The Easter weekend began with a goalless draw for Coventry City against Swansea City, which was a fair reflection of the game’s proceedings.
In a game that could be best described as an ‘interesting tactical battle’ it was a case of Swansea City dominating possession and Coventry City trying to make the best with what little of the ball they had. Each side had some good chances to win the game, with the Sky Blues’ best falling to Gustavo Hamer in the first-half, while Swansea’s Harry Darling missed from a metre or two out early in the second-half, but this was largely game in which the two teams each felt like they had a good measure of the other.
Off-Ball Discipline Just About Right
Coventry City know only too well how punishing Russell Martin’s Swansea City can be to teams not prepared for a long and arduous test of their discipline without the ball. As much as this was a game that the Sky Blues would have wanted to come out and win, it would have been a mistake to have been over-eager in looking to win the ball off Swansea. Coventry can come out of this game feeling largely positive at how few opportunities of genuine quality they limited their opponents to.
The initial plan in this game was to use the extra man in midfield that Jamie Allen coming in for Matt Godden provided to congest the centre of the pitch and restrict the passing lanes into Swansea City’s strikers. While Swansea had a lot of the ball in the first-half, it was largely in areas of little concern to Coventry City. The Sky Blues were disciplined, rather than passive, out of possession, generally looking to apply pressure when Swansea were looking to play the ball into midfield, but not completely scared to push on further when opportunities presented themselves. This was evident in Gustavo Hamer’s big chance in the opening 45 minutes, when he intercepted a pass between the Swans’ centre-backs.
In the second-half, the enforced substitution of Jamie Allen saw Matt Godden come on and Coventry City lose that extra man in midfield to congest the centre of the pitch. That had a detrimental impact on the Sky Blues’ shape off-the-ball in the period directly after that change was made, with Swansea better able to move the ball into the final third and into some dangerous areas, before Coventry eventually settled back into a configuration to limit their opponents.
For all of the Sky Blues’ discipline, there were still moments where Swansea City were able to play through them and work a couple of chances that they could have scored from. Most notably, Harry Darling and Joel Piroe had some excellent opportunities in the second-half that came from Swansea being able to bypass the Coventry City midfield with quick balls from back to front. On another day, those couple of moments of lost concentration could have cost Coventry the game, underlining just what a test it was of the team’s discipline to come through the 90 minutes with a clean sheet.
Service To Strikers Lacking
The key source of frustration from this game from a Coventry City perspective was a lack of purpose and intensity from the team when they got on the ball. Even though good opportunities fell the way of Gustavo Hamer and Matt Godden, they were isolated moments in a performance for the Sky Blues defined by how little they got the ball into their strikers in threatening areas.
While some credit has to go to Swansea City for being able to organise themselves without the ball well enough to deny obvious balls into Coventry City’s attacking players, there was too often a yawning gap between the Sky Blues’ forwards and the rest of the team. This was most notably an issue in the first-half, where there simply weren’t players making runs beyond Viktor Gyokeres up front. While this improved to an extent in the second-half when Matt Godden came on, Coventry’s strikers ended up with a limited number of touches in the opposing penalty area.
Due to the lack of an available attacking-midfielder, Coventry City have been forced to play a 3-5-2, which can leave big spaces between the midfield and attack if those middle five players aren’t enterprising enough with their runs when the team is in possession. It was not just an issue with Gustavo Hamer, Josh Eccles and Ben Sheaf not getting up quick enough to support Viktor Gyokeres and Matt Godden in attack, the wing-backs weren’t positive enough when on the ball either.
While Josh Wilson-Esbrand had some bright moments before tiring in the second-half, Brooke Norton-Cuffy seemed notably short on purpose throughout his time on the pitch, even when receiving the ball in some good areas. It is something that Coventry City have really struggled with throughout the season, their wing-backs just aren’t big enough attacking threats on their own to either create opportunities or even to draw attention away from the attack. For so much of this campaign, this team’s wing-backs have simply been filling a space on the pitch.
The injuries to Kasey Palmer and Callum O’Hare, who would both fill that space between midfield and attack and been able to play telling passes into the strikers, looms heavily over this team right now. As well as this team has done to sustain their play-off push without either of the duo, not having that link in the final third feels like it could be the fatal flaw to this team’s hopes this season.
18 Clean Sheets Is A Positive Achievement
Coventry City were finally able to claim a club record 18 clean sheets this season, which really is a remarkable achievement. Not only is it impressive enough to break a club record, it has come under some pretty unlikely circumstances.
Flash back to the start of the season, Coventry City were conceding goals at a rate of over two a game and didn’t look capable of turning it around. Unable to add experience or quality at the back over the summer, the unravelling of Simon Moore from a previously competent Championship goalkeeper to an error-prone nervous wreck followed by having to sell the team’s most consistent defensive player, in Dominic Hyam, without replacing him at the end of the transfer window made it seem like the Sky Blues were doomed to a campaign of defensive leakiness.
To have turned it around with pretty much the same set of players, save for the addition of Luke McNally in January, and with a second-choice goalkeeper that few genuinely believed was capable of being a number one at this level, is genuinely remarkable. It is a testament to Mark Robins’ organisational and man-management abilities that he has turned such an unlikely sort into one of the division’s best defences.
First of all, Ben Wilson deserves immense credit on an individual level for making massive improvements to his goalkeeping over the course of the season. Prior to this campaign, Wilson looked an average shot-stopper, unconvincing with his command of his penalty area and with a massive rash streak to his game that would unsettle the defenders in front of him. Nowadays, that rash streak has been almost completely stamped out and while he doesn’t seem to have improved massively with his shot-stopping, that improved confidence in commanding the box means that Wilson has fewer weaknesses and looks a notably bigger and more stable presence between the sticks than before.
Ben Wilson has of course been aided by the defence, and team as a whole, making improvements that have eased the workload on the goalkeeper for much of the season. Not only have many of the mistakes that were being made earlier in the campaign been cut out, but the team’s off-the-ball organisation means that opponents find it difficult to create big chances against Coventry City. The Sky Blues will let opposing teams have the ball in areas that don’t threaten them in order to avoid the defence being isolated in genuinely dangerous areas of the pitch.
It is not easy to foment such a large level of both individual and collective improvement in defence in the middle of a campaign that looked to be going in a really difficult spot for Coventry City. If there was any doubt as to how good Mark Robins and his coaching team are at eking every possible drop from the resources available to them, this season’s improvement at the back is one of the biggest demonstrations of just what they are capable of.