The Wrap: Sunderland – 2-1

Coventry City made it three wins in a row in a crucial home fixture against a Sunderland side that can now be considered a fellow play-off contender.

In what was often quite a feisty contest between a skilful Sunderland team and a committed Coventry City one, the Black Cats dominated possession with the Sky Blues looking to pick their moments to push forward. It was during a rare period on the front-foot, however, when Coventry took the lead, with Luke McNally twice winning the ball in Sunderland’s half, before picking Viktor Gyokeres in space down the opposition’s left side, with the Swede’s pull-back expertly converted by Jamie Allen.

Coventry City had their tails up following that opener, with Gyokeres coming close to making it two almost straight from the resulting kick-off, and may have felt they could have been two up at the break. A Sunderland response followed early in the second-half, but another Sky Blues breakaway, with Gustavo Hamer finding Matt Godden with an expert switch of play so that he could put in a cross for Viktor Gyokeres, secured the win.

In what was a pretty comfortable victory by the end, a lapse in concentration at the back allowed Sunderland’s Amad Diallo to beat Ben Wilson with an excellent finish deep into stoppage time to make for a nervous couple of minutes at the death.

Defending Deep, With Aggression

Ending the game with just 29% possession, it was apparent that Coventry City set out in this game to allow their opponents to dominate the ball. This was far from a defensive retreat from the Sky Blues, however, they were able to impose themselves on Sunderland, thanks in large part to just how aggressive the players were in the challenge when they needed to.

Kyle McFadzean set the tone for Coventry City in that regard, the centre-back took a fair few risks in this game in charging out of position to challenge against quick, nimble opponents but consistently won those tackles and stymied moments of promise against a Sunderland side that spent a lot of the game looking to play through a disciplined Sky Blues backline defending its penalty area. This was further epitomised by the opening goal, when Luke McNally left two Sunderland players on the floor with forceful, yet fair, challenges that completely reversed what had initially looked a promising Black Cats attack.

It was a risky approach, emphasised on the stroke of half-time when Amad Diallo wiggled past three Coventry City challenges, leaving Josh Eccles to eventually foul him on the edge of the penalty area, but the Sky Blues got it right more often than they got it wrong. It was only when that aggression dropped just after half-time to allow Sunderland to build a head of steam that the final result looked in any danger.

This game demonstrated that it is perfectly possible in football for a team to impose itself on an opponent with a minority of possession. In a clash of approaches between a defence-first Coventry City and an attack-first Sunderland, it was the Sky Blues’ aggression that made all the difference. For all of the possession that the Black Cats had, it was Coventry who were ultimately the most threatening team in the contest.

The Gyokeres Dependency

With an assist and then a goal to his name in a 2-1 victory, this was yet another game that underlined Viktor Gyokeres’ status as the best all-round striker outside of the Premier League. It wasn’t just about those goal contributions but how often the Swede was able to make hopeful balls into the channels into dangerous moments and chances that provided important moments of relief in a spirited, defensive Coventry City performance. The two goals were, however, highlighted how the Sky Blues can get the best out of Gyokeres by making of the players around him.

The opening goal came via a rare period in the game in which Coventry City were on the front foot, which meant that Viktor Gyokeres received the ball much closer to the opposing penalty area than he typically was for much of the 90 minutes. Furthermore, once Gyokeres was released into space down Sunderland’s left side, Jamie Allen and Jake Bidwell had made runs towards the centre of the penalty area to get ready for the pull-back, which Allen dispatched with aplomb.

For the second goal, the breakaway opens up due to Brooke Norton-Cuffy electing to carry the ball forward after receiving it in his own half, rather than send it into an area for Viktor Gyokeres to chase. The move is then allowed to develop with Gyokeres effectively playing the role of decoy, with Matt Godden allowed space to pull out wide to receive an excellent Gustavo Hamer pass, before sending in a cross for the Swede to tap home.

This Coventry City team has become accustomed to playing often quite loose passes over the top for Viktor Gyokeres to make something of, but he is a marked man at this stage in his development. While the Swede is still capable of turning the attention of multiple defenders into chances and goals, he can occasionally be stymied by such close, physical attention, which has often been when the Sky Blues have struggled to find other ways through to goal this season. Perhaps the goals in this game hinted at the next stage of Gyokeres’ progress as a footballer and Coventry City’s as a team, where his role as something of a decoy can be made use of.

The Squad Gets Thinner

The main concern coming out of this game was seeing Kasey Palmer limp off injured early in the second-half. That he was replaced by a left-back, in Josh Wilson-Esbrand, highlighted just how stretched Coventry City’s playing resources are currently, and have been for much of the season.

On a run of three wins on the bounce and with the team looking very settled and established in its approach, it is injuries that look the biggest threat to the Sky Blues’ prospects between now and the end of the season. With Gustavo Hamer appearing to limp with a knock at one point in the first-half, Coventry City could have come out of this game in an even worse situation with their squad depth than they currently appear to be.

With effectively no scope to bring in players between now and the end of the campaign, this is where the underinvestment in the team over the past 18 months – with only two players signed for a transfer fee, in Jake Bidwell and Kasey Palmer – is laid bare. With a fully-fit squad, there would be no reason not to be confident in this Coventry City team’s ability to close down the top six. However, any injury feels costly with a squad where there is such a contrast between its most talented and next-most talented players.

Under such circumstances, that this Coventry City side has even made it to the end of February with a shot of making the top six is yet another demonstration of what an incredible job Mark Robins is doing at this football club.

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