Just one team stand between Coventry City and a return to the Premier League after a 22-year absence. They face fellow underdogs Luton Town in the Championship play-off final at Wembley on Saturday for a place in the 2023-24 Premier League. Whatever the result, there’s one man you feel cannot lose: Viktor Gyökeres.
Should Coventry win, they’ll have a player ready to burst onto the Premier League scene in Sky Blue. Lose, then the top-flight vultures will be scrapping for the undoubted talents of the Swedish forward ahead of August’s season start.
While it was Middlesbrough’s Chuba Akpom who won the Championship Player of the Year award this season, no single player has had a greater impact for their club than Gyökeres has for Coventry.
Akpom (28) was the only player to better Gyökeres’ 21-goal tally in the Championship this season. Watching his goals from 2022-23, it’s clear that there’s no specific ‘type’ of goal that he’s known for, which is a good thing for a striker who can often be forced to make something out of very little. That’s not a slight on Coventry and the players that surround him in the side, but fans of the club will be the first to admit that their counter-attacking style is only really made effective due to the talents of Gyökeres.
Mark Robins’ side thrive in the chaos of transition. If the opponent commit men forward only to lose the ball in the attacking third of the pitch, you best believe that Coventry are going to swarm up the pitch quickly. Gyökeres – quick on the turn, a powerful, fast runner with the ball at his feet and a threat in front of goal – is a major problem for opposition defences when these transitions occur.
Coventry have attempted 46 shots from fast breaks in the Championship this season – that’s nearly double the next most prolific side in the competition (Sheffield United & Middlesbrough: 25).
The Sky Blues are one of the most direct sides in the Championship across 2022-23. This isn’t to mean that they are a long-ball team – far from it, in fact.
Coventry have a direct speed of 1.68 metres/second – the second highest in the Championship, indicating their ability to hit sides quickly in transition. Interestingly, play-off final opponents Luton are the only side with a higher direct speed (1.81 m/s), making the cat-and-mouse style battle to reach the Premier League on Saturday a mouth-watering prospect for the neutral. Overall, 32% of the distance Coventry have covered in their open-play sequences this season has been upfield – the fifth highest. In contrast, champions Burnley’s directness was only 19%.
Looking at Opta’s direct attacks metric allows us to put another number on Coventry’s chaotic transitional play. Direct attacks – the total number of open-play sequences that start just inside the team’s own half, progress at least 50% towards the opposition goal and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box – are a Coventry staple. Across 2022-23, they have had 123 of these, which is 46 more than any other side and more than the two automatically-promoted sides combined (Burnley and Sheffield United: 121).
Gyökeres is more important to this style than any other Coventry player. Often deployed as a lone striker with plenty of energetic midfielders behind him, the Swede is the first point of contact. He often pulls defenders out wide and attacks the space in behind the opposition, but he also has the strength to hold the ball up and await teammates to support the attack.
With Coventry playing the way they do – exploiting large spaces left by opponents following the breakdown of attacking moves – it’ll come as little surprise that Gyökeres leads the Championship for most shot involvements following ball carries (100 – 67 shots, 33 chances created) – a metric that he also led in the division last season as well (83).
No Championship player has carried the ball further upfield this season than Gyökeres (4,444m), while his per 90 average (95.2m) is higher than any other regular striker. His pace and power have also helped him lead the Championship this season for pullbacks (20) – his tally is seven more than any other player in the competition. It’s a tactic suited to a side with energetic forwards and midfielders like Gus Hamer, Jamie Allen and Matt Godden making late runs into the box.
His ability to run with the ball and use his body strength is nothing new, although it’s clearly an attribute he’s worked hard to improve since arriving in England with Brighton from Swedish second-tier side IF Brommapojkarna.
Speaking to Opta Analyst, Simon Rusk – Gyökeres’ former head coach in Brighton’s Under-23s – revealed that he found it hard to believe the club had unearthed such a talent from the Swedish second tier without much competition.
“Victor was very physically able and robust despite his young age and a great runner, but you felt that he could only improve once his football insight and technical intelligence grew with time. Those have obviously married up now and he’s become an exceptional Championship player.”
Gyökeres scored 11 goals in 12 appearances in five months after joining Brighton in January 2018 as the Seagulls’ youth side won promotion to the top flight of U23 football. According to Rusk, the forward thrived in particular thanks to his ability to drift out the left and cut in onto his strong right foot at pace.
