Back to winning ways

After a run of three straight 1-1 draws, Blues returned to winning ways against Reading on Saturday, seeing us rise to 13th in the table.

Ahead of the Reading Game

I felt really positive going into this game. Whilst results haven’t exactly gone to plan in recent weeks, three games avoiding defeat in the Championship is no mean feat.

As I’ve said in previous posts, Blues don’t seem too far away from getting it right. Our defence has started to look sturdier, our build up play is great, and we’re moving through each third of the pitch as a team.

Hoofing it to Juke seems to be a thing of the past. We’re making more passes to get into better positions for shooting. Looking at the Championship statistics from the weekend, here’s how Blues ranked for some selected criteria:

  • Total shots: 6th, with 16
  • Shots on target: 4th, with 5
  • Possession: 4th, with 58%
  • Tackles: 1st, with 27
  • Completed passes: 8th, with 354

This shows that we’re still putting in the graft by making the most tackles in the league, but we’re more confident to keep the ball, play it around, and get into shooting positions.

Reading 2 – 3 Birmingham

My prediction for the game was 3-0 Blues, so at least I got half of the score correct. For the first 30 minutes of the game, the football and the atmosphere were equally awful.

It felt similar to a pre-season game, perhaps because the Madjeski Stadium was barely half full, perhaps because there’s no real rivalry between us, or perhaps because it was two mid-table teams playing it safe.

Within the first 30 minutes, Blues were forced into two substitutions: Clarke-Salter and Crowley were replaced by Harding and Maghoma.

The game was sparked into life on 41 minutes, when former Blues captain Michael Morrison scored his 15th goal for us. From where I was sat, it looked like Jude had scored it, so the “he’s one of our own” chant began. Frustratingly, Reading equalised shortly before half time from a corner.

Half-time

Blues came out the second half looking like the much stronger team. We dominated possession and created numerous chances. Whereas under previous managers we may have settled for the draw, we really pushed on for the win.

Step forward Jeremie Bela, who scored a worldie of a free kick just after the hour mark. Sitting two rows from the back, it was difficult to see the flight of his free kick. Having seen it from numerous angles since, it has to go down as one of the best debut goals anyone has scored for Blues.

With 30 minutes to go, it was never going to be easy for Blues to hold on. It was good to see, therefore, that we didn’t change our style of play and we pushed on for the third.

On 88 minutes, Gimenez increased our lead, with a nice finish to the far corner. So were the last few minutes of the game nice and relaxing for Blues?

Of course not. We conceded a really sloppy goal from a free kick a couple of minutes into stoppage time. The final two minutes were then a bit nerve-wracking as Reading through everything at us. Thankfully, we held on, taking all three points back to St Andrews.

What did we learn?

Our new style of play is definitely sinking in with all of the players, and given our injury situation, it truly needs to be a club-wide philosophy.

If we only have a few players capable of implementing Pep’s vision, everything will fall apart when players are out.

With recent injuries to Roberts, Clarke-Salter and Crowley, and long-term injuries to Gary Gardner and Kieftenbeld, those waiting to come into the first team must be capable of playing the Pep way.

With all the changes we’ve made in recent weeks, the squad is looking good, although our defence is looking a little stretched. Clarke-Salter had his shoulder popped back into place on Saturday and Roberts won’t be back until the new year. Harding looking very accomplished when he came in, but he was the only defender on our bench.

McEachran slotted in nicely with Sunjic as a holding midfielder, with the added bonus of top-quality set-piece delivery.

That meant Jude played in the CAM role behind Gimenez. It suited him well, and for the first 30 minutes of the second half, he seemed to drag the team with him into the lead, urging the fans to give the players a little more.

Gimenez still looks a little behind the pace of everyone else. He takes a touch too many before getting his shot away, but he definitely is improving.

It was interesting to see Juke dropped. A former stalwart of the starting 11, he hasn’t been at his best in recent weeks, so I’m glad that newly-confirmed head coach Pep has the bottle to drop big players (as he has done for Camp and Dean recently).

It was also interesting to see Villalba not even in the match day squad. I don’t know if he was injured, but perhaps some fans’ concerns that he is too much of a luxury player away from home is starting to ring true.

It will rightly show the entire squad that no one’s place in the starting line-up is guaranteed. Competition for places must be at a premium to continue the development of the team.

Next Games – QPR and West Brom

The busy festive period shows no signs of slowing down with two games at St Andrews coming in the next few days.

On Wednesday night we host QPR, who have an eerily-similar standing to us in the table this season. We’ve both won eight, drawn four, lost eight, earning 28 points. Our superior goal difference (minus four to minus seven) puts us 13th in the table and The R’s in 14th.

Eze scored twice for them on the weekend in a 2-0 against a very good Preston side. Keeping him quiet, as well as former Blues targets Nakhi Wells and Jordan Hugill, will be key to getting a good result.

A much tougher test will best against high-flying West Brom on Saturday. They’re top of the table having won their last six games in a row. They say form goes out the window in a derby, but I fear that they may just be too good for us.

Although, we do have a habit of under-performing against sides we’re expected to beat and pulling something out of the bag against the better teams. In this fixture last season, for example, we came out of the blocks flying and if it wasn’t for a Jota penalty miss, we could have come away with all three points.

Forward Look

As things stand, we’re 12 points above the relegation zone and four points from the play offs. My number one priority is still to avoid relegation, and see where we are with 10 games to go to see if we can mount a final push for the top six.

With six games in the 21 days to New Year’s Day, followed by the opening of the transfer window, we could have a better idea of what our prospects are for the rest of the season.

Keep right on.

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