Birmingham City Season Preview: progress under Monk?

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Birmingham City fan Ryan Deeney (@RyanDeeney2194).

Blues have gone into the final day fearing relegation to League One in three of the last five seasons. In the post-Gary Rowett era specifically, what do you feel has gone wrong?

The decision making from the owners. While financial concerns have remained prevalent throughout the years, we started to look like a well-run football club under Gary Rowett with the youth and reserve teams thriving and the first-team needing a little extra quality and tactical flexibility to turn us from a mid-table to promotion contending outfit.

Whatever the club’s reason for sacking Rowett (many well documented), it was the decisions that followed that hit us hardest. Zola wanted an expansive game with players whose lack of mobility and positional sense left us open defensively and confidence was crippled.

Harry Redknapp, Jeff Vetere and Darren Dein took a sledgehammer to the squad, letting good professionals leave with the expectation that the new signings would simply gel because they were good players. Despite the feel-good factor that came with our summer of fun, the team looked like one that hadn’t been coached and by the time Redknapp left, the squad was disharmonious, disorganised and on its way to a potentially embarrassing relegation.

At least Redknapp remained positive about our chances. Steve Cotterill came in, moved more players on and spoke in a manner that suggested he was doing the club a favour by being our manager. The football was turgid (we scored 3 goals in his first 10 matches and 16 in all 24 matches), the excuses were mind-numbing and the constant bashing of young players was disgraceful. The Blues crowd turned on Cotterill in a way I’ve not seen us turn on any manager – including Lee Clark and Gianfranco Zola.

Monk’s arrival was a breath of fresh air. He put the onus firmly back on the players who responded to the increase in responsibility, working hard for one another and earning the 5 wins and 1 draw that ultimately secured our survival. We also scored more goals than games played. Amazing what can be done with a bit of organisation and harmony.

Garry Monk and assistant Pep Clotet have inspired top half form since taking over in March. After such a destabilizing overhaul of the squad a year ago, do you welcome a summer of relative stability?

The positivity surrounding this club was off the charts by the time the transfer window ended with Harry Redknapp proclaiming to everybody that would listen that we would finish in the top 6. Expectations grew and the comedown was horrible. Monk has avoided making outlandish statements for the upcoming campaign and the talk is that the pre-season trip to Austria was a successful one. Stability isn’t a word I would use with Birmingham City just yet but it does feel like Monk is in charge of his squad and after last season, that’s a positive.

The goalkeeping position looks potentially problematic; the club wanted to get David Stockdale off the wage bill but haven’t yet been able to bring in a replacement. Could Stockdale perform, having been told he wasn’t wanted?

I realise that Stockdale has riled a few fans on social media so his return could make for an indifferent response from supporters. However, if it means him playing football, I’m sure he’d return and perform until January when he can again weigh up his options. Stockdale had some superb games last season but is prone to a few errors and they won’t be met with the same patience as last season. I just hope that idiots on social media don’t take the abuse too far.

Athletic right-back Wes Harding has made a real impact since coming into the side for the final quarter of last season. Does the presence of an academy graduate lift the fans?

Unquestionably. Especially when a player like Harding comes through. He isn’t the most talented footballer but his work-ethic and willingness to fight for every ball is admirable. He epitomises what our fans expect from our players. The impact of Harding’s displays was increased due to Steve Cotterill and his insistence that our young players were not good enough. Bez Lubala and Josh Cogley also received game time while Odin Bailey and Steve Seddon were brought into the first-team squad. I genuinely believe Garry Monk found a list of Cotterill’s excuses lying about the training ground and channelled his inner Barney Stinson: Challenge Accepted.

Marc Roberts, Michael Morrison and Harlee Dean are the main centre-back options. Do you see Dean to be the best of the three?

I think with a more organised set-up this season, we will find out a lot more about our three central defenders. Dean has looked the better of the three but his competition has hardly been fierce – Morrison’s lack of mobility is starting to become a real hindrance to his game while Marc Roberts had a disastrous first year at the club. That’s not to dim the impact Dean had on the team. The ex-Brentford captain led by example and is another who epitomises what we expect from our players.

Kristian Pedersen arrives with glowing reviews from Union Berlin. Are you hoping he might offer a more extensive range of qualities at left-back than Jonathan Grounds or Maxime Colin?

Firstly, Maxime Colin was one of the few to come out with credit last season – even despite spending far too much time as a right-footed left-back. I will be honest in saying that I’ve never seen Pedersen play but he sounds fairly similar to Harding in the sense that his height, power and rawness make him a danger to the opposition. Grounds has been a steady, consistent performer but Monk was always going to want a full-back who could provide more going forward. Hopefully Pedersen is the man.

Blues have got a lot of honest battlers in midfield – Maikel Kieftenbeld, Craig Gardner, Cheikh N’Doye and David Davis (when fit). Do you feel somebody capable of controlling things in a more technical way is needed?

Stephen Gleeson burst into the team in November 2014 under Gary Rowett. He sat in midfield, picked up second balls and kept things neat and tidy for about two years. We knew we needed an upgrade almost immediately but Gleeson did a decent enough job more often than not. Since then we have signed an injury-prone Robert Tesche, the tenacious Maikel Kieftenbeld, an ageing Craig Garder then Cheick N’Doye and Jason Lowe. When we did sign a technically gifted young midfielder in Liam Walsh on loan from Everton, he was bombed out by Steve Cotterill and allowed to return to his parent club. He signed for promotion-chasing Bristol City a couple of months later.

