Five Winnable Games, They Said

Last updated : 16 December 2009 By Richard Barker

Five winnable games, they said.  Eight or nine points out of those five games would be a result, they said.  We should win all five, the arrogant, cocky and drunk (like I) said.  No one believed it though, really.  Did they?  Three wins, a draw and a defeat would have been an excellent return.

But oh no, Blues only went and won all five. 

Something strange is happening.  The team picks itself, week after week.  The players are committed, aggressive and play with pace and verve.  Blues are winning games.  That in itself is strange.  Blues hadn't won two back to back Premier League games for God only knows how long, and now they've gone and won five on the trot.  They don't do that in any division, ever.  Not even in promotion seasons in the lower leagues.  Winning five games on the spin is an achievement at any level, especially this one.

Why though?  Why has this happened?  What has caused this?  It genuinely has come from nowhere.  Blues were caught out at home to Bolton, with audible groans of discontent from the crowd, before going to Burnley at getting comprehensively outplayed by, well, Burnley.  That says it all.  Sure, they then went to Arsenal and performed reasonably, but it was a backs-to-the-wall performance and they still got beat 3-1.  It was looking like another long, hard season.

And then this?  Less than two months after that defeat at Arsenal left Blues on seven points in late October, Blues are heading into the final pre-Christmas fixture on twenty seven points, in sixth place in the league, above Liverpool and Manchester City (who would be further adrift had they not luckily earned draws against Blues themselves in the past two months).  Suddenly the likes of West Ham, Wolves, Burnley and Portsmouth are no longer a concern.  Two months ago, who would have thought that?

The baffling thing is that it has come from nowhere.  Yes, Blues had performed ok early on in the season and hadn't disgraced themselves, but that's pretty much what all clubs who get relegated from the Premier League are like.  They do ok, pick up a few results, battle hard, give a few teams a scare, but are ultimately not good enough.  The Bolton, Burnley and Arsenal games suggested that was the way Blues were going.  They were passing the ball reasonably well, but weren't creating a great deal of chances in games and genuinely looked in for a tough season.

Then suddenly Blues exploded into life with an eight game unbeaten run (including six wins) to see them up to sixth.  Where did it come from?

There's no doubt that the change of ownership has had an effect.  The puzzling thing is that it's not really down to the new owners, because they've not had the opportunity to do anything yet, what with transfer windows.  Yes, they've created a bit of a feelgood factor amongst the fans, but that's as much down to the football and results as anything else.  If it was down to Carson Yeung that the fans were suddenly more upbeat, it would have happened two months ago, not now, on the back of these fine results.  Say what you like, but good results get fans going again - it's as simple as that.

Whilst there were those that criticised David Sullivan for his comments about "his team" doing so well, he was actually right.  He brought the manager in and he signed every single one of the players.  It's not down to him though either, the fact that this feelgood factor has suddenly engulfed the club.  If anything, a weight was taken off the fans' shoulders when Sullivan and Gold left - love them or hate them, that's what happened.  The new owners could have been Carson Yeung, Bill Gates, Alf Stewart from Home & Away or Mad Malik - it wouldn't have mattered a jot.  The fact that there was a change, regardless of who came in, well, that made a difference for the fans.  Even then though, it's a fluke that it coincided with the results that the club are currently having.  It's a happy coincidence, because when all the factors are thrown into the pot, it really is helping to create a fairly special moment for Blues fans (we know it won't last), but it's no more than coincidence.

The fact is, it comes down to Alex McLeish, his backroom staff and the players - it's nothing to do with owners, old or new.  In fact, if the respective sets of owners really wanted the best for the club, they'd both bloody shut up whining to the press about one another and let the club's results do the talking.

McLeish deserves tremendous credit.  As above, the season was already beginning to show signs of heading in the wrong direction, and against an in-form (at the time) Sunderland side, McLeish scrapped his previous plans, went 4-4-2 with Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez up top, and James McFadden out wide, and Blues haven't looked back.  The team that started against Sunderland in late October was the same team that started against Blackburn Rovers in mid-December - that tells you all you need to know about the formula that McLeish found.  Yes, one or two changes were made along the way due to suspension and injury, but that is now Blues' team, and McLeish deserves credit for what he's got that team doing.

