In Birmingham’s first season back in the Premier League last year, fans and staff alike couldn’t have wished for a better outcome.
Every manager will tell you that their number one aim after achieving promotion into the highest tier of England football is to “avoid relegation”, and that’s exactly what Birmingham and Alex McLeish accomplished – quite comfortably in fact, finishing ninth place with a fantastic haul of fifty points. They remained unbeaten at home against each side above them in the table – except local rivals Aston Villa – and made a very good eleven clean sheets.
There were a number of factors that perhaps achieved such a fantastic first season – finishing in the top half of the table, and for a certain period vying for a Europa League position. It could have been the feeling of financial security under the presidency of the noticeably enthusiastic Carson Yeung. Or maybe the good blend of youth in the squad with the wily old heads of Kevin Phillips, Stephen Carr, Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson. Or more to the point, the indestructible back five that the manager glued together – showing money and foreign investment in goalkeepers and defenders isn’t the only option for a Premier League manager.
The strength of Birmingham’s back five has been outlined on this site before. McLeish plucked his central defensive pairing from the Coca Cola Championship – not many Premier League squads in the top half of the league, or even in the bottom half for that matter, could claim that. His right back, Stephen Carr, reversed his retirement to return in the promotion winning year before receiving the captain’s armband and making thirty-two appearances last season. The left back spot was shared amongst a couple of players, but each did a spectacular job of fitting in when asked upon. Most regularly was Liam Ridgewell – primarily a centre back – who’s height and defensive ability even more solidified the back four.
Last Season: 9th
Manager: Alex McLeish
In: Ben Foster (£6million from Manchester United), Enric Valles (free from NAC Breda), Nikola Zigic (£6million from Valencia).
Out: Artur Krysiak (free to Exeter), Cristian Benitez (loan return to Santos Laguna), Teemu Tainio (loan return to Sunderland), Gary McSheffrey (free to Coventry), Lee Carsley, Franck Queudrue, Jared Wilson and Gregory Vignal (all released).
The only name to have changed this season is the one between the sticks. Joe Hart heaped much praise last season, making eleven clean sheets and a string of outstanding performances before ultimately ending up in the World Cup squad. His loan spell at St Andrews came to an end, and he goes back to Manchester City to, rightfully, challenge Shay Given for the number one jersey at a club competing for top silverware.
His replacement is another English goalkeeper, Ben Foster, who joined for around £6million from Manchester Utd. Once regarded – like Hart is now – as one of the best young English goalkeepers around, Foster failed to edge his way in to the United side for a prolonged period of time and hasn’t competed for the England shirt since his debut in 2007. Now 27, Foster has a chance to kick-start his career behind a defence that will rarely let him down. At 27, he is still more than young enough to make a name for himself as a top quality goalkeeper and even compete for the national team again. As we know, most goalkeepers seem to hit form later on in their careers.
Things have changed in the striker department, too. Last year Birmingham were spearheaded by Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez. Jerome was particularly good up front; scoring eleven goals (on par with Nicolas Anelka), while the popular figure of Benitez brought excitement and work ethic to the side, albeit in a lack of goals. Not to mention falsehood in the reports that he had signed permanently last summer. The signing of Nikola Zigic from Valencia however – all 6”7 of him – is a tremendous coup for the team. The big target man was chased by a couple of bigger clubs around Europe, but his decision to join Birmingham may have given us an insight into their ambitions over the coming seasons.
Tactics: They are quite defensive, playing a conventional 4-4-2 formation with centre midfield players who are happy to play reservedly in the middle. However the addition of Michel to the side last January has added a good passing range into what was otherwise a limited midfield, and his ability on the ball is even more welcome with the aerial threat of Zigic, and Jerome’s ability to chase behind the defence. They played the popular 4-2-3-1 formation a few times last season when Benitez wasn’t available, but weren’t as comfortable resulting in a few losses. They have a weak squad in terms of depth, but the solid unit they have regarding the starting eleven and options from the bench should ensure them another midtable finish and avoidance of the dreaded “second season syndrome”.
Key Player: Their star player is of course centre defender Roger Johnson, who’s heroic performances last season saw him regarded as one of the signings of the season, and even a possibility of an England call-up. A tough defender who gives it his all, the man will be a colossal figure at the back for Birmingham again.
Fixtures: Birmingham kick-off their season away to Sunderland in a game that they are more than capable of winning. We’ll preview Sunderland’s season very soon, but with the loss of Lorik Cana – and the possible sale of Lee Cattermole – the Black Cats have been weakened and Birmingham should be aiming for an early three points. After that they are at home to Blackburn, again, another winnable game. Then it’s on to the Reebok Stadium to face Bolton, a difficult home tie with Liverpool before travelling to West Brom to face the newly promoted side.
First Five Fixtures: Sunderland (A), Blackburn (H), Bolton (A), Liverpool (H), West Brom (A)
Where will they finish? A great start to the season and Birmingham are well on their way to emulating last season’s finish. The addition of Nikola Zigic will add a different dimension to their attack, and may add some much needed goals, however the lack of strenght in depht may see them teeter off again come the last few months of the season. If Foster can reproduce Hart’s form, and the back four are as tightly knit as they were last year, Birmingham will do well. 9th.