Coventry City didn’t even have a pitch to play on when this season got underway. Now they will host a Championship play-off semi-final at the CBS Arena, with Middlesbrough the visitors. Boro have also risen through the division this season, with Michael Carrick’s revolution taking a talented squad back to where they should be after a bafflingly bad start under Chris Wilder.
With Boro boasting 74% possession when they met on the final day of the regular season, it's a match-up that poses a huge amount of tactical intrigue and we’ve taken a look at where this tie will be won or lost.
Viktor Gyokeres v Paddy McNair
You can’t talk about the Sky Blues without mentioning Viktor Gyokeres. Their star striker and talisman has been gargantuan this term, registering 31 goal involvements (21G 10A), one more than Golden Boot winner Chuba Akpom. In a match where Boro are expecting to dominate the ball, Coventry will attempt to hit on the break with direct and quick interchanges.
They like to play long balls into the left channel for Gyokeres to contest for and more often than not he gets the better of his centre-half. Given Boro’s left centre-half Darragh Lenihan has been one of the standouts in the league this term and looked like he could deal with the Swedish international, expect Gyokeres to occupy that left channel and target Paddy McNair.
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With his strength and pace he can get the ball under control, and then Gyokeres will dribble directly at McNair. If he’s successful, Coventry will be successful, but expect Michael Carrick to restrict Tommy Smith’s attacking duties, in order to double up on the most complete striker in the division.
Kyle McFadzean v Cameron Archer
No team has scored more goals in the Championship than Boro (65) since Carrick took over and that total puts them eight above Burnley, the next highest. Their attacking patterns are sensational and they can put most teams to the sword, which makes them such a dangerous opponent for the Sky Blues.
Chuba Akom, top scorer with 28 will draw a lot of focus and is dangerous from the number ten position, but Cameron Archer’s movement is likely to be more important from Carrick’s point of view. He has 11 in 20 league matches and five in his last five, including the equaliser against Coventry last time out.
He’s unlikely to get any change out of Cov’s middle centre-back Kyle McFadzean from a physical perspective, but his pace and movement could cause City’s back three problems. Keeping both him and Akpom quiet has been an impossible task this season for Championship defences, but it's a battle the Sky Blues must win if they are to reach Wembley.
Brooke Norton-Cuffy v Ryan Giles
No player in the division got more assists than Boro’s left-back Ryan Giles. The flying wing-back turned full-back in Carrick’s attacking 4-2-3-1 is a constant threat on the left-hand side and his crossing ability has got him 11 assists so far this term. Coventry’s lack of wide players mean that Boro will attempt to isolate their wing-backs, with Giles doubling up with Riley McGree to provide an overload on that side.
Although the same could be said of the right-hand side, Boro are unlikely to commit Smith forward given he lacks the same attacking impetus as Giles and will have to keep an eye on Gyokeres. On Boro’s left side though, they could get some real joy.
If you had to pick an area of the Sky Blues team to target, it would be their right wing-back. Brooke Norton-Cuffy, on loan from Arsenal, has improved as the season has progressed but is far more comfortable going forward than defensively. Meanwhile, all-rounder Fankaty Dabo has suffered a severe drop off in form this term and is unlikely to start, although he could come off the bench if the young Arsenal loanee is struggling.
Mark Robins v Michael Carrick
What do you want in the play-offs? Youthful exuberance or an experienced head? Carrick has cooked up a storm in the north-east and, due to his Manchester United background, is even being talked about as a future manager at Old Trafford. The football his side plays is simply sensational and he has rightly been given praise for the turnaround at the Riverside. But has he got the tactical nous to navigate the pressure of the play-offs?
Mark Robins has already proven that he has, leading the Sky Blues through the League Two play-offs in 2018. That year they drew 1-1 with Notts County at home before beating them 4-1 at Meadow Lane to book a place at Wembley, where they thrashed Exeter City. Robins has a whole heap of experience to fall back on, but can he make it count against the new kid on the block?
*18+ | BeGambleAware