It’s always interesting, when the team sheet drops, to gauge the reaction of fans to the starting XI. Many fans expected changes in defence but few would have picked Dimi Giannoulis to be the fall guy, especially after earning plaudits from the head coach in recent times. Sam McCallum came in, Adam Idah was restored up front and it was Liam Gibbs’ turn to have a go in the slot behind the striker.
Given the pace in the front three, it was a little surprising that Coventry didn’t start the game with an aggressive press from the front two. Instead, they chose to concede possession to the City central defenders and concentrate on cutting out the ball when it came into midfield.
Initially, City found ways through the Coventry block. Idah closed in on a poor ball and found Jon Rowe, who hit his shot high and wide. Then Przemysław Placheta got free on the left. He cut the ball back to Gibbs, who teed up Gabriel Sara only for the Brazilian to shoot over the bar.
Then Placheta came out on top in a battle to control a bouncing ball. He laid it into Idah, who cut inside and shot low to keeper Wilson’s right. It was an easy save for the Coventry stopper.
However, by the end of the first 10 minutes, City were finding it increasingly difficult to progress the ball out of their own half. Conversely, the home team were beginning to make inroads of their own towards the City goal.
City’s problems were multi-faceted. When they hit it long, Idah was unable to win the aerial duels, or when he did, he was unable to hold the ball up. When City played it short, they either gave the ball straight away or when they progressed it slightly higher up the pitch, conceded possession to the packed Coventry mid-block.
When they did get through, it was much like the midweek game, decent chances, no one on the end.
After 13 minutes, McCallum broke down the left, played a one-two and then delivered an excellent cross that Idah was only a matter of inches away from guiding into the net.
City were defending their own lines well though, Shane Duffy headed a Sakamoto cross clear which set Kenny McLean free. His ball forward was initially cleared before coming to Gibbs whose poor header gave possession straight back to the hosts.
City were now really struggling to get out. They were doing all the hard work, defending in numbers, and winning the ball. Often they even got it out from the back but time and time again they lost it in the middle. Even the usually reliable Sara succumbed to the malaise.
For Coventry, Sakamoto looked to be the brightest spark, giving McCallum and Placheta a tough time down the City left. As good as the Japanese looked at football, he will be winning no Olympic medals for diving. Time and time again he threw himself theatrically to the floor, but referee Dean Whitestone was wise to his tricks and ignored his appeals, despite the howls of protest from the increasingly vociferous home crowd.
Coventry had a succession of corners. It is becoming a theme that teams are taking these short against City and Coventry were no exception, but by and large, the City defence did well, and when they were beaten, Angus Gunn was on hand.
Ben Gibson was also making some great blocks, stopping goal-bound shots, whilst Duffy was dominant in the air.
Finally, after 36 minutes, City managed to not only move the ball out from the back but also to retain possession for a sustained period, before eventually being forced back to halfway, conceding a free kick.
City cleared the ball and now it was their turn to press. McLean nicked a ball from Allen and then the two clashed in the area. As Allen fell, he downed the City captain and it looked like a stonewall penalty. Nothing was given.
A minute later, City were in the lead. A ball down the right channel found Stacey. His cross was cut out but Gibbs won the loose ball and powered into the box. He hit a dead end before backheeling it to Jack Stacey. The right-back squared it and Rowe controlled with his left, then hit it goalwards with his right.
1-0 to City.
Coventry tried to hit straight back and as the half drew to a close, it took an excellent challenge from Gibson after a Dasilva cross to force the attacker to head wide.
City started the second half strongly, driving forward. Stacey put in a good cross, but Idah was beaten to the header. The ball came to the left though and McCallum delivered an excellent cross, but somehow Idah seemed not to commit to getting to the ball. He would surely have scored had he thrown himself wholeheartedly at the ball.
City were trying to retain possession and kill the game, but still were struggling to hold the ball up. Gibbs particularly struggled to keep the ball or make anything more happen.
After the hour, Wagner made a double substitution. Tony Springett replaced Placheta and Giannoulis replaced McCallum, who was beginning to really struggle with the lively, diving Yakamoto.
The game became very scrappy, with City slowing it down at every opportunity and drawing fouls from the opposition. Coventry, bizarrely, seemed content to sit off City and allow them just to pass it around at the back.
After 66 minutes, City suddenly changed the pace, and the ball rattled through Sara, Gibbs, and Springett before a Giannoulis cross was blocked for the first of three throw-ins in quick succession. Eventually, Coventry won the ball and broke quickly, but Gibson was on hand to sweep up.
The game changed after 70 minutes. Robins made a triple substitution and switched to a 3-5-2 formation. From that moment onwards, City were denied the space and freedom that had allowed them to exercise some degree of control in the second half up to that point. Eccles came increasingly to the fore, having several decent attempts on goal.
In return, Wagner swapped Idah for Hwang, and Fassnacht for Rowe, who, goal aside, had had a quiet game.
Coventry continued to apply pressure but City had bodies behind the ball and looked generally composed and well organized in defence.
This was not without a cost though. They sacrificed all possibility of a counter by bringing everyone back. When the ball was hit long, and Hwang was close to it, he was at least in the fight to win the header, unlike Idah before, yet time and time again was muscled off the ball.
It didn’t feel like a goal was inevitable but it wasn’t a surprise when it came. Van Ewijk beat Springett on the Coventry right and played a dangerous cross to the near post. Gibson had no option but to commit to the header but instead of going out for a corner it glanced off his head and past Gunn for the equalizer.
That set up a frantic last few minutes. City continued to defend in depth but had no chance to ease the pressure upon themselves. The game ended, appropriately enough, with a Sara clearance to no one.
On the bright side, it wasn’t a loss. But even without the late own goal, City’s shortcomings were clear. Neither Idah nor Hwang seem to possess the ability to win and hold the ball up, relieving pressure and allowing an attack to build.
It reminds me of City with Pukki up front in the post-Stieperman era. Then, the solution was to throw Kenny McLean into the supporting role where his aerial ability could be exploited. He’s about the only one not to be tried so far by Wagner.
Regrettably, much of the fans’ anger will be directed towards Gibson for his late own goal. They won’t see the rest of his performance which by and large was solid and convincing.
City really seem to be hanging on to the coattails of the top six, perhaps in the hope that the return of Ashley Barnes may offer some salvation…..