‘Horses for courses’ The lessons Birmingham City must learn after ‘drab’ defeat to Preston
The unbeaten home record went on a disappointing afternoon for Birmingham City.
The hope that Blues had found answers at Charlton was replaced by an anxiety that many solutions still remain to be discovered.
It’s also important to remember that this was a drab game, arguably made drab by a proficient away team.
Apart from a lack of urgency in the first half, here’s what stood out.
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It’s easy to understand why Pep Clotet went with the same starting XI to the one which won at The Valley – none of the team that day deserved to be dropped.
However, the moving variables of the Championship are such that what works one week carries no guarantees the next – and that was particularly obvious in the attacking positions where the players that did an admirable job at Charlton, this week looked like square pegs in round holes.
Jude Bellingham is an attacking midfielder, a classic No. 8, Dan Crowley is probably best as a No. 10, Fran Villalba – the same. Asking any of them to play as wingers in a 4-4-2 is going to produced mixed results.
They can do it from time to time but the difference when an authentic winger was introduced was noticeable.
Just as he did when he came on last weekend Jacques Maghoma gave Blues natural width and a much-needed ball-carrier.
As the most experienced and Championship-honed attacker in the Blues squad the 31-year-old is going to be an important player this season, one that offers the flexibility of playing as an out-and-out winger and also on the side of a 4-2-3-1.
As a winger he’s happy to go round the outside – with either foot – and when he plays further infield he asks questions of defenders.
He offers more defensive assiduity than any of the other wide attackers and has to be close to a start – especially if Blues continue with the 4-4-2.
Horses for courses
The search for Lukas Jutkiewicz’s partner continues – for at least as long as Blues continue to play two-up front.
Kerim Mrabti still has something to offer but in the last couple of games it doesn’t look like the team has been able to harness his talents playing him alongside Jutkiewicz.
The selection might work away from home – when his pace will keep opponents honest and stop them squeezing up too much, but at St Andrew’s the room in behind is rarely there.
Alvaro Gimenez looked far more effective when he was summoned from the bench – and might have scored within a minute of coming on.
The former Almeria man seems to feed off the Tilton’s fire and looks as though he could be quite effective in home matches
Alex Neil has been at Preston for more than two years – and his team looks and plays like a side that is well along in a development process that Blues are just beginning.
North End’s defensive structure is sound, their midfield is well drilled and they have interchangeable attacking options notable for their mobility and ability to find space.
Daniel Johnson, Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire link seamlessly at times and while Blues have similar pieces, Dan Crowley, Fran Villalba, Kerim Mrabti and Jude Bellingham they are not yet anything like as grooved.
Again it’s fair to wonder if they are being deployed in positions that harness their main talents – but it’s important to remember Blues are at the outset of their evolution.
It’s going to take more than eight games to mould a squad build to play a certain way for the last two or three years.
The only hope is that the club’s owners accept that and realise that for now they might have to sup and the cup of pragmatism more than they want.
Of all the things for Clotet to feel vexed about – the penalty shout, the disallowed goal, Preston’s clock-munching, it was a drinks break that really lit his fire – because it doused Blues’.
Referee Steve Martin called for a break in play midway though the second half when Blues were just starting to build some momentum – for the first time – he then came and had a word with the Spaniard for his protestations and it looked as though Clotet would be seeing yellow for the second match running.
“I come from a country where we play games in 45 degrees without a water break, it was strange to see that,” he sniped afterwards.
Martin wasn’t the reason Blues lost this game – neither he nor the home side had particularly good afternoons.