The Wrap: Sheffield United – 1-3

Coventry City slipped to a Boxing Day defeat at Bramall Lane in a pretty comfortable manner.

The Sky Blues started slowly in this game, finding themselves behind at half-time after being caught on the counter from their own corner-kick, with a wonderful Iliman Ndiaye pass setting James McAtee clean through on goal. Just after the break, Jake Bidwell won a penalty for the away side, after going over a lazy Anel Ahmedhodzic leg, to provide Viktor Gyokeres the chance to level matters.

As soon as the Swede’s tame effort was comfortably held by Sheffield United’s Wes Foderingham, the script for the rest of the afternoon looked to have been written. The Blades were soon two up, thanks to loose Coventry City marking from a set-piece, and were then three up after a ball across the box eventually found its way back to home substitute, Tommy Doyle, to kill the game off.

It was only as Viktor Gyokeres scored from a Gustavo Hamer set-piece, and then drew a red card from Sheffield United’s John Egan, that it became apparent just how much of an opportunity to claim at least a point from a tough away assignment that Coventry City had let slip.

Naivety Makes A Slow Start Worse

Coventry City looked a touch off their usual rhythm in the first-half of this game. An early injury to Callum O’Hare can’t have helped, but the Sky Blues struggled to sustain spells of possession or even get on the attack quickly, with heavy touches often the root cause of moves breaking down. Nonetheless, they had restricted Sheffield United to just as few efforts on goal as they themselves had created.

However, they were behind at the break due to a Sheffield United move to owed as much to Coventry City’s naivety as it did to a wonderful defence-splitting pass from the Blades’ Iliman Ndiaye. It began with a Sky Blues’ corner-kick and ended with the ball in the back of the net after both Ben Sheaf and Jamie Allen had opportunities to kill the attack off.

That the goal occurred was down to, in the first instance, Ben Sheaf having picked up a silly early booking for lunging into a challenge that he was second-favourite to, meaning that he couldn’t afford to take Iliman Ndiaye out as he mounted a much more dangerous attack for Sheffield United. Then, Jamie Allen not only left space for Ndiaye to pick James McAtee out due to momentary ball-watching as he was tracking back, but he lunged in for a ball that he couldn’t get to, making McAtee’s eventual finish all the easier.

In one of the team’s most difficult games of the season, to be caught on the counter-attack in that fashion was poor. Coventry City might have found other ways to concede in this game, but going behind in a first-half of relatively few chances meant that they weren’t in control of how the remainder of the 90 minutes played out. Instead, Sheffield United could hold the Sky Blues largely at arm’s length, waiting for further lapses in concentration to kill the game off, rather than having to take risks to claim the three points.

The Importance Of Staying In The Game

When Sheffield United’s third goal went in, Coventry City could have few complaints for losing a game in which they were thoroughly second-best in. Just six minutes later, the Blades’ lead had been cut by one and they were also a man down, providing the Sky Blues with a glimpse of what might have been had the scoreline been closer.

Viktor Gyokeres’ limp penalty miss early in the second-half may be easy to identify as the key game-changing moment in this contest, but the two goals conceded between that and the Swede’s 75th minute header were far costlier. To allow either a free header from a set-piece or a ball cross the penalty area to go straight back to the opposition is bad enough, for both to happen in the same game is pretty unforgivable – especially, given the nature of the first goal.

It is hard to target individuals outright for either of the second-half goals conceded, instead, it spoke to a sense that this Coventry City team didn’t quite believe it could take something from this game – which is also in keeping with the penalty miss. There seemed little sense of defiance as a difficult away game slipped away from the Sky Blues, just a collective shrugging of the shoulders as each blow occurred.

Fatigue may well have been a key factor in this performance. This team has expended a monumental amount of mental and physical effort in a short space of time to turn a relegation battle into a play-off push, at a time in which Mark Robins’ squad options have only seemed to dwindle. Nonetheless, that there was half a chance of claiming something from this game underlines why it is important to continue to compete fiercely for everything until the final whistle is blown.

The comparison between this game and the capitulation against Swansea City may feel apt, but the salient point is such a comeback should not have been necessary, rather than it having been possible. A penalty to level the scores should feel like a game-changing moment, it didn’t here. The opposition putting the ball into the penalty area should invoke a desire to move every last inch of limb to clear it, it didn’t here.

Quality Of Squad Depth, Rather Than Quantity The Concern

It seems a laboured point by now, but it really is imperative that Mark Robins can strengthen his squad in January. At the back, the team is desperately short on experience, meanwhile, there is almost no depth beyond the starting players further forward. Callum O’Hare picking up an injury early on in this game only makes the requirement for fresh bodies all the more urgent.

It’s not even like Coventry City have an especially high number of injuries right now (Kyle McFadzean, Josh Eccles and Tyler Walker being the three absentees prior to this game) but it’s the lack of viable options available to Mark Robins to provide him the opportunity to change things up both between and during games that is the issue. Since the club’s promotion to the Championship, it has been apparent that this club hasn’t had the financial resources to compete even around mid-table in this division – put sharply into focus by just the one permanent summer signing this year.

Whether Doug King’s prospective takeover can or will change that remains something of an unknown factor right now, in top of perhaps the issue of timing of it in relation to the January transfer window. In fact, more important may be Mark Robins keeping this team around the play-offs, garnering the belief from key players that something can be achieved here, rather than elsewhere, this season.

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