It’s just not the same without him…
Watching 18 year old James Maddison limp off the pitch at Walsall shouldn’t have signalled a total revision of our normal style of play, but it did. As much as we don’t want to feel like we rely on someone so raw, there’s no denying what influence his quality offers his teammates. He’s so reliable with the ball and they all value him as an option. Who wouldn’t?
Without him it’s hard to see how we will be able to replicate exactly the same blistering style of play we’ve served up to date. There’s no doubt we can still play well – players like Lameiras, Armstrong, Fleck and Murphy are more than capable of that – but Maddison influences our style in a very specific way, encouraging a certain dynamic in the players around him. When he’s not there we miss it. Saturday gave us a glimpse of what life is like when other players are asked to be the “Maddison” and it caught us by surprise.
Now, we don’t need to concern ourselves massively with losing the game. That’s going to happen this season so the loss itself isn’t going to shake us too much. But much like the other (smaller) setbacks we’ve had this season, it’s now crucial we take all the learnings we can from it and respond immediately. We were all starting to feel invincible, and while that’s a great attribute to have, the reality is that performances can fluctuate wildy from game-to-game. Both as a team and individually.
In the games to date, we’ve won because the opposition has had to worry about us. The Walsall game was different as we struggled to get to grips with their shape and ability to cause us grief down both flanks. The directness of their moves created the illusion of an extra man as we found ourselves regularly outnumbered with Willis and Stokes facing a swarm of attacks throughout.
Conversely, our full-backs couldn’t offer the same level of quality when we went forward. Walsall were direct and drove at us every time. Willis and Stokes offer a physical presence but they’re not quite competent enough in attacking areas yet. That doesn’t matter when you’ve got your forward unit playing as well as ours has been, but when your usual style of play is disrupted, you tend to revert to type which often leads to full-backs seeing more of the ball as they become a safer option. You can’t have it all, but if we could have a hybrid of Willis/Phillips and Stokes/Haynes on both sides, I’d be happier.
I don’t want to dwell too heavily on the specifics at this stage. We’re all still learning and assessing what we like about the team. Three wins out of four is a stunning return and we’ve plenty to be feel optimistic about. It’s tempting to criticise some players for poor games, or ask Jacob Murphy to be a little more alert when he doesn’t have the ball, but these are all things that they’re going to be aware of. The truth is, we had a setback and Walsall outplayed us. We lacked the zip and pace from previous games, but with over a week to recover and rejuvinate the squad I’m comfortable that the next game can be a different affair once again.
With the news that Maddison’s going to be out for a while, Mowbray’s job now is to find a way to adjust our style while he’s not around. We’ve stumbled across a very effective first choice eleven, but that was never going to last us for the entire season. Clearly we were hoping it’d last us a little more than three games, but that’s life/Coventry. Each game will continue to bring its own challenges, and I think that’s the lesson we have to take from this one. Not that we’re “rubbish”, worse than we thought, or that we’re somehow going to fall apart again like previous seasons. Just that we need a few different plays when Plan A goes down the toilet.
Fortunately we still have a striker who has scored 5 goals so far, a winger with skills to burn, and a John Fleck who can play to a level that is clearly beyond league one. The attacking options are plenty.
In defence, I don’t think we’re quite there just yet, but it’s coming. I’ve no doubt Reda and Ricketts will be solid enough for the whole season, and Burge is as good in goal as you’re really going to need. Both full-backs have a bit of work to do in terms of rounding off their technical game, but the back up is there if we need it to keep them on their toes.
The defeat itself doesn’t impact our season at all. We’ll brush that off. Losing James Maddison until Christmas is the real blow and it’s time for Tony to work his magic. Let’s hope he’s got plenty more tricks (and a Maddison-esque loan) up his sleeve before the month’s out.