Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

Preview: Bradford City

It’s March and we’re nearly already relegated to League Two, however, the re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager has us heading into back-to-back home games against play-off contenders with something approaching optimism. And who knows? Maybe if we won both of these games the situation wouldn’t like quite as hopeless as it currently does.

With that the remote possibility of survival in mind, it will be interesting to see how Robins approaches his first few games in charge. Does he persist with those on loan and short-term contracts order to get results? Will he use these games to lay the foundations for League Two football next season? There is no pressure on Robins to keep us up, but equally, he must be aware that there need to be signs of improvement as a result of his return as manager.

As with any change of manager, predicting the starting line-up for their first game in charge is a difficult task as they are looking at the squad with fresh eyes and a different approach. However, we do have the benefit of knowing Robins’ approach more intimately than we would a normal new manager, so I think there are certain things we can expect to see from a Robins Coventry City side.

In general, the approach during Robins’ first spell in charge was either to defend well and hurt teams on the counter-attack, or to work the ball out wide and create overlaps leading to crosses into the box. The former will favour pacey players like Jodi Jones and Kyel Reid, while the latter should be good news for our attacking full-backs Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans. Given that this is a tough game to start with, it’s likely that we’ll look pack the midfield and play a counter-attacking game.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Robins makes a break from the brief Slade-era in utilising both Ben Stevenson and Gael Bigirimana in midfield. Stevenson is the kind of intelligent and tactically aware player I think Robins will get a tune out of, Bigirimana is less of a disciplined player who will either make improvements under Robins or struggle to get into the team.

In defence, almost all of the places are up for grabs, with the possible exception of Ryan Haynes at left-back due to lack of competition. I would imagine that Robins will initially place trust Nathan Clarke, so it will be a competition between Jordan Willis, Farrend Rawson and Jordan Turnbull for the remaining spot in central defence. I’ll be intrigued to see whether trusts Dion Kelly-Evans at right-back over Kevin Foley or Jordan Willis.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Bradford almost injected life into our woeful start to the season. Dan Agyei had been signed a few days before as our number nine for the season and he displayed plenty of promise in opening the scoring early in the game and being a general menace in disrupting Bradford from playing out from the back on their home turf. However, we struggled to maintain that level of performance into the second-half and Jordan Turnbull conceded a penalty and got himself sent off in the game’s decisive moment.

Tony McMahon, a player Tony Mowbray had tried to sign for us the year before, emphatically converted the penalty. Almost straight from the kick-off, Mark Marshall (a former player of course) scored a worldie from 25-yards out. McMahon then had another chance to score from the spot to seal the win, which he took and then rubbed salt into the wound by becoming the world’s oldest and most northern player to dab by way of celebration.

How Are They Doing?

In general, it’s been a good season for Bradford. Stuart McCall, something of a club legend from his time at the club as a player before a less successful spell as manager, returned to the club for a second bite of the managerial cherry and had helped the team evolve from the fairly route one stuff of the Phil Parkinson-era into a more entertaining, aesthetically pleasing team to watch. However, they have failed to really threaten the automatic promotion spots due to a number of drawn games and there is a sense at times that they haven’t quite been playing to their potential.

Probably the biggest issue has been the lack of a prolific goalscorer in attack for the Bantams. Huddersfield loanee Jordy Hiwula is blessed with plenty of pace but seems to lack a truly killer instinct to make the most of the good positions his speed lets him get into. The January signings of former Port Vale man (and former Coventry City trialist) Alex Jones and ex-Carlisle striker Charlie Wyke have looked to address this, with some success thus far. Wyke is a real presence in attack, not only being someone capable of getting on the end of crosses, but also linking play very well. Jones is a fairly typical goal poacher in that he doesn’t offer a great deal outside of the box.

In midfield, the creativity of Nicky Law and Mark Marshall out wide has been a major success story of the season for Bradford. Law had been signed over the summer following a fairly unsuccessful spell at Rangers in the Scottish lower divisions but he has offered real drive and energy to Bradford’s midfield. Marshall was overlooked last season by Phil Parkinson in favour of Kyel Reid, but has been involved in more goals than any other Bradford player this season, with four goals and six assists to his name.

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, Josh Cullen in the centre of the pitch is another key player to look out for. The West Ham loanee had a successful loan spell last season and has picked up where he left off this season, another player who carries the ball forward from midfield really effectively. It would be remiss of me not to mention Romain Vincelot, one of the heroes for us last season, who is the captain of this Bradford side and has been key when played in either central defence of midfield.

At full-back, Tony McMahon and James Meredith are great attacking outlets to have, further heightening Bradford’s all-round threat. While, Nathaniel Knight-Percival is a composed presence in central defence, operating in front of the experienced and reliable Colin Doyle in goal.

