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Opposition Preview - Birmingham City (Home)
Written by ad_wilkin on Friday, 23rd Feb 2024 17:40

The return of an Ipswich icon on Saturday has been sadly ruled out with a routine EFL scan finding a medical issue with the former Blues skipper that will keep him away from the club for up to six weeks.

Instead of Tony Mowbray being in the dugout, long-term friend and former defensive partner Mark Venus will bring the Midlands side to Portman Road instead.

Previous Fixture (Birmingham 2-2 Ipswich)

Wayne Rooney picked up his first point as Blues boss in his fourth game and will have come away thinking he should have had even more if it wasn’t for a marvellous Marcus Harness rescue act.

Birmingham dominated the first half and were good value for their two-goal lead before Ipswich turned the tide for the second 45 and their bench made an impact to claim a point.

The Super Blues finished the game firmly in the ascendency with 67% possession and seven shots on target but were unable to find a winner.

The warning signs were there from the start of the game as Juninho Bacuna got space in the middle of the pitch, cut inside onto his favoured right foot and fired a shot just wide of Vaclav Hladky’s post in the eighth minute.

Four minutes later he was left free in a similar position. This time the shot wasn’t clean, it was scuffed and it took a deflection and was bobbling its way into Hladky’s arms before clever movement from Jay Stansfield saw him lose his man and nip in before Town’s keeper could grab it, poking the ball away from him before swivelling and firing a right-footed shot into the net.

Town's first clear-cut chance came from a deep free-kick that Cameron Burgess won in the area and nodded down to Nathan Broadhead, who lashed a left-foot volley narrowly wide of the post as the Blues slowly began to pick up their game.

This was shortly followed by a George Hirst knockdown leaving a bouncing ball for Conor Chaplin who audaciously tried to lob John Ruddy. The former Canary managed to scamper back and tip the ball over the bar.

Town carried that momentum into the second half and started brightly with a couple of attacks. The second one proved to be their downfall.

Chaplin scampered free in an unusual left wing position and floated a cross into the box. Hirst won his header and knocked it down to the edge of the box where we have seen Chaplin rifle in from before, however, there was no one there and the ball was seized on by a Birmingham player who booted it away.

Stansfield brought it under control with a lovely touch and laid it off to Oliver Burke. He found Bacuna overlapping on the left, who then played the ball across the box. Stansfield’s movement meant that Burgess had to deal with it but his outstretched leg and unfortunately turned the ball into the back of his own net.

Broadhead then had another chance before Birmingham could have had a third, Hladky rushing out to deny Burke in the box after another ball from wide had beaten the Town defence.

Chaplin then had two further efforts as the game reached 60 minutes, first a far post corner header was denied by Ruddy and then the big keeper just got a foot on his shot from the edge of the box to divert it past the post.

Town finally got a goal back as Harry Clarke clipped a great ball out to Dane Scarlett on the left. The Tottenham loanee beat his man with a stepover and delivered a low left-footed cross into the box.

Freddie Ladapo’s scooped shot was parried by Ruddy but Harness was there to follow in and stab home from close range. This was Scarlett's best cameo of his spell with the Blues and he was in the action again in the 82nd minute firing a left-footed shot which was easily gathered by Ruddy.

He was also involved in the equaliser, this time receiving the ball on the right and chipping a ball forward into the path of Omari Hutchinson. Hutchinson burst down the wing and flashed a ball across the goal.

Humphreys, on at left-back, did well to get something on it and keep the ball in play as it flew up into the air and dropped into Harness's path. The midfielder's technique to volley the ball as it dropped was sublime as he watched it all the way down and beat the despairing Ruddy to earn Town a point.

What’s Changed?

Birmingham have been a bit of a basket case this season. A strong start under John Eustace saw them up in the play-off spots before new owners including NFL superstar Tom Brady took over the club.

They made the decision to swing the axe and get rid of Eustace much to the consternation of many fans. In came England legend Wayne Rooney, who had preceded over a creditable spell at Derby whilst the club was in turmoil before moving to DC United.

