Why Aston Villa proved Birmingham need more than passion on Derby Day

Jack Grealish nods past Lee Camp – www.bbc.co.uk

Before every Second City Derby, the stance from the Birmingham City camp is that if the players show commitment, passion and give everything for the cause, that is all that can be asked of them.

Sometimes, that has worked to an extent at home games, when the raucous atmosphere at St Andrews has given Blues the impetus to execute these high-octane displays and compete in an even contest with expensively-assembled opposition.

When Birmingham go to Villa Park however, it is very difficult to sustain that intensity.

Of course, in Sunday’s 4-2 defeat in B6, Garry Monk’s side were marginally the better side in the first half hour.

Maikel Kieftenbeld’s strong challenges temporarily nullified Jack Grealish’s threat, while Che Adams threatened on the counter-attack.

Lukasz Jutkiewicz eluded Glenn Whelan’s attentions from a corner to give Birmingham a shock lead, which could have been doubled shortly after the half-hour mark when Adams struck the post.

To some, that miss is regarded as the crucial turning point in the contest, especially because the moment was shortly followed by Villa’s two-minute double-salvo from Jonathan Kodjia and Grealish.

There is reason to think though that the hosts would have still won that game, even had they gone two goals behind, because they had quiet faith in their own identity.

Dean Smith, although a Villa fan by birth, chose to distance himself from the emotional aspects of the grudge match and in many ways, that shows a less obvious kind of leadership.

Because he stays calm and focused – the former Walsall boss did not flinch when the first Villa goal went in – so do his players and after going in front, they used the ball very intelligently.

Conor Hourihane, a midfielder known for his ability to strike from range as he did in this fixture last season, often dropped between Axel Tuanzebe and James Chester to form a back-three.

With Hourihane fulfilling that role, rather than the less technically capable Whelan, Villa can play out from the back with a level of proficiency which belongs at the top of this division.

And, with the Villans looking after the ball so well, Blues were caught in no-man’s land.

Very few teams have the energy to sustain the press when their opponents have the ball for long spells and thus the visitors were forced to drop deeper, which in turn meant more space for Grealish to exert his influence and undoubted quality; Yannick Bolasie’s introduction from the bench did not do any harm for them, either.

There is room for Birmingham to improve their use of the ball; not necessarily in an attacking sense, but in a controlling sense.

Look at the chances they have created this season and a large proportion of them have come from stealing the ball in the opposing half and that requires a lot of energy; if Blues looked after possession better, they would be able to pick and chose the moments to attack.

And, in order to look after possession better, centre-backs who can distribute effectively are required.

Whenever Michael Morrison is closed down, both in this match and this season generally, he lacks the confidence to look for a progressive pass, instead either clearing or passing straight back to Lee Camp.

It was not the best day for Morrison, who has been a great servant to Blues but conceded the penalty that Tammy Abraham converted and was at times bullied by the young, athletic front-man; one wonders whether the 30-year-old could be in decline.

Birmingham’s second goal – a smart finish from Pedersen thanks to Connor Mahoney’s persistence – was very much an anomaly: it did not follow a period of pressure from Monk’s men, nor did it inspire a dramatic final 33-minutes.

Instead, Villa managed proceedings expertly and Alan Hutton, named the ‘Scottish Cafu’ for irony, produced a move to match the Brazilian legend’s audacity.

Blues’ rear-guard had, understandably, not earmarked Hutton as a potential threat and thus he was given the freedom to dribble past five opponents before tucking the ball into the far corner.

While that goal was partly down to bad defending, it also highlights Smith’s innovative coaching methods.

He knew that Hutton does not have the pace at 33 to attack the flank directly, but because he does not need to be quick to dribble into crowded, central areas, Smith instructed him to make those subtle, inverted runs and that has made him almost a dark horse in Villa’s attacking play.

That type of goal would not have happened under Steve Bruce, who tended to enforce a direct approach, yet Smith is gradually bringing them into the modern era.

In the early noughties, Second City Derbies were won by the team that were most fired up by the occasion.

Now, they are often being won by the side that stays calm and retains faith in it’s playing identity. Passion, alone, is no longer enough.