Coventry City 1-2 Middlesborough
Why not start the post off with a theme. Warnock.
He outsmarted Robins. Why do I think that?
1 - Game plan.
Coventry have been using that in the last few games after the success against Brentford - pressing higher, and trying to capitalize on possession inside the opponent's half.
Yet, Boro were never going to play the same way. Has any Warnock team? So Warnock doesn't need to change anything but maximize his approach.
Coventry have played with two strikers recently, and below you can see how they became isolated strikers. The game was very sloppy throughout, with long balls and various moments of heading back and forth. Here you can see a long ball that was returned from Kelly toward O'Hare, but O'Hare is not going to win headers against McNair. This was a trend throughout the game and you can see how Boro are set up with Hall free (center of back three) to attack and overload any threat by Coventry.
The space in this picture is much smaller than it was for most forward attempts by Coventry.
2 - Possession.
Possession stats or attempted passes stats to 'show' their lacking desire to 'play'.
Boro played 40 passes inside their own defensive third, and they were not about to let Coventry press them into mistakes as Brentford fell victim to.
This moment is just after kick-off following the Coventry goal. Much like the moment earlier, the ball went back and forth as both sides struggled to gain any meaningful possession. You can see every player, minus Hyam and the two goalkeepers within 40 yards? Warnock wanted to overload the middle of the field and get around the ball with a strong midfield to not let Coventry get comfortable.
Here you can see Boro inside the final third and not having anywhere to go. McNair is tight to O'Hare again, Kebano has pulled wide to combine with Tavernier. Boro offers no threat centrally, but attracting the Coventry press and naivety to dive in from Kelly is punished by Tavernier winning the freekick.
When Coventry did possess they panicked Boro. The image on the left shows how Boro recover quickly to prevent Coventry from going forward. Yet, Coventry moved well between the lines and broke into the final third. Though nothing came of the possession, the next image shows the benefit of such an attack. The ball was cleared and McFadzean had a free moment to knock the ball down to Hyam. This is where we would have seen Coventry build previously, but instead, Hyam sends it long.
My final point on the lack of possession, or even attempting to possess, comes from the build-up to the Boro second goal. Hyam tries to let the ball run out of play. He loses out and in the following minute, Boro press and finds the space that leads to a tap in. Previously, Hyam sends the ball back to Marosi/Wilson and Coventry build. I think this shows the game plan perfectly and avoiding making mistakes with possession deep.
3 - Set Piece Opportunities.
Send the ball longer, win the knockdowns and see what happens. Boro got inside the Coventry half and were clever enough in their movements and in the chaos to win fouls. Warnock's team targeted this and were 'fouled' 15 times.
A third of those fouls were by Hamer. He has struggled in the direct approach to games as of late and here I think you can see why:
Coventry lost out in the "head ball" game and, Hamer anticipating the possession to be won is behind the ball and commits a foul to help the overloaded 3v1 against Kelly.
We all know that set-pieces have been killer against Coventry, with zonal marking failing. So, Warnock again is clever in forcing the issue. This is where the first goal came from.
I boxed off the area that I think Wilson should be claiming any ball (basically the 6). Interestingly, both Boro goals came from inside this box. This was a free header. You can see Coventry set up zonally and it isn't working, especially against a team that will thrive on set pieces. With a good ball, the organized zonal defending is out of the game and ineffective. It tends to leave players looking at each other with their hands up looking for someone to blame. Also, do you need two players out there in a 'wall'?
I noted in the game plan that there was often a large separation between the forwards and the rest of the team. This moment shows it perfectly, summed up with the same result - an overload and freekick for Boro.
I've flagged the deep 5 before and this is another moment to see how the backline leaves an overloaded midfield. We wonder why Hamer has been ineffective as of late, and just look at the work he is doing instead. A back 4 might combat this situation for Coventry, allowing for an overload in the midfield and an opportunity to gain some control in this key area.
4 - Refusing to change.
This was a game that Coventry could have played differently in style. I just mentioned how Hamer seems to have the game pass him by when we don't really try to possess the ball. Having seen, prepared, and maybe expecting a Boro team playing one specific way under Warnock, then why not change the game on them? Same shape? Probably, but be flexible to change on demand. There were several phases of the game, the 20-minute mark and 65 onwards, where Coventry did try to play more.
Coventry had a phase of possession here that increased the pressure on the Boro goal and gave us a glimpse into finding a potential game-winner. McNair tracked O'Hare almost everywhere in the game, and this is another example, but it opened up space for Hamer. This is one of the few moments it happened and it only happened because Coventry moved the ball well.
Early on you can see Coventry play out versus a very soft press. No defensive width means for Boro meant Coventry could play forward.
Even after the positive opening, you can see Hyam clear the ball, when a forward pass to O'Hare was an option to keep possession. In the next image, you can see the isolated strikers losing the ball and it comes right back. You can also see McNair tracking O'Hare again. This headed clearance was kept in play and ultimately finished with a Kebano shot that was blocked.
Coventry certainly played into Warnock's hands with the long balls and refusal to adapt. Boro won 53 aerial duels in total and most looked like the image on the left.
Coventry's resulting performance was not positive. The result was 8 total shots, with 0 on target. Only Coventry could score without a shot on target. Overall, the reactions have been varied, of course. However, another game that you might think (with 20/20 hindsight) that an adjustment should have been made to change the game on Boro and not play to their strengths.
A constant positive lately, I think, has been Biamou. With not much to show for his work in this game and the goal given as an OG, he might get overlooked. However, he was constantly on or around the ball, feeding off of the very little he had to work with. His finishing has come under scrutiny and understandably so, but he offers so much more for Coventry going forward when we have more possession.
There is an argument to play a back four, I think.
I have shared many times how we automatically drop into a deep 5. This leaves space and overloads against the midfield. A back four could control a typical front 3 setup from opponents and provide support centrally for Coventry to impact the game more, than inviting the pressure on as they overrun the midfield.
Some ideas. It's all hindsight, but surely Boro's style of play and game plan was not a surprise.