Preview: Swindon Town

A comfortable victory over the league leaders looks a real shot in the arm for our season. While it has been far from a terrible start to the campaign, that win over Exeter was probably our most complete performance thus far – and there was still room for improvement.

Praise has to go to Mark Robins for just how well-drilled the team looked with each player seeming to have clear idea of what was expected from them in their position. Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis excelled against one of the division’s best strikers, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly not only provided their usual midfield sturdiness but looked miles more comfortable in possession than they had been at the start of the season. All of which gave a platform for Jodi Jones torment another opposing back-line, supported by the committed performance of Devon Kelly-Evans and the occasional flashes of inspiration Duckens Nazon provided.

Possible Line-Up

The challenge now is to build on Saturday’s win, to ensure that a victory over the league leaders is not just one-off display but one that cements our status as promotion candidates. Standing in our way, are Swindon Town – a club who have inflicted some frustrating afternoons upon better Coventry City vintages than this current one.

The starting XI against Exeter was one thrown together at, almost literally, the last minute due to the amount of injuries we’re carrying at the moment. Mark Robins will almost be forced to stick with a winning team for this game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of cover in certain areas of this squad could be troubling if we pick up one or two more injuries over the next few games.

Last Time We Met

2012: 2-0 up with 13 minutes left, draw 2-2.

2013: 1-0 up with four minutes left, lose 2-1.

2013 (again): 1-0 up with 13 minutes left, lose 2-1.

2014: 1-0 up with 18 minutes left, draw 1-1.

2015: 2-0 up with five minutes left, draw 2-2.

What else is there to really say about our past encounters against Swindon Town other than they’ve been utterly miserable for us?

Last season we were so abject that we didn’t even get the opportunity to throw away a seemingly comfortable lead against them in either encounter. First off, it was a drab opening day defeat at the County Ground that seemed to set the tone for the first half of our season. Then it was an even more dismal defeat at the Ricoh Arena that effectively ended our survival hopes and was almost certainly the final straw for Russell Slade, even if he did continue for a few more games afterwards.

How Are They Doing?

That win back in February did Swindon little good as they went on to join us in relegation from League One. Like us, it has been a near complete overhaul of the playing squad over the summer, like us, it has also been a bit of an inconsistent start to the season, but also like us, they are showing signs of clicking into gear.

Manager David Flitcroft (once a contender to take over at Coventry City last year following Tony Mowbray’s departure) has a something of a reputation for producing inconsistent sides. A bit like Mowbray, Flitcroft has a tendency to tinker with his line-up when it isn’t particularly required, although he’s more in the Chris Coleman mode of unnecessarily playing players out of position.

Nonetheless, Flitcroft seems to have stumbled across an attacking formula over the past few weeks that has proven effective. The frustrating but surprisingly technically adept front-man Luke Norris is currently being supported in attack by a mobile and nippy trio of Kellan Gordon, Keshi Anderson and Paul Mullin. Norris in particular has been in strong form this season – only Reuben Reid has either scored or assisted as many goals (8) as he has in League Two thus far.

Possible Line-Up

The tigerish James Dunne and the more creative Derby loanee Timi Elsnik have also seemed to have settled into a good partnership for Swindon in recent weeks. While Flitcroft has another useful card to play from the bench in former West Ham and Portsmouth man Matthew Taylor – while his legs seems to have gone, his set-piece deliveries are still Premier League quality and could cause us big problems in the closing stages of this game.

Swindon also have another player with great delivery to watch out for – none other than former Coventry City fans’ favourite Chris Hussey. Hussey though makes up a back-line that hasn’t been particularly convincing this season due to a lack of pace with three fairly old and slow defenders in the form of Ben Purkiss, Chris Robertson and Olly Lancashire – although all three are a threat from either Hussey’s or Taylor’s set-pieces.