The Swede joined Brighton at a time where they were still battling to become a long-standing Premier League side, with his first 18 months on the south coast coinciding with Brighton’s first two Premier League seasons under Chris Hughton – a very different style of play to what we now expect of them under Roberto De Zerbi. With the arrival of Graham Potter in 2019-20, Brighton’s playing style switched to one that wasn’t as suited to Gyökeres, and the club – along with Rusk – decided it was best for him to spend some time on loan playing senior football. A spell at St Pauli in the German second tier was followed by a disappointing period at Swansea City in the first half of 2020-21, when Gyökeres struggled to recover fitness and force his way into the side following a bad bout of Covid. This is where his relationship with Coventry City and Mark Robins began, with the Sky Blues picking him up on loan for the second half of that season.
Speaking to Brighton’s website in March 2021, Gyökeres explained how having a boss like Robins – who enjoyed a prosperous career as a top-flight striker in England at Manchester United, Norwich City and Leicester City – was helping him better understand his role as a forward.
“He was a decent striker as a player and it’s good to work with somebody who understands my position and can drill into me what is expected,” he said. “He speaks to me about how I can be more effective and gives me little bits of advice on my movement. It’s helpful to have a coach who has played for the likes of Manchester United, because he knows the demands of the very top level and you can learn a lot from that.”
The relationship has been a huge success, with Robins clearly extracting the very best out of Gyökeres following a permanent move for a reported £1m ahead of the 2021-22 campaign.
Since then, no player has been involved in more Championship goals than he has (54), with his 38-goal tally only surpassed by Aleksandar Mitrović (43, all in one season) and Swansea’s Joël Piroe (41).
If there’s any criticism of Gyökeres, it could be his low conversion rate in front of goal. He’s missed more clear-cut chances than any other Championship player since 2021-22, with his tally of 38 some 12 more than the big chances he’s converted (26). His non-penalty shot conversion rate of 13.2% in 2022-23 was well below that of Akpom (25%) and inferior to the Championship’s other leading scorers, in Morris (16.0%), Tom Bradshaw (19.5%) and Nathan Tella (23.6%). However, it’s important to note that Gyökeres has had harder chances on average than each of those players, with his xG per non-penalty shot the lowest of the five (0.12).
But Gyökeres is still a work in progress and clearly improving all the time – he only turns 25 years old in June.
His importance to Coventry can’t be understated and he undoubtedly holds the keys to victory and any chance of promotion to the Premier League on Saturday against Luton. The Sky Blues are heavily reliant on him in attack, despite a relatively poor run of form in front of goal that’s seen him score just three goals in his last 11 appearances for the club.
Not only is he their biggest threat in front of goal, he is also crucial to the creation of chances for his Coventry teammates. Across the Championship, only Middlesbrough’s Ryan Giles (10.6) has a higher xG assisted total than Gyökeres (8.3) from open play this season. In addition, of the 526 sequences leading to a shot in open play for Coventry in 2022-23, Gyökeres has been involved in 248 of these. His 47.2% involvement is more than any other player in the entire Championship.
The threat he poses to opponents on his own is clear from his top-level metrics, too. He’s one of only six players to play at least 2,000 minutes of Championship football this season and average three non-penalty shots per 90 minutes, while his average of 7.8 touches in the opposition box per 90 is another league-high and almost unheard off at Championship level. In fact, only Callum Wilson – for Bournemouth in 2014-15 (8.9) – has averaged more touches in the opposition box in a second-tier season across the last 10 campaigns.
Overall, 34% of Coventry’s touches in the box this season have been made by Gyökeres. No player at any other club has had more than 20% of their sides’ touches in the opposition box – the next most being Carlton Morris at Luton.
His fitness levels are another plus for Coventry and any prospective suitor. Including the play-offs, he’s already played 4,202 minutes of Championship action in 2022-23. Across the last 10 seasons, only seven players will have played more minutes in a league campaign than Gyökeres in 2022-23 should he complete the full 90 minutes on Saturday at Wembley, as expected.
Even if Coventry City do complete a remarkable campaign with promotion to the Premier League, there are no guarantees that Gyökeres will begin next season at the club. Now at the peak age for a footballer, this campaign has fully written off the ‘one-season wonder’ tag some had unfairly labelled him with following a successful 2021-22. Top-flight recruitment teams across Europe will have been keeping a close eye on him.
Promotion would not only mean a fairytale rise through three leagues in six seasons under Robins to return to the top flight, it’ll also give Coventry a much better chance of keeping hold of a player who would be key to keeping them there. Win on Saturday and Gyökeres’ cult hero status at Coventry City will be secured.