|Opposition Preview - Birmingham City|
Written by ad_wilkin on Friday, 3rd Nov 2023 14:47
Wayne Rooney’s brief tenure as Birmingham City manager has not got off to the start that the new owners, including NFL star Tom Brady, would have hoped.
In a move that feels very familiar to Marcus Evans's decision to sack Jim Magilton and go for a ‘big name’ in Roy Keane, former manager John Eustace was jettisoned having taken the Blues to fourth place in the league with five wins (including against Midlands rivals West Brom) and two draws.
They have tumbled to 13th since Rooney’s appointment with three straight defeats with some Blues fans already airing their grievances with the England legend after defeat to Hull.
Organisation and well-drilled routines have been replaced by Rooney’s desire to focus on individual ability, passion and togetherness rather than tactical nous.
It feels like the change was the wrong move at the wrong time and the wheels are starting to fall off following considerable investment in the squad over the summer.
It’s a former Canary in goal for Blues in 37-year-old John Ruddy. He joined in July 2022 from fellow midlands team Wolverhampton Wanderers and came straight into the team as the number one.
He brings vast experience with 122 Premier League appearances and 220 in the Championship. Despite that he has spent the majority of the last five years warming the bench and his goals prevented rate of –3.7 puts him at 28th in the league for that metric so time is definitely catching up with him.
Waiting in the wings is Neil Etheridge. The 68-cap Philippine international has been limited to two Carabao Cup appearances so far this season and has failed to impress in either.
Etheridge has been at Birmingham since 2020 and started 43 games in the 2020/21 season before dropping out for Ruddy last season. He also has a bunch of Championship experience with 133 appearances across spells at Charlton, Cardiff and Birmingham, in addition to 38 in the Premier League. With Ruddy not performing well, he’ll be hoping for some rotation soon.
Birmingham's current starting right-back is a man who has faced Town very recently. Cody Drameh joined Blues on loan on transfer deadline day. But just days before that move he only lasted 24 minutes on the pitch at Portman Road, having been subbed on to replace the injured Sam Byram before getting hooked at half-time following a torrid display.
He was playing as an out of position left-back then and, after a shaky start, has looked far better for Birmingham playing is his preferred right-back position, particularly in back-to-back games against Huddersfield and West Brom, getting an assist in each.
Drameh was loaned in due to the injury to Ethan Laird, who has been out for two months with a hamstring injury. The 22-year-old is back training and could be set for a return in this one having had a solid first three games after signing from QPR in the summer.
This is only the former Manchester United youngster's third full season of Championship football (a loan at Swansea and last season at QPR) but he has played with a lot of maturity and was one of Birmingham’s better players in the first three games with an excellent defensive performance against Leeds the standout.
Playing every game so far as the right-sided centre-half is Dion Sanderson. Sanderson rejoined Blues this summer following a successful loan spell from Wolves last season and has proved to be a shrewd investment.
The highlight of his campaign so far is undoubtedly his towering header to put the Blues into a 2-1 lead against rivals West Brom. At 23 years of age he is quick, reads the game well and has the ninth-highest amount of interceptions in the league.
Alongside him is an older head in Irish international Kevin Long. Despite having a long career in the game Long is a player who hasn’t notched up that many appearances, always being more of a squad option in the clubs he has been at.
He has 48 Premier League appearances and 53 in the Championship to his name but now looks to have found a home at Birmingham having only missed four games since signing. He is second in the league for clearances made, averaging six per game which shows his ariel presence. Town’s Cameron Burgess currently sits in fifth with 4.7 per game.
One of those games that Long did miss is last Saturday’s defeat against Southampton when Emanuel Aiwu was preferred to him. The 22-year-old Austrian is on loan this season from Cremonese. He made 23 appearances in the Serie A last year but was part of a team that was relegated and has been moved on to get some wages off the books this year.
Before that he’d spent time in Austria at Rapid Vienna and one of Town’s pre-season opponents Admira Wacker. Middlesbrough was his first start for the club as he is recovering from an injury suffered at the tail end of last season and he looked solid, winning 4/6 of his duels and completing 97% of his passes.
Another player who played for one of Town’s pre-season opponents is Lee Buchanan, who had left Werder Bremen to join Blues in the week before Town played the German side. Conveniently after I’d done the write up.
He struggled for time at Bremen following a good period of form at Derby and had made a good start to the season before suffering an ankle injury in training that looks set to keep him out until mid-November.
Coming in to replace him is 22-year-old Emmanuel Longelo. The left-back converted his loan from West Ham into a permanent deal in January 2023. He made 23 appearances for Blues last season before being thrust back into the side this season.
