Preview: Birmingham City

A vital win last time out against Sheffield Wednesday has bought the team some breathing room from relegation danger. Concerns remains over our ability to create and score goals, but getting the victory in midweek should be a confidence boost that can hopefully provide a springboard towards better performances to come.

It is another big game as we take on our landlords, Birmingham City, who are three points below us in the table. Like Wednesday night’s game, the victory isn’t essential but an opportunity to push a relegation rival deeper into the mire could transform our prospects for the rest of the season.

Expected Line-Up

The return of Kyle McFadzean from suspension for this game would point towards a return to a back three system. Despite the clean sheet in midweek, that extra authority and presence McFadzean provides at the back feels like it would boost our defensive security that bit further.

However, an injury to Fankaty Dabo potentially throws a spanner into the works of that plan. With back-up right wing-back, Julien Dacosta missing Wednesday night’s game through an injury as well, there potentially isn’t a natural option in that position for Mark Robins to call upon. The main alternative would be to hand Josh Pask a start there after a decent shift at right-back against Sheffield Wednesday, but it was apparent earlier in the season that he struggles in that position. The other option could be to start new signing, Josh Reid, at left wing-back – although, he has missed the past month at his previous club through injury – and play Sam McCallum on the right. If none of those options are seen as viable by Mark Robins, it could well be the case that we stick with a back four, with McFadzean on the bench.

Perhaps the biggest deciding factor over whether we opt for a back three or four though could be the fitness of Maxime Biamou – who is playing through an injury. If Mark Robins deems him not available to start, it leaves the team short on attacking options to stick with the same shape as Wednesday night. It could lead to a return to the 3-4-2-1 system, with Ben Sheaf and Maxime Biamou being replaced by Kyle McFadzean and Jamie Allen.

Last Time We Met

In a game lacking any of the excitement and passion that would ordinarily come with a local derby game, Coventry City played out a painfully dull 0-0 draw with Birmingham City. A scoreline that was hardly surprising given both teams’ struggles in front of goal this season.

The Opposition

The Manager – Aitor Karanka

The Spaniard is starting to come under pressure at St Andrew’s for not only the poor results since he took over the club in the summer but also the lack of excitement in the style of football that he is looking to implement. For anyone familiar with Karanka’s previous managerial spells, the defence-first focus is hardly surprising but it has proven much less effective at Birmingham City than it did at Middlesbrough and, to a lesser extent, Nottingham Forest.

While Karanka has inherited problems from previous regimes, chiefly, a fairly bloated squad which has limited his ability to mould the team to his liking, constant tinkering with his preferred starting line-up and formation has perhaps made things more difficult for him than they need to be. Karanka tends to be more concerned with making changes to stop the opposition rather than maintaining the continuity that could allow this Birmingham City side to build momentum.

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Etheridge; Colin, San Jose, Dean, Friend; Harper, Sunjic; Sanchez, Halilovic, Bela; Hogan.
Possible Line-Up

Who To Look Out For

With Karanka placing such an emphasis on defensive fortitude, the defence and goalkeeper are Birmingham City’s key players. In particular, Neil Etheridge has been a crucial player for Birmingham this season with his heroics in goal, which are largely why the Blues aren’t currently in the relegation zone. In front of him, the experience and physicality of Harlee Dean, Marc Roberts, Kristian Pedersen and George Friend can form a tight unit, albeit lacking pace. In addition, the versatile Spaniard, Mikel San Jose, has been important for Karanka this season in his ability to provide a presence and ball-playing ability at both centre-back and defensive midfield.

Another key defensive presence for Birmingham City is Ivan Sunjic in midfield who can break up play very effectively when on top form due to his combination of his tall frame and mobility. Karanka hasn’t quite found an effective partner for Sunjic in midfield, with Adam Clayton and Gary Gardner perhaps a little too similar, which has led to the signing of the classy West Bromwich Albion ball-player, Rekeem Harper, to solve that problem for the team.

Going forward, Spanish winger, Ivan Sanchez, has proven a hit this season with Blues fans due to his reliable ability to beat defenders and eye for a pass. Sanchez tends to link up well with right-back, Maxime Colin, while, on the other flank, the pace and unpredictability of Jeremie Bela can also open games up for them. Additionally, former Football Manager wunderkind, Alen Halilovic has caught the eye with a handful of cameo appearances recently and could be a wildcard for Karanka to deploy in this game.

Up front, there are suggestions that target-man, Lukas Jutkiewicz will be allowed to move on in this transfer window. The former Sky Blues man remains an effective battering ram at this level but has struggled for form in front of goal this season. Instead, the nippier Scott Hogan looks set to lead Birmingham’s attack for this game, offering more of a threat running in behind as well as being a more natural finisher.

Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost

With both sides so poor in front of goal this season, this is the kind of game that is highly likely to be decided by the team that scores first – if there is a goal at all in this game.

It is going to be narrow margins that will settle this game in either team’s favour. Set-pieces are likely to be important, with Birmingham City possessing some powerful physical players who can be adept at both attacking and defending in dead ball situations. In addition, avoiding any sloppy errors in possession in our defensive third of the pitch will be important here – perhaps necessitating a slightly more direct approach in our build-up play.

We saw in the last meeting between the two sides that the main area where Birmingham City are weakest is their lack of pace in defence, with Tyler Walker constantly getting in behind their back four. This could be where we’ll really miss having a naturally quick attacking player to call upon, putting the emphasis on Callum O’Hare to replicate the precision in his final ball last time out against Sheffield Wednesday.

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