Birmingham City 1-1 Sheffield United Six Things: sturdy Blues match below-par Blades

Enda Stevens bags the opener –

Another strong defensive performance from Birmingham City saw them move a step closer to securing their Championship status by matching prime promotion contenders Sheffield United in a 1-1 draw at St Andrews on Wednesday night. Here’s our Six Things from the contest.

United’s pedestrian first half

When Leeds United visited St Andrews on Saturday, their problem was too many players focusing on the attacking phases of play and not enough providing control. For Sheffield United, the problem was almost the opposite. David McGoldrick was listed as a forward but he spent most of the game trying to influence proceedings centrally and while in some ways that made him one of the Blades’ better players, his work also disrupted the equilibrium slightly. There is only any point in a forward coming short for the ball if there is a midfielder then breaking beyond him into the vacant space, but the man most likely to do that – Kieran Dowell – was on the bench. Oliver Norwood’s passing range meant he held some value in midfield but that meant there was a responsibility on John Fleck to do push forward more and perhaps that is not his strong suit. With George Baldock quieter than usual on the right, Chris Wilder’s side were short of pace, drive and variation.

Birmingham’s bold setback response

Out of the blue, Sheffield United bagged the opener on 38 minutes; after exchanging passes with pantomime villain Mark Duffy, Enda Stevens cut in from the left channel and placed a shot high, inside the near-post. Still, Birmingham were not to be fazed by that set-back as Connor Mahoney continued to make bold, direct runs down the right. After the Bournemouth loanee’s 42nd-minute left-wing corner was only partially dealt with by Dean Henderson, Michael Morrison fired home. It was a deserved goal for Morrison, who alongside the equally imperious Harlee Dean has shown outstanding leadership qualities over the last two games.

Jota’s impact

Garry Monk was mildly criticised in some quarters for bringing Jota on for the exciting Mahoney, rather than Jacques Maghoma. Although the latter had not been as effective going forward, he had done his defensive duties selflessly and neither Jota nor Mahoney are known to be effective on the left, which might have been why Monk sacrificed the latter. Plus, Jota made an instant impact from the right; not only did he force a smart, near-post stop from Dean Henderson, he also showed slightly more potential than his positional rival to link up with strikers, setting the hardworking Che Adams up for an instinctive first-time strike that Henderson tipped over. Maxime Colin had been playing well before Jota came on, but the introduction of his former Brentford teammate appeared to spark something off in the Frenchman, who along with left-back Kristian Pedersen, attacked the flank with some determination.

Blades’ late rally

When Gary Madine came on initially, it was during Birmingham’s spell of prominence and his lack of pace meant the Blades were unable to counter-attack. As the second period progressed though the South Yorkshire outfit managed that pressure by keeping the ball well, eventually tiring their hosts and that’s when they found opportunities to bring Madine into the game. The former Owl might not have had chances himself, but his physical presence meant he occupied the attentions of opposing defenders enough to allow his teammates more space, with McGoldrick heading onto the roof of the net from Norwood’s well-flighted left-wing corner. Still, the Blades could not quite make the pressure tell.

Monk’s men edging closer to safety

With Rotherham losing thanks to Villa and none of the teams below Birmingham winning in the midweek fixtures, this is a very valuable point for Garry Monk’s side. The former Leeds boss and assistant Pep Clotet clearly have a very strong working relationship which has enabled them to build a hardworking team capable of adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Considering the budgetary constraints, it is impressive that this Blues side merits so much faith and belief – they are likely to secure their Championship status much earlier than they have done in three of the previous five campaigns and that’s with a nine-point deduction. The B9 outfit are not safe yet, but this is another step in the right direction.

Wilder’s side stay third

With Leeds United winning 2-0 at Preston on Tuesday, a point on Wednesday was not enough for Sheffield United to reclaim their place in the automatic promotion spots. The dominance the Blades showed in the final 20 minutes meant, maybe, their performance just about merited avoiding defeat – although to an extent they had little choice but to attack a lot more at that stage. It is a good thing that United kept the ball for long enough to be able to grow into the game towards the end, but then a more clinical team might have punished them more severely in the first three-quarters of the contest. Wilder, therefore, has a little bit of re-thinking to do in order to strike that balance between control and penetration, which is required if they are to get back in the driving seat for promotion.