Coventry City were handed an emphatic reality check at home to Stoke City as they returned to action following the final international break of the season.
Behind to the first shot of the game, the Sky Blues were outsmarted, outworked and outfought in just about every area of the pitch on an afternoon where they never got going and saw too many individual players operate at sub-par levels of performance. They were fortunate not to fall further behind following that opener, with Stoke able to craft some big chances at just about every opportunity they had to attack, which was often. However, a deserved second goal for the away side finally came when Tyrese Campbell broke Coventry City’s offside trap following a corner-kick at the other end of the pitch to provide him all the time in the world to saunter into the penalty area and beat a stranded Ben Wilson.
Coventry City improved in the second-half but by nowhere near enough to launch a comeback. Their hopes of an unlikely turnaround were eventually dispelled just after the 70th minute, when Stoke City again overloaded the Sky Blues penalty area to allow Will Smallbone to make it three. To put the final nail in the coffin, Ki-Jana Hoever danced through the Sky Blues’ defence six minutes later and finished with aplomb to make it four.
All in all, it was a disastrous afternoon on just about every level for Coventry City, save for the league table, where they only fell one further point from the play-offs.
Stoke City Were Very Good
Sometimes the opposition are just very good and almost nothing can be done about it, which was largely the case in this game. Perhaps things would have been different had Stoke City not scored from the game’s first shot, allowing them to take advantage of Coventry City having to look to force a way back into proceedings, but they were clearly the superior team in just about every area of the pitch and would have surely found another way to win even without taking the lead so early.
It was far from a smash and grab counter-attacking display from Stoke City, they were aggressive and well-organised in the press, which prevented Coventry City from getting into any kind of rhythm and created traps which allowed the Potters to win the ball high up the pitch. When they did win the ball, they were quick to work it out wide and load the box with numbers. That was how the first goal was scored, and saw Stoke work several excellent opportunities in the first-half before eventually scoring a second after the Sky Blues were caught up the pitch at a corner-kick.
Even when Stoke City dropped back somewhat in the second-half, they kept three attacking players forward, which meant that they could quickly switch to the counter-attack as Coventry City stretched themselves in search of a route back into the game. With a resolute defence, patrolled excellently by the imperious Ben Pearson, the Potters completely stymied the Sky Blues’ attacking game, there was little danger of a Sky Blues comeback and it became a case of just how many goals they wanted to add to the final score.
From cutting off the supply line to Viktor Gyokeres to isolating Coventry City’s defenders, Stoke City found a way to nullify the Sky Blues’ strengths and pinpoint their weaknesses. They got their game-plan right and executed it perfectly. While there were a number of poor individual performances from Coventry players in this game, the biggest reason for the result was Stoke’s excellence.
It was apparent from very early on in this game that several Coventry City players were playing well below their usual standards. Just what the reason was for it seems mysterious from the outside. While it can be explained to an extent by playing an opponent on top form, seeing so many players make sloppy errors, and even struggle in their movement or in the basics of controlling and passing the ball was deeply unsettling and can only have further fomented the disaster that proceeded.
It was an early five-yard misplaced pass from Luke McNally to Fankaty Dabo that seemed to signal that something was deeply off about Coventry City as a set of players in this game. While the centre-back isn’t the best passer of the ball, for all of the other usual brilliance he provides, it was a really straightforward pass that McNally should have been able to execute it without really thinking about it. Mistakes like that can happen, even at the best of times, but to have made it so early and with Stoke City taking the lead soon after that, it seemed to engender a fear across the team, forcing them into bad decisions in an attempt to avoid further errors.
Luke McNally was notably the biggest struggler for Coventry City on an individual level, particularly in the first-half. For a player that hadn’t been on international duty or had any injury issues, his poor showing is also the most difficult to explain. There were further other occasions where the Burnley loanee either used the ball poorly or gave it away entirely and even the more rudimentary elements of his defensive game seemed to have fallen apart, with Stoke City’s forwards able to beat him to balls he would usually have been the favourite for in previous displays for the club. Without that added layer of security that McNally typically brings at the back, it made a difficult afternoon for Coventry City all the more testing.
On top of that, Matt Godden and Fankaty Dabo really seemed to struggle to keep up with the pace of the game, with the week’s rest having seemingly done little to help them recover from their respective long-term fitness issues. Additionally, a Viktor Gyokeres returning from international duty struggled to beat defenders in his usual manner and snatched at the couple of decent chances that fell his way. Those struggles were more understandable but having so many players at below par levels was not something that Coventry City could cope with.
No Way To Change It Up
Having lost the tactical battle and with so many players off-form, Coventry City desperately needed to do something different from the bench. While Mark Robins made a full five substitutions, including Josh Wilson-Esbrand and Ryan Howley who played pretty well given the circumstances, they were all like-for-like and thus did little to break the stranglehold Stoke City had on the Sky Blues.
One the key issues for Coventry City in this game was the aching chasm between the attack and the rest of the team. Stoke City did a good job of isolating Matt Godden and Viktor Gyokeres, with Josh Eccles and the wing-backs struggling with the task to make the runs to provide support to the strike duo. Turning to the bench at half-time, Mark Robins didn’t really have a good option to provide that missing link in midfield, embodied by a pretty raw Ryan Howley being selected for the role. It meant that a spirited second-half performance for the team went unrewarded as the team simply didn’t have a way to change the overall pattern of play.
There was no real option but to persist with what wasn’t working and hope that nicking a goal from somewhere might change the nature of the game, but there was a low chance of that happening. It is not just in this game where that was the case, it will continue to be so for much of the rest of the season, which is why Coventry City must hope this was a one-off shock performance and not a precedent for what is to come as a thin squad hits the business end of the campaign.