Steve Cotterill – What’s changed?
Cotterill made a dream debut in the Blues hot seat on Friday, as Birmingham saw off top of the table Cardiff in what is being described by many, as our best performance of the season so far. So, what changed? How did a third from bottom Blues team secure 3 points from the high-flying bluebirds? When you put it on paper, all the odds seemed against us, we had just been beaten 6-1 by then 17th placed Hull City, our first team keeper was out, Cardiff were top of the table, and that’s not to mention the fact that we were on Sky Sports. In our last 10 fixtures on Sky Sports, we have had a win percentage of just 20%, having conceded 19 and scored just 9. Despite David Davis claiming that the bigger Sky audience would only boost the Blues team, Blues fans had the right to feel a little unoptimistic, especially given that it was Friday the 13th too! In reality though, Cotterill ended up turning heads across the Football League, as a 19th-minute banger courtesy of the returning Che Adams secured all three points and heartbreak for the travelling Cardiff faithful. It’s fair to say Blues put in a brilliant performance, but what has changed, and will our turn in fortunes continue to deliver?
Bluenoses have been crying out for creativity upfront, something Lukas Jutkiewicz just cannot offer. Instead, Cotterill opted for pace and strength up top, combining the forces of speedsters, Vassell, Maghoma and Adams to lead the front line into battle.
Vassell and Adams have been compared on numerous occasions, as both boast a wealth of skills, pace and strength, as well as an eye for goal too. Vassell played down the middle whilst Adams and Maghoma were given free passage to play down the wings and cut inside to utilise their pace. Despite not all starting a game simultaneously yet this season, the three played some free-flowing football, there were lots of nice fluid passing and a nice harmony to their play.
Blues looked dangerous up-front for the first time in a long time, Vassell was brilliant in holding up play, using his superb touch and powerful frame to hold off defenders in order to play the ball on to Adams and Maghoma, who were always running in to space invitingly. We really looked potent up front, and even if Vassell didn’t have a goal to show for it, he was awarded Sky Bet Man of the Match for his instrumental display in a Blues win.
Should Blues have opted for Lukas up front, I don’t think we would have scored, we don’t have the players who can consistently deliver perfect crosses in to the box for Lukas to get on the end of, we would have had Redknapp’s plan to bring in Downing if pulled off, but it didn’t. Instead, we need pace. Tonight, our front three ran on to every clearance, even when it seemed hopeless they seemed to make something from nothing, just from tirelessly running on to loose balls.
The front three also played a vital role in closing down play, consistently they cut off Cardiff’s option in midfield, forcing them to play sloppy balls or play it back to the keeper, there was a clear desire to fight for every ball, and as the game went on Cardiff’s back four, who have conceded just 10 goals this season (second lowest only to Preston), looked shakier and shakier to have Che, Vassell and Mags on their backs, and only split seconds on the ball at any given moment. They also helped the defence in tracking back when needs be and breaking up play from which counter-attacks could be built on.
It was their desire that lead to Adams break in the 19th minute, but take nothing away from the goal, it was a stupendous individual effort as he took on three men before delivering a rocket it to the bottom right-hand corner, marking his return from injury in style. The importance of keeping Adams in the coming transfer window looks more important than ever, as his chemistry with Vassell grows, they could both be a real force for Blues in the near future.
Magic Maikel made a so long awaited first-team return with a spirited performance on Friday evening. The Dutchman was flying in to tackles, closing- down play like his life depended on it, and putting himself on the line in making numerous blocks throughout the game. He gave it his all throughout the match, and his effort put him in to contention for the Man of the Match award for good reason, it was a brilliant hard fought performance we have come so acquainted to associating him with. In many ways, he was the engine to the whole performance, he broke up play and began almost all our attacks that night. He most definitely proved his value on Friday, maybe his failed transfer to Derby was meant to be?
