Coventry City somehow squandered a comfortable three-goal lead in the final 22 minutes of a home game against Swansea City to end up with a solitary point in a strange game at the Coventry Building Society Arena.
Despite Swansea City hoarding possession for the entirety of the game, Coventry City looked to have the perfect counter to that with their organisation off-the-ball and purpose on the counter-attack. The chances flowed throughout the first-half for the Sky Blues, with the pressure eventually telling with Jonathan Panzo heading in from a Gustavo Hamer corner-kick around the half-hour mark.
Coventry City should probably have added to their lead prior to the half-time break, but it didn’t seem to matter as Jamie Allen and Viktor Gyokeres struck early in the second-half to seemingly put the game out of reach of Swansea City. Even when the Swans pulled a goal back in the 68th minute, via Joel Piroe, there seemed little sign of the turnaround that was to come.
It was only when Swansea City pounced on some lazy Sky Blues defending in the 76th minute that the possible suddenly became inevitable. Coventry City awoke from their slumber to become panicky and fraught, typified by substitute Todd Kane smacking the ball up the pitch under little pressure to allow the away side to get on the attack in the move that resulted in the eventual equaliser.
It was a a comeback that really should not have been possible, raising questions as to the in-game management of both Mark Robins and the players out on the pitch.
Purposeful Against Possession
Coventry City did not have the ball for much of this game, however, they were no less threatening – well, up until the final half hour – despite that. While it would be easy to attribute the cause of the capitulation to having so little of the ball, the reason why the Sky Blues had taken a three-goal lead was because they had executed a game-plan centred on having small amounts of possession so well.
There were two key reasons why Coventry City’s game-plan appeared to have worked so successfully in this game. The first was how well the midfield worked to ensure that Swansea City only had the ball in areas of the pitch the Sky Blues wanted them to and the second was how quickly the team transitioned into attack once the ball was won.
It was the midfield’s work off-the-ball that set the tone for Coventry City in this game. Jamie Allen and Gustavo Hamer in particular were important in finding the balance between staying in shape and looking to take up opportunities to press Swansea City. Hamer would often join the front-line when the team looked to apply pressure on Swansea higher up the pitch, yet both he and Allen would drop in alongside Ben Sheaf to make a midfield three when the away side progressed the ball into the Sky Blues’ half, making the home side difficult to play through.
The defence were well-protected for the majority of this game, with the only noticeable source of danger being balls played in behind the rookie right wing-back, Jack Burroughs. Those defensive efforts were aided and abetted by being so purposeful and dangerous when the team managed to finagle themselves some possession.
With Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare to call upon to attack, two forwards who are excellent on the counter, not having much of the ball was only going to be a problem for Coventry City if they couldn’t get the ball quickly into the dangerous duo. Gyokeres and O’Hare were able to be especially effective here because Gustavo Hamer and Callum Doyle played some excellent passes to get the team quickly on the attack. Additionally, the direct running of Jack Burroughs on the right side sucked some of the attention away from Gyokeres and O’Hare.
A three-goal lead may have been a touch flattering to Coventry City, but it reflected that the Sky Blues had found a way to effectively utilise Swansea City’s dominance of the ball against them. Any analysis of this game has to reflect that Mark Robins and his team were spot-on in their strategy for the majority of the contest.
Doyle’s Passing Stands Out, His Defending Less So
One of the most notable elements of this Coventry City performance was the number of fantastic passes made by Callum Doyle out of the Sky Blues’ defensive line, particularly in the first-half out to Jake Bidwell. It has been apparent for quite some time that Doyle is supremely comfortable on the ball as a centre-back, but this game was the best demonstration yet of just what the Manchester City loanee is truly capable of.
With Kyle McFadzean out injured, Callum Doyle has had the opportunity to play in the centre of the back three, which provides him with better opportunities to utilise that wand of a left-foot that he possesses. It opens up the pitch for Doyle to assess his options and allows a little bit more time and space than in a wide centre-back position to weight those sumptuous spreads of the play he is capable of.
