If someone was asking a question at the start of the season, to the most hardcore fan of Coventry City, in which position would he believe that his team would be at the end of February, he would probably not predict that his team would lead the table of EFL League One. Despite those predictions and the odds, on 25th February at St Andrew’s, Coventry City faced Rotherham United in a top-table match in League One. From the tactical analysis of the game, we will see that both teams did not want to take more risks, as a priority for them was not to lose. Tactics played a crucial role in the final result.
Coventry City played in this game with the same tactical formation and with one change compared with their last game: Maxime Biamou came in for Jamie Allen. The rest of the squad was the same with Marko Marosi between the posts and Dominic Hyam, Kyle McFadzean and Michael Rose as the centre-backs. Liam Kelly and Liam Walsh were the centre midfielders, with Kelly having the role of the holding midfielder, while Walsh, who is on loan from Bristol City, was the one staying deeper and in front of the defensive line. Fankaty Dabo and Sam McCallum, who joined on loan from an EPL club, Norwich City, were the wing-backs. Callum O’Hare and Matt Godden were the two attacking midfielders and the striker was Maxime Biamou.
Rotherham United had two changes to their starting lineup compared with the last fixture: those were Ben Wiles, who took the position of Hakeeb Adelakun, and Freddie Ladapo, who took the position of Kyle Vassell. The remaining nine players starting from the goalkeeper were Daniel Iversen, while the back four comprised of Joe Mattock, Richard Wood, Michael Ihiekwe and Matthew Olosunde, who joined from Manchester United as a free transfer last July. The two centre midfielders were Dan Barlaser and Matt Crooks, while Chiedozie Ogbene and Ben Wiles were playing on the flanks. The strikers were Michael Smith and Freddie Ladapo.
The way that Rotherham handled the game
Rotherham United played with a 4-4-2 formation against a 3-4-2-1. If someone breaks down the two formations they will realise that for Coventry it was easier to play the ball out of the back as there were three defenders plus one goalkeeper against two strikers. Through that analysis, someone will notice that Coventry City have an advantage by playing from the central area of the field, while Rotherham has an advantage on the flanks.
Initially, the first job that went well for Rotherham was that they managed to press high efficiently and did not allow Coventry to transfer the ball from the back to the final third. Rotherham pressed with five players, allowing Marko Marosi to have no easy passes to one of the three centre backs.
Next step for Rotherham United to block the game of Coventry was to balance the disadvantage that their formation had in the central part of the field. For that reason, Freddie Ladapo, the centre forward was stepping back and the wingers Ben Wiles and Chiedozie Ogbene were coming inside. That was a tactical trick to support the two midfielders, Dan Barlaser and Matt Crooks.
Rotherham United chose to build up the game from the back through a direct approach. When Daniel Iversen had the ball at his feet, he did not make a single pass to his third of the field. He was playing long balls and was mostly targeting Smith, or was delivering the long balls to the flanks where Rotherham had the numerical advantage.
When Daniel Iversen had the ball, Rotherham United’s players would move to one side of the pitch to create numerical superiority on that side. Rotherham was trying to increase their chances of winning the aerial duel or the second ball by having all their players in close proximity to the duel. By this action, they were ensuring that they would be able to quickly support the player on the ball and also be able to counter-press instantly as they had many players around the ball.
When this plan worked and Rotherham gained possession, the two full-backs were already high up the field. Coventry City’s 5-3-2 formation when defending was giving space to the flanks. This was allowing the Rotherham full-backs to support their offensive game and the wingers.
Furthermore, Ben Wiles and Chiedozie Ogbene were positioned high and wide on the pitch. In that way, they were giving more space to the full-backs to drive forward with the ball and seek a combination game. The full-backs and the wingers were able to create quite a few 2 vs 1 situations out wide. Moreover, the high positioning of both full-backs and wingers was a way to stretch the defensive line of the opponent and expose their weakness on the flanks.
Coventry City’s approach in the first half
Coventry City tried to play the ball out of the back but the high pressure from the opponent isolated key players and made it difficult. The first pass from the goalkeeper to the centre backs was blocked which would force him to go long.
The centre-backs and central midfielders were unable to receive the ball. Moreover, the midfielders had to deal with high pressure from their opponents in tight areas. That was a crucial problem for Coventry City as they could not control the possession of the ball. Their opponent managed to get the game where they wanted it.
Coventry City’s approach in the second half
In the second half, Coventry City abandoned this plan, and they adjusted to the new situation. So, they were trying to play a more direct style of football with long balls from the back, which were targeting the centre forward.
Coventry managed to shorten the distances between the lines. Callum O’Hare was the player that had a lot of rebounds from those long balls. Furthermore, the two central midfielders Liam Walsh and Liam Kelly were closer to the ball and tried to support the team when in possession. By shortening the distances Coventry looked to control the ball in the central part of the field. Key players like Walsh were again affecting the game.
Coventry City in the second half tried to overload the left side. In that way, they managed to create free space on the other side of the pitch, where the right wing-back Fankaty Dabo could take advantage of it. This and the fact that the two central midfielders were closer and were able to support efficiently the possession game made it easier for Coventry City, as their opponents were unable to counter-press or cover the flanks quickly after a quick long ball.
This match was the definition of an athletic and physical football game. Both teams wanted to win, but preferably they did not want to lose, as they are high in the league table and that is the place that they want to be when the league is over. Rotherham United managed to bring the game they wanted. They blocked for a long time Coventry City’s ways to build up the game and they managed to attack from the flanks, where they had an advantage. On the other side, Coventry City adjusted to the requirements of the game and showed the reason why they lead the league table. They found solutions in the tactical problems that their opponent set and managed to remain at the top of the league. In general, it was a match that both teams did not want to lose and did not take the risks of doing so.