Coventry City triumphed over Watford at Vicarage Road in a classic away day showing.
The Sky Blues did well to limit Watford in the first-half, although, the hosts had a goal disallowed in that period, while carrying a threat on the counter through Kasey Palmer and the excellent Viktor Gyokeres. Somewhat unfortunate not to be ahead by the break, Coventry City soon got their due reward, with Gyokeres finishing a Jamie Allen centre for the game’s only goal.
The rest of the game was pretty much a contest of Watford attack against Coventry City defence. The Hornets should have been level when a Hassane Kamara cross picked out Ismaila Sarr in the six-yard box, only for the Senegal international to fluff his lines. There was pressure beyond that, but the Sky Blues looked comfortable dealing with it as they saw out the clean sheet on the way to eventual victory.
The Perfect Balance In Midfield
The number one factor in this win for Coventry City was the excellent shape that the team held in midfield up until taking the lead. Mark Robins made one change in that area from Tuesday night, with Kasey Palmer taking Callum O’Hare’s place in the side, and the attacking midfielder slotted into the side seamlessly. For much of the opening hour of the game, the Sky Blues were the perfect balance of disciplined, aggressive and slick in the middle of the park, which knocked Watford out of their rhythm in possession and gave the team a threat on the counter.
Once again, Jamie Allen was probably the key to making the midfield shape work for Coventry City. Allen is playing an excellent role at the moment as somewhere between a number ten and a central midfielder. As discussed after the win over Blackburn Rovers in midweek, Allen is providing the team with an extra body in central midfield out of possession while getting up to support the attack quickly when he needs to. It was another goal involvement for Allen in this game, as he continues to get his rewards for hard work and tactical intelligence.
Kasey Palmer aided Jamie Allen’s endeavours in the advanced roles of Coventry City’s 3-4-2-1 formation, helping win the ball back high up the pitch to aid the team’s efforts in shutting down Watford as they looked to build spells of possession. Crucially, Palmer also provided some really intelligent through balls for Viktor Gyokeres that allowed the Sky Blues striker to run directly at the opposing centre-backs and provide the team with a goal threat. For all the energy in Coventry’s midfield performance, having a threat on top of it was essential.
Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf occupied the two deeper central midfield roles for Coventry City and interchanged between defensive and attacking roles, whereas Sheaf had clearly been the sitting midfielder last time out. While the Sky Blues were nearly punished on the counter for occasionally committing all of their midfield to attacks, having Sheaf and Hamer step up to get in Watford’s faces led to some highly dangerous turnovers of possession in the opposing half.
That combination of those four midfield players meant that Coventry City could cede possession to an extent, knowing that they’d be able to win it back in important areas and launch attacks quickly. Aided by the always excellent Viktor Gyokeres as the outlet in attack, it was in the centre of the pitch where the Sky Blues showed their teeth in this game. The past two matches have shown how much quality this team now has in the middle of the park.
Losing That Balance
Coventry City’s approach in this game relied on a level of energy and aggression in midfield that could not be sustained over 90 minutes. Whether it was a deliberate step down as a result of taking the lead, or just a loss of energy levels, the Sky Blues notably began to sit off Watford following Viktor Gyokeres’ goal, which threatened to turn the game against them.
All four in midfield were notably more cautious in their decisions to try and press their opposite numbers over the final half hour of the game, allowing the home side to create a few excellent chances that could have changed the nature of the contest. This was most notable when the talented Yaser Asprilla was allowed time and space on the ball to play a delightful pass to put Hassane Kamara in behind Josh Eccles, only for his cross to be poked over at point-blank range by the off-colour Ismalia Sarr.
Watford continued to control possession and start to mount pressure on the Coventry City back-line after what should have been an equaliser. It can’t have been within Mark Robins’ natural instincts in the situation the team was in during the second-half to sacrifice a midfielder for a striker, with Jamie Allen replaced by Tyler Walker, but that was probably a decision influenced more by fixture congestion than tactical consideration. The switch to two up top further allowed Watford to dominate the ball and the game came down to how well they would use it.
On this occasion, Coventry City rode out the pressure through both commitment and fortune. While this team can sit in and defend pretty well, this was another game that highlighted just how important it is for the Sky Blues to attempt to maintain energy levels in the middle of the pitch. Without it, this game would have been one-way traffic and a very different result – an example of that being the performance away at Norwich City earlier in the campaign.
Defending The Box
Coventry City kept their eighth clean sheet of the season in this match, all of which have come over the past 11 games. It is an incredible turnaround and essential to it has been the ability to defend the penalty area with discipline, limiting the work that Ben Wilson has to do in goal and demanding that opponents produce intricate quality to break them down.
Watford’s biggest threat in this game was in wide areas, partially because Coventry City played two inexperienced wing-backs in Josh Eccles and Jack Burroughs, partially because the Hornets had Premier League quality wide players in Ismalia Sarr and Ken Sema, with the dangerous Joao Pedro, and later on, Yaser Asprilla, floating to the flanks to occasionally overload that area of the pitch. The battle between Sarr and Eccles on the right of the Sky Blues flank threatened to define this game, with most of Watford’s best chances coming down that side.
Those mismatches could have unsettled the back three by dragging them out of possession and leaving space in the penalty area, instead, Coventry City’s defensive trio were admirably disciplined. The Sky Blues were ready to see their wing-backs occasionally lose out either for pace or in one-against-one situations, with the focus on blocking the route from wide areas to the goal. The wide centre-backs rarely came out to cover the wing-backs, instead, staying in the penalty area for the eventual final ball, with Kyle McFadzean there to deal with crosses. On top of that, Ben Wilson made saves and claimed cross when he needed to.
While Watford were nearly successful on a couple of occasions in converting that space in behind the Coventry City wing-backs for chances on goal, Mark Robins will feel that, overall, the plan on focusing on defending the penalty area, over dealing with the Hornets’ talented attacking players one-on-one was the right call. The clean sheet certainly back that up.
Since that 0-0 draw with Birmingham City, Coventry City have had the third-best record in the Championship. It is a big improvement and it’s largely been down to a defence that looked out of its depth at this level at the start of the season.