It wasn’t just that Callum Doyle played a handful of truly jaw-dropping passes in this game but that he did so when the team was being pressed high up the pitch by their opponents. With the back three and goalkeeper under almost immediate pressure when they received the ball, it was mightily useful that there was someone in that area who really could take care of possession. Doyle’s ability meant that Coventry City could focus on quickly turning defence into attack for much of this game, rather than worrying about how soon Swansea City could get the ball back and maintain the pressure.
The caveat with this performance from Callum Doyle is that he was in a position to prevent each of the three goals that Swansea City eventually scored, even if they are not all entirely his fault. For the first, Joel Piroe nips in front of Doyle after Jack Burroughs was skinned on the right side of the defence. The for the second, he misses a tackle to space for a shot that eventually landed at the feet of a Swansea player to tap-in – which Jake Bidwell and Ben Sheaf probably could have made more of an effort to block. For the third, Doyle failed to react to the ball hitting the post, leaving an opposing forward in space for an easy finish.
In terms of his quality in possession, Callum Doyle is probably at his best playing in the heart of Coventry City’s defence. However, that comes with the downside of leaving the team without a senior leader in a crucial position in the heart of the backline. For the player, it is about learning from this experience to become smarter and more aggressive in his defending in order to become the defender that can fully realise Doyle’s talents as a footballer. For Mark Robins, it is about finding a way to balance Doyle’s obvious talent with his lack of experience.
Where Did That Come From?
Being three goals ahead and not winning a game is something that is incredibly rare in football, especially in the scenario when the lead has been thoroughly earned and there is little sign of an opposition response, as was the case here. The quest for a simple one or two things which can be attributed as the cause of such a capitulation is inevitable, in this case there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer for why Coventry City did not win this game after being three goals ahead.
The two most common explanations from the Coventry City fanbase seem to be that the team suddenly became too defensive and that Mark Robins took too long to make substitutions. To counter both of those arguments, at least to an extent, it has to be kept in mind that the Sky Blues’ game-plan of allowing Swansea City the ball had been working up until the 68th minute. The away side were allowed no more of the ball than they had prior to that point in the game and it is understandable why the Coventry City manager was wary of changing something up that had worked. Although, there is definitely a case to be had for having introduced fresher legs to have maintained the energy levels of the Sky Blues that appeared to fade later on.
There were two sides to the capitulation from Coventry City in this game. The first is that the team failed to recognise the need to alter their approach in response to being three goals ahead with a good amount of time left on the clock. The second is that Swansea City reacted proactively to a seemingly lost cause with positive changes which counter-acted some of the things the Sky Blues had done so well earlier in the game.
On the first issue, this was probably where Coventry City missed the figure of Kyle McFadzean. As much as it was an asset for long periods of this game to have Callum Doyle in McFadzean’s place in the middle of the back three, McFadzean’s physical presence probably would have rectified some of the shoddy defending seen in the closing stages. More importantly, Kyle McFadzean would surely not have stood for some of the sheer recklessness on show from the Sky Blues after taking such a comfortable lead.
In retrospect, the third goal for Coventry City was something of a cursed blessing for the team. The goal came from Ben Wilson playing the ball quickly from his goal, which seemed to encourage the goalkeeper to then take further risks later on in an attempt to get the team on the attack. Wilson’s distribution, specifically the timing of it, in the closing stages of this game invited needless pressure. Moreover, the team as a whole were over-keen in continuing to attack when really they should have been looking to manage the clock.
That Swansea City were able to take advantage of Coventry City’s lack of focus is to the credit of their manager, Russell Martin, who made attacking changes to his team even after the game looked to be over. Each substitution made was purposeful, changing the team’s shape and angle of attack. After playing with narrow full-backs for the first-half, Swansea went to a back three with wingers eating up chalk on the flanks. This went some way to stymying Coventry City’s threat on the counter while ensuring they had players out wide to take advantage of the Sky Blues’ weak area in this game, Jack Burroughs at right wing-back, with two of the goals coming from Swansea players running at the Sky Blues youngster, who otherwise had a decent game.
The comeback would not have been possible had Coventry City adopted the correct mentality to see the game out, simultaneously, it required a Swansea City side willing to chase what looked to be a lost cause. On another day, the Sky Blues would have been able to manage the situation. On another day, they might not have come up against a side like Swansea who would have persisted in the face of seemingly impossible scenario.