He’s coped well but has started to look increasing out of his depth following Rooney’s arrival, losing possession 21 times against Southampton and losing more than half of his duels.
Birmingham play a consistent 4-2-3-1 which will occasionally switch to a 4-3-3. Playing 12 out of 13 games so far in that area is Ivan Sunjic. Sunjic came back to the club this summer following an unsucessful loan spell last season at Hertha Berlin and is perhaps one of the surprise packages in the squad this season with his future being up in the air when he returned from that loan.
However, under Eustace he performed well in pre-season, worked hard and has regained his starting place. He now has 147 appearances for the Blues, with six goals across those and has formed a tough tackling pairing in the middle of the park alongside Kristian Bielik
Bielik impressed for the Blues on loan from Derby last season and the signing was made permanent over the summer. Originally a centre-back he converted into the defensive midfield role while he was at Derby and has now notched 107 Championship appearances at only 25 years old.
He was a regular starter for Birmingham last season and now also has 11 caps for Poland. He averages two interceptions a game which puts him sixth in the league on that metric and is crucial for Birmingham cutting out possession and launching their own counter-attacks.
Should Birmingham want to mix things up, either in a three or go more attacking with that holding pair, then Juninho Bacuna is a great option. The 26-year-old also has the versatility and ability to play on the right wing. He even filled in at right-back against Plymouth.
He has three goals to his name so far this season. A brace in the Carabao Cup and a well-converted penalty against Midlands rivals West Brom.
His box-to-box nature has seen him score seven goals in 78 games for Birmingham. He’s a player who loves a shot from outside the box but has failed to score from his 16 attempts so far this season. Hopefully that stat won’t change in this one.
Someone who has scored from outside the box this season is Gary Gardner. The 31-year-old came on against rivals West Brom and wrapped the game up with a lovely free-kick from the edge of the area.
He’s a player that’s not started many games this season having picked up a calf injury in pre-season which has limited his game time.That has meant he’s had to make do coming off the bench. He provides experienced depth with 278 Championship appearances and as he proved against West Brom can produce moments of magic. Definitely a handy player to have in the squad.
Moving forward to look at the more attacking places in the squad and the standout player is Koji Miyoshi. The 26-year-old Japanese international was signed on a free from Royal Antwerp this summer and has two goals and two assists so far this season, often playing in the number 10 role.
He’s at his creative best when he’s threading passes and has currently made 1.4 key passes per game. Despite this he hasn’t been chosen to play consistently, only starting seven out of 14 games so far.
One of the players who has also featured in that 10 position recently is Jordan James, who started in the last match against Southampton as Wayne Rooney clearly wanted to take a look at his options.
The 19-year-old is a Welsh international having made his debut in March 2023 He’s gone on to make five appearances for the national team and is clearly a big prospect for the future.
James is in his third season of professional football at Birmingham and has made 72 appearances for the club although those have mainly been from the bench.
He started both of Wales games in the last international break against Gibraltar and Croatia and will be hoping that experience and the new manager coming in will get him more game time for the Blues.
Another one Town will need to watch is Sriki Dembele. The right-footed left winger has all of the attributes to test Championship defences and has complete the fifth most successful dribbles per game with 2.7.
The 27-year-old has recent history with Town, putting in a match-winning performance in his time at Peterborough with a goal and two assists at Portman Road on February 1st 2020. Town man Jack Taylor assisted him for his goal that day.
He joined Blues from Bournemouth this summer following a loan at AJ Auxerre last term and is enjoying his time back in the Championship with three goals this season including a double against Huddersfield in a match-winning performance. That was followed-up by a very poor performance against West Brom, so it depends on which version of the player turns up.
Competing with Dembele for appearances on that left-hand side is Keshi Anderson. Anderson is also a new signing this season having been picked up on a free transfer from Blackpool following their relegation.
He only played nine games for the Tangerines last season as he suffered various injury problems and despite a run of eight games for his new employers. Those injury problems look to have struck again. It’s only a hamstring so he could be looking at coming back soon.
Continuing the trend of new signings who have been hit by injury issues is Tyler Roberts. The forward signed from Leeds this summer following a hit and miss loan spell at QPR last season.
Roberts started the first game of the season against Swansea but was injured in training and hasn’t been fit enough to make the bench since.
Still only 24, there is a good player in there if he can deal with his injury issues as he has solid goal return of 10 Championship goals in 70 appearances across spells at Leeds, QPR and Birmingham with a lot of those appearances being off the bench.
