Much improved Blues face tough November

As the fans began exiting the stadium and calls of Juuuuke died down following the final whistle, there was a gathering of supporters starting a chorus of “Pep Clotet’s Blue Army”.

It wasn’t the whole crowd, just a selection of fans in and around the Tilton and Kop as the Spaniard came to say thank you for the support. It was enough to suggest a change in feeling towards the Caretaker and an acceptance of what he is trying to build.

Most didn’t expect Pep Clotet to be in charge of Birmingham City beyond October. I was one of them. Some said the end of September. After the defeat at Wigan Athletic, Blues’ third defeat in succession, it was believed the owners would cut ties.

Football is a fickle business, however, and since that dull Tuesday night in Lancashire, Blues have won three out of four, the only defeat coming at Elland Road where the application and approach couldn’t be faltered, only the lack of quality compared to opposition many believe will return to the Premier League.

Much Improved

Things didn’t start well for Clotet and it immediately put him on the back foot. Despite earning seven points from the opening five games, Blues were ponderous and unimaginative in several systems. Victory on the opening day was something of a fluke and Barnsley offered little resistance. A return to 4-4-2 followed and though performances improved, we struggled for consistency.

The defeat to Wigan was the final straw for many but Middlesbrough in front of the Sky cameras offered a final chance for redemption. Defeat at home against a struggling outfit would have surely spelt the end of the Spaniard’s time in charge while victory would have kept the wolves from the door a short while longer.

Blues have so often performed well under pressure over the years and this was no different. We were exceptional. Clotet made a couple of bold calls with Jude Bellingham, 16, starting in central midfield as part of a very attacking line-up that paid off beautifully. Blues recorded an xG of 2.7 from 26 efforts at goal and though we should have put the game to bed, seeing teenager Odin Bailey score his first goal was reward enough for a brave display. This was the football we had been promised.

Crucially, we have returned from the international break with the same level of performance. Only a defensive howler denied us a point at Elland Road but there were no such problems when Blackburn Rovers and Luton Town visited St.Andrews, Blues earning six points and scoring two wonderful goals in the process.

The Next Five

In a recent Not The Top 20 Podcast, the hosts noted that the performances Blues fans shouted about most were against weak opposition. They had a point. Since the bizarre opening day victory at Brentford, we have beaten Barnsley, Stoke City, Charlton Athletic, Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers and Luton Town. Five of those victories were at home against sides that currently occupy positions in the bottom eight of the Championship. November won’t afford us similar opportunities.

Over the next month, we play all three recently relegated sides in succession before taking on Garry Monk’s Sheffield Wednesday and Gary Rowett’s Millwall.

Cardiff City are yet to hit their stride since returning to the second tier but remain unbeaten at home and fans will demand a response after the Bluebirds lost their South Wales derby to Swansea City this past Sunday. A week later we host a Fulham side that contains a front four of recent promotion winners, one of whom is Aleksandr Mitrovic who himself has scored just three less than Blues’ entire squad. Only Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion are recording bigger xG numbers and Blues can ill afford another defensive calamity if we want a result from the game.

After the international break we travel to Huddersfield Town who, thanks to new bosses Danny and Nicky Cowley, are unbeaten in their last six and learning how to win football matches once more, a stark contrast to the rest of 2019. Garry Monk has had a similar impact at Sheffield Wednesday – no team has won more points in the division since his arrival.

The month ends with a home fixture against Millwall, something that feels a little bit like a grudge match with Gary Rowett back in management. We know only too well how much an impact he can have on a struggling side, evidenced by a 2-0 home victory against Stoke City in the first game of his tenure.

The Challenge

The next five games are going to test the durability of this Blues both defensively and offensively.

Blues have won the highest percentage of aerial duels in the division this season but Cardiff City, with Sean Morrison and Aden Flint at centre-half, will test that statistic as will Millwall, who sit second in the same table. Huddersfield Town have conceded just four goals in their last six matches, showing their considerable improvement defensively, while Sheffield Wednesday have conceded four in the eight games Monk has overseen. The other side is Fulham, a test of any Championship defence.

Blues, meanwhile, have performed well but struggled to keep the same intensity over the course of 90 minutes. We have conceded seven of our last nine goals in the second half of matches and each member of our back four has made a blatant error of judgement leading to goals conceded in the last six matches.

The high pressing, high risk style is one reason for the above, of course. It takes longer than three months of competitive football to become consistent in such a system. We have learned how to play this system tactically and with confidence but we are not at the point of seeing this for 90 minutes, week in and week out for an entire season.

Another reason is that Blues are beginning this journey with a lot of the same players from last season. Considering our stylistic change, I look towards Norwich City who won promotion last season without a single player from their most used starting XI from the 2016-17 campaign while Huddersfield Town achieved a similar feat using only two players from Chris Powell’s last selected 18 – Tommy Smith and Philip Billing. We’ve got a long way to go yet.

If It Isn’t Broke

Over the last four games, Clotet has got a great deal from the players at his disposal. Blues have played with a tempo, pressed high, attacked with intent and the improved faith in the team was shown with the response to the display at Leeds United.

It will be interesting to see whether Clotet alters his approach slightly for the tougher tests ahead. The midfield that Blues have relied so heavily upon has an average age of 20.5 and will need managing, shown by the withdrawals of Crowley and Bellingham in each of the last three matches.

The 42-year-old has a squad that can cope with injuries and rotation unlike last season. The long-serving David Davis and Jacques Maghoma offer experience while new recruits Josh McEachran and Jefferson Montero provide more proactive options in possession. Kerim Mrabti is capable of dropping back into midfield and Alvaro Gimenez provides a physical option that could be key against more direct opposition.

For now, Clotet will take the mantra of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” and the fans will be on board with that. What Blues appear to lack in game management, we make up with the intangibles that gets supporters onside. We will begrudingly accept the odd mistake from players so long as they continue to put the work in.

With Garry Monk and Gary Rowett leading teams out against the Blues in the coming month, we will likely hear more of “Pep Clotet’s Blue Army” as a display of togetherness against former heroes more than a wholesale belief in the Caretaker Head Coach. Come through this next month unscathed, that might just change.

Photo Courtesy: Roy Smiljanic / BCFC

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