In the early stages of the season Birmingham were classed as relegation candidates, but they have progressively changed that status through excellent football. Their football is unlike the rest of the top half teams and they can only be compared to Stoke and Fulham in terms of style. For many seasons, there has been a certain level of stigmatism against this defensive and robust approach, but now, this is changing.
Birmingham’s continually impressive run is showing the league that to succeed, attractive football does not need to be played. Birmingham have learnt the art of doing what is necessary to get results, something they managed against Manchester United. Many commentators have noted what Blues fans have seen for the entire season – defensively, there is no sense of dithering in the back four and anytime the ball comes in to the box, it is cleared almost instantly. Of course, this kind of tactic can lead to facing sustained levels of pressure but McLeish seems to have engrained a thought in his side’s head. Solid defence and sporadic chances for 90 minutes is a far more likely way of accumulating points than playing an attacking style of football that flows but eventually leads a weak defence vulnerable to threat.
This plan would not work with a bad defence but McLeish has five players who he trusts. Joe Hart has been a revelation – at Manchester City, it was visible that he had a certain level of talent but it was never sustained. Under McLeish he has come into his own. Incredibly, considering his international standing prior to the season, Hart now appears to be the most viable option for Fabio Capello’s England team. Hart has the cleanest defensive record of all the English goalkeepers and it is only his inexperience at international level that may hold him back. Stephen Carr has impressed since returning from retirement and has led the defence, and the team, in exemplary fashion – on the opposite side, Liam Ridgewell has been transformed from a suspect central defender to a reasonable left-back. Although he is not particularly adventurous, his performance against Manchester United showed that he is reliable enough to play in a side that is making a serious top-half challenge. Obviously, the central-defensive partnership of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson are going to receive the most plaudits because they have made the step up from Championship to top-flight football.
The attacking problems still exist however – although McLeish appears to have given his side instructions to only launch attacks when the time is right, all attacks that Blues make lack any amount of threat. Christian Benitez had two very good opportunities on Saturday but it still seems apparent that another striker is needed. Sunderland’s Kenwyne Jones has been muted as a possible recruitment but he has quelled such rumours – as well as this, it has to be questioned whether Jones would be the right player. Birmingham need a prolific goal scorer, something that Jones is not. Ruud van Nistelrooy has not moved to stop any rumours of him leaving Real Madrid to move to England and Birmingham may be the ideal destination. He is the sort of player that is not good enough for the top four anymore but too good for a lower placed side – Birmingham are neither of these. Van Nistelrooy would provide a new type of threat at St.Andrew’s and his arrival would be the sort of marquee signing Blues fans have been longing for.
The club has finally signed much-courted midfielder Michel from Sporting Gijon. McLeish told the press that Michel will need time to settle in: “he will see the other qualities that you need in the Premier League”. In the same press conference, McLeish reiterated his thoughts on how quickly the club can progress. It would be dangerous for him to attempt to develop the club in too drastic a manner: “I am not going to name names but it is my moral obligation to take the club forward in small steps rather than the giant big one.” He seems wary to go down a similar road to Leeds in a bid to gain Champions League football – owner Carson Yeung has told the media that he has substantial money to take the club to the next level but McLeish is right in remaining conservative in the beginning and aiming to progress slowly.
Weather permitting, Nottingham Forest are Birmingham’s next opposition, in the FA cup replay. Although Forest continued their unbeaten run against West Bromwich Albion on the weekend, McLeish would expect his side to progress, especially playing at home. Losing the game would not be an embarrassment but it may start the rot that many elitist football fans expect Birmingham to experience some time this season.