COVENTRY City were left wondering what might have been had they played their usual game and tactics in a top-of-the-table clash with Rotherham – which nonetheless ended impressively in honours-even and a useful point.
Boss Mark Robins said after last night’s game at St Andrew’s that the players in a disjointed first half – in which City lacked their usual midfield fluency – had inadvertently played to physical Rotherham United’s strengths, rather than their own.
Yet he also appeared to accept that he himself had “got it wrong”. “It didn’t work”, he admitted, of the change in formation from the usual Plan A – going with two strikers rather than the extra midfielder.
Robins – having another brilliant season – was honest in articulating his dilemma. After a 4-0 defeat to the same opponents earlier this season, he had been concerned that Rotherham’s athletic and muscular pressing game would dismantle Coventry’s usual possession game. The key, Robins thought with his team changes, was to ‘take out Rotherham’s press’ with City playing more directly, getting the ball forward quicker to two central strikers.
Yet it appeared that last night’s formation counter-productively contributed to City having even less possession than might have been the case had attacking midfielder Jamie Allen kept his place playing alongside Callum O’Hare – surely the most creative midfield pair in League One.
They have recently played in Coventry’s tried-and-tested favoured formation that has so effectively brought others into City’s universally admired passing game. For instance, bringing into play the lone striker and City’s men of the season so far – the marauding right wing-back Fankaty Dabo and tenacious central midfielder Liam Walsh.
The first half was almost completely devoid of that possession game as Rotherham too easily robbed Coventry’s overwhelmed midfield of the ball and took control of the game from the off. Robins partly attributed this to his players’ lack of ‘belief’ and not following the gameplan.
The turnaround after half time he put down to them delivering more on that gameplan – winning more second balls and passing better. Certainly, they appeared more ready to take on the opposition from the whistle in the second half in which the home side were the better team.
‘Plan B’ this season, of playing with that additional second striker instead of the extra midfielder – it was Max Biamou alongside Matty Godden last night – has worked on the odd occasion. Yet it is the predominant Plan A that has been mainly responsible for Coventry going ‘joint top’ of League One on the same number of points as leaders Rotherham, still with a game in hand.
The extra midfielder has generally been more influential on games, with far more touches and meaningful ones, than the second striker. Although of course any manager considers ‘horses for courses’ and the extra striker was no doubt designed to bring more physicality at both ends, it remains to be seen what would have happened if City had taken their usual game at home to Rotherham.
Rotherham’s physical capabilities, strong pressing and running were evident from the off with the giants Crooks in midfield and Smith upfront, and Ogbene on the right and top-scorer Ladapo looking particularly dangerous,
The latter converted a corner when Marosi, having an exceptional season, made a rare mistake and dropped a high ball from a corner under challenge, leaving the number 10 to scramble the ball over the line on 22 minutes.
Ladapo had threatened with two shots straight at the keeper in the preceding minutes, and again on 31 minutes with a brilliant turn and shot outside the box, which was superbly tipped over by Marosi.
City’s biggest first-half threat came from excellent Dabo crosses, with the other wing-back Sam McCallum – not quite hitting his great heights since signing for Norwich last month – struggling to get forward and have his usual influence. He was replaced late on by debutant loanee Giles who showed promise with a highly impressive run and cross into the box.
And so it was Dabo’s characteristic whipped cross that was instrumental in City’s equaliser – City’s top scorer Godden clinically heading low to the left after finding space in the box.
Rotherham seemed to be rocked and running out of steam in a second half in which O’Hare was again an industrious and creative stand-out performer.
Walsh showed what he can do towards the end of the game when he took command. A brilliant 30-yard strike late-on went just over the bar – after he had also gone close with a free-kick from similar range. Godden had a good chance to win the game from a corner but planted his header just wide.