The Wrap: Coventry Win The Championship Play-Off Semi-Final

I’d chosen to keep my powder dry over these recent games against Middlesbrough because there was only one thing that really mattered, getting through to Wembley. Coventry City did that and now it’s time to look at how that has happened.

After a goalless first leg in Coventry, it was all about what happened on Teesside. On the one hand, Middlesbrough had been an irresistible force at the Riverside Stadium this season. On the other, they had really struggled to create much against the Sky Blues over the three games they had played them in this season. The tie was on a knife edge.

The tension ratcheted up the longer the second leg remained goalless, but the deadlock was broken by Gustavo Hamer after Ben Sheaf played a wonderful ball in behind to unleash Viktor Gyokeres, draw Middlesbrough’s goalkeeper, Zack Steffen well off his line, leaving Hamer with a still quite difficult task of putting the ball into the net, which he did with aplomb.

From then on, Coventry City appeared well in control of affairs, as Middlesbrough banged their heads against the Sky Blue wall that had been erected in their home ground.

Nerveless Mark Robins Refuses To Blink

There is one very simple reason why Coventry City have gone from League Two to the Championship Play-Off Final, Mark Robins. This showdown with young hotshot, Michael Carrick, was yet another demonstration of the magic Robins has been able to weave at this football club.

Middlesbrough had been blowing away teams on a consistent basis over the past few months, pushing players forward, playing quick, smart interchanges and simply overloading their opponents before they could even think about a strategy to defend them. Over these two legs, Boro were restricted to one big chance, which Chuba Akpom spurned in dramatic fashion early in the first leg, and could create little else.

Mark Robins’ success at Coventry City has been founded on a solid defensive effort, and he trusted his defence to step up in this tie to be the immovable object to repel Middlesbrough’s irresistible force. The opening period of the first leg may have seen the manager veer a little too much towards inviting pressure from the opposition, but, for the most part, the Sky Blues were confident and organised at the back, which meant that they knew it would only take one moment to win the tie.

Especially in the wake of that final day of the regular season where Coventry City caught Middlesbrough cold with an intense high early press, it would have been easy to have wanted to go all guns blazing in the first leg to try and gain what was perceived as an essential early advantage in the tie. Instead, Mark Robins viewed this as an 180 minute contest. 0-0 at half-time was no failure and he trusted his team to repeat the trick at one of the toughest places to go in the Championship, waiting for that one moment to win it.

That first-half of this second leg may have been low on chances but it set things up nicely for Coventry City to nick in the second-half. Middlesbrough had found such success in the first leg via the defensive efforts of Tommy Smith and Paddy McNair against Viktor Gyokeres, with both of them on yellow cards by the break, the Swede was allowed that extra bit of space which ultimately set up Gustavo Hamer’s winning goal.

From then on, Middlesbrough simply had no answer to Coventry City’s defensive organisation and were left to hope to grab something from set-pieces, which the Sky Blues defended equally as well. While it was a game-plan that relied on not conceding and scoring first, Mark Robins comes out of this tie having executed his strategy to perfection. To think that this was, in the most part, a set of players that were bottom of the division in October.

The Midfield Tweak That Made All The Difference

The key change that Mark Robins made tactically in the second leg was to sacrifice Matt Godden in attack to bring in an extra man in midfield. Along with the impact that the returning Ben Sheaf made on the game, the change in shape for Coventry City made a huge difference in their ability to both defend Middlesbrough’s possession and threaten on the counter.

Defensively, the tweak to the defensive shape meant that Gustavo Hamer was able to be tasked with pushing further forward and support the team’s pressing efforts. This meant that the team could apply pressure on Middlesbrough earlier in their build-up play and thus limited their ability to get to the edge of the penalty area and play those dangerous reverse passes to midfield runners that is their signature move. That little bit extra pressure a touch further up the pitch made a huge difference.

