Alex McLeish reverted to the 4-3-1-2 formation that was successful against Blackpool in Blues' last home league game. I said after that game that whilst it worked against Blackpool, I didn't necessarily think it would always be successful. For a start, Blackpool are pretty poor. Secondly, they're so open and naive at times that I felt Blues could have played 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 3-2-5, 8-1-1 or 2-1-2 and still beaten them. I don't think the formation really mattered against them.
Even in that game though you could see that Blues lacked width and were very narrow. With Seb Larsson and Keith Fahey moving inside a little to strengthen the midfield, the system becomes narrow. As a result, for long periods of the game Blues completely lacked an outlet and consequently their play was pedestrian. It was painful to watch at times.
The only width that Blues could get, with a midfield such as that, was from the full-backs. Stephen Carr had a superb game and Liam Ridgewell was good too. However, with the greatest of respect to them both, neither are going to be capable of carrying the burden of being the side's creative component. Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa can do that, but Carr and Ridgewell aren't at that level. As I say, they're both doing superbly well for Blues at the moment, but given the way that Blues were set up it meant that there was also a reliance on those two to be creative and it wasn't going work.
There were other issues with Blues too. Barry Ferguson wasn't at his best. Nikola Zigic and Cameron Jerome both looked fairly rusty. Roger Johnson was clearly not fully fit and that seemed to mean that the defence was much shakier than usual. Too many things weren't right for Blues.
There was also the strange omission of Craig Gardner from the starting line-up. Whether McLeish felt he didn't quite fit into the formation, I'm not sure. McLeish has spoken of how Larsson and Fahey are well suited to the narrow roles in this kind of midfield because they naturall move from in to out. However, McLeish also spoke last week about how important it was to get Gardner back into the side after his suspension because of the energy and dynamism he offers. One week later he's on the bench. Strange. Alongside Carr and Ben Foster, Gardner's probably been Blues' best performer this season and whilst Fahey's been better the last two weeks, you'd still have thought Gardner would have been a better option in the midfield.
West Ham haven't been great this season, but one thing that they do have is decent attacking options. All three of Carlton Cole, Frederic Piquionne and Victor Obinna started. Cole was tremendous throughout, whilst Piquionne grew into it in the second half. Obinna was Christian Benitez-esque in that no one really knew what he'd do and one minute he'd look awful and then he'd do something superbly. He was also quick - very quick (not quite as quick as on Pro Evo 7, but still quick).
That was the other problem that Blues had - complete lack of pace. With no outlet and no pace, they quite simply offered nothing until the system was changed with Blues 2-0 down. Gardner and Jean Beausejour came on for Fahey (his removal was greeted with completely unnecessary ironic cheers) and Alex Hleb, Blues went 4-4-2 and suddenly things clicked.
Gardner made a real difference with his energy, and the system itself meant Blues had some width, could stretch the play and suddenly open up space. Beausejour, whilst apparently reluctant to take players on and seemingly lacking the pace everyone says he has, was at least an option wide left, and the helped spread the game. Blues were also able to get balls into Zigic from wide, and after two good nod downs into the penalty area that no one reacted to, his third was swept in by Jerome to make it 2-1.
Not long later is was 2-2. Robert Green did what he does best - goalkeep really badly - and simply parried Larsson's free kick back into the six yard box. Ridgewell is bizarrely comfortably Blues' best "fox in the box" in the six yard area, and he reacted quicker than anyone to knock the ball back into the net with his wrong foot. He's a real asset in the opposition box.
There was still nearly 20 minutes left and you had to expect Blues to really push for the win, but they seemed to ease off a little just when all the momentum was with them. You do have to credit West Ham a little too though. A team in their position and with their brittle confidence could well have crumbled when throwing away a 2-0 lead and still having so long left to play. However, they regaiined some composure and played fairly well. As much as Blues could perhaps have done more, credit West Ham for preventing that from happening.
Late on Cameron Jerome had to go off and it was a surprise that McLeish opted to bring Lee Bowyer on rather than a striker. Quite why he did that, I don't know, but it did seem strange. It may have been because Johnson was clearly struggling and to try and protect the defence a little more, but I still think that it's strange.
I think we're going to be having more debates about the system again, and it could well go on all season. The fact is that it seems that the system that suits Blues best is 4-4-2. I don't think there's much doubt about that. The problem is though, if you play that, how do you fit Alex Hleb in? This is becoming the key question. What to do with Hleb?
There's no doubting his quality - he showed flashes of that again. His one flicked pass to Larsson was sublime, and it was a pity that Larsson was so slow to react. However, at present everything is being adjusted to fit Hleb in. Can Blues afford to do that? I think that's a question McLeish needs to ask himself.
Hleb, whilst talented, isn't having enough of an impact to have the team built around him. I don't think it's his fault. The fact is, great players are made great by those around him. Put him back into the Arsenal team now and if he's got Fabregas, Nasri, Walcott, etc making runs for him, he'd look just like his own self. Put him in the Blues side though, and when he gets the ball he's looking up and seeing Zigic who's static and Jerome who lacks the intelligence to make a clever run, then Larsson and Fahey who are told to be disciplined and suddenly he has no options. He's always looked so good as he's got good players around him on his wavelength. It's much tougher now. As such, he's not having the impact that people had hoped, and Blues are suffering as a result as he's being shoehorned into the side. It's a tricky one for McLeish, but in fairness, he's paid to deal with such issues.
Yes, coming back from 2-0 down to get a point, you have to be content. To an extent. However, I still view this as two points dropped. West Ham were bottom of the league and devoid of confidence. Early on you could see that - they were shaky. Blues allowed them to settle though and ended up lucky to get anything out of the game. Blues should really be winning games like this. I think McLeish does have a few questions to answer after this game, most notably about the system and Gardner being on the bench.
Blues were 2-0 up at Bolton against ten men and only drew, and have since dropped points at home to Wigan and West Ham. Quite a few points you'd have expected to have already have been dropped. Make no mistake, Blues aren't going to be anywhere near as comfortable this season as last. Blackpool are poor and I think that they'll finish bottom, but Albion and Newcastle are showing that they can live with the likes of Blues, Bolton, Blackburn, etc. Aside from Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and probably Everton and Liverpool, the rest of the teams are much of a muchness. There'll be lots of teams dropping a lot of points, and I can see all apart from those I've mentioned above still feeling nervy around March.
Blues need to take points when the opportunity to do so, and this was another opportunity lost. It's not long before they go to Stoke now, and despite all this stuff about the Britannia Stadium being a tough place to go and all the rest of it, they've lost four in a row now and it has to be viewed as a game in which Blues have an opportunity to pick up points. They can't keep letting these opportunities slip away from them - especially with the run of games they've got coming up after the Stoke game.