Finally, Swindon brought in Reice Charles-Cook from us over the summer, however, he’s had to play second-fiddle to former Spurs and Liverpool youngster Lawrence Vigouroux in goal. A Chile youth international, Vigouroux is a similar sort of keeper to Charles-Cook in that he can be an excellent shot-stopper with great distribution of the ball, but can be slightly over-eccentric at times – although he has been pretty good thus far this season.

Prediction

Our terrible record against Swindon shouldn’t really matter, after all, these are two very different squads from even the ones that faced each other last season. Somehow though it does seem to matter because a number of very different Coventry and Swindon squads have faced each other over down the years and produced similar results.

With the more experienced and savvy squad that Mark Robins has assembled this season, I would imagine that this is a Coventry City side least likely to care about a silly hoodoo. However, due to my superstitious and pessimistic nature I can see this being a 2-1 loss, and possibly a game where we take somehow manage to lose despite taking the leading in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

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Preview: Chesterfield

It was an odd game against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night. The first-half performance was bad, but not bad enough to deserve being two goals down. The second-half performance was better, but not better enough to deserve scoring two goals. Then the game was won by Shrewsbury with a brilliant free-kick.

What was apparent against Shrewsbury, as has been apparent in our past few games, has been a lack of intensity in our attacking play. While Doyle and Kelly protect the defence well, they slow the play down too much, allowing opposing defences to re-set and mark our forwards out of the game. The improvement against Shrewsbury came when the composed Callum Maycock and the forward-thinking Tony Andreu were paired together. It seems unlikely Robins will allow that partnership to develop heading into this upcoming league game against Chesterfield.

If Robins isn’t going to pick a dynamic midfield, finding the right combination in the front four positions becomes vital. A creative wide player was probably the main missing ingredient from our transfer business, but Robins now has to find a way in which our best attacking players – Jodi Jones, Tony Andreu, Marc McNulty and Duckens Nazon – can function as an effective unit.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Rod McDonald’s return would be welcome, after two defensive performances from the side lacking in authority. While McDonald is hardly a Ben Turner-style dominant centre-back, he is the closest to that type of player we have at the moment – without having seen what new signing Tom Davies can offer. Although, the addition of Davies may well suggest McDonald is out for longer than expected.

The big decision for this game though is whether Lee Burge continues in goal. Despite conceding three against Shrewsbury, Burge came out of the game pretty much unscathed and currently seems less of a risk than Liam O’Brien, given the latter’s recent high-profile errors. It would be a surprise should Robins restore O’Brien to the side.

Last Time We Met

There was hope heading into our previous meeting with Chesterfield that Russell Slade was the right man to keep us in League One. After being unlucky to take three points against Bolton in the previous game, with Stuart Beavon catching the eye, a managerless and struggling Chesterfield side seemed the perfect opportunity to jump out of the relegation zone and really get our survival bid going.

In the event, we saw a depressing sign of what was to come under Slade with the team making little attempt to pass the ball, instead hoofing it up to an ineffectual Marcus Tudgay and a fatigued Stuart Beavon. A late goal decided the game and, less than a month after arriving at the club, signalled the beginning of the end for Russell Slade.

How Are They Doing?

Despite earning a confidence-boosting win in that relegation six-pointer back in January, Chesterfield somehow managed to not only be relegated, but finish below us in the table. Credit for that achievement has to go to manager Gary Caldwell, who was appointed in the week after that game and won just two of the remaining 18 games of the season.

In spite of some poor moves in the transfer market and even more questionable tactical decisions, Chesterfield’s board stuck by Caldwell and entrusted him to build the team that would get them out of League Two at the first attempt. Thus far though, that faith looks to have been somewhat misplaced, with the Spireites winning just one of their opening four league games to leave the club bottom of the division and leaving many fans completely disillusioned with the running of the club (there are also bigger issues relating to current owner Dave Allen that don’t fit into the scope of this preview).

However, there are signs that Chesterfield are in a slightly false position despite this poor start to the campaign and questions over the acumen of their manager. In sticking to Caldwell’s ethos of passing football, Chesterfield have created a lot of chances over their opening few games and have been unlucky to an extent not to have scored more goals and taken more points.