Another player who Town have already faced this year is 26-year-old Oliver Burke. Burke started up front for Werder Bremen against the Super Blues in the Innsbruck Cup before later on in the transfer window completing a loan move to the Midlands Blues.
He’s only made 19 appearances for the German side and has had two loan spells at Millwall, the last of which returned two goals. He provides a battling physical presence and has featured mainly as a right winger despite also possessing the attributes to play as a centre forward.
Blues' overhaul continued with the loan signing of Jay Stansfield from Fulham and the 20-year-old has hit the ground running with four goals in 11 appearances, building on an impressive season on loan in League One with Exeter last season where he scored nine in 39.
He’s played as the central striker but also in the number 10 role and on the left wing so far proving his versatility. His first goal of the season was a 95th minute match winner against Plymouth, knocking the ball around a defender before smashing a right-footed shot into the roof of the net.
His second, scored against Millwall, he broke the offside trap with a smart run from the edge of the box, with his third very similar against Preston, where he received the ball following a smart run, nutmegged a defender and slotted past the keeper.
The latest, scored in the last match against Southampton, he seized upon a rare lose Kyle Walker-Peters miscontrol from a long ball to take it off his toes before another very composed finish. He will be the one to watch and Town will hope to keep him as quiet as the last time they faced him, the 6-0 victory over Exeter at the end of last season.
Competing for that number nine spot with Stansfield are two vastly more experienced figures in Scott Hogan and Lucas Jutkiewicz.
Hogan has started nine out of 14 games this season and only has one goal to his name despite an xG of 3.47. Despite that, over the course of his time with the Blues Hogan has a good goal record of 36 goals in 143 games scoring 10 in each of the last two seasons. He’s an experienced Championship player who will be looking to prove he can still compete at this level this season.
Jutkiewicz is even more experienced and is currently the top all-time Championship goalscorer still playing in the competition with 97 goals in 455 appearances.
Now 34 years old, he has lost a yard of pace but is still a physical presence up the top of the pitch and has been thrown on to use that experience and even change the game. His two goals that he’s scored so far this season have both been late in the game and one of them, a 91st minute penalty against Leeds secured the three points.
Town’s team should be a lot easier to pick this time out given the cup rotation. The only question mark is with the back four. I think Cameron Burgess will be preferred to George Edmundson for this one as Birmingham possess some big centre-halves and will be a threat from set pieces.
The midfield of Sam Morsy and Massimo Luongo were both rested on Wednesday so they’ll come in and the fact Kayden Jackson played the full 90 implies that Omari Hutchinson will get the nod on the right alongside Conor Chaplin and Nathan Broadhead with George Hirst once again leading the line.
For Birmingham, it’s a lot harder to predict. They have had a full week to prepare following their loss to Southampton and Rooney has shuffled his pack a bit in his first three games.
Ruddy will almost certainly start in goal. With Ethan Laird fit enough for the bench against Southampton, he could come in at right-back, especially given Drameh’s torrid time at Portman Road, but I've opted for the Leeds loanee to maintain some form of consistency.
Sanderson is one of the first names on the teamsheet but who partners him is a question mark. Having given Emmanuel Aiwu some game time against Southampton, I think Kevin Long will come back in for this one and Longelo will continue at left-back.
Bielik and Sunjic should form the base of the midfield but ahead of them is anyone's guess. The trickery of Dembele should see him start despite a low par performance against Southampton and I’ve gone for Stansfield and Miyoshi alongside him in an agile front three.
It’s unlikely Jutkiewicz will start two games in a row so I've gone for Hogan to come back in to lead the line.
As mentioned, Dembele has the fifth-highest dribbles for game so Birmingham will look to get him on the ball so he can dribble and Brandon Williams. Town have conceded a lot of goals from that right-hand side but look far more solid now with Williams there and fully up to speed.
If Miyoshi does play on the left he’ll look to drift inside and overload the middle and could rotate a bit with Stansfield who likes to run in behind the channel on the left defender. With Leif Davis often pushed forward this will be something the Burgess will have to be on his toes to watch.
If Birmingham do play that narrow it will leave space the other way for Davis and he’ll relish playing against Drameh who couldn’t handle Towns press at Portman Road.
With Hutchinson on the other side taking on an inexperienced Longelo, Town should have ways of creating threats on both sides. I could even see potential for a first Davis goal of the season.
With Birmingham in a bit of turmoil following the appointment of Rooney, I think this becomes an easier game than it would have been against the organised Eustace. Blues possess some good attacking players, but a lot of their talent is still pretty raw.
Given recent scores, a 1-0 would be the logical prediction but I think this could be the first away game this season with more than two goals. I’m going for a 2-1 Town victory.
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