Revolution, Evolution or Devolution?

When Garry Monk was sacked as Birmingham manager in June and replaced by his assistant, Pep Clotet, the board promised fans a fresh and modern football philosophy. With fans sceptical such a thing was possible with the squad at that particular time, followed by the departures of Jota and Che Adams, what followed would surely have given Blues fans renewed hope.

The Birmingham board embarked on a summer spending spree, with Gary Gardner, Dan Crowley, Jake Clarke-Salter, Ivan Sunjic, Agus Medina, Ivan Guzman, Moha Ramos, Alvaro Gimenez, Fran Villalba and Jeffersen Montero all arriving at St.Andrews throughout the summer, as well as Clotet bringing Paco Herrera in as his assistant.

The board were also particularly active in negotiating new contracts for a number of senior and youth team players throughout the summer. New deals for Harlee Dean, Maxime Colin and Lukas Jutkiewicz would have pleased fans no end and promising youngsters Remeao Hutton, Jake Weaver, Caolan Boyd-Munce, Mitch Roberts, Odin Bailey, Geraldo Bajrami, Steve Seddon and possibly most importantly, Jude Bellingham all signed deals with the club. Xavi Calm arrived to coach the Under 23’s from Blues sister club Cornella, replacing Richard Beale.

With an overhauled squad and coaching staff, it was time to see if a fresh and modern football philosophy would also be adopted on the pitch. In each of Blues six pre-season friendly games, they lined up with three central defenders, flanked by wing backs. They mixed it up in the attacking areas playing either two strikers with a roaming number 10 behind or one central striker flanked by two wide attackers.

Early signs were promising with decent performances against Portuguese opposition in Setubal, followed by a dominant display against Swindon Town,  and a good victory against Bristol Rovers. However Blues were given a sobering experience against Brighton at home in their final pre-season friendly, being beaten 4-0 by the Premier League side.

All eyes now turned to the league and whether the new approach could be transferred successfully. After three games, Blues sit in 15th with 4 points having won on the opening day at Brentford, drawn at home to Bristol City and lost last time out against Notts Forest. With early season usually more about performances than results, have this Birmingham side evolved into a fresh and modern footballing side?

Overall

The performance at Brentford aside, Blues have played some very pleasing football, particularly in the opening 20 minutes or so at home to Bristol, with neat, intricate passing between the midfielders and attackers, a far cry from the long, counter attacking style seen last season under Monk. The additions of Villalba, Sunjic and Crowley all look very comfortable on the ball and happy to pass it about and Blues have generally kept the ball better than last season.

This has been reflected in the number of passes Birmingham have played in their opening three league games, averaging 334 passes compared to 252 last season. This number increases to 438 in you take the Brentford game out. The accuracy at which Blues have passed the ball has also improved, 78% compared to 72% last season, whilst average pass length has decreased from 22.59m to 20.82m. Clotet and the squad have clearly been working hard throughout pre-season to adjust the passing style of the team, and the early signs are noticeable and promising. David Davis (91.67%) and Dan Crowley (91.43%) are both in the top 15 most accurate passers in the league so far this season.

Season
Possession
Passes
per 90 mins
Pass Accuracy
Average Pass Length (m)
% of Passes Long
2018/19
40.7% 252 71.60% 22.59m 21.27%
2019/20
38.2% 334 77.90% 20.82m 16.10%
2019/20
(minus Brentford game)
46.4% 438 80.24% 19.04m 11.78%

* Data taken from Wyscout, SofaScore and Stats Zone

Defence

Garry Monk last season turned Birmingham into a defensively solid unit who were hard to break down and aerially dominant. Employing a 442 formation, Blues sat deep before springing into life on the counter attack. Pep Clotet has tried to keep the same defensive solidity and add an attractive passing style on top of that.

As mentioned before, Blues lined up with a back 3, or 5 depending on how its viewed, throughout pre-season and into the first league game of the season. However, the previous two games have seen Blues revert to a back 4, conceding four goals in the process. So far this season, Birmingham have won a similar amount of defensive duels, 66% compared to 63% last season and 50% of aerial duels compared to 49% last season.

Blues have conceded on average one more shot per 90 minutes this season (10.66) than they did last season (9.66). However, the worrying aspect for Pep is the quality of shots they are conceding this season. Blues expected goals against per shot is 0.138 which is the second highest in the league so far this season. Combine the two and Birmingham are conceding higher quality chances more often to the opposition, and if left unaddressed, could quickly result in more score lines such as the one against Forest.

Pep will need to decide upon his preferred formation quickly, whether that be 3 at the back with flanking wing backs or reverting back to the tried and tested back 4. Blues have looked more solid when playing 4 at the back, ironic considering the only clean sheet came whilst playing with a back 5. Ivan Sunjic has a big role this season not only linking defence to midfield, but also offering protection to the backline, sniffing out danger and allowing Crowley and Villalba to create further up the field.

Attack

During the summer, 35 league goals left the club in the shape of Che Adams, Jota, Connor Mahoney, Michael Morrison and Viv Solomon, which accounted for over half of the league goals scored by Birmingham last season. Replacing those goals was always going to be difficult but Blues brought in 20 goal Spanish hitman Alvaro Gimenez from Almeria to fill that void.

Worryingly for Birmingham, the summer recruitment in the forward areas, or lack of it, is already noticeable. So far this season, Blues have scored the joint lowest amount of goals, have the second lowest number of shots per 90 (6.9), the lowest expected goals per shot (0.061), the third lowest touches in the box per 90 (8.15) and a shot accuracy that has dropped from 36.8% (4th highest in league) last season to just 27.3% (17th in league) this season.

Season
Shotsper 90 mins
Shot Accuracy
xG per Shot
Touches in Box per 90 mins
2018/19
11.42 36.8% 0.11 13.8
2019/20
6.9 27.3% 0.061 8.15

The outcome is Blues are producing less high quality chances less frequently than last season and quickly need to reverse this trend. Crowley and Villalba have been brought in to help with a lack of creativity in midfield, but without Adams, Jutkiewicz has looked isolated playing up front on his own.

Similarly to the defensive conundrum, Pep needs to identify a way of playing that gets the best out of Jutkiewicz and gets Blues back to creating chances. For all the neat build up play, which is a vast improvement on anything seen over the last few seasons, it’s yet to yield volumes of clear cut chances. The final ball and delivery needs improvement if Blues are going to become a goalscoring threat.

Can you judge a side after three league games? Absolutely not, and there will be many fans that will say 4 points from the opening three games against Brentford, Bristol and Forest is a very good return, and they’re not wrong. There will also be fans saying that the performances have been much better to watch and in spells they certainly have been.

But the early underlying numbers for Blues are worrying, Wyscout has the expected points total at just 1.7 after 3 games, putting Blues bottom of the expected table. Pep should certainly be aware that whilst their have been improvements in certain areas of the sides style, there are some very obvious areas that need addressing, and quickly.

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  1. I myself also take in consideration the Brighton home game and Pompey away, both games we couldnt defend or score.

    Brentford – Lucky to have won, the bar saved us 3 times as did Camp, we created fuck all.
    Bristol – We were lucky to get a point, Bristol carved us open a few times and if not for Camp we would have lost, we created hardly anything, yea the football was pretty at times, yawn..
    Forest – Shambles both up front and at the back.

    On present form we are going down, no two ways about it.

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