Experienced target-man Chris O’Grady in attack looks a high-calibre signing at this level of football, given that he’s spent much of the past four or five years in the Championship. His role is as the focal point of an attack to allow younger, more dynamic players space to hurt the opposition.

In that regard, box-to-box midfielder Jordan Sinnott has really caught the eye thus far this season. After spending last year at then-National League North side Halifax Town, Sinnott has stepped effortlessly up to Football League standard, with his drive from the centre of the park already a key part of Chesterfield’s play.

Possible Line-Up

Two young creative players with links to Sheffield United also will need to be kept quiet. Both Louis Reed and Diego de Girolamo were tipped for big things at Bramall Lane before struggling to establish themselves as regulars. Reed is a jaw-droppingly gifted central midfield schemer who was being linked with the likes of Tottenham before picking up a few injuries. De Girolamo is more of a forward with an end product than Reed and has impressed in loan spells at this level in previous years before being snaffled up by Bristol City’s development squad.

Chesterfield’s style of play will mean that they’ll take risks and leave gaps at the back, which is a sea change from previous opponents. However, in Ian Evatt and Tommy Lee, they do have a defender and a goalkeeper of proven quality at this level and higher who could prove stubborn customers should Chesterfield take the lead.

Prediction

Like Newport and Yeovil in recent weeks, Chesterfield are a side that hasn’t had too much problem scoring goals, but have struggled to keep them out. What we’ve seen is that despite our defensive solidity, our more free-flowing opponents have had the edge as a result of their belief that they can score goals.

Unlike Yeovil and Newport though, Chesterfield are likely to be much more open. Hopefully too, the goals we scored against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night will give us that belief in our attacking play that we’ve needed – especially after falling behind.

However, I think Chesterfield may well end up getting that win they’re in desperate need of, by 2-1.

Preview: Grimsby Town

Any illusions that we might make a game of it against Blackburn on Tuesday night were quickly dispelled when the line-ups revealed Mark Robins had opted for a weakened team. While the performance of Duckens Nazon in attack threatened to things interesting, the sad reality was that we were easily beaten by a (top-drawer) League One side playing in second-gear.

Blackburn are clearly going to be far better than any side we’re going to face in League Two this season, but what was close to a first-choice defence will maybe feel like they could have avoided at least two of Blackburn’s three goals. Whether that was because the midfield struggled to impose themselves on the game is a debate to be had, but I left that game feeling like there was a clear need for a leader in that back four.

The returns of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle to the midfield should hopefully mitigate for some of those defensive wobbles for this trip to Grimsby. Jordan Willis could well return too, and although it feels like he’s still to show he can be a top-class centre-back in a back four, he would be an improvement on Dominic Hyam who’s done to stake a more regular spot in the side. Additionally, on what could be a difficult away day, Peter Vincenti’s height could prove a useful asset in giving us a reliable out-ball if we’re struggling to keep the ball.

The main selection debate will be which strike partnership to pick from the options of Stuart Beavon, Duckens Nazon, Maxime Biamou, and Marc McNulty (if available for selection after dental surgery). Nazon really should be the first-choice out of those four – not only is he clearly our most skilful player, but he has a drive and awareness to his game which marks him out as something more than just a fancy-Dan. McNulty doesn’t seem a natural partner for Nazon, but could benefit from the space he opens up, Biamou struggled to make an impression against Blackburn, which probably means Beavon is the likeliest strike partner for Le Duck.

The signing this week of goalscoring midfielder Tony Andreu adds something different to the mix, although it’s hard to see him being played with Nazon just ahead of him through the middle, in an away game especially. Unless Robins moves Nazon out wide, as he did later on during Tuesday’s game, where he seems less effective, Andreu may have to start his Coventry City career on the bench.

Last Time We Met

Grimsby will probably be best remembered as an opponent for us in recent-ish times as having handed us a 1-0 defeat at Highfield Road in the first season after relegation from the Premiership in the final days of Gordon Strachan’s reign at the club.

