Birmingham City 1-1 Bristol City Six Things: encouraging start for Blues

Jutkiewicz celebrates the opener – https://www.bcfc.com/ (Roy Smiljanic)

Tommy Rowe’s late equalizer forced Pep Clotet to settle for a point in his first home game as Birmingham City head coach, although the Spaniard can take plenty of positives from the performance that saw Lukas Jutkiewicz open the second half scoring in a 1-1 draw. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Birmingham braver on the ball

For all the credit Garry Monk was rightly given for his work last season, the build-up play from deep was limited with long balls to target man Jutkiewicz; chances were only created from swift transitional attacks in the opposing half. This game, though, offered us the first clear insight as to how Clotet – number two to Monk last season – wants to evolve this team. Defenders such as Kristian Pedersen, playing left-back in a 4-3-2-1 formation, were much braver on the ball under pressure than they were in the previous campaign. This, combined with positive debuts from Ivan Sunjic, who dictated play with real poise in the middle of the midfield trio – and Fran Villalhal – who made some jinking, positive runs in from the left channel and curled a right-footed shot that forced a save from Daniel Bentley – made for an enterprising first half from Blues.

Bristol City’s clear cut chance

As well as the hosts played in the first half in the middle third, their end product was perhaps not quite the finished article, with a lot of their best efforts coming from outside the box; Gary Gardner curled narrowly over after drifting in from the right channel. By contrast, Bristol City were not as impressive as expected yet retained that ability to carve their opponents open in flashes. Their most creative influence was Kasey Palmer, who played through Benik Afobe, who was thwarted by Lee Camp one-on-one. Perhaps because Afobe did not contribute too much to City’s attack in general play – strike-partner Andreas Weimann was normally the only outlet for early balls in behind – the debutant maybe felt underĀ  more pressure when his chances did come.

Jutkiewicz a threat

For all the improved build-up play under Clotet on the floor, Blues looked the most dangerous when crossing balls for Jutkiewicz from high up the pitch. Surprisingly, a lot of the crosses came from centre-backs making overlapping runs into the right channel – Blues clearly learnt lessons from Sheffield United last season. Although Harlee Dean’s ‘next Beckham crossing kick’ audition was not especially successful – fearless defending is his undoubted strength – Marc Roberts completed an impressive individual display with a delightful assist. The former Barnsley centre-back dinked a cross to the back-post, where Jutkiewicz found an aerial advantage over City’s wide centre-back Bailey Wright to nod home from close-range, giving him a deserved first goal of the season.

The Harding for Crowley sub

The only bone of contention regarding Clotet in his first home league game as Blues boss was his decision, right after Jutkiewicz’s opener, to replace advanced playmaker Dan Crowley with right wing-back Wes Harding. He switched from the 4-3-2-1 to a 5-3-2 with Maxime Colin, who was having a good game at right-back, shifting to left wing-back. The logic might have been to incorporate an additional centre-back to account for Bristol City’s switch to two up top – which happened when Famara Diedhiou replaced Andreas Weimann to partner Afobe. Diedhiou put himself about and improved the intensity of the Robins’ pressing, which allowed Adam Nagy and Palmer – who operated unusually deep – to dictate terms for the 19-minute period between Blues’ opener and Tommy Rowe’s leveller. Rowe, who had had an otherwise quiet game at left wing-back, intelligently capitalized on Harding being out of position to drill home, after an inch-perfect through ball from Palmer. Was the equalizer down to Birmingham’s system change or Bristol City being braver? Perhaps a combination of the two.

Much to ponder for Johnson

On another day, Afobe could quite easily have bagged a brace – he was denied by Camp a second time after the interval – Nagy could have scored too the narrative would then have been very different. The Robins have not yet quite found the full fluency they are capable of, both in terms of their closing down without Diedhiou on the pitch and their co-ordination of movement – especially when unable to invite the press. That is perhaps to be expected after such a busy final week of the transfer window, in which they have not just signed four new players but also let go of first teamers like Marlon Pack and Jamie Paterson. Lee Johnson’s side showed flashes of potential at St Andrews and, once they find more quality from their wide centre-backs as well as some tactical cohesion, they could hit top form – it might take a month or two for us to see the best of them.

Encouraging day for Blues

Although Birmingham could not hold out for the victory that would have sent them “third” in the embryonic Championship table, the draw completes a positive opening two games. The 1-0 win at Brentford on day one was very much a smash-and-grab, but this week we saw more clarity in terms of the playing identity that Clotet wants to develop – as well as early evidence that the Spaniard’s vision is worth persisting with. Producing flicks, tricks and dummies – especially in the first half – Blues played with a level of swagger that, if repeated consistently, has arguably not been seen this century. Equally, the driven covering work of David Davis means they retain the battling qualities that fans respond well to. Early days, of course – too early to review pre-season expectation – but this encouraging start lends Clotet an opportunity to settle into the job and learn the requirements of number one management away from the microscope.