A unique occasion at St Andrew’s saw the Sky Blues ‘host’ their landlords in the FA Cup. The game itself was low on chances, with both sides gripped by a tentativeness that prevented the contest from catching fire. A goalless draw ensures a replay that both teams would have wanted to avoid, Birmingham City will have been frustrated at their inability to dominate a side from a lower division, while the Sky Blues are left reflecting on what might have been had they started the game as strongly as they ended it.
With the Sky Blues in strong form recently and pushing towards the top of League One, a fixture against a Championship side felt like it would demonstrate just how good this team actually is outside the context of the week-to-week of league football.
The opening stages suggested that there was still a gulf in quality between ourselves and the second-tier to bridge. Birmingham City looked stronger, faster and quicker of thought. We struggled to get into our usual passing rhythm and lacked the opportunity to counter as Birmingham were constantly quick in winning the ball back after losing it.
As the first-half wore on, it became apparent that the supposed gulf between the two teams was narrower than first thought. Liam Kelly and Liam Walsh’s combativeness in the centre of the park gave us a foothold in the game. which allowed the rest of the team to develop some composure on the ball. The game began to feel less like a cup tie and more like a league game against a stronger League One opponent – which is more a credit to ourselves than a criticism of the opposition.
Large portions of the second-half saw the Sky Blues in full control and pushing for the winning goal, aided by the extra presence in attack that the introduction of Maxime Biamou brought. The three yellow cards that Birmingham City picked up were as a result of them trying to disrupt our momentum, belying an annoyance that they were on the back-foot against a side from a lower division.
One of the key frustrations from this game is that it took too long for the players to realise they were capable of dominating their opponents. Had that last 15 minutes been another 10 or 15 longer, we probably would have found that breakthrough.
While we didn’t get the result to underline this team’s Championship credentials, the performance hopefully provides the players with the belief that they are capable of competing as equals against a side from a higher level. The replay provides another bite at the cherry and you suspect that we won’t start as tentatively as we did in this game.
Liam Walsh – Master of the Domain
With a £6 million Croatian international, former Chelsea prodigy and £30 million-rated wunderkind in the middle of the park, it was Bristol City loanee, Liam Walsh who was the stand-out presence in midfield for either side. However, it wasn’t just one stand-out showing from Walsh, he has consistently played at this standard for around a month now.
Whether it was opening the game out with his range of passing, accelerating our attacking play with purposeful driving runs, or winning the ball back in the tackle, Walsh is an impressively complete central midfielder. While he maybe could have more goals and assists, it feels like he is more than capable of doing so were his role in the team was to get forward rather than be the orchestrator.
Walsh has really benefited from playing regular first-team football for almost the first time in his career this season. Earlier in the campaign, it was apparent that Walsh was very talented but a lack of physicality and game awareness saw him caught out at key intervals. What is most impressive about Walsh is how quickly he appears to have ironed out those deficiencies from his game.
Our best piece of transfer business this January will surely be retaining – touch wood – Liam Walsh for the rest of his loan spell.
Aside from late chances for Callum O’Hare and Maxime Biamou, there was very little to show for the control we had for long portions of this contest. While Birmingham City’s defensive unit were physically strong and well-drilled, the starting front three of Matt Godden supported by Zain Westbrooke and Jordan Shipley posed them few questions.
Westbrooke and Shipley have been an important part of our recent up-turn in form, helping us to retain possession in midfield before making late runs into the penalty area. While some of our better moves, before they were taken off, came through them, they didn’t offer the team that speed of thought we required to get around and behind Blues’ backline.
It may be harsh to judge Matt Godden based on a game where he had little opportunity to get a shot off on goal, but he didn’t look suited for the role being asked of him. It’s not his fault that he isn’t tall enough to win the amount of aerial challenges he had to challenge for, however, his link play when we were looking to break quickly was the most disappointing aspect of his performance, often hindering our ability to threaten on the counter.
It is an overreaction to suggest, based on this one game against a team from a higher division, that it is up front where this team is lacking but this may prove an important demonstration to Mark Robins that, in the bigger games throughout the rest of the campaign, he may have deviate from his preferred attacking line-up. Having a more physical centre-forward in Maxime Biamou and the speed and directness of Callum O’Hare led directly to our best opportunities here and should give the manager something to think about over the next few games.