Coventry City were frustrated by a resolute Cardiff City side at the Coventry Building Society Arena in the final game of 2022.
A bright start for the away side soon gave way to the overriding pattern of play for the game, Coventry City possession and Cardiff City making themselves difficult to break down. The Sky Blues were able to work some decent openings in the first-half, the best of which fell to Kasey Palmer and Jamie Allen, but didn’t really test Ryan Allsop in the opposing goal enough relative to the amount of ball they had.
If anything, Coventry City became less fluent as they looked to force a winner during the second-half. A saveable Viktor Gyokeres header from a Jake Bidwell cross was just about the best chance that the Sky Blues worked, allowing Cardiff City to claim the point they had clearly set out for.
O’Hare’s Absence Causes An Unsettling Change Of Shape
Callum O’Hare’s absence will inevitably lead to questions as to whether Coventry City would be able to play better were he available, the problem for the Sky Blues in this game was less about what O’Hare might have been able to do and more about how the team looked to adjust to him not being on the pitch. Kasey Palmer came into the side, which was nominally a like-for-like change but saw the attacking midfielder play much closer to Viktor Gyokeres than O’Hare would, with Jamie Allen dropping deeper, making for what looked much closer to a 3-5-2 shape than the typical 3-4-2-1.
The advantage of having Kasey Palmer close to Viktor Gyokeres is that the former can draw defenders towards him and create space for the latter, akin to a traditional strike partnership. A lot of Coventry City’s best play in this game came from playing the ball quickly in towards Palmer with his back to goal, with his ability to quickly flick the ball into space allowing Gyokeres to run dangerously at the Cardiff City defence. However, that was a piece of combination play that was only possible on the counter-attack, which the Sky Blues were rarely able to leverage against a defensively-minded opponent.
The issue that replacing Kasey Palmer for Callum O’Hare caused was seen when Coventry City had longer spells of possession. With Palmer often pushing forward and Jamie Allen dropping into midfield, there were fewer options for players on the ball to pick out. This often forced the Sky Blues into playing sideways or backwards, rather than in between the lines of the opposing midfield and defence, where they are used to having both O’Hare and Allen occupying.
Against an opponent looking to sit in, when Kasey Palmer looked to drop into the space O’Hare would usually fill, he was moving into the most heavily congested area of the pitch. While Palmer can be effective in playing quick one-touch flicks to set players through, the amount of defenders between him and any team-mate meant that those little moments of improvisation had to be highly accurate to come off. Whether having Callum O’Hare in that area of the pitch in this kind of games would have improved matters is debatable, it was a difficult game to weave anything in the area between the opposing defence and midfield.
With Callum O’Hare out for the long-term, Coventry City are going to have to adjust how they find routes to goal. While O’Hare is a player who is equally capable of frustrating with his final ball as anyone in a Sky Blue shirt in this game, that there isn’t a like-for-like replacement for him in the squad means that Mark Robins and the players will have to find new patterns and combinations in attack that have yet to be established. These kind of awkward, non-fluent performances could become commonplace until that develops.
Gyokeres Off It, Others Fail To Step Up
It has so often been the case for Coventry City that Viktor Gyokeres has been able to produce something out of nothing to turn tight games into victories, in this game, the Swede couldn’t quite produce the magic, exposing his team-mates’ lack of invention. Even though Gyokeres still had some good chances to get on the scoresheet on a bad night individually, it can’t all be on one man’s shoulders to carry the team through a season.
Viktor Gyokeres wasn’t quite able to control the ball or drift past defenders in his usual manner in this game. Part of that was down to Cardiff City keeping him closely marked, but there have been occasions where Gyokeres on top form has been able to evade a similar level of attention. Part of the issue for Coventry City here is that so much of both the forward and the team’s game is predicated on him being able to beat multiple defenders in order to create openings and when that doesn’t happen, there is a shortage of alternative routes to goal.
Without that ability, Coventry City were forced to play slowly against a defence that was well-set and in position to deal with balls into the box. On top of that, Viktor Gyokeres’ predilection for pulling wide in order to get into positions to drive at defenders often robbed the Sky Blues of a target in the box. There were several decent openings to cross that were eschewed because Gyokeres was not in the penalty area.
Nonetheless, it was incumbent on the other outfield players to make openings happen without the aid of Viktor Gyokeres, which they failed to do. The lack of an ability otherwise to dribble past opponents to stretch their defence was a key shortcoming here. While Gustavo Hamer, Ben Sheaf and Callum Doyle made gainful efforts to open up the play with their passing, Cardiff City could stay in their defensive shape because Sky Blues players rarely had the beating of their defenders. Unless there was a moment of absolute magic from the blue, Coventry City simply did not look like scoring in this game without their key man on form.
Wing-Backs The Route To Breaking Teams Down
To triple down on the theme of this article, this game was about Coventry City attempting and failing to break down a set defence that were more than happy with the point. The unavailability of Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres being off-colour are key mitigating factors, but if the Sky Blues are serious about their play-off ambitions, finding ways through in spite of that is imperative.
The key area where Coventry City came up short in this game was in wide areas, exposing, once again, that this team lacks attacking wing-backs that can truly hurt opposing defences. On the left, Jake Bidwell rarely got into good areas, but at least picked out a decent cross for Viktor Gyokeres in the second-half. On the right, Fankaty Dabo looked largely off-the-pace – even if he did get to the byline for possibly the team’s best attacking move of the game – while Todd Kane was very hit and hope as his replacement.
It is not that Coventry City’s wing-backs are particularly poor in their crossing, it’s just that their final ball is made more difficult for two key reasons. The first is that none of the current options possess particularly blistering pace. This means that the team can find it difficult to get behind opponents quickly in wide areas. That Cardiff City were playing a winger at left-back in this game should have been a key area of opportunity, however, Callum O’Dowda was rarely isolated and tested defensively.
The other key reason why Coventry City struggle to threaten in wide areas is because their lack of a presence in the penalty area. The team’s best attacker, Viktor Gyokeres, is someone who often looks to drift out to the wing so that he can run at defenders, meanwhile, Kasey Palmer isn’t exactly a natural target-man, while Jamie Allen is more sparing with his runs into the box. Against an opponent looking to sit in and pack their penalty area, it was close to picking out a needle in a haystack territory.
Whether it is a case of Coventry City not having the wing-backs required to break teams down in these kinds of games or that the team doesn’t do enough to maximise their effectiveness from wide areas, both probably need to be looked at going forward. If the Sky Blues are to dominate games more consistently over the remainder of the season, a lot of the team’s play will end up in wide areas, they cannot afford to come up short in the manner they did in this game.