Birmingham City is a team on the up, and one of the biggest indicators of this is the amount of international players and pretenders that they have in their squad.
Boss Alex McLeish, former Scotland manager, brought a wealth of experience with him to the Midlands. Originally he was unable to stamp his authority on the club after frugal chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan refused to truly back him up in monetary ways. However, this season has seen a revival in quality at Birmingham. Summer signings included experienced Ecuadorian duo Christian Benitez and Giovanny Espinoza, England hopeful Joe Hart and troublesome Scot, Barry Ferguson. Along with these players, McLeish acquired the services of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann from Championship sides.
At the time, McLeish was criticised for signing an inexperienced duo, however, the pair have been making noises and it will not take long for the bigger teams to look into snatching them from Birmingham’s hands. More importantly, with Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Wes Brown and Matthew Upson all suffering from injuries and increasing age, there has never been a better time for Johnson and Dann to stamp their authority and make England coach Mr Capello take notice. The current situation could recur around the time that the 23-man squad is announced and a young defender like Johnson could sneak onto the plane to South Africa. After all, it appears that Joe Hart has already impressed Capello enough to secure his ticket.
Further up the field, Birmingham have Scottish midfielder James McFadden who has accumulated 45 appearances for the Scots. Alongside him is Barry Ferguson, the estranged central midfielder. He brings to the squad masses of experience of playing for Scotland, European experience with Rangers and a certain nous of the way the game works and how to deal with messy situations that may arise in a match. Garry O’Connor completes the Scottish representation at the second city club.
This international experience in Birmingham’s squad will help them further down the line. If they were to fall from their current 8th place down to the lower regions of the table, and potentially a relegation dogfight, one suspects that players like Barry Ferguson and James McFadden have the maturity and understanding of the league to know how to help their side out of such a hypothetical predicament. However, it should not be felt that sheer grit and determination will be enough to survive. Putting eleven players on a field that want to survive will not result in survival. Things like class and skill are necessary components of any successful team, no matter what sport it is.
Birmingham show glimpses of the class that will help them avoid a relegation battle. Sebastian Larsson, Birmingham’s Swedish international, has brought the skill he developed at Arsenal with him to the Midlands. In recent games, his free-kicks have been vital to Birmingham. Benitez also brings some class, although his nickname ‘Chu Cho’, which roughly translates to wild dog, indicates that he is more about aggression and annoying defenders that dazzling them with skill.
That is one of the main critiques of Birmingham’s approach to football, at times it can be dull and uninspiring. They have the fourth best defence in the league, conceding just four goals at home and 16 in total. However, disappointingly, they have only provided their fans with 5 goals at home this season and 15 overall. Aesthetically, Birmingham are not a pretty side to watch. Very rarely do they pass flowingly, and their lack of goals is down to a distinct lack of chances created from the midfield. As experienced as they are, they are currently relying heavily on Lee Bowyer. The either loved or hated midfielder has scored 5 times this season and without him, Birmingham would be struggling.
Of course this idea can be applied to any team with a talisman, but it should still worry Birmingham fans. If the defence suddenly cracks and starts to leak goals, there is not a sufficient amount of goal scoring ability to keep Birmingham in their top half position. All those associated with the club will more than happily watch their side play defensive football and finish in 8th place, rather than change their philosophy and become engrossed in a relegation fight just to play pretty football.
The Midlands knows this feeling all too well. Birmingham’s local rivals, West Brom, were relegated last season after attempting to play football similar to that of Arsenal to no avail. McLeish and every other Birmingham fan will hope that they can avoid a similar fate to their neighbours, even if it requires ugly football.