Blues 2 Sunderland 1 .. Ron's Report

By Richard Barker
Last updated : 25 October 2009

That seemed to define everything about this game. The old owners had left and it was a first home game for the new owner(s), Steve Bruce returned to St Andrews for the first time as a manager to take on his successor and that successor ditched a formation and tactics that, whilst pragmatic at times, failed to enthuse, excite and, most importantly, score goals and went with a braver set-up.

And, for once, it all went in Blues' favour.

It was a disappointing crowd, but those there seemed more relaxed and patient, perhaps due to the feelgood factor about the new regime at the club, perhaps also partly because of the warm welcome afforded to Bruce, and perhaps also because, for once this season, they could see that Blues were set up to impose themselves on the opposition.

That was the key to Blues' success here really - they imposed themselves on the opposition. As I've said before, it's not all about formations. Yes, 4-4-2 looks more attacking than 4-5-1, but Arsenal have been playing a 4-5-1 formation of sorts all season, and you can't say that they're not an attacking side.

Still, the 4-4-2 helped considerably, but so did the attitude that Blues adopted, once they settled. They did need to settle too, because for twenty to thirty minutes, this was a pretty dreadful game.

Sunderland came into the game on the back of two fine results against Manchester United and Liverpool, but were fairly woeful here. I think after that opening period, Blues were able to think to themselves, "hang on a second - these aren't actually that good". Once they realised that and they started to take the game to Sunderland, they were dominant.

Blues then did impose themselves on their opponents, which is something that they've failed to do too often this season. James McFadden drifted in from the left and linlked up with Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome up front, and Blues looked like a team with spark, dynamism and creativity. It was refreshing.

McFadden was excellent, but the front two - Benitez in particular - also gave Sunderland problems throughout with their pace and their movement. Having two mobile forwards rather than just Garry O'Connor on his own meant that Blues had options when they had the ball in midfield - they had players to look for, either with balls into feet or beyond the defence into channels.

Benitez looks a cracking player and his ability to hold the ball up, as I've said previously, really sets him apart from most of Blues' other striking options. He's happy to drop slightly deeper, take the ball with his back to goal and then look to turn defenders. The Carlos Tevez comparison that we heard before we'd seen him play for us looks apt.

So yes, the formation and the attitude was a factor in Blues' victory, but so was the actual application of the players. All ten outfield players had good games. When that happens, you've always got a chance of winning.

Scott Dann and Roger Johnson were excellent when you consider the strike force that they were up against - one that better teams than Blues have struggled to cope with. Liam Ridgewell, whilst not a natural left-back, played well and at least has solid defensive attributes there. Stephen Carr too was excellent and continues to impress week after week. I think the highest praise that Carr can be given is that these consistent excellent performances are just expected by fans now. No one really seems to sing his praise too much, because we've all just become accustomed to how well he plays. To say that of a man who just eight months ago came out of retirement, well, it's phenomenal when you think about it.

I've mentioned the forwards and James McFadden, but Seb Larsson - who I have been critical of this season - was back nearing his best and worked unbelievably hard, whilst Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson were fairly quiet but extremely effective in the centre of the park. Those two really kept things ticking over, offered good protection for the back four and offered plenty of energy. Similarly to Carr, in a way, it was thought that Bowyer's best days may be behind him and whilst he was excellent in the Championship at the back end of last season, some felt that his best Premier League days were a thing of the past. To me though, he's been Blues' most consistent performer this season and has been fantastic.

All very positive so far then, and had the game been rugby length and ended after 80 minutes, I don't think there'd have been a negative thing to say. Typically though, Blues turned a comfortable 2-0 lead (and it was very, very comfortable) into a far more precarious 2-1 lead which in turn led to an extremely nervy final ten minutes or so.

There's no doubt that Joe Hart was at fault for Sunderland's goal, coming for a free-kick but getting caught in no man's land. He'd had some nervy moments earlier on too.

It would appear that Hart is yet to convince everyone that he's a better option than Maik Taylor, and it would seem that some fans would rather have Taylor back in goal. They'll get their wish next week, actually, because Blues' opponents are Hart's parent club.

Whilst it would be easy to say that Hart's too tentative when he comes for the ball sometimes, I'm not sure that that is the issue exactly. His issue is that he's actually too positive, often coming for the ball when he may not need to. That's his initial thought, and as I say, sometimes it's too positive. Once that initial decision has been taken though, yes, he flaps sometimes and gets caught out.

I do think that there's a tendency, however, to view players not currently in the side as better players than they are. It's easy to say that so and so should be playing when they're not in the side and someone in the side makes a mistake.

Maik Taylor is almost the anti-Hart. He is too tentative to start with. Yes, when he comes for a cross he generally deals with it, but that's because he's too negative in the first place and barely comes for any cross unless there's very little danger. For Hart's over-exuberance and positivity, read hesitancy and negativity for Taylor. They're almost opposite.

At Southampton this season, Taylor did play, and not many people will have seen the game. He was poor though, and all of the problems he's had over the past few years were there to be seen.

Hart has made some errors this season, but at times his positivity has been an asset. Against Stoke, whilst he flapped on one or two of their long throws and balls into the box, he kept coming and the majority of time he diverted the danger. Taylor wouldn't have done the same, and as a consequence, the result may have been different.

Goalkeepers make mistakes. They're exposed and in a position in which their mistakes are highlighted. I'm writing this moments after England's current number one, Rob Green, has made a howler against Arsenal. Last week, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel - two of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Premier League over the past five years - made bad errors resulting in goals being conceded. Vito Mannone, Arsenal's new 'keeper did so against Blues. It goes with the territory, unfortunately. Maik Taylor's made plenty in the past.

Hart still has plenty to prove and to work on, but I'd still rather see a young, up and coming 'keeper with plenty of positivity between the sticks for us rather than someone who can't be far off retirement and is hesitant to the point of being a liability. Hart's defence seem to know where they stand with him too - basically, they know he's going to come for the ball. With Taylor, we've all seen hundreds of times that hesitation between him and his defence as there's far less communication and far less trust.

So, that's the only real negative from the game, if you like, and the only real contentious issue for discussion. Otherwise, for 80 minutes Blues were comfortably the better team and deserved their win against decent opposition - any team with Darren Bent, Kenwynne Jones, Steed Malbranque, Kieran Richardson and Andy Reid in needs to be respected.

A good result, a good performance and hopefully an illustration for the manager that he can trust his players to impose themselves on the opposition and, most importantly, that they are good enough to do it.

Yes, respect every opposition, but let's think about ourselves a little more sometimes too. Blues aren't the worst side in the division, so sometimes let's throw off the shackles and play to our strengths rather than worrying about the opposition's so much. Blues did that here and it paid off.

Birmingham City Match Reports

Sky Bet Championship Sat 9th December 15:00

Fulham 1 - 0 Birmingham City

Last game - Match Centre


Trending on the boards