What followed after his appointment by Birmingham was a disastrous tumble down the league which left his position untenable. He left with just two wins in 15 games.

They have benefitted from Sunderland’s similarly bizarre decision to sack Mowbray, who has proved to be a shrewd acquisition and has already doubled the number of Rooney’s wins with four in the eight games he’s been in charge of so far and got all of the fans back on board.

Statistically, Mowbray’s Birmingham have more possession, play more passes, have more shots on goal and have also shored-up defensively and will be looking up the table rather than down this half of the season.

Blues also made three pieces of business over January. One that came as a surprise was Andre Dozzell’s loan move from relegation-threatened QPR.

Dozzell clearly possesses natural talent but can sometimes be let down by his work-rate and off the ball ability, so is better paired with a more defensive player.

Birmingham have both Ivan Sunjic and Krystian Bielik in that position and those two formed a very combative midfield at the start of the season. The latter has moved to play at centre-back more recently and Dozzell adds a creative outlet in there that will allow Birmingham to play through the lines more.

Dozzell has certainly made a good start to his move and scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Blackburn with a nice left-footed finish.

Central midfield was clearly an area that Birmingham had identified for improvement as they also signed Paik Seung Ho on a free transfer from Korean side Jeonbuk. A former Barcelona youth player, the Korean midfielder has also spent time at Girona and Darmstadt and was one of the best performers in the K-League last year (their season finishes in December).

Like Dozzell, he is a much more creative midfielder than the players Birmingham had in their previously and will be more comfortable receiving the ball from his defenders. He has started the last couple of games alongside Dozzell but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them is replaced for this one to add a bit more grit, otherwise the Town midfield could walk right over them.

The final signing was Alex Pritchard, someone that Mowbray will know well from his time at Sunderland. He’s only made one appearance since signing, in the derby against West Brom, and has since been out with a calf injury.

Speaking last week, Mowbray said that he was back in the gym side-footing volleys but the former Norwich man remains unavailable.

Key Players

Jay Stansfield

One of the players that Town had an interest in in January and in previous windows. The possibility of a transfer arose given the poor form under Rooney but after the former Manchester United legend was sacked, it then always looked likely that he’d see out his loan spell from parent club Fulham in the Midlands.

Stansfield is on nine goals and three assists in all competitions this season but the goals have dried up a bit recently and he hasn’t scored in his last five games.

At the start of the season, he was rotating a bit around the positions at the top of the pitch but under Mowbray he has been chosen as his main striker.

It’s not just goals he provides; he is an excellent dribbler of the ball and strong in the tackle winning the ball high up the pitch for his side.

Ethan Laird

Laird came back from injury to start in the first meeting between these sides and put in a man of the match performance winning 12 out of 15 duels and making five tackles including one that he absolutely needed to get right as the last man.

own notably had way more success down the left when he had to be replaced by Emmanuel Longelo on 79 minutes. Since then, the right-back has barely put a foot wrong. He’s at the top end of the league for tackles won per 90 and has even won a penalty for his side.

He’s switched with Cody Drameh and played as a left-back for the last two games with his versatility being another key asset.

Jordan James

The 19-year-old Welshman was struggling for game time the first time these sides met and made only his third start of the season in that match in a deep midfield role.

Since then, he’s scored six goals, including a brace against Leicester. His versatility is a key attribute and he’s been moved further forward and played as a number ten and more recently off the left-hand side where he netted against Sunderland.

The Teams

Town used six substitutes on Tuesday night, both Wes Burns and Leif Davis took big whacks from Rotherham challenges, Harry Clarke had to go off injured, Axel Tuanzebe is managing an injury so the squad could look a little lighter against Birmingham.

Following Hladky’s error against Rotherham, his goals prevented metric has dropped even lower to –2.54. Christian Walton is now breathing firmly down the back of his neck, but it still seems unlikely a mid-season change will be made.