Grimsby hung around in the second-tier for one more season after 2001-02, but were twice beaten by Gary McAllister’s Sky Blues as they suffered a relegation from a level to which they haven’t returned to since.

How Are They Doing?

Grimsby steadily dropped through the divisions and into non-league after 2002-03, before winning promotion back to the Football League two seasons ago via the play-offs. Last season was an odd one for them, where they lost the manager and goalscorer that won them promotion but then sacked their next manager for not picking up results in what was clearly a transitional year, and then appointing Russell Slade.

Slade’s appointment seemed to suggest a degree of ambition at Blundell Park to put together a side capable of challenging for the play-offs, however, the summer transfer activity has only really seen incredibly old veterans and incredibly raw youngsters brought into the club on loans and free transfers. Unless Slade can summon up a strong team-spirit, it’s hard not to conclude that Grimsby have a fairly uninspiring squad that could well see them in danger of the drop.

The main exciting talent at Grimsby this season is winger Siriki Dembele – brother of Celtic wunderkind Karamoko Dembele. Siriki has caught the eye over pre-season having not played professional football until joining Grimsby, and carried that form over into the opening day of the season with a wonderful half-the-length-of-the-pitch assist to help Grimsby to a win over Chesterfield. Dembele’s ability to carry the ball on the counter and deliver a final product makes him a major danger-man.

Possible Line-Up

Sam Jones, brought in by Russell Slade’s predecessor, Marcus Bignot, is another attacking talent to watch. The midfielder scored seven in 18 appearances after signing in January and has been deployed as more of a striker by Slade thus far this season. A bit of a physical presence and an excellent finisher, Jones will have to be well-marshalled.

With a slow and old defence – with Nathan Clarke at 33 years-old likely to partner Danny Collins at 37 in central defence – and a target-man to lump it up to in Scott Vernon, Grimsby are likely to defend deep, play direct and try and hurt us on set-pieces. Knowing what we do about Russell Slade’s tactical approach, they will only sit deeper and deeper should they take the lead, so we’re going to have to ensure we start strongly and try to force them to chase the game.

Prediction

Although Grimsby should be the kind of team we should be beating as a matter of routine if we have serious aspirations of promotion, we are still gelling as a team and this game could prove an early lesson in how to deal with a robust and physical League Two team keen to claim our scalp. I’m still far from convinced by our defence based on the opening two games of the season and they could be found wanting against a direct side if they continue to show poor positional discipline and aggression in their play.

Since returning to the club, Mark Robins is yet to win an away game for us – although away wins were the main feature of his first spell at the club. Getting that first away win of the season before it comes a thing is important. However, I can see this being a frustrating 1-1 draw.

Preview: Notts County

The re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager back in March was all about how ready we would be for the start of this season. Getting those few wins towards the back end of last season, and especially that wonderful afternoon at Wembley, was important in re-energising the fan-base, but the hard work of winning promotion back to League One at the first attempt begins now.

It has been an almost complete overhaul of the squad over the summer, with just four of the starting XI at Wembley likely to start this forthcoming game against Notts County – three, depending on whether Lee Burge is fit. Instead of relying on a relatively young squad packed with a number of homegrown talents, Robins has decided to employ a different model leaning towards more experienced and proven performers, with a veteran Michael Doyle being the poster ‘child’ of this new side.

It means that we are starting from square one as a team this season, although, having had the majority of the squad in place for the entirety of pre-season may hasten the gelling process. They key areas of the squad are whether Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis can form an effective central defensive partnership, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly can provide dynamism in addition to their sturdiness in central midfield, and whether Marc McNulty is capable of scoring the goals to get us out of this division.

Possible Line-Up

We already have a strong idea of what team Mark Robins is going to pick for this game, based on his team selections in pre-season. The aforementioned five players will provide the spine of the side, along with the experienced Peter Vincenti on the right wing and Stuart Beavon playing slightly ahead of McNulty in attack. Jack Grimmer at right-back is also almost certain to start and, thanks to an injury picked up by Ryan Haynes, Chris Stokes will make up the back four.

