking and choosing which matches they fancy picking up points in.
There’s no getting around it, this is one of Coventry City’s toughest assignments of the season. Norwich City have quickly found their feet back in the Championship and the Sky Blues are entering this game with no form and little confidence. Unless something clicks out of nowhere, the Sky Blues could be cut adrift at the bottom of the league table by 5pm on Saturday – albeit, with the caveat of having games in hand.
Strangely, Mark Robins indicated in his post-match comments on Wednesday night that he had been looking to keep players fresh for this game. Given that this match is much the taller order than Wednesday night’s fixture, it seems odd to be targeting this one as an opportunity to pick up points. Nonetheless, it has to be hoped that the team backs up the manager’s decision-making.
Based on Wednesday night’s evidence, it will take more changes to the starting line-up than are realistically available to Mark Robins to put together a team capable of pushing off the bottom of the table. Only really Callum Doyle, Ben Sheaf, and Jake Bidwell – maybe Martyn Waghorn, at a push – started the Preston North End game and came out with any credit. Coventry City are going to need more of their current players to step up with better performances.
Bringing Gustavo Hamer into central midfield in place of Jamie Allen looks an absolute necessity for this game, with the latter looking barely able to control the ball in midweek. The other key selection decisions will centre around what to do in attack, where Matt Godden and Viktor Gyokeres have looked somewhat at odds with one another in recent games. Given that Norwich City are likely to dominate possession here, dropping one of Godden or Gyokeres in favour of a midfielder – or possibly, Martyn Waghorn and tasking him to drop into midfield – looks the smart move here. However, there is an underlying sense that Mark Robins feels the team is more dangerous with its two best strikers on the pitch, regardless of their lack of understanding of one another’s games.
Last Time We Met
Norwich City cruised to victory at St Andrew’s back in February of 2021, in one of those inoffensive yet draining performances that a struggling Coventry City side put in that campaign. While the stats would suggest that the split of chances was fairly even, the truth was that Norwich were so in control of affairs that they didn’t have to get out of second gear to win the game.
It was the combination of Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia that did for Coventry City, with the latter setting up the former for the opening goal just around the half-hour mark. A goal down didn’t look terrible heading into half-time, but some sloppy play at the back from the Sky Blues allowed Pukki to return the favour for Buendia in first-half stoppage time to seal the three points for the Premier League bound Canaries.
The Manager – Dean Smith
After taking over with the club struggling at the foot of the Premier League table last season, Dean Smith made little to no impact at Carrow Road as they were eventually relegated. Smith can probably point towards poor recruitment for top-flight level as a significant hindering factor in his efforts last year, however, a slow start to this campaign saw questions turn towards the manager’s role. A recent run of four consecutive victories has eased the pressure on Smith, with Norwich City now looking to be, once again, in a strong position to reclaim a place in the Premier League.
Dean Smith prefers a possession-heavy brand of football, which, at its worse, can see his teams hoard the ball at a slow pace and have to resort to pot-shots on goal. At its best, as has been apparent recently, Smith’s style can choke the life out of games and only requires one or two things to go right in the final third to garner wins. Even though Norwich City haven’t quite got up to full speed this season, recent results are starting to set them on their way.
Who To Look Out For?
Norwich City and the Championship in recent years have been synonymous with Teemu Pukki scoring an absurd number of goals to tear the division apart. At 32 years old, the Finn has perhaps showed signs of slowing down as an explosive goal threat and while he remains a dangerous player with his willing running, it has been the efforts of the bustling American Josh Sargent, that have dragged Norwich into the promotion places.
Sargent seems to embody the current nature of Norwich City as a football club, a try-hard who was somewhat out of his depth in the top-flight, Sargent already looks just a little bit too good for the Championship. While he may be the kind of striker that requires a few chances to get his eye in, Sargent’s work-rate and physicality mean that he will constantly get into scoring positions. At Championship-level, that is proving to be more than good enough.
A key concern for Norwich City over the past year or so has been in replacing key attacking cog, Emi Buendia, after he was sold to Aston Villa at the start of last season in a display of complete paucity of ambition. Winger, Milot Rashica, is the only of last season’s Buendia-replacements to still be at the club, and is a very dangerous direct and skilful runner with the ball, even if there is a sense that he doesn’t quite suit Dean Smith’s possession-heavy style. Brazilian, Gabriel Sara, and Aaron Ramsey (the Aston Villa loanee, brother of Jacob Ramsey) are intriguing additions who offer more intricate, technical quality, however, the key creative figure for the Canaries at the moment is Chilean addition, Marcelino Nunez. Extremely technically-gifted, Nunez also plays with a fire in his belly when it comes to getting the team forward with the ball and entering into challenges, Gustavo Hamer would be an apt comparison.
Norwich really do have a lot of depth in midfield and attacking areas, meaning that they can afford to keep players of Teemu Pukki and Adam Idah’s quality on the bench. Furthermore, wingers Danel Sinani and Onel Hernandez form useful parts of Norwich’s rotation of attacking players.
At the back, Andrew Omobamidele has emerged as a key figure out of the club’s academy this season. The centre-back had looked useful when used over the past two campaigns but has made a great leap forward this year, keeping the vastly-experienced Ben Gibson out of the starting XI. Mobile and composed, Omobamidele complements the dominant Grant Hanley very nicely. Furthermore, Tim Krul is a goalkeeper who is far too good for the Championship and Max Aarons is a right-back who too good for the Championship.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
With Norwich City likely to dominate the ball, this is going to be huge test of Coventry City’s defensive organisation and concentration. The Sky Blues have looked rather weak in those two regards over recent games and it is a huge concern that there will be little time on the training pitch to work on the shape and discipline at the back that would help improve the team’s resilience. Josh Sargent’s physicality and work-rate looks a significant threat to a back-line that looks low on confidence.
Another keen area of interest for Coventry City in this game will be in how Gustavo Hamer comes through his first start upon returning to the team. The quality the midfielder offers the team on the ball will be vital in providing something for the team to work with going forward, however, he is going to have to cope with spending a significant portion of the game out of possession and will have to avoid lunging into the kind of daft challenges that have seen him pick up three yellow cards already this season.
Viktor Gyokeres will be another key figure for Coventry City in this game. In performances against Fulham, Southampton and Middlesbrough last season, Gyokeres showed how effective his willing running, physicality and skill on the ball can be in dragging the team up the pitch against a dominant opponent. The Swede could well benefit from the team seeing less of the ball overall, making it easier for him to get into the game on the counter-attack. Of course, it would help if there are runners around him who can commit the opposition and provide Gyokeres with further space to run at the Norwich City defence.