It looks unlikely that Clarke will be fit enough to start, which leaves three unnatural options in that position. Tuanzebe came on to replace Clarke but his game time is being managed, so it remains to be seen whether he can go again on Saturday.

Dom Ball has been firmly displaced in his natural midfield position and didn’t do his right-back chances much good with his performance against Maidstone, so wouldn’t be my first choice.

I’d actually start George Edmundson there. It would be an unfamiliar role for him given he’s played as the left centre-back recently but he’s fit and strong and could fill in as well as Tuanzebe could.

In midfield, I was a little underwhelmed by Lewis Travis against Rotherham in the first half but he grew into the game slowly. He won most of his duels and put in a bunch of tackles but is competing with players who can do that role better than him, so he’ll likely find himself back on the bench for this one.

There’s also an outside bet that he could fill in at right-back. If he was fit, I would see this one as a game for Jack Taylor as well but as it stands, I think it will be back to the Sam Morsy-Massimo Luongo partnership.

Ahead of them, there’s a couple more injury concerns in the front four. Burns took a knock to his shoulder but seemed fine and Kieffer Moore clearly wasn’t at 100% after suffering a bang to the knee.

For me, Moore starts every game if he’s fully fit but if that knock does need to be rested, I’d love Ali Al-Hamadi to get his first start, especially against a fairly slow pair of Birmingham centre-backs.

Behind him Broadhead is certain to come back in given his form and it would be very hard to drop Wes after his brace on Tuesday, which leaves a straight toss-up between Chaplin and Omari Hutchinson for the number 10 role.

Personally, I'd love to see Omari being given more starts just because he’s such a wonderful player to watch but I think that McKenna will go for Chaplin’s experience and ability to drop deeper and link play for this one.

For Birmingham they have played the same team for the last two games, both of which have been wins. They didn’t play Tuesday night so will also have fresher legs coming into this one.

That means Ruddy will start in goal, with Drameh and Laird as full-backs. Laird has played left-back the last two games but this could potentially be switched around considering how excellently he marshalled Davis the last time these sides played.

The centre-back pairing is likely to continue to be Marc Roberts and Bielik, who has dropped back from the defensive midfield role he was playing earlier in the season. Dion Sanderson is also back in contention there having recovered from an injury.

In central midfield there would be potential to bring the more defensive Sunjic back in to shore things up but I think with this Birmingham side sitting lower mid-table at the moment assistant manager Venus is likely to set up to continue converting the team to Mowbray’s style of play, so I think Dozzell and Paik are likely to continue.

Further forward the front four has been Koji Miyoshi, Roberts, James and Stansfield but it wouldn’t surprise me if the versatile Bacuna came in to replace Miyoshi on the right to provide a bit more defensive cover down that side.

Action Areas

Birmingham are a team in transition yet again. They pressed Town high and were direct in their running and hard-working in midfield in the home game, however, I expect this Mowbray team to play more like Sunderland. They’ll look to play through the middle and get runners in behind and have a bunch of good dribblers in the side.

Luke Woolfenden, who struggles in a more physical battle, is adept at dealing with that kind of threat. Stansfield managed to score against Town last time so Woolfenden will have a point to prove in trying to keep him quiet in this one.

With Tyler Roberts likely to play in the number ten role for them and the success both Preston and Rotherham have had with two up top, Birmingham could even tweak their formation so that Roberts and Stansfield both go man to man against Woolfenden and Burgess.

Both Drameh and Laird have pace in the full-back positions and should prove to be solid defensively, so I expect Burns and Davis to have less success than in recent games.

However, there’s always a gap and I think in this one that gap will be left for Chaplin. He’s finding a bit more space since teams are having to deal with Moore up front but still hasn’t quite hit the heights of last season. This could be the game where he comes to life again.

Birmingham are coming into this one off of back-to-back wins and with a full week's worth of rest. A lot will depend on how ready Town are to go again after Tuesday. Fatigue could hit them in this one so I'm going for a pessimistic 1-1 draw.

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