We are desperate for a technically confident midfielder who can keep the ball and stamp his mark on games. With Monk looking towards a more progressive style, we probably need two or three of those players. One would be a nice start.

It’s fair to say Jota hasn’t quite hit the heights some hoped since joining from Brentford last summer. What do you put that down to?

Due to his name, his record and the fee, a lot was expected of Jota so getting injured after two games then missing a glorious chance against Aston Villa didn’t help give the best first impressions to his new supporters.

From there, a somewhat unfit Jota proceeded to be left isolated and his confidence disappeared. He was first used as the attacking midfielder in a 3-4-1-2 system, the problem being that the team were sat so deep that his role was to try and drag us up the field, an interesting role for a player who lacks pace, strength, fitness & confidence.

He was then given a role on the right-hand side in a 4-3-3 but there was no cohesion about our attacking play. The striker was often asked to chase hopeful punts into the channel and the wingers were stuck right out on the touchline in front of a midfield trio that struggled to move the ball quickly enough. The system required individualism but Jota was still lacking confidence, fitness and was often receiving the ball inside of his own half. And when he did gain possession, he rarely had a decent option ahead of him, or even alongside him. His attitude wasn’t exactly glowing through all of this but it was understandable looking back. Cotterill dropped him and it was clear that he wasn’t trusted.

Monk’s arrival felt like a clean slate for every member of the squad and Jota thrived under him. We began playing a 4-4-2 system in which Maghoma and Jota could move inside and link with the two strikers (Cotterill said we couldn’t play two up front) and the Spaniard thrived. He even started tackling the opposition, pressed high and started driving with the ball, knowing he had options around him. It was a remarkable change.

With Monk in charge, I’d expect us to see a very different Jota this season.

Che Adams and Isaac Vassell should be fully fit next season, Viv Soloman-Otabor had a positive 2017-18 loan spell at Blackpool and of course Jacques Maghoma has arguably been the best player over the last 12 months. Are you expecting plenty of pace in attack this year?

In essence, yes. Each of the players mentioned are known for their pace and/or power.

That said, pigeon-holing Maghoma and Adams into being quick footballers would be very harsh. Both showed their intelligence, composure and creativity under Monk towards the end of the season and are much more than runners and dribblers.

Vassell is a very raw forward but that’s expected given the time he spent in non-league football. The more time he spends on the training field and on the pitch, the more his technical prowess will improve. He could become a monster of a striker. As for Viv Solomon-Otabor, I can’t say I saw much of him at Blackpool but playing 44 games under a good manager in Gary Bowyer suggests he has something about him. I expect a more intelligent winger to return to the club.

There’s not a player still at the club who scored more than five league goals last season. How would you feel about Lukasz Jutkiewicz being first choice striker again this season?

It was seen as a surprise when Jutkiewicz replaced Sam Gallagher for Garry Monk’s opening game but he immediately got about repaying his new gaffer’s faith. With passes now coming into the chest and feet of the centre-forward, Jutkiewicz was able to back into defenders and bring his team-mates into the game, something we hadn’t seen all season.

The Juke’s goal record feels false. He scored once prior to Monk’s arrival but he was often played as a lone forward with little support from those around him. The ball was often hoofed forward and a player like Jutkiewicz is rendered useless if the ball is being hoisted into the channels for him to chase. He’s a willing worker but he’s a burly target man, not Cameron Jerome.

He returned under Monk and scored four pivotal goals in the final seven games of the season. His impact was bigger than the goals, however, as he made life easier for Jota, Adams, Maghoma and Jeremie Boga to have an impact in games.

The obvious downside to The Juke is his lack of mobility while he often tires in games quite quickly. Over a 46-game season, we are going to need fresh legs and another forward is necessary. That said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if he led the line come the start of the season.

Blues aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

The obvious stand-out teams are Stoke, West Brom, Swansea, Middlesbrough & Villa.

Stoke have an unbelievable squad at this level but Gary Rowett has never quite got over the finish line – this season is a huge test of his managerial ability. West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City will fancy their chances but have put their faith in managerial novices as far as the English game is concerned. Steve Bruce & Tony Pulis mean that Villa and Boro should be there or thereabouts.

Elsewhere, Frank Lampard and Derby County will be an interesting watch from afar with the ex-Chelsea and England man hoping to instil a winners’ mentality into an ageing squad. Nottingham Forest and Aitor Karanka are also being mentioned amongst the favourites for promotion and rightly so.

Dark horses? I’m not sure whether Norwich necessarily class as one but if they can get Ben Marshall and Jordan Rhodes firing they could replace the goals of Maddison and Murphy. Nigel Adkins and Hull City appear to have recruited quite well early on in the window too but I suspect they’ll fall short. Then there is Leeds United who will provide us with talking points under Marcelo Bielsa.

Where will you finish?

As it stands we have made one signing (who we may not be able to play due an embargo), have no goalkeeper and barely 18 first-team players on the books. But we have a manager who has galvanised the squad and we are surely going to add at least two or three bodies to the side before the end of the window? I want to say top-half but at this point it’s guess work.

Thanks to Ryan for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Birmingham can be found on We Love Betting from 30th July.