The Birmingham derby on Sunday gave us a glimpse of the problems facing Alex McLeish at Birmingham and Gerard Houllier at Aston Villa and how they each might go about fixing them.
The relative success of Birmingham last season was based on a strict, well organized defensive system that gave little away and relied on goals coming at the right time to maximise an impressive points to goals scored ratio – in other words Birmingham got a lot of points from very few goals.
The problem with cutting things so fine is that it needs very little to go wrong and the virtues of such a system can turn bad very quickly. And that has been exactly what has happened to Birmingham this season. When compared to last season at this juncture Birmingham have scored just as many goals (21) and lost the same number of games (6).
However, Birmingham have allowed seven more goals than last season and that has moved five wins into the draw column and accounts for a points reduction of ten. Last season at this stage – a comfortable 8th; this season 16th and justified relegation fears.
Birmingham are a tough team to beat but they are also a team that finds it difficult to win.
Based on the moves made by McLeish last summer that saw the likes of Nicola Zigic, Jean Beausejour and Alexander Hleb join the club the manager obviously saw any improvement in Birmingham’s performance coming from an increase in scoring. (Of course bases on 11 clean sheets and 13 wins by a single goal that is hardly a great insight!)
So far it hasn’t worked but McLeish seems intent on drinking from the same well with David Bentley arriving on loan and a move for Robbie Keane being made but ultimately falling through.
Could the problem be that McLeish sees the solution but that he is unwilling to jettison or even majorly adjust the team’s defensive shape and tactics?
At times it looks as if McLeish’s approach is simply to add what he hopes will be a goal scoring head to an overly defensive body and that he will have the best of both world’s – a solid defence and more goals that will turn draws into wins.
But it rarely happens that way and it is even rarer for it to work over an extended scheduled. The body needs a brain or more precisely an attacking brain and that is where Alexander Hleb may be the answer.
McLeish started Hleb as a support striker to Matt Derbyshire (replacing Cameron Jerome) on Sunday and although it did not pay immediate dividends it is something worth persevering with.
Hleb can be a deeply frustrating player but he can also upset the best organized defences with his dribbling ability, his eye for a pass (although often not played) and he also has a good shot from range. It would not be a new role for Hleb as it mimics the position he played for Stuttgart before Arsene Wenger turned him into a wide player.
The alternative of lumping the ball forward and hoping that the lone striker can deliver something or that a defender will get forward at a set piece has not worked up to now and there is no evidence to believe that it will. In his heart of hearts Alex McLeish knows it as well.
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