David Davis also put in a shift last night and gave a good account of himself. He hasn’t looked quite the same player as he was last season, the transfer speculation surrounding him in the summer possibly being the culprit. However, the fan favourite really got stuck in, he made tackles, he got forward, and outdid the opposition for strength on several occasions. At one point, he shouldered Cardiff’s left back before putting in a lovely cross, and it wasn’t just on this occasion that he looked back to being himself, he was a thorn in the side of the opposition all evening. He was running his socks off and getting stuck in right until the very end. This man can be blamed for no lack of effort. Following the game, he stated in an interview that he had not quite felt himself of late and that the hard work he and the rest of the squad had put in had taken him back to his academy days. Davis insisted that he felt right again under new manager Cotterill. The hardest weeks of training of his senior career so far were clearly translated for all to see on the pitch on Friday night.
There is reason to believe that Davis wasn’t really enjoying his spell under Redknapp, he seemed to be asked to play a more central attacking role, where he appeared rather unfamiliar, thankfully he looks to have returned to his form of last season. The only blight to what was a brilliant evening for the central midfielder was the fact that he seemed to pick up an injury in the closing minutes, we can only hope he can return promptly for the Blues VS vile derby at the end of the month, for which him being fit may be pivotal.
To ignore N’Doye performance would be unfair, one has to credit his effort on Friday night. N’Doye is a player with clear ability and finally, he seems to be living up to that hype. Not only did he look more lively in closing down play on Friday night, but he was winning headers and breaking up play with his huge frame. On many occasions, he was even getting forward and playing in Vassell and Adams. The opposition seemed a little timid in trying to challenge him as he utilised his strength to great effect. Maybe just maybe, N’Doye has settled in at last, but let’s not make any rash judgements too soon…
There were fears among Bluenoses that Roberts had drifted into obscurity in recent weeks, in fact, many had forgotten the once highly anticipated new arrival even played for us. Cotterill placed a lot of trust in placing him alongside Morrison after his underwhelming displays earlier this season, but his trust was well repaid, as Roberts looked a different player from the shaky centre-back we had seen 6 weeks ago. He was controlling the back line and looked far more confident in himself. His assertiveness in the tackle and desire to win headers was celebrated by fans. His partnership with Morrison looked like the best centre-back partnership we have had since Shotton and Morrison played alongside one another. Unlike with Harlee Dean and Morrison, you could sense that both defenders looked settled and comfortable when Dean starts Morrison has to start out of position, leading to regular mistakes a shaky core to the back line-up.
Grounds also made his return to the starting line-up on Friday, and you couldn’t really fault his performance. He didn’t seem to have much to do as he had dangerman Junior Hoilett in his pocket all game. Whilst he might not have stood out as our best player, Grounds’ return was pivotal to our performance for two reasons. Grounds is a left back, which means that Colin can play in his preferred position at right back, rather than having to adapt to playing a make-ship left-back role whilst Nsue takes the right fullback role. Whilst Colin wasn’t doing anything wrong at left-back, he still looked one of our best players, you could see he looked far more confident in his natural right-sided position, and he too put in a brilliant performance. Furthermore, Grounds just does his job, he doesn’t go forwards all that often, he just sits back and gets on with it. Whilst many fans say he has been stealing a living all these years, I disagree. Grounds doesn’t stand out every week, he may look like your average player, and he is. However, what Grounds gives you is security at the back. Whilst Nsue is always desperate to get forward, he also leaves you open on the counter-attack. Having Grounds go about his job at the back gives you the freedom to allow midfielders like, N’Doye, Davis and Kieftenbeld to get forward on the break. To summarise, Grounds mightn’t stand out as your most exciting player, but he is clearly important, his absence from the team in our recent poor form is evidence enough for that.
