After 3 consecutive draws in our opening 3 Championship fixtures Latics head to St Andrews looking to get our first victory of the season. We’ve looked really positive in all 3 games so far and all we’re missing is the ability to take our chances when we get them, something you’d like to think will change sooner rather than later.
After our midweek game at Coventry was postponed due to the problems surrounding the Ricoh Arena playing surface we’ve already got a game in hand on most of the like, a situation we found ourselves in for most of last season. What it has done is allow a full weeks rest for our players and hopefully brought some of the injured players closer to returning to fitness.
Opponents Birmingham City have enjoyed a solid start to the season under new manager John Eustace, picking up 5 points from their first 4 games. 4 of those points have been picked up in B9 and the St Andrews crowd seem to have a big impact on the sides’ performances so the sell out away end full of Latics fans will need to be at their brilliant best if they’re to push us over the line!
Latics Team News
The season has only just begun yet we already find ourselves with a busy physio room at Christopher Park. Ben Amos picked up an injury against Bristol City and he joins Curtis Tilt, Jordan Cousins, Gwion Edwards and Charlie Wyke on the treatment table, whilst Jack Watmough is still not 100% albeit he managed to get through the full 90 last weekend.
With Amos likely to be unavailable for this weekends game Jamie Jones looks set to take his place between the sticks. He didn’t have much to do in the second half last week but we know he’s more than capable and those in front of him will have full confidence in his abilities I’m sure. He’s also a commanding voice and a key leadership figure which is really important too.
Tendayi Darikwa was substituted with 15 minutes to go against Bristol City and his replacement Ryan Nyambe looked impressive in his short cameo at RB. I can’t see our captain being dropped, and his performances this season have been solid enough, but don’t be surprised if a similar substitution is made slightly earlier on on Saturday.
The CB partnership of Jack Watmough and Jason Kerr looked shaky early on against Bristol City but grew into things well. It’s still a relatively new duo and they will be tested by the Birmingham brute Troy Deeney alongside his strike partner and quality poacher Scott Hogan. Our 2 will need to be at their brilliant best to keep the Blues duo quiet.
Joe Bennett’s petulant kick out at Joe Williams should’ve been met with a red card last weekend but luckily he was only cautioned. He was replaced by Thelo Aasgaard at half time and James McClean moved to LB and personally I’d quite like to see that from the start this weekend. Bennett hasn’t started the season brilliantly and the added flair and unknown quantity of Aasgaard would give the home side plenty problems.
In attacking areas our 2 new signings Nathan Broadhead and Ashley Fletcher could both feature at St Andrew’s as Latics hope to improve their clinical edge in front of goal. Josh Magennis had his best game for the club last Saturday but missed a couple of big chances that we really can’t afford to pass up again. Expect him to start, work tirelessly for 60 minutes and then be replaced by one of the new boys for the final 30.
Stephen Humphrys is another player that will be hoping to feature but could find himself falling down the pecking order at the top end of the pitch. Rumours linking him with Rotherham were quickly silenced but with new strikers signing you’d have to assume his place in the squad is at risk.
An Opposition View
To give an insight into where our opponents are at leading into Saturday’s fixture I’ve called in the help of someone far more knowledgeable on Birmingham City than myself!
1) Many people, including myself, predicted Blues to struggle this season but with 5 points from you’re opening 4 games it’s been a decent start. What have you made of your sides first few matches of the new campaign?
“Encouraging. Cardiff was disappointing but other than that there’s been promise to take from all of the games so far, and we’ve only lost once in 90 minutes. Lots of concerns about the future of the club on a structural level, but John Eustace’s coaching ability has brought us hope at a tough time.” [@GabSutton]
2) You have a new manager in John Eustace who has been highly thought of for some time in the EFL. Has he impressed you so far and are you hopeful he’ll stay around for some time?
“An emphatic yes to both. This is somebody very highly rated in the coaching scene and immediately you can see why. We’re hoping there’ll be some players who might have been a 5 or a 6 out of ten under Bowyer last season who can be elevated up to a 7 or 8 under Eustace. Also done wonders with the youngsters coming through like George Hall and Josh Williams, which he needed to because of the lack of depth in the senior squad.” [@GabSutton]
3) Blues will be missing some key players on Saturday afternoon, but which players do you think Latics fans should be wary of in your side?
“Juninho Bacuna. He was erratic and inconsistent for Huddersfield, and had this reputation for being able to go from a 10/10 one game and then a few poor games. But if you put him under an amazing coach then we’re hoping he can find a modicum of consistency. A lively, exciting player with lots of technical ability.” [@GabSutton]
I don’t think I’m alone in being surprised at how Latics have lined up at the beginning of this season. I was pretty much convinced that we’d carry on playing in the 3-4-1-2 system we ended last season with, especially given the increased quality of opposition. Instead we’ve played 4-2-3-1 in every game and have looked better than I would’ve expected, albeit with some pretty clear flaws.
We’re creating good quality chances regularly and have the best xG per 90 in the league with 1.99. A lot of these chances are created directly from or the second phases of set piece situations, but I’ve been impressed with some of our work in open play possession too. We’ve made the 4th highest number of progressive passes per90 in the league which is a positive sign that we aren’t coming into this league on the back foot.
This positive way of playing will bear fruit once we start to take our chances more often, but for now we’ve been left wanting slightly with our poor finishing. The introduction of Thelo Aasgaard last Saturday personified our positivity and I firmly believe that he has to feature this weekend as part of the front 4. His technical ability is amongst the best in the division and perhaps the most important thing about his inclusion in the side is he gets fans on board. The away end will be filled with excitement tomorrow if our Norwegian wonderkid plays.
Something I’ve found interesting so far is how narrowly we’re defending. This image is taken from the build up to Bristol City’s biggest chance of the second half, a header from Conway that was steered just wide.
Birmingham play a similar system to the Robins and I’m hoping that we don’t continue to offer up this much space in wide areas. I’d imagine that the theory behind our compact structure is to minimise the chance of teams playing through us, and by encouraging teams to play it wide we have faith in our CBs to clear any crosses thanks to their aerial dominance.
Compactness is the idea of players from one team keeping the biggest possible distance between themselves and maintaining links between each other that will keep them in control of the space they occupy. The only doubts I have with adopting this tactic on Saturday is 2 fold: the quality of crossing Blues have, and the aerial threat of their front 2.
Przemysław Płacheta has the 11th best cross completion % in the league whilst youngster Josh Williams has shown impressive talent down the right flank too. They’ll be firing crosses in towards Troy Deeney who has the ability to win aerial battles against any CB, and Scott Hogan who can sniff a chance out from anywhere in the box.
I’d like Latics to continue with what has worked so far this season but a few things need to change. We need to be more ruthless in front of goal, smarter in deciding when to play and when to go long and better at dealing with fast breaks in wide areas. Get those 3 things right and we’ll fly up the league I’m sure of it.
It’s about time we got a victory under our belts this season after a few games where we’ve deserved the 3 points but come away with 1. Saturday’s game offers us the chance to create a memorable away day for over 1600 fans and with some of last season’s trips still fresh in the memory now would be a great time to add another to the list.
Blues will offer us a stern test and their two home games this season have been impressive. They’ll probably look to hit us on the break in a similar way to how Bristol City did, so we’ll need to be more productive in possession than we were last time out. With more options on the bench I’m hoping to see Leam make some impactful substitutes in the second half too.
We’ve got a solid base to work off, now it’s time to kick on and enjoy some victories back in the Championship!