Stoke City 3 Blues 2 .. Ron's Report

By Richard Barker
Last updated : 10 November 2010

It was though.

With Stoke having lost four in a row, having the whole world against them, Blues never losing at the Britannia Stadium and never even conceding a goal against Stoke there, there were indications that something had to give.  It did in what turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining game for Sky to have on live when it looked like one where the men of the world may have been saying to their other halves, "it's only Stoke v Birmingham - we can watch a film tonight instead if you like?"

Having read my last report in which I said Blues needed to play 4-4-2 and consider whether there's a place for Alex Hleb in that formation, Alex McLeish duly changed to 4-4-2 and dropped Alex Hleb.  He also dropped Keith Fahey, bringing in Craig Gardner to partner Barry Ferguson in the middle and Jean Beausejour to play wide left, with Cameron Jerome and Nikola Zigic up front.

Given Stoke's position and form, you had to expect them to come at Blues, and they did.  Some people moan about Stoke.  I don't.  I quite like the way that they're set up.  They don't pretend they're anything other than what they are.  They're big, strong, quick and direct.  They played two proper wingers in Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington and two big centre forwards in Kenwynne Jones and Ricardo Fuller.  They play Rory Delap, not because he's any good as a central midfielder, but because he can throw the ball into the area from anywhere.  They play four big centre halves across the defence.  I have no problem with any of it.  Good luck to them.

As you'd expect with their line-up and the fact that they needed a result, Stoke were on top for much of the first half.  Blues couldn't really compete.  It wasn't that Blues were horribly bad (with the exception of one player, who I'll come to shortly), it was just that Stoke had too much for them.  It happens.  Ben Foster was excellent, but in front of him his teammates couldn't really get any control of the game.

Now, a big problem for Blues was Beausejour.  I'll say now that I don't quite get him.  I really don't.  He came with this reputation of being a quick, direct winger who likes to beat a man.  McLeish and Barry Ferguson have both praised him for this in the press in recent weeks.  On Saturday I said that whilst he was an outlet when he came on (which he was), he never looked to actually take anyone on or do anything.  At Stoke he was simply dreadful.  It was as poor an individual display as I have seen for a long time.  I don't want to be perceived as needlessly having a go at him - I'd obviously love him to succeed.  Last night though he was appalling. 

Blues got the ball to him fairly regularly, but often in deep positions, as he wouldn't advance.  When he got the ball, he not once looked to beat a man or try a clever give-and-go - he simply turned back and looked for Liam Ridgewell or one of his midfielders.  On several occasions he just lost possession.  Blues were completely carrying him.  It was embarrassing to watch.  He should have been taken off after 10 minutes - it was obvious then.  I know that Blues fans are probably no different from any other fans in getting all excited about a player that they've never seen play and thinking that he's their saviour, and a few times lately I've queried why people were saying "we need to get Beausejour into the team" given that all he's done is put a couple of crosses in in a Cup game against a League One side.  On this performance, he's an awful long way from being a Premier League player.  An awful long way. 

Just as Blues looked like they'd see it through to half-time and get in at 0-0, Robert Huth scored.  Blues' defending has been poor lately.  Given that last season's success wasn't based on scoring goals (Blues have never been good at that), but very much on not conceding, this has to be a worry.  Even more so when the goalkeeper's in fine form but is still conceding two or three goals a game.  Roger Johnson is so clearly not fit that picking him is getting ridiculous.  He HAS to be rested soon.  He's pivotal for Blues, and you can see the impact that his 70% fitness has on those around him.  Scott Dann made a bad error against West Ham and was a long way from his best at Stoke.  Johnson's injury is effecting those around him.

Huth's goal was really just the result of poor defending all round.  It's hard to point the finger at one person, but the whole defence is all over the place at the moment and Foster had no chance.  A minute later he had to make a fine save to keep it down to 1-0 at half-time.

Incredibly Beausejour started the second half.  McLeish is developing a nasty habit of being far too slow to change things.  He did it against West Ham and again here he just wasted time by leaving Beausejour on the pitch.  He contributed nothing except to hamper Blues.

 
Eventually he was withdrawn and Keith Fahey came on.  Blues switched to the 4-1-2-1-2 type diamond formation that was so ineffective against West Ham and, strangely, completely took control of the game.  Fahey was excellent, wanting the ball and being prepared to take a risk on the ball, whilst Craig Gardner (who'd been poor until the change) suddenly took control of the game in the Hleb-role behind the forwards.  It was a remarkable turnaround for Blues, but they were suddenly all over Stoke.

They should have made it 1-1 when after a defensive slip, Jerome was through on goal down the inside left channel.  It's one position that Jerome has seemed to relish in the past - I remember a stunning finish from there at Sunderland away last season, as well as one at Molineux.  However, he inexplicably opted not to go for goal and to try some sort of lofted pull-back for Zigic (perhaps he was thinking of Villa Park?) and Stoke managed to clear the ball off their own post before a mad scramble ensued for a few seconds.

When the ball was cleared, Jerome's wastefulness was exposed even more as Fuller, completely on his own, somehow cut in from the touchline and hit a screamer into the back of the net to make it 2-0.  The price of not taking your chances, huh?  Again though, questions have to be asked about Blues' defending.  Fuller was completely on his own, on the touchline, facing the crowd, and within 4 or 5 seconds the ball was in the back of the net.  Take nothing away from him - he did superbly and was excellent all night (he is a fine player and never gets much credit), but it certainly looked preventable.

Almost instantly Blues made it 2-1 when Zigic nodded the ball down to Fahey to volley home.  Zigic had a far better game and won most of the ball in the air.  He was much better on the floor too and put himself about well.  So many of his flick ons were clever ones too, finding Jerome - there's the hint of an understanding there.  There just needs to be a hint of ability in Jerome for it to click properly.

Stoke were no doubt shaken and Blues continued to dominate, as they had done before Fuller's goal.  It was 2-2 not long later when Jerome headed home from a Larsson cross - he can do it sometimes.  It was almost the exact same time as Blues got their second against West Ham on Saturday after being 2-0 down.  Bizarre.  However, Blues looked far more likely to win this one than the West Ham game as Stoke suddenly panicked, lost all confidence and just invited Blues onto them.

Late on though, in one of their very rare late attacks, Stoke hit their winner.  It was another comedy of errors in the Blues defence - what has gone wrong? - and Dean Whitehead bundled the ball in.  It came from nowhere for Stoke and what was a nervy stadium all round suddenly regrouped and helped by Blues being utterly wasteful with the ball for five minutes, saw the game out.

More questions for McLeish to answer.  There's certainly more questions than answers at the moment.  Blues simply cannot keep defending like this and cannot suddenly up their game at 2-0 down each week.  Also, why is McLeish so reluctant to change things that are so obviously not working? 

There are, in my mind, real concerns for Blues this season.  In a couple of weeks I expect them to be comfortably in the relegation zone and already plenty of opportunities to pick up points have been squandered.  People think Stoke might be down there this season, but to me, watching the two sides, Blues have more to be concerned about.  In a league where there are no stand-out bad teams, Blues are going to be in a scrap anyway.  If they keep giving away soft goals and only playing for 25 minutes, it's a scrap that they'll lose.

Plenty of questions to answer, Mr McLeish - time to start answering them.

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