Going forward, Viktor Gyokeres was freer to run across the opposition back-line and pick his battles with whichever Middlesbrough defender he fancied doing so. While that still largely involved drifting to the left, he wore down the previously influential Paddy McNair and Tommy Smith to the extent that both got booked, and eventually was the man in space for Ben Sheaf’s pass that led to the goal.

Additionally, having both Gustavo Hamer and Jamie Allen involved in the game in the final third with their runs from midfield made Coventry City tougher to contain in their counter-attacking over the course of the second leg. That it was Hamer that won the tie tells its own story, but so does the fact that the two best chances prior to that goal fell to Allen. Having those two midfield runners available, versus a Matt Godden who struggled to get into the game in the first leg and was much better against a tired Middlesbrough defence when used later on in the second leg, made a huge difference to the Sky Blues threat.

Finally, the decision to recall Ben Sheaf to the starting line-up for the second leg after injury raised the bar of Coventry City’s performance level in midfield just enough to eke them over the line. Sheaf’s ability to control the ball in tight areas, to turn into space under pressure, to read the game and play incisive passes added considerable composure to the Sky Blues’ throughout the 70 minutes that he was on the pitch. It was fitting that it was Sheaf whose contribution was essential to the winning Coventry goal, having nearly set up an earlier golden chance for Jamie Allen.

Defensive Gods

For this point, you have to go all the way back to the end of January and the simultaneous instances of Luke McNally signing on loan and Kyle McFadzean returning from injury. Prior to that, Coventry City had returned to their old, early season, leaky ways at the back, afterwards, the team has conceded just 15 goals in 21 games – a record only bettered by Burnley, and fellow play-off finalists, Luton Town.

It was McNally and McFadzean who were Coventry City’s best-performing defenders during the second leg, unleashing a new level of performance after setting already high standards. Luke McNally’s timing in the challenge in the challenge was consistently impeccable, despite picking up a yellow card in the second-half for what was later shown to be a foul made by Brooke Norton-Cuffy. Kyle McFadzean not only led the defence in his typical fashion but found an extra few metres of pace on several occasions to snuff out Middlesbrough attacks on the few occasions they got in behind the Coventry back-line.

The balance between Coventry City’s back three of the mobile Luke McNally and Callum Doyle either side of the enforcer figure of Kyle McFadzean looks to be an ideal one. It allows McFadzean to be aggressive in the challenge in the manner in which he is most effective, without the worry that he will leave space in behind if he mistimes those challenges. With McNally and Doyle proving to not only be quick but increasingly dependable in individual situations, there is clearly a lot of mutual confidence in that Sky Blues centre-back trio.

While it makes the work of Ben Wilson all the more easy, his reliability in making saves, claiming crosses and coming off his line, when required to, has been another important element in Coventry City’s transformation from defensive wrecks to league leaders in clean sheets. That is why in the Sky Blues’ two most important games, Mark Robins trusted his defence to do the job.

Coventry City Have The Two Of The Division’s Best Attacking Players

This season for Coventry City has often been a competition between Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres to prove which of them can carry this team on their own back. They are both players that fulfil the roles of at least two ordinary players, whether it’s Gyokeres’ ability to muscle off defenders and run in behind, or Hamer’s to dictate the play with his passing, read the game and also get forward to contribute goals and assists.

The problem for opponents is that if you can stop one of them, the other can still win it for Coventry City. In a tie where Middlesbrough had absorbed so much attention towards Viktor Gyokeres, it was Gustavo Hamer who won it. Boro had sacrificed a lot of their attacking threat in the first leg to stopping Gyokeres, but were never really able to get out of that mindset of worrying what the Swede might do in the second. That concern saw Paddy McNair and Tommy Smith booked, which then allowed Gyokeres to pull into space for the winning goal, which then left Hamer completely free in the area to curl the ball into the net for the winner.

Having one player of either Viktor Gyokeres or Gustavo Hamer’s quality can carry a team far in the Championship, having two is what can win big games like this. Making a plan for one inevitably leaves space for the other. Middlesbrough were obsessed with Viktor Gyokeres in this tie, it was Gustavo Hamer who won it.

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