Morrison put in a flawless performance, and arguably deserved Man of the Match, on several occasion he saved the day, sliding in to deny Junior Hoilett a sitter and then again on Craig Bryson following the rebound to keep Blues 1-0 lead intact, following Cardiff’s dangerous looking counter attack in the first half. He did so again later in on the game, sliding in to deny Junior Hoilett at the far post from a dangerous low ball in to the box from Cardiff’s number 10, Zahore. Had we been without Morrison for whatever reason on Friday night, I don’t think we would have got any points, he was different class. He also had the back four organised to perfection, captaining them through every moment of uncertainty, especially in the closing minutes as Cardiff pushed for a late equaliser.
The Fitness and Desire
The Blues squad went through a gruelling few weeks of pre-season like fitness regimes in order to improve the squad’s overall fitness, a side of the team Cotterrill insisted was nowhere near up to scratch. It worked wonders on our performance, the team looked lively, sharp and were willing to chase down everything, to win balls and challenge for anything that came their way. From a team that was lack-lustre only two weeks ago, Cotterill has taken them a long way. There was definite effort and desire from the off go, Blues had come out of the changing room having put any doubts behind them and clearly had confidence in their game plan. What Cotterill had done is amazing, he has managed to get the whole squad raring to go, and ready to fight for points and their manager.
The Game Plan
Over the last year, there has been a lot of talk about how the TTA wanted us to win using attractive football. Zola seemed to put the fantasy of beautiful fluid play before getting results, whilst Rowett got results but played an incredibly negative style of counter-attacking football. Whilst what Rowett did worked, we now have the financial capability as a club to win games through dominance, counter-attacking football can only get you so far before teams start outplaying you. Despite recent results, our squad is undoubtedly better than it was one year ago. Cotterill however, has come in, taken a team that isn’t even his own, and got them to play the perfect balance of what the board wanted; there was attacking flair and exciting play, and yet when it got down to it we could put bodies on the line and play the uglier side of football that is required of any successful team at this level.
You can’t say we sat back and let Cardiff try and break us down, we were in control of the game from the first minute, we were orchestrating attacks constantly and yet we appeared so solid in defending, evidence for this is clear in the fact that Cardiff didn’t even get a shot on target. When you analyse the performance in greater detail, every individual knew their role, every player knew that they always had an option when going forward, we looked organised and the players clearly understood the game plan.
It’s also easy to forget just how strong our bench is, should we get injuries or should the tactic not be working, we have Jota, Walsh, Juke, Cotterill, Nsue, and Gardner all on the bench. They are all first team Championship players who offer us different ways of being creative and breaking down the opposition, as a squad we are no one-trick pony.
It’s early days to say that Cotterill is going to turn out fortunes around, but he seems to have got the formula right so far, something our previous three managers have never seemed to muster.
In conclusion, Blues look like a different team. Is Cotterill our man? He may well be but it’s too early to say just yet. Initially, I saw Cotterill as a manager brought in simply to stabilise us, to stop players from dropping their heads. However, in Cotterill, I can see a manager that players quite clearly have confidence in, a manager that they are willing to fight for. In the Championship, I’m not certain that you need some tactical genius, I’m not sure Jose Mourinho could get us promoted, I think you need a manager that instils a sense of togetherness throughout a squad. Cotterill is clearly passionate, you can see that from his celebrations on the 19th minute, he wants success for this club and so do the players.
When you look at Huddersfield, you can’t say that they had any stand out brilliant players, they just had a manager they were willing to fight for. That is why the Championship is so unpredictable, a team that is nearly relegated can get promoted the following season with a virtually unchanged team, they can do so on just on sheer determination and belief. I’m not going to say we are suddenly promotion contenders after s single game, but what I would like to point out is that there is just 9 points difference between where we sit in the table, and where Leeds sit, in sixth. We have two more games this month Millwall and the vile, so it would be great to build up a little momentum before the big derby day on everyone’s minds. Don’t let our bad start discourage you, this season isn’t a write off just yet, we just need to take it a game at a time and Keep Right On.
By Joel Grenan #KRO