Coventry City fought back from two goals down at home to Watford to claim a point that might still prove useful in their hunt for the play-offs.
The Sky Blues were behind to the away side’s first shot of the game, after Josh Wilson-Esbrand was caught on the ball high up the pitch allowing for a ball in behind which Luke McNally was deceived by Britt Assombalonga in looking to intercept, leaving Joao Pedro free to run at Kyle McFadzean, with Ismaila Sarr in support, before the Brazilian finished with aplomb. While Coventry mustered a half-decent response, they were two goals down at half-time after Imran Louza rolled in a finish on the second attempt just before the break.
It was an excellent Matt Godden finish less than 15 minutes into the second-half that set-up an energetic closing half hour of the game from Coventry City. With their tails up and forcing Watford into errors, it looked as if the Sky Blues believed they could salvage something from the game. Their reward eventually came when Ben Sheaf headed in a Callum Doyle cross with just under 20 minutes left, and it might have been even better had one or two further opportunities been taken with a touch more composure.
Static & Stagnant First-Half
Letting in the first and last shots that Watford took in the first-half may well painted a harsher picture of Coventry City’s opening 45 minutes than it otherwise might have looked, but it was a situation that the Sky Blues looked ill-equipped to get themselves out of. The issue was less that have Coventry had let in two goals, but that they didn’t really look like scoring – which had been the case in the two games prior.
Coventry City appeared to lack much of a plan in possession, other than to give the ball to Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres – and, in this game, Josh Wilson-Esbrand – and see what they could do with it. There is an apparent lack of a structure or a defined pattern to the Sky Blues’ play in possession, they don’t really look to overload opponents with multiple players making runs around the ball, they don’t even really look to load the box when another player has the ball in a promising area. Too often in the first-half, Coventry players got into decent positions but had to hold onto the ball and let the moment pass them by due to a lack of an available team-mate to play the ball to.
While Coventry City had a decent number of shots in the first-half, they were rarely in positions to truly trouble Ben Hamer in the Watford goal because the Sky Blues struggled to get players in space in the opposing penalty area. That extra touch or two that Coventry constantly had to take on the ball in the opening 45 minutes allowed Watford to get defenders back in position during the odd moment of promise for the home side.
It looked to be another case of the strike pairing of Viktor Gyokeres and Matt Godden not really working as the duo both want to operate off the shoulder of the last defender, and having to play three central midfielders who all prefer to operate from deep. It once again meant that there was too often no-one filling the space between midfield and attack to play those quick passes to open up the opposing defence, making Coventry City slow and predictable in possession.
To concede two goals during such a disjointed first-half performance in possession truly looked an insurmountable scenario.
Speed Of Thought Saves The Day
With it looking for all the world like Coventry City desperately needed some changes to alter their attacking shape in the second-half, it was especially surprising that Mark Robins did not respond to the half-time deficit with substitutions. For the first 10 minutes after the restart, it looked an especially mystifying call as the Sky Blues looked coy in their attempts to get back into the game.
A fantastic Matt Godden finish after a linking up with Viktor Gyokeres completely changed the balance of the game, with Coventry City suddenly starting to play with the urgency and intensity that had been lacking in the first-half. The goal, especially the timing of it following a post-half-time lull, was probably very important in changing the nature of the Sky Blues’ performance. There wasn’t really any notable changes in the set-up of the team, just that they were making quicker decisions with and without the ball than they had been in the first-half.
The only notable change-up tactically was that Gustavo Hamer seemed to have been told to play as the most advanced of the three central midfielders, with his ability to win the ball proving dangerous on several occasions in the second-half, as it came in Watford’s half and caused some dangerous turnovers of possession. However, everyone’s efforts were aided by a general uptick in decision-making, meaning that players had finally options to play the ball quickly in attacking areas, meaning that Coventry City were able to create better chances than they had in the first-half.
The equalising goal epitomised this, with Josh Wilson-Esbrand having two players around him to draw defenders away as he drove to the byline. When he plays it back to Callum Doyle, who has stayed upfield after making a supporting run from left centre-back, there is space to place the cross towards Matt Godden, whose flick fell to Ben Sheaf, who had made a run into the penalty area from central midfield. It was a really well-worked goal – very similar to a corner-kick routine that had also fallen to Ben Sheaf just minutes earlier – which may well be down to a genuine pattern of play that has been worked on in training.
While Coventry City didn’t go on to win the game, they pushed hard to grab the winner, catching a Watford side that appeared to be looking to settle for a point in awkward areas and looking to turn the ball quickly into shooting situations, but this was the kind of response that suggests there is life in this team yet. If this play-off push is to be successful, playing with the speed of thought in possession that was seen in the last half hour of this game is clearly a must.
Signs Of Promise At Wing-Back
Coventry City’s lack of threat from wing-back has been a trend for much of this season, this was a performance that provided promise that they might finally have a threatening pairing in the positions, even if it is very late in the day. Josh Wilson-Esbrand on the left was the team’s standout attacking player in the first-half, and had a big hand to play in the equalising goal, meanwhile, Brooke Norton-Cuffy on the right was much-improved in the second-half and nearly won the team a penalty by driving inside a Premier League-quality left-back, in Hassane Kamara.
it is not an easy job being a wing-back for Coventry City because there is so often a lot of ground to cover when on the ball. The wing-backs’ starting positions tend to be deep because Mark Robins expects them to drop in alongside the back three when the team is out of possession, meaning that they often have to receive the ball around the half-way line before looking to drive at the opposition defence. However, Josh Wilson-Esbrand and Brooke Norton-Cuffy showed in moments of this game that starting from a deep position can allow them to build a head of steam that can unsettle opposing defenders.
On the left, Josh Wilson-Esbrand is looking increasingly confident and assured of his ability, having looked somewhat nervous in his first appearances for the club. Clearly a very technically-competent footballer, that ability to control the ball quickly allows him to get the run on opponents in tight areas and caused Watford some big problems as he carried a sustained threat down Coventry City’s left in this game.
On the right, Brooke Norton-Cuffy isn’t quite the technician that Wilson-Esbrand is but his pace and unpredictability when running at the ball can make him a big threat when he has the confidence to do so. The end product with Norton-Cuffy remains a frustration, but his life could be made easier by being given bodies around him to link up with.
It may well be too late for Josh Wilson-Esbrand and Brooke Norton-Cuffy to make the impact that had been expected of them when they signed in January, but there were periods of this game that demonstrated just why they were brought in despite there being a decent set of options in their positions already at the club. If Coventry City are going to make the play-offs, getting a little more out of the duo while they remain at the club could be that key margin of improvement that makes a big difference as it will free up time and space for the team’s other attacking players.