Blues’ glass both half full and half empty...
BLUES have reached the first staging post of their Championship season, six games in and still waiting for that first win.
And the match in which they signed off, a deflating performance in the 0-0 draw with QPR, did nothing for optimism levels. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, the first halfdozen fixtures have contained plenty to be hopeful about.
Playing well Blues have comprehensively outplayed half of their opponents: Norwich on opening day, when they were denied by a calamitous equaliser; Swansea, who were in the Premier League last season and whose goal was charmed at St Andrew’s; and Nottingham Forest, one of the Championship’s biggest spenders.
They were also better than Bolton for long periods. Indeed, only Middlesbrough and QPR have bested them, two matches which resulted in the concession of just one goal.
It’s clear to even the harshest critic that Blues are functioning almost as well at the start of this season as they did at the end of last.
Birmingham united Every player has spoken of the togetherness in the squad. That is probably aided by the fact that the first-team group is so small, but con- trast the interview Harlee Dean gave after the defeat at Barnsley last season, with the one he gave recently.
It was very much a beseeching tone at Oakwell, imploring his team-mates to come together for the good of the club.
Yet in the build-up to QPR – a year to the day after the chaos of five players arriving as the transfer window closed – the message could not have been more different.
“Last year there was a little bit of letting people get away with things, which there is no room for any more,” Dean said. “If you want to be the best you have to train like it. The changing room is good, we are all together.”
Gardner’s world Despite the scepticism when news first broke of the 26-year-old’s signing from Villa, Gardner has established himself as an upgrade in the middle of the park and arguably the club’s best midfielder.
He has been a positive influence off the pitch and a good distributor on it. He has also read games well and contributed to the defensive side of the game.
A first goal – it almost came at Forest – will be the icing on the cake. For now he has silenced many of the doubters and has connected with the Blues fans – something that has meant a huge amount to him. Case for the defence Overall the defence has done well. It’s important not to go overboard after the late wobble against Norwich and some horrible moments at the City Ground. But the quartet of Maxime Colin, Michael Morrison, Dean and Kristian Pedersen are square pegs in square holes and are operating well together.
Statistically, only Swansea, Leeds and Boro have conceded fewer goals than Blues’ six and only Boro, Leeds and Blackburn have more than Blues’ two clean sheets.
Kristian soldier Pedersen had a really tough introduction to English football and the freedom he afforded Norwich’s Onel Hernandez was a massive reason for Blues’ failure to win their opener.
With the ball in front of him he looked solid enough but the Cubanborn winger ran off him with ease at St Andrew’s. Since then, though, he has steadily improved and, while looking solid, the feeling is there is much more to come.
Table matters There’s no getting away from it, the win hasn’t come. Blues have four points from six games and are in the bottom five. They are a 2-0 win and a few helpful results away from 14th. They are even fewer results from 24th.
At this stage of the season the league table is barely worth the A4 it’s printed on, yet pressure builds the longer teams are down there. Seasons can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
No one wants a fourth struggle in six campaigns, which is why Blues need to start taking steps forward.
Easier said than done with West Brom, Sheffield United and Leeds as the next three opponents.
Small squad Garry Monk’s promotion of squad unity above everything means he isolated the likes of David Stockdale and Tomasz Kuszczak, while Diego Fabbrini and Jonathan Grounds have been farmed out.
Greg Stewart and Cheikh Ndoye have also left on loan, meaning Blues regularly field two or three youngsters on their bench.
They have one senior replacement at centre-half, one at full-back, one at centre-back and one at striker, while several likely lads fill in around the edges.
The closeness of the group is a strength but the shallowness of it is a weakness. Blues are one injury from having to send in an untested rookie.
Hands tied Monk made the decision to move on unwanted senior players at a time when he thought he would have options in the transfer market. Unfortunately, those options dried up when the EFL learned of the club’s Financial Fair Play situation and the breach of Profitability and Sustainability regulations.
An embargo followed, then there was a delay in the registration of Pedersen and now Blues will find themselves before a disciplinary commit- tee some time this autumn.
They have also used four of the five transfers, loans or frees on less than £10k a week that are allowed them for the remainder of the season, meaning they have one more.
They can register a free transfer at any stage, or sign a loan when the window opens in January. It really is a Band Of Brothers scenario.
Goal famine For all their functioning and togetherness, Blues are tenth in the league in terms of shots on goal.
However, they are the secondlowest scorers in the division. Their four is better than QPR’s three.
It feels as if most games are going to be decided by the smallest of margins, which in itself puts pressure on the players and coaches. Every defensive situation needs dealing with, every substitution is vital. There is so little room for error. So far the glass has been both half full and half empty. It has been a month where the difference between performances and results has been there for all to see.
It’s a concern that Blues remain winless when they are at their strongest. But it’s a comfort, QPR apart, that they are operating with such cohesion and energy.
The future remains largely dependent on how often Monk can put out his first-choice side – and how he keeps that team fresh.
>There was scepticism about Gary Gardner’s loan move from Villa but he has arguably been Blues’ best performer in midfield By BRIAN DICK >Boss Garry Monk has emphasised the importance of squad unity