Blues went into yesterday’s game just two points behind their hosts, sitting in eleventh place in the Championship table having lost three and won one of their last four games, a run that includes the fairly one sided going over they suffered at Newcastle United.
Of course, City have made more headlines off the pitch than on it, since that ill fated trip to the north east, because in spite of them only being three points off of third place at that time and having just beaten Ipswich Town at home in the midweek aftermath of the defeat at St. James’ Park, the club’s new owners Trillion Trophy Asia sacked the highly rated and popular first team manager Gary Rowett, who had worked wonders at the club since he took over at the helm, and replaced him with Giafranco Zola.
Zola only had the opportunity to take just one training session before his first game in charge, against Brighton & Hove Albion (at home), who are battling for top spot with Newcastle… and the Seagulls scored two late goals to pinch the three points from that Saturday evening game after Lukas Jutkiewicz had headed Birmingham in front in the 52nd minute.
The crux of Birmingham City’s dip in results of late, was highlighted right from the early stages of the game, whereby the players who had ground out results in a manner that wasn’t always aesthetically easy on the eye, under Gary Rowett, by being hard to beat, containing opposition sides and smothering their creativeness, while hitting them on the counter attack and basing their game plan on a solid foundation of resilient hard graft and application, don’t fit into the new manager’s attacking and pressing tactics, because although they are all good players, very good in a number of cases, few of them are technically great.
Rowett had devised a system whereby he got the the best out of the resources at his disposal, which he had fashioned out of a team of players that he had assembled within a strictly limited budget.
But Gianfranco Zola doesn’t play the game that way, though it might have been wise of him to adapt his approach temporarily to utilise the strengths of the players he has at his disposal, until he can bolster his squad in the January sales, so to speak, with the calibre of players required to play his desired high tempo passing game.
Birmingham offered very little in the final third yesterday, because having reached such a position, their players struggled to find that extra spark that was required to unlock this ultra efficient Rams defence, that Steve McClaren has impressively built his team’s recent meteoric rise around.
Granted, Blues were without their main striker Clayton Donaldson and the width provided by David Cotterill, but you could also point out to the fact that Zola had left Che Adams on the bench today and he could have been the perfect foil for Lukas Jutkiewicz in a two pronged attack, because he is one player who has the ability to play himself out of a tight situation.
When I heard the City manager say in his after match press talk, that he thought his side were unlucky to lose today, I put it down to the fact that it would be unprofessional for him to say publicly “We weren’t very good, we were half decent across the back, but didn’t penetrate in the last third and that is down to the fact that you can only piss with the cock you’re given… and it was very cold out there today!”, though to be fair he never actually said that he thought Blues should’ve won either.
What he did actually go on to say was:
“That sort of thing happens all the time in the box, players put hands on each other like that and it happens every week. Normally these penalties are not given.
“They did not threaten us. We did not look threatening either and I think 0-0 would have been a fair result. The missing thing was the productivity in the final third.”
Truth is, the visitors only really forced the issue right at the end (after the belated introduction of Adams), by which time Derby had parked the whole row of park and ride buses laid onto take supporters to the city centre after the game, across the face of their goal. Under Rowett, Blues possibly had just about enough in their arsenal to scrape into the play offs, but they were nowhere near the finished article that could’ve competed at a higher level, if by some quirk of fate they had actually gone and won promotion.
But time stands still for no one, not even a popular manager whose club supporters had a great affinity for, and now the ‘Bluenoses’ attentions must focus upon how and if Zola is going to salvage this season now. If he is to do so, then he’s going to have to pluck some fairly impressive rabbits out of his hat in the new year.
It is indeed, as the Italian pointed out himself “a marathon not a sprint”, but with so many teams jockeying for position, Blues can’t afford to lose too much ground during this period of transition.
But, like I said after their capitulation at Newcastle, Blues look like a good promotion bet for next year, rather than the current one.
Meanwhile, Derby currently look like a better bet to sustain a realistic push for the end of season four team lottery, there is certainly a feelgood factor and upbeat mood around Pride Park and a belief that better times are just around the corner. Not that the home crowd raised the roof noise wise especially (while the travelling Blues fans belted out an impress array of club anthems at full volume all afternoon).
Once the Rams had taken the lead, they weren’t about to surrender it, not with players like Keogh running themselves into the ground. Former Derby player Ryan Shotton did well, ticking most of the boxes from my pitch side vantage point, but collectively, his team were lacking the will and composure to take the game to the home side, One could suggest that they had set out their stall for a goalless draw, it certainly looked that way at times.
At the outset of the game, Zola’s side had retained possession and passed the ball around well, without actually making much headway into in opposition territory, in fact I did note that I thought they were actually over passing the ball, when such an approach wasn’t proving to be effective and they really needed to adopt a typical away team performance, of containing Derby and then hitting them on the break. I fully understand that such an approach isn’t going to help the team develop and become serious promotion contenders any time soon, but football at this level is a results based industry and Blues have now only picked up three points from the last fifteen that were available to them.
I always liked the way that Gianfranco Zola played the game, with a smile on his face and unlimited amount of trickery in his feet. But even though it would be something quite special if the St. Andrews faithful could be treated to anything like a fraction of innovative skill and entertainment that Zola provided as a player, that kind of talent won’t come cheaply and though I am all for players expressing themselves and doing something that bit special when thy are on the ball, I do think that the ingratiating star of international football, will have to cut his cloth accordingly for a while yet.
Next up, Birmingham travel up the M1 to take on Barnsley at Oakwell.
Words by @THE66POW