Sunday’s away fixture to Everton proved two things about Birmingham – firstly, they are learning the much needed art of getting results out of poor performances, and secondly, they should be taken seriously by the Premier League elite.
Goodison Park is not an easy ground to play at, as Birmingham found out. Their previously solid defence was penetrated many times by Everton and to only concede one goal was a success in itself. Truthfully, City probably shouldn’t have got anything out of the game but the fact that they did shows just how strong they are becoming. They have now put together two performances that could have easily resulted in just one point. Results like those against Blackburn and Everton are the truly vital results throughout the season – one of the main reasons clubs get relegated is their inability to squeeze wins and draws in games that they have not played well. That is one of the fundamental differences between the top half teams and the bottom.
Alex McLeish admitted the Blues were not at their best: “It was a battling point,” he told Sky Sports. “I didn’t think we were at our best.” He will be very pleased that his side have gained this point, a “fantastic bonus” as he called it. Everton boss David Moyes’ appraisal of Birmingham, “I thought they were really resilient. They are on a good run and they went up the pitch once and got a goal,” shows that the Blues are getting the recognition that their performances and league position deserves. Still, they remain ahead of Liverpool, and entering the Christmas period, McLeish will be full of optimism. His future at the club has been thrown into speculation recently. With Birmingham doing so well, McLeish’s already known ability as a manager will be magnified. He has been a revelation for the Midlands side – he has taken them from a yo-yo team that doesn’t appear to be good enough for the Premier League, and made them an established league side – for now at least.
He is well respected by Blues fans after an initial period of discontent at the club following relegation upon his arrival in the 2007/08 season. Even this year there have been grumblings from a minority of the crowd that the football Birmingham are playing is too negative, particularly his decision to play only one striker at the start of the season. The side have a theory similar to Catenaccio, the Italian defensive tactic, but rather than condemn McLeish for such a philosophy, he should be praised. He has clearly looked at the squad and summarised that they do not have enough quality up front to play attacking football. He plays to his strengths – astute defending combined with occasional attacks and hope for a positive result. The last Midlands club that tried to play Arsenal-esque football was West Brom, something that McLeish may well have analysed at the start of the season. For clubs like Birmingham and West Brom, playing attractive football with no real emphasis on defence just won’t work.
The strikers in this league are far too lethal and can punish the smallest mistake – McLeish has engrained this into his players’ minds. There is no point in pleasing and entertaining the crowd for 90 minutes and 38 games only to find yourselves relegated at the end of it all. If McLeish continues in his current trend, Birmingham will establish themselves as a side to be reckoned with on the basis that they will become very hard to break down. At times it is difficult to appreciate defensive football, especially on a colder winter afternoon. But, on reflection, the majority of Blues fans will be more than happy to finish in the top half and consolidating their league status playing solid football, rather than go down in a blaze of glorious football that has no end product.
They need to walk before they can run, think progressively about their footballing style and gradually make it more elaborate. This could be through several different mediums -perhaps new, attacking players in the summer or simply a different outlook on their current tactics. It would be very dangerous for McLeish to ask his players to start playing intricate football and focusing less on the defensive fundamentals that have got them to their current position. Blues fans need not worry, in McLeish, they have one of the League’s best tacticians so any slip in form shouldn’t last too long, and won’t be because of poor tactical decisions.