The Wrap: Sheffield United – 1-0

Coventry City moved off the bottom of the Championship table with a late win over Sheffield United at the CBS Arena.

In a game that refused to get into any kind of flow, it was two potential red card decisions that were the key incidents. First, Sheffield United’s James McAtee dived rather needlessly into a tackle with Fankaty Dabo just before half-time, but was spared a sending-off. Later, it was Dabo himself who has fortunate to stay on the pitch after he hauled down Sheffield United’s Ben Osborn while on a yellow card just after the break. Once again, the referee, Keith Stroud, eschewed making a big decision.

It was Stroud who would have the ultimate sway over the final score, when he belatedly awarded a penalty for Coventry City in the closing minutes, after Viktor Gyokeres was brought down in the box by Sheffield United’s Chris Basham. Martyn Waghorn, who had not scored for Coventry City in over a year, stepped up to the spot, and scored in a confident manner to secure a second victory in a row for the Sky Blues.

Grinding It Out

This won’t be a game that will live long in the memory. Neither side could really get into much of a rhythm, partially due to the defences keeping their opposing forwards well-marshalled and partially due to the number of stoppages for injuries and free-kicks. Coventry City happened to win the game, Sheffield United could equally have snatched a goal from somewhere, leaving the draw the fair result.

For now, the nature of performances remains secondary to picking up points. Coventry City were in the mire seven games ago and are now off the bottom and have safety within their grasp. From leaking goals at a rate of over two a game, the Sky Blues have kept five clean sheets in six games, and conceded just one in that period. When so few goals are going in, it makes picking up points significantly easier.

Mark Robins has clearly prioritised keeping things tight and it has proven an effective strategy. The performance of Michael Rose in this game highlighted the team’s defensive improvement. From looking completely out of sorts in the early weeks of the season, Rose looked assured against one of the best teams in the division and barely let anything past him.

The reason why Michael Rose looked so much better is because the team has settled as a defensive unit, making the job of individual defenders easier. The approach has been to get players behind the ball in order to slow the opposition down, prevent defenders being left isolated and ensuring that opponents have to find true moments of quality to win games.

The flip side of this is that it makes the team less fluent in attack. It was apparent for long periods of this game just how few players Coventry City were willing to risk getting forward, which gave players in possession fewer options on the ball when the team were looking to get on the attack. This was a performance for the Sky Blues defined for long stretches by hopeful punts forward to Viktor Gyokeres, who was largely well-marshalled by the Sheffield United defence.

The lack of attacking verve doesn’t really matter when the team has been able to keep so many clean sheets. Just how sustainable this kind of football is will depend on being able to maintain a high level of concentration and organisation as a team. There will be games where opponents will find a way through, which is where Coventry City will have to find more quality than they are currently showing. However, keeping games tight so consistently deserves credit and means that the team doesn’t need much to go right at the other end in order to win games.

A Badly Needed Injection Of Impetus

As much as Coventry City did well to keep this game tight, they really had little hope of scoring playing in the manner that they did until the introductions of Martyn Waghorn and Kasey Palmer in the 65th minute. Immediately afterwards, the Sky Blues had their best spell of the game, which may not have led to a goal but it reminded Sheffield United that Coventry were an interested party in this football match.

Prior to that, Coventry City’s attacking game-plan was solely to give the ball to Viktor Gyokeres and hope something might happen. With Matt Godden and, to a lesser extent, Jamie Allen doing little to drew defenders away from Gyokeres, Sheffield United could keep a close eye on the Swede and prevent him from getting anywhere near their goal. On top of that, Josh Eccles and Ben Sheaf in midfield were unable to move the ball quickly, not helped by the wing-backs being conservative in their attacking forays, which meant that the Sky Blues were either punting the ball hopefully to Gyokeres or passing themselves down blind avenues.

Kasey Palmer made a particularly useful impact, adding industry and presence in attack that hasd been sorely missing. Palmer immediately began to disrupt Sheffield United by making tackles and winning challenges that left the opposition stretched to allow Coventry City to get on some promising counter-attacks. What also helped was that Josh Eccles was moved to right wing-back as part of the earlier introduction of Gustavo Hamer in place of Fankaty Dabo around ten minutes before the double substitution, and Eccles played with greater purpose and drive on the right side of the pitch to further stretch Sheffield United.

Although the burst of energy that the double substitution provided eventually faded, the penalty that resulted in the winning goal came because of that extra presence and purpose in attack, which meant that Viktor Gyokeres was much freer to run directly at the Blades’ backline than he had been earlier in the game. While this may point Mark Robins in the direction of starting Martyn Waghorn and Kasey Palmer in attack ahead of Matt Godden and Jamie Allen, who were largely peripheral in this game, part of the reason the substitutes were so effective was because the players were coming on against a tired defence. That isn’t necessarily an argument against Palmer and Waghorn starting, but there can be value in holding players of their quality in reserve as a potentially devastating key change later on in games.

Eccles Steps Up

It may not have been necessarily a stand-out performance from Josh Eccles but he played a useful role in this victory that shouldn’t be overlooked. Playing with desire and tigerishness in midfield for the first hour of the game before providing great energy down the right in the last half hour, Eccles provided the grit to keep the team in the game early on and then added an extra gear later on as part of a winning Coventry City performance.

This kind of display comes at an important time in Josh Eccles’ Sky Blues career. He had been a young player who had been earmarked for a first-team role for quite a while now without being able to get into the side through a combination of injury and the presence of established senior players ahead of him. This year has been Eccles’ best chance to carve out a place for himself in the side, but he looked off the pace when used earlier in the campaign, raising questions marks as to whether he was cut out for Championship football.

With Gustavo Hamer coming to the end of his suspension, as well as Liam Kelly and Todd Kane getting back to fitness, if Josh Eccles hasn’t stepped up over these past two games, he may never have had another chance to become a regular starter for Coventry City. Instead, Eccles has shown to Mark Robins that he can not only plug holes in the side but he can make an impact even when senior players around him are struggling. With Ben Sheaf now suspended for a game, Josh Eccles has a great chance now to nail down a regular spot in the starting XI.

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