Mark Robins leads Coventry to promotion while Paul Tisdale is coy on Exeter future

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 28 May 2018, 20:21

Coventry City have returned to League One at the first attempt thanks to a 3-1 Play-Off Final victory over Exeter City.

We discuss what defeat means for the Grecians, but start with the excellent work Mark Robins has done at the Ricoh Arena.

Sky Blues on cloud nine

For all the praise for Coventry’s young, hungry side, it has been glued together by an experienced, tenacious central midfield pairing. The first thing Robins did last summer was bring in Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle, the latter already having an affinity with fans due to his previous time at the club.

The duo’s discipline meant that, even during Coventry’s worst spells, they are never carved wide open. We saw that midway through the first half on Monday, when Chris Stokes’ injury briefly gave their opponents momentum, but Coventry held firm.

That solid central structure represented a big part of Robins’ initial template for the season; before Christmas, they would win games by absorbing pressure for long spells, then getting the first goal through a moment of individual magic and steadily taking control thereon.

That blueprint was roundly successful; at least until the providers of the individual magic, Jodi Jones and Duckens Nazon, became unavailable through injury and loan expiry respectively.

That problem, as well as injuries to other players including Doyle, right-back Jack Grimmer and centre-back Tom Davies, meant the Sky Blues suffered a dip in form while Robins re-jigged the system; the fact he was able to do so is testament to his flexibility.

After February, we saw an attacking Coventry side. Marc McNulty not only reached a seasonal tally of 28 goals – more than any player has managed for the club since Bobby Gould in 67/68 – he struck up a wonderful partnership with Maxime Biamou. The latter is full of running and wins flick-ons, thus complimenting the quick feet and canny movement of McNulty, with the team scoring 17 goals in the last five games the duo have started together.

We have also seen wide midfielders Tom Bayliss and Jordan Shipley, the latter being a stand-out performer at Wembley, rise to prominence in wide midfield roles, cutting inside and breaking lines. Both have been very proactive in the early stages of the build-up play and, for the first time in a while, we are seeing Coventry pass the ball around with confidence.

A man who takes a great deal of credit for this transformation is Mark Robins: not only has he galvanized the fanbase and offered a cool head at a time of turbulence, he has also shown the adaptability to build almost two teams within one season and make them equally successful.

Tis (probably) bows out with defeat

It would be hard to blame Paul Tisdale, unfortunately the League Two Play-Off Final’s beaten manager, should he choose to swap Exeter City for MK Dons this summer.

His remit at St James’s Park entails selling key players, so the only motivation for him to remain in Devon would be if had an unbreakable relationship with supporters, as we have seen with John Coleman at Accrington.

That isn’t the case. There was a point in November in 2016-17, when the Grecians were in the bottom two, that some fans grew disillusioned by his perceived lack of passion and wanted a fresh start.

Of course, that isn’t the only perspective: some fans are also grateful for the job he has done over the last 12 years, but that sentiment isn’t uniformly held.

The one thing that has changed is the style of play. Last season, we saw a possession-based game with a fluid, interchanging front trio of David Wheeler, Ollie Watkins flanking either Reuben Reid or Liam McAlinden.

Wheeler and Watkins have since departed for West London, Reid left for Forest Green this January while McAlinden has struggled for form, meaning Jayden Stockley has been by a mile Exeter’s best attacking option.

The ex-Bournemouth man has scored an impressive 24 goals this term, but to get the best out of him, Exeter have had to play more direct balls, which was reflected in their performance in the final.

Wycombe have shown that direct football can be effective in League Two when a target man is supported by willing runners, but Exeter instead looked non-committal when the ball went forward.

The likes of Jake Taylor, Hiram Boateng and Ryan Harley, tasked with supporting Stockley, tended to stay in their original positions which ultimately meant a laboured performance.

While Tisdale deserves credit for the work he’s done at Exeter over the last 12 years, he might regret his last team selection. The left-sided duo of Craig Woodman and Dean Moxey, the former being 35 and the latter a full-back by trade, gave his side little pace and width, a problem which only changed when the more energetic Kyle Edwards came on to score a consolation goal.

The changes worked but Exeter left it far too late to start showing their true capabilities; for all the impressive progress they have made this season, that is the one regret that they and Tisdale must live with.

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