Coventry City claimed a third win in a row as they triumphed at Stoke City to move close to safety in the Championship table.
The Sky Blues were under the cosh for almost the entirety of the first-half, unable to hold onto the ball against a talented Stoke City side who worked possession well into dangerous areas and created some decent chances to take the lead.
Level at half-time, Coventry City began to find their flow in the second-half as the creative players, namely, Kasey Palmer and Gustavo Hamer, grew into the game. It was Hamer who set up Jamie Allen to put the Sky Blues ahead with an excellent defence-splitting pass. Around ten minutes later, Palmer sent Hamer into the penalty area who produced a glorious curling finish to make the lead unassailable.
The closing stages were comfortable for Coventry City, aided by the introductions of Martyn Waghorn and, the long-awaited, Callum O’Hare to provide the team with the pep and presence up front to leave the home side more concerned about conceding a third than looking to get back into the game. From a sloppy, error-strewn first-half performance, the Sky Blues produced a stirring second-half display to make for a glorious away day in the Potteries.
An Awkward Change of Shape
With Matt Godden injured, Mark Robins elected to take a striker out of the team in favour of an extra midfielder. It is something that Coventry City have done a lot in recent years, however, the players looked almost completely unfamiliar with what they were being asked to do in the first-half and it allowed Stoke City to dominate.
One of the key issues was that there was no link from the midfield to the attack, making it very difficult for Coventry City to even get out of their own half, let alone threaten the opposition. Setting up in a 3-5-1-1, a lot of the onus was on Kasey Palmer in that position just behind Viktor Gyokeres to make runs into the channels to help as an out-ball for the rest of the team, but he was a little too deep and central. Additionally, both the wing-backs and the wider central midfielders (Jamie Allen and Gustavo Hamer) either would not or could not get forward, meaning the Sky Blues either had to risk playing the ball in their defensive third or punt it hopefully forward to a well-marked Gyokeres in attack.
The other issue was that the midfield didn’t seem sure of how they were supposed to position themselves out of possession. While the tactical switch meant that there was an extra body for Coventry City in that zone in front of the defence, any supposed additional protection was counteracted by how often Sky Blues’ midfielders seemed to get in each others’ way. Most of Stoke City’s best chances came either from switches of the play or shots from just outside the area, nearly taking advantage of the space that confusion opened up.
Getting into half-time at 0-0 meant that Mark Robins could make a slight adjustment heading into the second-half, Kasey Palmer was pushed further forward to effectively partner Gyokeres in attack and it provided that presence up front that the team had been missing earlier on. That presence in attack gave the midfield something to work with and they really grew in confidence as the game wore on, aided by two excellent goals.
The contrast from the first-half really was stark, with those two goals enscapsulating the marked improvement from Coventry City in the middle of the pitch. The midfielders could finally link up with one another in the opposing half, with Gustavo Hamer picking out Jamie Allen for the first goal, and then Kasey Palmer setting Hamer through for the second. They were two goals that would not have been possible had the team been set up in the same manner as they were in the first-half, and it only took a small tweak to effect such a big change – bravo to Mark Robins and his coaching staff for spotting and enacting it.
The Good Gustavo
Gustavo Hamer had come in for his justified criticism this season for picking up two red cards, one of which arguably cost the team at least a point at Millwall and the other seeing him suspended for four games. Furthermore, when he has been available, he hasn’t quite been at it – an excellent goal at Luton Town aside – with strong performances this year from Ben Sheaf and Josh Eccles in midfield raising the question as to whether this team might be better off without him. This game was a timely reminder of just what Gustavo Hamer is capable of.
This didn’t start off as a particularly impressive display by Hamer. In the first-half, he struggled as much as anyone else in midfield to get close to his opponents in Stoke City shirts. When he was able to get on the ball, his passing radar was notably off. His more ambitious balls were nowhere near a Coventry City shirt and his shorter passing occasionally risked opening his own defence up. Perhaps he was rusty, but it was a display not entirely out of keeping with many of his other performances this season.
However, Gustavo Hamer demonstrated in the second-half that his innate risk-taking attitude can be devastating when those risks pay off. His ball for Jamie Allen was the first example of a proactive ball from the midfielder coming off, it was so sublime that it bought his colleague the margin of error to take a slightly heavy touch and still be in a position to finish. Then there was the goal that Hamer scored himself.
The ability to control the ball in the penalty area and curl a finish into the back of the net under the attention of two defenders was impressive enough, but the goal was really about Hamer’s drive and persistence as the move progressed through a number of 50-50 challenges between the two teams. It felt like a goal that was willed into existence by Gustavo Hamer, from driving the move forward to electing to put the ball into net rather than pausing in an attempt to spot a team-mate in the box, this is the difference he can make when at his best.
Mark Robins Now Has Options
On top of the well-noted pitch and financial issues that have hindered Coventry City’s start to the campaign, the bigger factor has probably been that Mark Robins hasn’t been able to select from his strongest squad at any point this season. While Ben Sheaf was absent for this game and there is news that Matt Godden and Liam Kelly have suffered injury setbacks, the closing stages of this match provided a tantalising hint at what the manager might be able to do with something closer to his full set of options available to him.
On top of Gustavo Hamer’s headline-grabbing return to action, Kasey Palmer grabbed his first assist in a Coventry City shirt. When looking to close out the game, Mark Robins could turn to the bench and bring on Martyn Waghorn and Callum O’Hare, which was an injection of quality that made the closing stages pretty comfy. Importantly, having that array of attacking options now available means that it isn’t all on Viktor Gyokeres’ shoulders to make things happen for Coventry City, which potentially makes him more dangerous.
In Kasey Palmer, Coventry City now have an attacking creative midfielder aside from Callum O’Hare who is a threat in his own right. The manager now has the choice of either switching between the two or looking to get them to dovetail, which could make the Sky Blues extra awkward as both possess great energy to close down opponents. If neither of them are on it, there is always the chance that Gustavo Hamer can make something happen, as he did today, or Viktor Gyokeres can perform the same something out of nothing magic trick. On top of that, Martyn Waghorn’s recent performances have provided the team with the missing strike partner for Gyokeres who could help make the Swede even more threatening than he currently is. There suddenly is not only a lot of quality but a lot of different ways to utilise that quality.
The plan at the moment has been to keep things as tight as possible and hope to nick something over the course of the 90 minutes. It has proven an effective formula, but now Mark Robins has players available to him that could suit a more proactive style, or make the current one more effective. Recent results have bolstered confidence, now there are indications that this Coventry City side can evolve into something more exciting over the course of the campaign.