October 14, 2015 by Shane Ireland
By Luke Turner
Birmingham City headed into this current international break on the back of two impressive away victories at Brentford and Leeds United. A run of three league games without a win was ended and Blues jumped up to an impressive fourth position in the Championship table.
Blues will face four tough fixtures in the remaining weeks of October which could prove to be crucial if Gary Rowett’s side are to seriously mount a challenge for promotion.
A home fixture against recently relegated Queens Park Rangers will shortly be followed by away trips to Bolton Wanderers and Hull City before St Andrews takes centre stage live on Sky Sports for the derby versus Wolves.
There is no doubting that Blues have had a very promising start to the season, but so have quite a few other teams. It is all very tight at this early stage of the season and a three point shift either way could paint a very different picture. A win could mean a leap into the automatic promotion places, however, a defeat could leave Blues in a mid table position.
Now, a few months ago we might’ve said that Rowett and his players are overachieving. “They are just a set of free transfers and loans…The Rowett revolution will die off sooner rather than later.” Incorrect. What we have now is a well organised, well drilled, hardworking and, we must not forget, a very talented football team with a man at the helm of all this who, quite frankly, ‘knows his stuff’. Rowett has been quite clear in saying that he wants a small squad where each and every player has the hunger and desire to succeed at the club.
Rowett has reached the stage where he has all he needs, at the moment. Each position has at least two players to it and the quality would still be there should the other get injured. I suppose the only eyebrow fans would raise is if Clayton Donaldson were to get injured. I don’t remember, recently, a player we have had that optimises the way we play and how we play. Everything goes through Clayton and it would be nothing short of disastrous if he got injured for a period of time. Ok, we have Nicolai Brock-Madsen but I think I can confidently say that he won’t have the same impact that Donaldson has on the team. If Demarai Gray were to play that forward role (which Rowett has suggested previously) then the whole dynamics of which we play would change. It would be similar to when Nathan Redmond or Ravel Morrison played up front under Lee Clark. He would play a lot deeper and that would mean throwing more bodies forward to support. But, I do think that would suit our counter attacking style of play. With the opposition short at the back, I would definitely back the likes of Gray, David Cotterill and Jacques Maghoma to take advantage of that and punish the them.
The visit of QPR to St Andrews on Saturday is the first of the four fixtures I mentioned above that I believe will shape Blues’ season. Some might say that QPR have had an indifferent start to their campaign but they are only, in fact, three points behind Blues in 11th position. They still have an array of Premier League talent and Blues will have to be aware of the likes of Leroy Fer, Matty Phillips and of course Charlie Austin (if he is fit). What I think Chris Ramsey’s side do lack is a solid defence. They have leaked 12 goals in their previous five league games compared to Blues’ total of four. The stats are there to show that there could be goals in it for Blues but only if they halt the attacking threat. The big dilemma for Rowett, is who partners Michael Morrison at centre-half. Paul Robinson has played the last two games and kept two clean sheets but, before that, Jonathan Spector was a mainstay in the side. Personally, I would play Robbo purely on the basis that he has performed well in his two games and I wouldn’t change the back four on the back of two clean sheet. It is, however, quite harsh on Spector as he had formed a good partnership with Morrison pre Robbo’s return. The other decision for Rowett is to decide whether to keep three in midfield or replace David Davis with either Jon Toral or Andy Shinnie. For me, it is more logical to switch back to 4-2-3-1 at home and give Shinnie an opportunity (if he has recovered from his injury) to play behind Donaldson. Saturday is also a big game in a sense that we need to get our home form back on track. A third successive defeat at St Andrews would be unthinkable given the excellent points return at home since Rowett took over.
The two away trips give Blues two completely different opponents in terms of league position. Bolton are currently occupying the final relegation spot after winning just one game all season where as Hull lie in fifth position, behind Blues on goal difference. The visit to the Macron Stadium next Tuesday may not give us the same drama as that memorable day in May 2014 but I expect a typical Gary Rowett performance. It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise, given Blues’ recent away form, if we were to nick the three points and record another away victory. On paper, Blues should go into the game as favourites but, in the Championship, anyone can beat anyone and the players will still need to be on their game. The long journey up to Hull four days later will sure prove to be a tricky encounter. Steve Bruce’s side will expect to be there or there about come the start of May and, if Blues want to be up there, then we need to be grinding out performances in hope of at least a point. We will come up against a lot of quality next Saturday and Blues may have to sit tight, defend well and be prepared to counter when the opportunity arises.
The final game of October sees Kenny Jackett bring his Wolves team to St Andrews for a lunchtime derby clash. At present, Blues are just three points ahead of their midland rivals which again shows how evenly matched a lot of Championship sides are. After narrowly missing out on the play offs last time out, Jackett will be hoping his players can take that extra step that will see them within a chance of returning to the Premier League. Prior to visiting St Andrews, Wolves face difficult fixtures including a visit to the Ipro to face Derby County and a home meeting with Middlesbrough. I expect Wolves to give Blues a very tough game but, if the defence can limit Benik Afobe’s influence on the match, then there is no reason to suggest that Rowett and his players can’t secure all three points.
By the end of the month we should be able to gauge where Blues really are after coming through a demanding set of fixtures. The players could really set themselves up for a good run with a positive result on Saturday. Two Gary Rowett performances away from home will then certainly do before a comfortable victory when we return to St Andrews to face Wolves. It really is that easy. But, seriously, the foundations are there for Blues to have a really successful run of games. The conclusion of October will see us almost a third of the way into the season and Blues fans will have the evidence to suggest whether or not the good form can be maintained with the hope of returning back to the big time.