The Wrap: Middlesbrough – 1-0

Coventry City grabbed their first win of the season with an energetic, battling performance at home to Middlesbrough.

On the front foot from early on, Kasey Palmer had an excellent chance to hand the Sky Blues the lead after a Fankaty Dabo pull-back fell to him just outside the six-yard box. While the attacking midfielder spurned that big chance, Coventry City eventually took the lead after Dabo played the ball into a channel for Viktor Gyokeres to chase, then muscle off a defender in typical fashion and then score.

Without creating much else of note, the Sky Blues looked well in control against a Middlesbrough team that looked to be in something of a torpor. That was until the away side sparked to life in the second-half, thanks to the introductions of wing-backs, Ryan Giles and Isaiah Jones, from the bench.

The balance of the game threatened to tip in Middlesbrough’s favour, however, they couldn’t quite capitalise on the handful of half-decent opportunities they were able to work by stretching the play on either flank. As the game wore on, Coventry City looked increasingly confident of victory, even if that killer goal eluded them.

It was a nervy closing period to the game, but the Sky Blues came out with a victory that their commitment warranted.

It Takes A Team To Keep A Clean Sheet

Coventry City are now on a run of around three hours without having conceded a goal. While it is notable that this run has coincided with the incorporation of Callum Doyle and Jonathan Panzo either side of Kyle McFadzean to make up the back three, the bigger factor at play may well be that the team as a whole has adapted its approach in order to relieve the pressure on the defence.

A key issue earlier in the campaign was how often individual defenders were left isolated, leaving space in behind for opponents to create big chances on goal when defensive duels were lost. More recently, Coventry City appear to have made a more conscious effort to avoid those situations occurring by both sitting deeper and getting the ball forward more quickly.

As much as this is a risk-averse strategy, the danger is that it risks inviting pressure onto the defence. That was apparent during phases of the second-half, where Middlesbrough got hold of the ball, pulled Coventry City’s midfield pulled over to one side of the pitch before switching it quickly into the space that opened up on the other. However, the Sky Blues mitigated this by being somewhat aggressive in the challenge in their own half, in an attempt to force the opposition backwards when danger was beginning to build.

Additionally, the presence of Viktor Gyokeres in attack was just as important in keeping things tight defensively as it was in providing the team with a threat going forward. With Gyokeres providing an outlet with his physicality and running to stretch the Middlesbrough defence, it meant that pressure could be reliably relieved on Coventry City’s back-line, allowing the defenders to get a breather and re-set.

While Coventry City’s defensive fortitude in the first-half was as much down to Middlesbrough’s shortcomings, when the opposition ramped things up in the latter stages of the game, the Sky Blues did enough to make things awkward and break up their rhythm. It really was a team effort, from Ben Wilson putting in a solid goalkeeping performance, a disciplined display from the back five, the midfield playing with energy and the attack making things stick in the opposing half. Take one element out of that team dynamic and the pressure would have been too much to hold onto.

Palmer Adds To The Gyokeres Pest Factor

There can be no doubt just how important a player Viktor Gyokeres is for this Coventry City team, with this performance yet again underlining how he can turn half-decent service into a sustained threat. The Swede elevated the Sky Blues once again and looks set to be the key man in potentially dragging the team away from danger. On this occasion, Gyokeres’ efforts were aided by excellent support from Kasey Palmer.

Billed as something of a luxury player, Kasey Palmer looks a curious case of a number ten who prefers a slide tackle to a through ball. While there is a touch of guile in Palmer’s game, it is his industry – as well as physicality – that made him such a useful player for the Sky Blues in this game.

With Viktor Gyokeres constantly creating half-openings in attack, Palmer’s energy in getting around him gave the opposition much more to think about than many teams have been accustomed to with Coventry City this season. As valuable as Gyokeres’ ability to occupy multiple defenders at once is a danger in and of itself, having someone taking up the space left in behind magnifies that threat.

Furthermore, Kasey Palmer’s desire to press and enter challenges with opponents adds another presence for Coventry City in the opposing half. There were a number of occasions in this game where Palmer got the team on the attack via winning tackles successfully. Moreover, Palmer’s energy contributed to the awkward, hassling team dynamic that often prevented Middlesbrough getting into a rhythm.

Although he didn’t take the two good chances that fell his way, Kasey Palmer showed in this game that he is an awkward player for opponents to deal with. There are similarities to be drawn with what Callum O’Hare often provides Coventry City with, albeit, with Palmer more physical in place of O’Hare’s outright guile and nimbleness. That extra gumption Palmer provided for the team in the opposing half was a factor that helped tipped the scales in favour of the Sky Blues in this game.

It Could Have Been More Comfortable

In the situation that Coventry City are in, the three points were all that mattered here. The gap to safety has been closed to four points, with the Sky Blues holding three games in hand. Furthermore, it was a first home win since March – which is especially important as all those games in hand are at the CBS Arena – as well as the first victory of the campaign. There was, nonetheless, scope for improvement.

The key concern from this game was a number of sloppy moments of decision-making from the team that put pressure on the final result. This was epitomised in the 90th minute of this game, when the Sky Blues took the decision to float in a corner-kick delivery, instead of playing it short to wind down the clock, with Middlesbrough quickly breaking as a result and nearly catching Coventry City short at the back. Additionally, there was a break for the home side even later on, resulting in an effort on goal, leading to another dangerous counter-attack.

For all the energy and commitment in the performance from the Sky Blues, it was a game often characterised by these naïve moments where individuals made poor decisions by trying to force things when there was a sensible option available. From entering challenges that either drew fouls or left space in behind when they were lost, to being a little too eager in possession, Coventry City often looked like a team riding by the seat of their pants.

With cooler heads, instead of defending a set-piece in their own half on the verge of the full-time whistle, the Sky Blues could have been comfortably up the other end of the pitch. On this occasion, it didn’t really matter because Middlesbrough were short on inspiration – and also snatched at the couple of decent chances they had. On another day, the opposition may be both better and more ruthless.

It shouldn’t detract from how important this win was nor how Coventry City warranted the victory. This performance should be very much seen as a first step towards pulling away from danger. If that end goal is to be achieved, the Sky Blues will have to be a little smarter than they were at times in this game.

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