A week can make a big difference in football. From bottom and five points adrift of safety to 21st place and knowing that a win will get Coventry City out of the relegation zone, the mood around the club has changed dramatically over the course of the past three games. While the Sky Blues remain in the relegation zone the focus cannot be afforded to anything other than getting out of it. This is a very tight division and it cannot be taken for granted that this team’s upward trajectory can last.
The two games this week are likely to present a different kind of challenge to the teams that Coventry City have just won against. With both games are at home, more will be expected from the Sky Blues than simply holding out for a clean sheet and hoping to eventually nick something at the other end. Whether this team is capable at the moment of being more proactive could well be the test here, unless Mark Robins is willing frustrate home fans in the quest to keep points ticking over.
Mark Robins suddenly has a wealth of options available to him, with Gustavo Hamer and Callum O’Hare returning to action at the weekend, along with Ben Sheaf coming back from a one-game suspension for this game. The challenge for the manager over the next few weeks will be to find a way to balance managing the fitness of players with the team in the middle of a month-long Saturday-midweek-Saturday fixture list, while looking to evolve the style of play a little bit, and pick up results in the process.
The main area of focus is how the team lines up in midfield and attack. While it is unlikely that Callum O’Hare will start a game anytime soon, the return of Ben Sheaf provides Mark Robins with a big decision to make in central midfield. Gustavo Hamer provided a timely reminder at the weekend of just what he is capable of, while it would be harsh to drop Josh Eccles after some energetic recent performances where he has won the ball back well for the team. Nonetheless, the manager may well take the view that Sheaf is the better player than Eccles and should come back into the starting XI immediately.
Further forward, it is a choice of two from three out of Jamie Allen, Kasey Palmer and Martyn Waghorn to join Viktor Gyokeres in attack. The key factor may well be how capable physically Waghorn is to start games at this moment in time. Ideally, the manager would want another striker, in Waghorn, in the side for a home game, but that may not be possible right now.
Last Time We Met
It was a reversal of roles the last time these two teams met, with Rotherham United having to make up games on a Coventry City side outside of the relegation zone. Of course, this was notably an end-of-season relegation clash with the loser ending the night in the bottom three. Rotherham had momentum heading into the game, but it was the Sky Blues who made much of the early running and were only denied by the post and an in-form Viktor Johansson in the Millers’ net.
In a cagey second-half contest, there was little sign of a breakthrough either way as the 90 minute mark loomed. That was until Sam McCallum won a soft free-kick on the edge of the Rotherham United penalty area, and Leo Ostigard stole a run on the Millers’ defence to head home Matty James’ delivery. It proved to be a significant moment, both in the game and the season itself, with Coventry City going on to claim the three points as part of a run of five wins in seven games that secured survival, while Rotherham failed to pick up another victory and went down in rather meek fashion.
The Manager – Matt Taylor
Rotherham United started this season strongly under the management of Paul Warne, only for the long-serving coach to take that as the cue to drop down to League One and take over Derby County. Matt Taylor was recruited after a quietly impressive few years at Exeter City which culminated in promotion from League Two last season and has overseen a solid, albeit unspectacular, start.
With the Millers well ahead of their pre-season expectation of battling for survival, Taylor has plenty of time to get his feet under the desk and mould the team to his own liking. This is a side that has been moulded over a long period into playing a hard-working, energetic and physical brand of pressing football, and it doesn’t seem like Taylor has been tempted to change things up early in his reign. This is a team that knows what it wants to do on the pitch and is playing with little pressure to get results, that can be a powerful combination.
Who To Look Out For?
It is the collective that really is the star for Rotherham United. This has been highlighted by how the team has finally been able to make the jump into looking a mid-table Championship side despite losing two of their best players over the summer – in Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe – to Sheffield Wednesday in the division below. With just a few small tweaks to the system and personnel in reaction to that double departure, Rotherham have suddenly become a more competitive team at this level.
One of the key tweaks this season had been to move the rapid Chiedozie Ogbene from right wing-back to attack, with the wide player leading the team for goals before picking up an injury recently. Instead, Rotherham United’s standout performer at the moment is Brooke Norton-Cuffy, who took Ogbene’s place in the side at wing-back, with the Arsenal loanee’s pace and delivery from out wide providing the Millers with an excellent outlet to build around.
Rotherham United’s other star individual is Daniel Barlaser in central midfield. In a team built around hard-running and physicality, Barlaser is notable for being physically slight and possessing excellent technicality. Generally sitting at the base of midfield, where his range of passing helps pick out the quick wide players, Barlaser’s excellent set-piece delivery is another key feature of Rotherham’s play.
Other attacking players to look out for from Rotherham is the relentless running of midfield duo, Ben Wiles and Ollie Rathbone, ahead of Barlaser. Additionally, there are growing calls for Irish striker, Georgie Kelly, to come into the starting XI after a number of impressive goalscoring cameos from the bench in his first few months at the club.
At the back, Matt Taylor has chopped and changed perhaps a little bit more than is wise – which may be why they conceded four against Hull City at the weekend – but that is because there are some good options between the younger and more mobile defenders, such as Wes Harding and Cameron Humphreys, and the experienced stagers, such as Richard Wood Lee Peltier and Grant Hall, that the manager is seeking to find the right balance of. Behind that defence, Sky Blues fans will know that Viktor Johansson can be a very effective shot-stopper when on form.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
As Rotherham United are still in the early stages following a new manager’s arrival there is an element of unpredictability about them. In general, Matt Taylor has maintained the same high-pressing and direct brand of football they played under Paul Warne, which could catch Coventry City out if Mark Robins looks to make this the game where he wants to see a more controlled, proactive style of football.
The pragmatic move from Mark Robins here would be to continue with the plan of sitting deep and soaking up pressure from the opposition. While there is always the chance that Rotherham United could produce a moment of quality or force an error to take advantage of Coventry City sitting in, they are a team that wants to attack quickly against stretched defences, rather than patiently work openings. Furthermore, Viktor Gyokeres, Kasey Palmer and Gustavo Hamer could cause their defence all sorts of problems on the counter-attack.
While Coventry City have better options available now in midfield and attack in order to take games to opponents, it would be risky while the team is still in the relegation zone and has momentum by playing a different way to change things up now. The manner in which this game plays out could depend upon whether Mark Robins feels obliged to put on more of an attacking display for what is a home game that most of the fans will be expecting to win.