Coventry City fell to defeat at Reading in a game of few chances and not a great deal of quality upon their return to action after the World Cup break.
A first-half that was almost entirely without incident for either side gave way to an encouraging start to the second-half for Coventry City. Penning back Reading into their own half for a period of 15-20 minutes of dominance, the Sky Blues looked to be in the ascendancy, yet couldn’t find the breakthrough. Cruelly, Reading managed to find a goal with just about their only attack during this period, via a corner-kick after a sliced Jonathan Panzo clearance.
From that point onwards, the Sky Blues struggled to find a way through a determined Reading defence and slumped to a first defeat in five games.
One Of Those Days
After a tepid first-half from both teams as they resumed their respective league campaigns, it was Coventry City who found an extra gear after the resumption of play with a goal looking increasingly inevitable as they mounted pressure on Reading. However, a sloppy clearance from Jonathan Panzo proved to be the game’s key moment, with Reading scoring from the resulting goal-kick. Football can be a cruel game.
It was immensely frustrating, especially given the self-inflicted nature of the goal conceded, but there are reasons to be more encouraged than disheartened by this Coventry City performance. Around two months ago, the Sky Blues would have been both unwilling and unable to take the game to an opponent away from home in the manner they did in this game. It wasn’t just that Coventry looked to be positive, but they did so without unsettling the solid defensive structure that has been so important in turning this campaign around.
The defensive display was even more impressive given the absence of Kyle McFadzean from the back-line. However, the lack of McFadzean may have helped more than hindered Coventry City for this specific game. Against a physically prepossessing Reading side, the best strategy was to push up the pitch and limit opportunities for the Royal to get crosses into Andy Carroll, which was easier to do with a younger, quicker defensive line.
Reading’s main source of danger in open play was the speedier Yakou Meite, who caused a few problems early on but faded in the second-half and was probably a key reason why Coventry City were so dominant following the break. On top of that, having Callum Doyle in the centre of the back three meant the Sky Blues could take advantage of having another excellent passer in the team, adding to the team’s dominance of proceedings.
Coventry City managed to have both control and played this game in the right areas. While things weren’t as fluent in attack as they were when it came to playing through the defence and midfield, the Sky Blues’ approach to this game gave them the best chance of winning. The goal conceded was sloppy but also unfortunate and not a reflection of the balance of play. That is the kind of bad luck that can happen in individual games, over the course of the season, being able to control and dominate on a regular basis will see the team pick up more points than they drop.
Issues With Dominance
The goal that Coventry City conceded in this game was less concerning than the team’s inability to create anything truly clear-cut was the greater source of discouragement. A shot total of 15, with four on target, may seem respectable, but Joe Lumley in the Reading goal was rarely tested, with efforts from set-pieces and outside the area the Sky Blues’ best chances.
Finding a way to convert promising spells of possession into quality chances could prove to be the team’s key challenge over the coming games. As Coventry City look to move towards controlling games more regularly, there is a question as to whether this team has the players to play through a set opposing defence. There may be some excellent ball-players to call upon, but a lack of pace out wide and issues with loading the penalty area with bodies looks a potentially awkward mix.
For all of the quality in moving the ball through the defence and midfield that Callum Doyle, Ben Sheaf, Gustavo Hamer and Callum O’Hare showed in this game, when it came to picking a pass in the final third, they were hindered by a lack of movement and options ahead of them. Notably, a lack of pace at wing-back means that Coventry City can be short of the penetration required to get in behind opponents and move their defences out of position. This means that the Sky Blues often have to be very precise in their approach play, which can be especially difficult against a team like Reading in this game who packed out the central area of the pitch in front of their penalty area.
Another potential issue with a possession-heavy approach is whether it gets the best out of the team’s best player, Viktor Gyokeres. The Swede is a much more dangerous player on the counter-attack, where he has the space to run at opposing defenders to get himself into threatening areas, rather than attempting to find space for himself in the penalty area to round off moves. Aside from a couple of those typical bustling runs from Gyokeres, he was rather subdued in this game, partially as a result of the team’s dominance of the ball.
If Coventry City are to make a more possession-orientated approach work, it may take some time to figure out the movements and combinations in attack that can create clear cut chances. For Mark Robins and the team it could see the team’s results drop-off over the short-term for the potential benefit of a more sustainable way to pick up points over the longer-term. However, it will require complete confidence that this set of players actually can turn dominance of the ball into clear-cut chances.
Substitutions Do More Harm Than Good
It is natural to feel that a team needs changes when they fall behind and there were few disputing Mark Robins’ call to bring on more attacking players as Coventry City chased this game late on. However, the substitutions not only didn’t make a positive impact on the game, but knocked the team out of a rhythm that had seen them dominate proceedings, helping tip the balance in Reading’s favour.
Central to what had been so good about Coventry City for much of the second-half had been how well Gustavo Hamer, Ben Sheaf and Callum O’Hare had been combining in possession in order to pin Reading back into their own half. The substitutions broke up that axis and the Sky Blues looked much less fluent as they tried to get those extra attacking players into the game, which saw the ball often end up either out of play or with Reading to allow the home side to slow proceedings down.
Furthermore, the changes seemed to imbue Coventry City with an attitude that they had to turn things around as quickly as possible. This could be seen in several pretty needless free-kicks given away in the game’s closing stages as the players became overly keen to win the ball, entering into challenges they were second-favourites to and providing Reading with further opportunities to wind down the clock.
Of course, it would have been a lot to expect the 11 players that started the game to have been able to complete the 90 minutes after a four-week break from action, but the performance following the substitutions in this game highlighted that making changes isn’t always the best way to turn a game around. Having additional attacking players on the pitch is only as useful as the service they can be provided with, which is what Coventry City lost in the changes today.
Sometimes, goals don’t reflect whether a team’s plan was working, which Coventry City’s largely was in this game. Sometimes, it can be better to stick with Plan A rather than turn to a Plan B unnecessarily or prematurely.
Next Week Is Pivotal
To add an unprecedented fourth talking point to this edition of The Wrap, now feels like an opportunity to comment on the continuing circus that is Coventry City’s off-field situation. That I haven’t yet dedicated a post on this blog to it is because it has felt foolish to do so while so many things remain up in the air with regards to the club’s ownership and stadium issues. That lack of clarity may soon change, with next week looking very important in that regard.
The current noises around the club suggest that Doug King’s prospective takeover will be approved over the next few days, at a time where Coventry City currently have nowhere to play their home game against Swansea City at the end of the week. The consequences of not being able to continue to play home games in Coventry really would be dire, especially at the start of a supposedly new era for the club. Time really is of the essence for King to rectify this current issue.
At this stage, any talk surrounding plans for keeping hold of and signing players in January under prospective new ownership is fanciful. Maybe we will be at that point by the time the next edition of The Wrap is out, but it is absolutely vital for both Doug King and Coventry City that attention can return to such footballing issues rather than what is the latest in a long line of existential threats to this football club.