Does McLeish regret not being a little bolder earlier in the season?  Possibly - who knows?  However, Benitez had various difficulties fully settling in and Jerome had an injury, so perhaps he simply couldn't pick the kind of team he wanted until the Sunderland game.  Perhaps he does regret not picking a team that could impose themselves on games a little more earlier in the season.  He changed it though, and there are plenty of managers so stuck in their way that they wouldn't have done.  Looking back, the Sunderland team selection, being so adventerous, was a risk.  It was a risk worth taking though, as we've all come to see.

Jerome and Benitez, goals aside, have been the catalysts for me.  Previously there was the static Garry O'Connor, often on his own up front.  He was so predictable, as was Blues' play when he played.  He was also unable to stretch the play, opening up bigger gaps for Blues' midfield (in particular, McFadden) to roam into and start to impose themselves.  It's no coincidence that having the energy and running of Jerome and Benitez up top and their ability to stretch the play has seen McFadden enjoy his best form for 18 months.  Whilst the current team is now pretty much taken for granted, think about it for a second - it's still quite risky playing 4-4-2 when one of the four midfielders is actually a forward, but the front two and their ability to drive play forward through their running means that McFadden is able to play higher up the pitch and be a lot more comfortable.

Benitez is beginning to look something of an enigma.  I think he's improving by the game, but there are still moans about him.  If O'Connor was predictable, however, Benitez is the opposite.  Often he sets off on a run and he doesn't even know where he's going, let alone his teammates or supporters.  However, by the same token, the opposition don't know where he's going either.  When you have a player who is so unpredictable, it means that the opposition always have to be on the back foot, again stretching the play, opening spaces and allowing the rest of the Blues side to play.

Jerome and Benitez aren't the finest footballers in the world - if they were, they wouldn't be playing for Blues.  However, defenders playing against them know that they have to be on their toes constantly, as the tireless running, chasing down and unpredictability of the pair of them mean that they never get a minute off.  Blues need another striker (or probably two), but the two doing the job at present are doing so extremely well.

This is already ridiculously long, and I'm conscious of boring you and boring myself, but throughout the team, there are people playing major, major parts in what Blues are doing so well.  Seb Larsson has improved dramatially over the past few weeks.  Stephen Carr is now just taken for granted, but his performance against Blackburn probably surpassed even his own current high standards.  At the death, when Benitez missed THAT chance, the Blues player who had run beyond him and possibly put Benitez off was Carr - the fat old full-back who was retired a year ago and isn't fit.  He did that in the last minute when the side were hanging on for three points.  Liam Ridgewell has limitations, but is acquitting himself well.  Barry Ferguson was magnificent against West Ham.  Then there's messrs Bowyer, Johnson, Dann and Hart who seem to be getting plaudits every week for obvious reasons.

People may look at Blues and say, "ah, but they're only winning by a goal - they're scraping wins", but actually, when you watch them, that's not so much the case.  Against West Ham, but for THOSE misses by Ridgewell and Jerome, it could have been 3-0.  Against Blackburn, but for THAT miss by Benitez, Robinson's save from Larsson and other poor finishing, it could have been four or five.  Blues scored three at Wigan, two at Anfield and could have had three or four in the opening half hour at Molineux.  If Blues were just scraping through, there'd be more concern, but when you're winning games anyway and you're only minor gripe is missing other chances, well, you really are in a decent position.

I'm going to bring this to a close now, but regular readers will know that, in the past, I've been as critical of the team as anyone - deservedly so, I'd say.  However, even I have to say that, at the moment, it really is a moment in time that we should all treasure, because it'll all come crashing down soon enough.  For now though, let's enjoy it.  The way I've gushed in this piece shows how enjoyable it is.

Oh, and as for the press saying we've got some tough games now in Everton, Chelsea, Stoke and Manchester United - bring them all on.  We should be feared for once.