Prediction

The optimism that comes with the arrival of not only a new manager, but the statistically best manager we’ve ever had, has to be tempered by our poor form and the quality of the opposition that we’re up against. A win in this game would be the perfect way to mark the beginning of a new era at the club, but these remaining games of the season could well be about making gradual improvements and figuring out who to keep next year rather than going out to get those seven or eight wins that could keep us up.

I can see us losing this game 1-0.

Preview: Fleetwood Town

The wave of optimism that had been building after Russell Slade’s first few games in change fizzled out last Saturday like a half-full balloon that someone could no longer be bothered to inflate. A managerless Chesterfield should really have been there for the taking, instead, we finished the game with 37% possession and it took until stoppage time for us to win our first corner. In short, it was an underwhelming display.

While no-one gets relegated in January, it is imperative that we pick up our first win under Russell Slade in this upcoming game against Fleetwood Town. Although Fleetwood are in great form at the moment, we have shown this season that we can give any team in this division a decent game at the Ricoh Arena, so there should be some confidence that, with the determination to make up for a terrible result last week, we can get the win in this game.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Boosting our prospects is the arrival of Farrend Rawson this week on loan from Derby. He’s a six foot four centre-back who’s played well at a higher-level, in a relegation battle, which makes him a pretty impressive signing for a team currently bottom of League One. I would expect him to slot-in at centre-back alongside Nathan Clarke, with Jordan Willis likely to move to right-back, or possibly left-back if Slade doesn’t fancy playing Haynes in this match.

Elsewhere, there may be the temptation to alter things after the performance against Chesterfield. Rose and Reilly seemingly struggled to get a grip on midfield, which may prompt a recall for Ben Stevenson, if Slade fancies playing someone who’s been our best player this season. The Marcus Tudgay-Stuart Beavon strike partnership doesn’t look wholly convincing either, and George Thomas could be moved into the front two to add dynamism to the attack, with Jodi Jones coming in on the right wing.

Last Time We Met

Losing against Fleetwood in our last meeting was probably the beginning of the end for Tony Mowbray. Having failed to have signed the players he wanted in the summer, and having already started the season in terrible form, losing in such a limp and routine fashion at the start of September at Fleetwood must have caused Mowbray to question just what he was hoping to achieve this season, and how. A decent-enough performance was undermined by weak defending to allow Fleetwood to score two pretty simple goals on the break, as has been the story of our season.

How Are They Doing?

That win back in September was part of a strong start to the season for Fleetwood Town under the management of Uwe Rosler. The former Brentford boss had arrived at the club just one week ahead of the new season, and a fairly underwhelming transfer window following a season of struggle last time out didn’t seem to suggest that Rosler would hit the ground running at the Highbury Stadium.

However, some astute loan signings in the form of Burnley forward Chris Long and Huddersfield’s young creative dynamo Kyle Dempsey saw Fleetwood start the season with a remarkable degree of fluency given how last-minute their preparations were. Rosler didn’t just make good signings though, he turned the frustrating David Ball into one of the division’s most effective attacking players, while young striker Ash Hunter has grown into a more important role this season.

For a while over the Autumn, it looked like Fleetwood were petering out a little, the goals starting drying up and they were struggling to keep pace in the play-off race. However, Rosler has had the astuteness to change things up, switching to a back three that has made Fleetwood one of the best defensive units in the division, and the goals have eventually started to return.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The back three has especially suited the attacking instincts of wing-backs Conor McLaughlin and Amari’i Bell, who are both probably among the best in their respective positions in this division. Forward Devante Cole seems to have become a more important player in light of the tactical switch, despite being a fairly poor finisher (famous last words), Cole’s pace and strength have seen him become an effective provider of goals over the past few months.

Jimmy Ryan in the middle of the park is an incredibly important player for Fleetwood, however an injury in recent weeks has allowed former Manchester City youngster George Glendon a run in the side in which he has impressed. Fleetwood have also managed to bring Bristol City striker/winger Wes Burns back to the club after an impressive loan spell last season, he’s a very energetic, direct and quick forward who should add another dimension to Fleetwood’s attack.

Prediction

As alluded to earlier in this preview, as well as Fleetwood have done over the past month or so, I don’t think this game is necessarily as difficult as it seems to be. Fleetwood have won just three times on the road this season, while we have been much better at home this season than on the road. Rawson coming in should add a physical presence to our defence, it’s a case of whether we can pose more questions in attack than we did last week at Chesterfield.

It’s a game between a team unbeaten in nine in the league, against a team that hasn’t won in ten. So obviously, I’m predicting the latter to win this game. 2-1 to the Sky Blues.