Birmingham City (H) Preview

Latics return to the DW for a must win clash with fellow strugglers Birmingham City. After last weekend’s defeat to North-West rivals Preston North End it’s fair to say we’re in desperate need for all three points against a side that aren’t far away from being dragged into the relegation scrap we currently find ourselves in.

The game at Preston was our worst performance under Shaun Maloney and ultimately we paid the price for that with the result. The game changed massively on a ridiculous penalty decision that went against us but we weren’t anywhere near our best and Maloney made his disappointment very apparent post match.

Opponents Birmingham are in poor form right now and are slowly slipping down the table. Four consecutive defeats leaves them 19th in the league and seven points ahead of Latics, so closing that gap is vital for us. Their squad has the talent to win any game though and their inconsistency is something that worries me going into this one.

Latics Team News

As is so often the case with Latics there’s some good news and some bad news on the injury front this weekend. Whilst no one was injured in the Preston game on Saturday it appears the high intensity training sessions that Maloney is keen on have taken their toll on a couple of the fringe players that don’t quite have the level of fitness as others.

Jordan Cousins’ time at the club has been ruined with repetitive injuries and it appears to have happened again. I can’t imagine we’ll see much more of him in a Latics shirt and it’s through no fault of his own. Unfortunately, it’s clear we can’t bank on him to stay fit for a long period of time and with his contract up in June it makes little sense to renew it.

The other name on the injury list is Charlie Wyke who has really struggled to remain injury free after returning to football this season. It’s a real shame for him after coming back from what he’s been through, but also for us as he’s still our best target man. His first game back came against Blues earlier on in the season, it’s a shame he can’t play in this one.

Ben Amos looked to have injured himself in the process of giving away the penalty last weekend but he’s absolutely fine. He’s actually been in pretty good form and there wasn’t much he could do about either Preston goal, although whilst the penalty decision was harsh he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. Anyway, he’s in the best form of the season so long may it continue.

Hughes, Whatmough and Nyambe have been solid for the most part but let themselves down at Deepdale somewhat. For the most part they were fine but they found themselves out of shape twice and we conceded both times. It just shows how brutal (or ‘unforgiving’ if you like) this league is and against a talented Blues forward line we can’t afford slip ups.

I think we need to make a change at LWB. James McClean has played a lot of football and whilst he’s probably the fittest player in our squad a rest could do him some good. Also, his performances have dropped off somewhat, particularly going forward, and Tom Pearce deserves a run out from the start.

The most secure part of the side is Central Midfield where Max Power and Christ Tiehi continue to impress. Tiehi grabbed his first goal for the club last weekend and looks like such an excellent player, he could certainly be the difference between the two sides in this one. If Power can get his set pieces right that’d be ideal too, it’s been the only thing missing from his game recently.

Another big decision needs to be made in attacking areas. Will Keane and Callum Lang are both in really poor form and neither have scored under Maloney, with the game at Preston highlighting how short of form they are. Keane slowed the play down far too much and Lang seems reluctant to shoot early, wasting several good opportunities.

With Danel Sinani catching the eye off the bench against Preston I expect to see him replace one of them in this game. He came very close to scoring and showed glimpses of the player I expected him to be when he arrived at the club. This would be a very nice time to grab his first goal for the club!

An Opposition View

As always I’ve called in the help of somebody far more knowledgeable about Birmingham City than myself to contribute to this section of the preview!

1. It’s been another stressful season for Blues both on and off the pitch. Firstly, focusing on it, can you talk us through how things have gone since the two sides last met back in August?

“Gosh, that feels like a while ago for both of us, doesn’t it? We were having an excellent season up until the World Cup interlude, but since we returned our levels have dropped off massively and due to injuries, and lack of appealing depth, we’ve not really had the options to keep things fresh.” [@GabSutton]

2. Looking back at that game at St Andrews Latics came out 1-0 winners despite playing most of the game with 10 men. Blues looked bereft of ideas in front of goal that day, is that something that has been rectified or are goals very much still a problem?

“It’s more of a problem now, if anything! Scott Hogan scored nine goals before the break, and he looked fresh, sharp and rejuvenated, best we’ve seen for a few seasons. Hogan hasn’t been the same player since the restart, only scoring once, Troy Deeney has only scored twice in 2023, Lukas Jutkiewicz is past his best and Reda Khadra started well, but has since been injured, although we’re hopeful he might be back tomorrow.” [@GabSutton]

3. John Eustace has been praised a lot this season for the work he’s done under very testing conditions. How does he usually set you up and are you expecting anything different from Blues in this one?

