Coventry City continue to lose games in the league. Fans are continuing to be angry and the stands at the Ricoh Arena are becoming uncomfortably empty. All that momentum that begun one Friday evening on the northern outskirts of Coventry is dissipating and is close to being lost. What exactly is going wrong and how can it be put right?
A few weeks ago I pointed out that we were without any wins on the road this season and have yet to muster a single point from a losing position. Three league games later and that has not changed. Whilst those two stats once but could be explained away by the early stage of the season, they are fast becoming serious issues for this Coventry City team.
Before the Ricoh Arena return I felt that our current squad of players would provide less emphatic performances than last season but overall be a comfortable mid-table team. Following on from that wonderful Friday night at the start of September, it suddenly felt like this team could achieve something quite memorable. If we are not careful, we could fall short of both our current level of expectations at the Ricoh Arena as well as the ones we had at Sixfields.
In some ways it could be argued that the current squad did not justify those lofty expectations after narrowly defeating Gillingham and Yeovil at the Ricoh Arena, with those two teams sitting 20th and 21st currently in the league table. Whilst those performances were far from dominant, I think it is fair to say that a number of the players in our team displayed genuine promotion winning quality. Who knows what would have happened had Reda Johnson hadn’t suffered that rush of blood to his (and then Lyle Taylor’s) head that one Tuesday night in Scunthorpe?
Furthermore whilst losing Reda Johnson, and later Frank Nouble, may have been a big set-back, we still have players at our disposal who should be capable of defeating the likes of Rochdale, Crawley and Crewe. It speaks to a concerning level of mental fragility that this team have turned the sending-off of its captain into one defeat, then two, then three, a disappointing draw and the a fourth defeat. At some point between the 25th minute at Scunthorpe and the 90th at Crewe we really needed at least one player in the team to step up and say ‘this isn’t good enough’ and not just in the post-match interviews.
Given the way that many of the players who remain from last season failed to step up into a leadership role following Leon Clarke’s departure last season, our current form does not appear to be such an aberration. We saw Conor Thomas and John Fleck in particular fade away to a very alarming degree. The hope was that the summer would have given them time to reflect on what they could have done to prevent the team’s and their own form from dropping off. It was telling to me that Steven Pressley opted for Jordan Willis, a player who has made around 50 fewer appearances than either, as captain. Whilst their loss of form last season was perhaps understandable, to let games pass them by yet again this time round is starting to become unforgivable.
Whilst it is unfair to square the blame on Conor Thomas and John Fleck, they are indicative of a number of talented footballers in the squad who don’t quite have that competitive streak to take them to the next level. This is the team that Steven Pressley has assembled, John Fleck is the only player who lined up against Crewe who was neither signed by Pressley or a product of the academy. Whilst there is a degree to which Pressley can defend his record in the transfer market by the difficulties of recruiting players at Sixfields, he won’t have that defence for much longer (not that he himself has ever made it).
A growing concern that many Coventry City fans are having is whether our formation brings the best out of the players at our disposal. Some are even stretching to say that 5-3-2 is an inherently flawed formation, seeming to ignore the fact that 1st and 3rd place teams in this division utilise that system.
Looking more closely at how those two teams deploy the shape, there are some promising similarities with a full strength Coventry City squad. Both Bristol City and Swindon play a ‘big man-small man’ strike partnership, something that Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson most definitely provide. Whilst Swindon play a creative midfielder as the deeper-lying in their midfield three, Bristol City play more of a destroyer. With Conor Thomas and John Fleck, we can go either way.
In Mark Little and Nathan Byrne though for Bristol City and Swindon respectively, they possess an outright attacking wing-back. Whilst Ryan Haynes and Aaron Phillips have shown promise, neither have been as unashamedly attacking as their counterparts at Ashton Gate and the County Ground.
What annoys me the most about this team though is that we have shown that we can play this formation. However we seem unable to play it for an entire 90 minutes. We saw in the first 30 minutes against Crawley and in the first 10 of the second half against Crewe that we can be a pro-active, dynamic, attacking team in this system. When we play with purpose and on the front foot we can overwhelm teams in this division, it must be so frustrating for Steven Pressley to see these glimmers of promise and then to lose winnable games.
Do you stick with a formation and style of play that could work whilst it isn’t getting results or do you completely abandon plans that were laid in pre-season? To stick or twist is such a difficult decision, if we stay with the 5-3-2 we could continue to struggle for results. If we change things then there is no guarantee that things will get better and it may engender greater confusion.
It’s a difficult dilemma but ultimately it is the manager’s job to identify what is going wrong and decide whether the issue is a lack of motivation or a flaw in the tactical system. It’s hard though to point to the last time that Steven Pressley won a game based on a tactical alteration during the course of the game. It’s no surprise then that this current team is unable to recover from losing positions.
The current ‘tactical’ switch is to take off a defender and replace him with Shaun Miller. The natural assumption is that more strikers on the pitch makes a team more attacking. However it has been proven over the last few games that Shaun Miller on for a defender does not change proceedings all that much. Yet Pressley does the same thing again and again to no avail.
A few weeks ago I posed the question ‘Are back-to-back defeats a concern for us?’ the answer is yes. Both the players and manager appear to keep repeating the same mistakes, something has to change or we are in serious danger of a relegation battle in a big Ricoh Arena return season. Ultimately though I believe that this squad is good enough to overcome what may still be described as a bad run. At the end of this we will know the true quality of several individuals in this squad, as well as our manager.