Coventry City boost play-off hopes with narrow win over rock-bottom Barnet

by Gabriel Sutton / 10 March 2018, 19:35

This week Gabriel Sutton, aka @_FootbalLab, ventured over to Coventry City to see Mark Robins' men take on Graham Westley's Barnet. Below he picks out the key talking points from the League Two clash.

A Graham of two halves

Barnet manager Graham Westley deserves credit for his side’s first half performance in Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Coventry, but questions must be asked about how he responded to on-field changes.

The Bees were by far the more impressive outfit in the opening period and could easily have gone in at the break two or three goals ahead. They had their first shot on target within thirty seconds of Coventry kicking off, John Akinde intercepted a loose ball before laying off Shaquile Coulthirst, whose effort was held by Lee Burge.

The opposing goalkeeper impressively denied Coulthirst on two other occasions, while willing runner John Akinde also came close. The talk from Bees fans pre-match had been the improved fitness under Westley, which was much in evidence Curtis Weston threw himself into challenges and Dan Sweeney looked commanding at centre-back.

Perhaps less predictably though, the visitors used the ball with more composure and class than one might expect from a stereotypical Westley side. The final chance of the half, which saw Alex Nicholls’ effort deflected just wide, came after a tidy passing exchange between Akinde and Ruben Bover, the latter pressing with vigour in the final third.

Barnet again managed a shot on target within thirty seconds of the second half kicking off – when the hardworking Ryan Watson’s effort from the right channel was well saved. That moment implied that an unlikely victory could be coming Barnet’s way, but what followed instead was a half-hour malaise that would define the contest.

Nicholls and Coulthirst’s willingness to get close to Akinde was key to the away side’s strong first half, but their adventure also left full-backs Mauro Vilhete and David Tutonda lacking support in wide areas. Coventry began to expose that vulnerability in the second half as Akinde tired, Nicholls bottled out of the types of challenges he had made in the first period and Watson and Weston required more help in their midfield battle.

Where Westley deserves criticism is his decision not to make any changes while those developments took place with the score at 0-0, as the pressure increased. It was only when Jonson Clarke-Harris tapped in for the hosts that he saw fit to make substitutions – three of them – as Jordan Nicholson, Jack Taylor and Simeon Akinola all entered the fray.

The latter replaced John Akinde when ironically, Barnet needed a big striker with a physical presence to be able to deliver balls into the box in the closing stages. That was not a viable option, so their method of salvation instead involved desperate long-range shots from Weston, Watson and Tutonda, each of which sufficiently wayward to amuse home supporters.

If Barnet can play like they did in the first half consistently, they will avoid relegation this season, but Westley must be more adaptable when the nature of games change.

Burge the Sky Blues saviour

Prior to Coventry City’s win over Barnet, they had taken 11 points from nine games against bottom six opposition. Nobody could say with any great confidence that they would take the Bees apart, despite having 25 more points prior to kick-off.

The Sky Blues had one positive moment in the first half – Marc McNulty was denied one-on-one by George Legg (who saved with his legs) – but they largely ceded control to the side bottom of the table.

The return of the ball-winning midfield partnership of Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly had helped Mark Robins’ side go back to basics in the last two games – which saw them take four points from trips to Mansfield and Wycombe.

However, the duo’s defensive instincts meant they didn’t tend to apply pressure on the ball until it reached the defensive third. From that point, Barnet found good areas from which to shoot and Burge made a number of great saves that kept Coventry level.

They finally heeded the warnings in the second half as centre-backs Dominic Hyam and Rod McDonald began to sustain pressure nearer the centre-circle. Not every piece of combination play between Jack Grimmer and Tom Bayliss – the latter looking uncomfortable in a wide right role – came off, and even Ryan Haynes and substitute Josh Barrett weren’t always on one another’s wavelengths.

Whenever moves did break down though, the hosts were always much quicker to the second balls, which can be attributed to Doyle and Kelly getting further up the pitch.

McNulty, who had been the home side’s main bright spark all game, began to get more change out of the opposing centre-backs: the ex-Sheffield United man hit his close-range shot agonizingly over the bar midway through the second period before a back-post header hit the wrong side of the net.

Coventry finally grabbed the goal their pressure had hinted at on 75 minutes. McNulty played in Jonson Clarke-Harris, who had endured a quiet afternoon but placed the ball past Legg to give them a crucial lead.

It hadn’t been a pretty performance from the Midlanders, who need to find a way to assert their authority on the lesser sides, but the Lee Burge-inspired three points gives their play-off hopes a much-needed boost.

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