After some reasonable performances in pre-season without being overly tested, Liam O’Brien may get a chance to stake a claim for the starting spot in goal if Lee Burge doesn’t prove his fitness in time. The decision to sign O’Brien over a more experienced keeper was a big call from Mark Robins this summer, and it could seriously hamstring us if both he and Burge don’t cut the mustard.

Finally, Jodi Jones’ performance in the final pre-season friendly against Nuneaton where he scored and provided an assist for Stuart Beavon should win him a start on the left wing ahead of Devon Kelly-Evans. This is a big season for Jones after failing to provide a consistent final product last season, he could prove to be one of those players who really benefits from dropping down a level to become a central player for the club.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Notts County was a drab 0-0 draw at Meadow Lane during Tony Mowbray’s attempts to keep us in League One following his arrival back in 2015. Our attacking threat had been stunted by the recent loss of Dominic Samuel to injury, leaving a toothless strike force of Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson to labour in vain against a Notts County side soon to be doomed to relegation.

Notts County’s last trip to the Ricoh Arena was another drab affair on the face of it, however, it was a game memorable for some of absolutely top notch time-wasting and gamesmanship on the part of a Notts County side then flying in the top six of League One under Shaun Derry. With the Sky Blues in a torpor at the time under Steven Pressley, an error for Andy Webster was ruthlessly punished late in the second-half to hand Shaun Derry, Roy Carroll and the merry men of Notts County all three points.

How Are They Doing?

Notts County are attempting to build something more stable after a soap opera of a past decade which has seen a revolving door of players and managers fail to sustain the occasional promising run of form. Back in January, the club were in a transfer embargo and in danger of dropping into the relegation battle in League Two, however, a takeover by local businessman Alan Hardy and the appointment of Kevin Nolan as manager has seemingly put the club back in right direction.

The January transfer deadline day signings of Shola Ameobi and Jorge Grant – along with left-back Marc Bola who has since joined Bristol Rovers – provided the team with an injection of quality required to make Kevin Nolan’s organisation of the team effective. Ameobi in particular played a crucial role as the figurehead in attack, holding the ball up due to his physical presence and technical skill to bring others into play – he’ll be partnered in attack by the equally experienced Jon Stead, who provides a lot less outside the area for his team.

Possible Line-Up

The aforementioned Grant was a big beneficiary of Ameobi’s hold-up play, coming in off the wing and scoring some excellent goals over the course of the second-half of last season.  Notts County have done well to re-sign the Nottingham Forest youngster on loan, and he’ll be a big danger man for this game. That threat coming in off wide positions has been further bolstered by the arrivals of Lewis Alessandra and Gibraltar international Liam Walker over the summer, who are both potential match-winners at this level on their day.

Notts County’s main area of weakness is in defence, where they lack pace and composure on the ball. The agricultural ex-Sky Blues loanees Carl Dickinson and Richard Duffy could well start this game, and it seems like a sensible game plan to try and press high in order to force errors at the back for Notts rather than try and break them down with a slower style of play. Furthermore, goalkeeper Adam Collin had a difficult previous season and we should be looking to keep him as busy as possible.

Prediction

With Notts County an experienced and physical side, this will be early acid test of our League Two credentials. My main area of concern is in defence, where I’m not sure Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis are capable of standing up to a physical battering from both Shola Ameobi and set-piece situations. If we’re slow and ponderous on the ball too, this has all the makings of a classic Ricoh Arena away team smash and grab, only this time it will be in League Two.

Overall, I’m expecting this to be a real ‘welcome to League Two’ experience for us – similar to the game we played against a recently-relegated Wigan side in League One two seasons ago. If we can show we’re capable of controlling games and creating enough chances, that would be the least I want to see from us in this game. If not, it may be an indication that this could be a harder season than anticipated.

I think Notts County will win this game 2-0.