“I would say the feeling towards Eustace is perhaps slightly more lukewarm than it was earlier in the season, but I have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances he inherited because it was a tough gig from lots of perspectives. Seeing as Auston Trusty is out, I don’t think we have the personnel to operate with a back-three so I’d imagine it’ll be a four, but it feels like it could be any combination from about eight midfielders and four strikers. We had a pretty consistent mid-block early in the season and looked after the ball well, but more recently that’s dropped off, so as fans, we don’t have something we can say “this is what to expect from us”, because we almost don’t know what to expect either.” [@GabSutton]

4. There’s a real blend of youth and experience in your side, but who stands out as a key player that you’re hoping will lead you to 3 points on Saturday afternoon?

“John Ruddy. Far from faultless, but one of our two most consistent performers this season, along with Trusty, who as mentioned is injured. Hannibal Mejbri, though, has produced some special moments this season and is an enthusiastic presser – if he has his day, he’ll be one to watch.” [@GabSutton]

5. Finally, Latics fans know all about the struggles of having a faceless ownership group who clearly don’t have the club’s best interests at heart. Are you hoping the #BSHLOut movement will reap its rewards sooner rather than later?

“Of course. There’s a local businessman called Jeremy Dale who, from what we’ve been able to find, has a recent history of supporting and running ethical organisations, which would imply he’d go into football for the right reasons. Truthfully, that’s the thing we’re pinning our hopes on. We’ve stayed in the Championship for the last 12 years, but rarely has there been any hope that we can do much more than that because of the ownership issues. I can’t speak for all fans, of course, but from my point of view, I sometimes get a bit apathetic about on-field matters because it just feels like the same thing year on year. The biggest thing for me is getting in owners who will run the club responsibly, and have a sustainable plan for progression. If you offered me the scenario of staying up with BSHL next season, or relegation accompanied by a takeover led by the right people for the club, I’d take the latter – I don’t say that lightly.”[@GabSutton]

Tactical Talk

The Preston game was the first time Latics faced a side lining up with a back 3 and we saw a slightly different approach to things. The formation stayed the same but a few things had to change to try and counteract their set up. I don’t think the way we set up was the reason we lost by any means but we struggled in certain areas more than usual.

It was the first game we’ve played against a side without wingers and the 1v1s out wide between our WBs and theirs highlighted the fact it’s an area we’re quite weak. The fact they were always occupied by Preston’s WBs but weren’t being pinned back by opposition wingers meant they subconsciously pushed higher up and left spaces in behind.

Both goals came from our WBs being caught high up the pitch and leaving big spaces behind them. On both occasions the outside CB was then dragged over to cover the space and the entire defensive structure was broken, something Maloney sounded furious about post match and understandably so. It was so avoidable, especially as we were already winning and didn’t have to be so adventurous…

The other area that we obviously struggled in was the final third. It shouldn’t come as a surprise given the fact we struggle to score against back 4s never mind back 5s but we didn’t look that likely to score anymore than we did, especially not when we went 2-1 down. If we’d defended our lead better I would’ve fancied us on the break but we really struggled to break through their low block.

We changed to a 4-2-3-1 after 65 minutes to try and introduced Sinani and Pearce who definitely made us better going forward. It was encouraging to see Maloney making proactive changes after realising things weren’t going to plan, something that previous managers maybe haven’t been quite so keen to do. It came very close to working.

Birmingham usually play a back 5 so I do wonder if we’ll go with a 4-2-3-1 from the off. As it’s a game we need to win (Every game is but this one is especially winnable) I wouldn’t mind seeing us go slightly more adventurous and put them on the back foot immediately. It would also allow us to play Pearce and Nyambe as FBs who are probably better options than McClean and Darikwa who currently occupy those spots.

I like the way we play in a 3-4-2-1 but it does limit us going forward at times. I’m not sure it gets the best out of the personnel in our squad but unfortunately very little will as it’s a weaker than average squad. Going forward we need all the help we can get and I do wonder if picking that extra attacker could be worth the risk in this one. The goal at Preston was our first open play goal under Maloney, that’s not great.

It could be one of those games where we need to keep it tight for as long as possible and profit late on when their thin squad gets tired and weaker players are subbed on. It really depends on how aggressive we plan on being, 4-2-3-1 if the answer is very and 3-4-2-1 if the answer is not really. Let me know your thoughts…

Final Thoughts

I described the Huddersfield game a few weeks ago as ‘do or die’ and I think the same applies here too. Latics know 3 points could move us within another win of safety, whilst a loss is pretty much the end of our chances. It’s in these high pressure moments that you want your big players to stand up and be counted.

We have the tools to beat Blues and we have the chance to pile on the misery for them. I really hope we do so!

Up the Tics!

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