As last season wore on, I started to notice a trend. Whenever there was a pause in our season; be it due to international breaks or COVID-19-related postponements, we would always manage to turn in a lethargic performance on our return to play. Needless to say, then, that with a tough run of fixtures coming up off of the back of the latest England sideshow, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the next game.
It is so bizarre to me that even following a defeat such as the one we had against QPR last time out, the general discourse amongst our fan base was positive. Testament perhaps to the football that we are currently playing, but football’s fickle head can once again be reared if we don’t pick up three points again soon enough.
Coventry City vs. Middlesbrough – 11/09/2021
One change to the starting line-up saw Jamie Allen in for Ben Sheaf, who had picked up a small knock and wasn’t fit enough for anything but a substitute appearance. Whilst Allen has certainly impressed in his cameos this season, there was a sense that his inclusion would leave us in dire need of some more defensive acumen in the middle of the pitch.
As it transpired, those doubts quickly evaporated. Middlesbrough rarely played through the centre, and this allowed Allen to concentrate more on providing supporting runs to the attackers from deep, effectively giving us four in and around the box at times.
Where Boro did threaten though was down their left-hand side, and this brought about a good battle between their wide man Isaiah Jones, and Fankaty Dabo. Debutant Onel Hernandez also added mobility in their front line alongside the powerful Uche Ikpeazu, who could have broken the deadlock had he managed to get onto a ball flashed across the box from their left. Otherwise, we were more than capable of handling whatever the Teesiders tried to throw at us, with our back three able to read the game well.
At the other end, it was a typical all-energy showing from our attackers, with Viktor Gyökeres and Martyn Waghorn’s movement giving the Boro defence a tiring afternoon. What was noticeable was how we were making inroads by not aiming for the heads of our front line, but instead by aiming for the channels or over the defence. Kyle McFadzean in particular was enjoying the time afforded to him by our patient build-up to try a few impressive searching balls. Despite limited actual success, you could appreciate the extra dimension this added. There was an adventurous element to our attacking play, sometimes having as many as eight outfield players pushing on as we tried to open the deadlock. Even Jake Clarke-Salter on his first home start found himself high on the left flank at one point. Perhaps not by intention, but possibly more by the design in which we construct our attacks. Fortunately today, we weren’t threatened greatly by any counters we left ourselves open for.
The second half had barely brought bums back to seats before the first major moment of it had materialised. Despite being afforded plenty of time and space with the ball, Ian Maatsen, who otherwise was very assured, dallied, dribbled, turned, turned again, dallied, dribbled, and turned some more as he looked for an out ball. This lead to him losing out on the edge of our defensive third. Ikpeazu found himself with a chance. Simon Moore got down to save. Two more Boro players were waiting. Moore saved again. A third chance. You know this one is going in. They always go in. This is Coventry City, we’re going to let this in.
Moore saved again.
Goalkeepers win games as much as strikers do. This was a prime example of that adage. Moments like that get into your heads, as fans of both sides, and of the players. They tell you that if football has its own version of Greek gods, then today they are smiling on you. It’s your day. Time to carpe diem.
How typical then, that the game slowed down at this point. We were matching our opponents, but not really doing enough to shake them out of the way. Time for some Big Vik Energy™. An important little touch from Hamer took the ball away from Boro on the edge of our box. Callum O’Hare picked it up and returned it to Hamer. The ball then was played into the centre-circle for Allen, who carried it a short distance before threading the ball through onto Gyökeres’ feet. Gyökeres then eased between the two defenders to bear down on goal, and like any striker brimming with confidence, he decided to go around the keeper. The touch was a bit heavy, and Boro now had two men running back onto the goal line. Fortunately, the resulting shot almost miraculously ignored both of the two red-outfitted bodies and hit the back of the net. 1-0, but of course.
Apart from Boro hitting the bar, we weren’t particularly troubled past this point. With less than ten minutes left, Todd Kane was introduced to the City faithful, brought on for Maatsen. Perhaps surprisingly, this saw Dabo move over to play on the left, and not Kane as was mooted when he had signed. Kane had a lively few moments, but it wasn’t enough to judge him on yet, especially at such an early juncture in his Sky Blues career.
Dabo meanwhile decided to demonstrate that he can make a mockery of both flanks in this division, not just one. After winning the ball, he held up and then turned two defenders to run forward and lay off to Gyökeres, who in turn played Waghorn through. A stepover preceded a right-footed finish, and a well-earned goal to get him off the mark for the club. 2-0, and another injury-time goal, though this one was more fanciful than necessary, which is a nice change.
There are many games of football where you can discount the good performance of one side due to the poor showing by the other, though this can often be a foolish practice. There were no poor individual performances from the Coventry players, though if one were to split hairs they could argue that O’Hare was perhaps a little quieter than in recent showings (but he was still effective). Yes, maybe Middlesbrough didn’t perform to the level that had us worried about them before kick-off, but if you then don’t perform to a high level, then you probably end the match at 0-0 and the talk then turns to missed opportunities. Perhaps then, that is the difference between the infancy of this season and the whole of the last one.
It’s a toss-up for many between Allen and Moore for the Man of The Match award. Moore perhaps for the big saves that kept things level before we could strike, while Allen was arguably the best player over the course of the 90+ minutes, keeping the team on the front foot with late runs from deep and purposeful passing. So who do you vote for, the player who was the best throughout the game, or the player who was pivotal in swinging the game in our favour? For me it’s Allen, but I won’t begrudge those who say Moore, or anyone else for that matter.
Spare a thought for poor Sol Bamba by the way. He was given a torrid time by our front two, who were able to play around and behind him, rather than in front of him and in the air as perhaps manager Neil Warnock would have hoped. It’s nice though to give the opponents the runaround, and long may it continue.
Our fans were fantastic throughout. If we can continue to play the way that we have been, then that maintains such levels of support, which naturally then leads to continued performances on the pitch. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I’m enjoying it. Let’s hope for a good turnout in midweek, against another tough side with a wily and experienced manager, as Mick McCarthy’s Cardiff City come to town. The show goes on.