Birmingham City 1 – Burnley 1
Wednesday 19 October 2022
A single point only, but the most competent of team performances for years from Blues as they held and almost turned over probably the best team in the league.
After the Truss-like chaos both on and off the field of recent years, there was something incredibly satisfying about seeing a Blues team willing and able to carry out a game plan to perfection.
Although there was intensity and pace to Blues’ play, this was no gung-ho effort where we tried to blast Burnley out of the water. What was really pleasing was the discipline of the whole thing, typified by the work of the back-five who, apart from Longelo’s slip in the second half, didn’t put a foot wrong, to the extent that, again, Ruddy hardly had shot to save during the match.
One of the main joys of watching a game live, rather than on the box, is that you, rather than the director, get to choose what you look at. For a period of the first half, I watched as the back five went about their business.
While the game plan involved a high press on Burnley in the last third, hoping to force a turn over as the Clarets played out from the back, Blues conceded the ball in the middle third. The energetic midfield pair of Hanibal and Chong, with the aid of the front two dropping back, harassed the Burnley technicians forcing them back and square. This often resulted in them going longer than they wished and coughing up possession as a result.
But this tactic also involved the back five keeping a consistent line and pushing up and squeezing the space in midfield, as well as Bielik plugging any gaps should Burnley try and thread it through the centre. It was this discipline of the back five that caught my eye, particularly in the first half as Burnley pressed for the lead.
And the personification of that discipline was Harlee Dean. Truth be told, Harlee Dean is a much better player when he’s calm, it all goes to pot when he’s playing like a chicken with his head cut off believing that leadership and example consist of trying to do everything, all the time. When he sticks to his job, he’s a good player. In this, he reminds me of Roger Johnson, who also had the tendency to get over-excited and lose his discipline.
Dean also has better distribution than Roberts, which is a bonus. Since his return from the wilderness, Harlee Dean has been excellent. Trusty, the returning Sanderson and Colin have been that all season. With a proper left wing-back, in the form of Longelo, in place the back five have a real balance to them. This shows that the three-centre-back and wing-backs formation is fine when you have the right personnel and coaching to apply it.
Only one major scare in the first half as Rodriguez’s cross-shot flew across the box and hit the post. But by half time the first part of the plan had been achieved. As many of us hoped and started to suspect before the game, Blues were able to go toe-to-toe with a good Burnley side. Nothing to fear here as they coped with everything that Burnley had with calmness and assurance.
The question was whether Blues could take that confidence into the second half, keep it going and maybe even nick a winner. Throughout, our best chances of a goal came from set pieces, like Bristol City, the energy of Chong and Hanbial running at the opposition with the ball, the ball in from the wing-backs and the chance of that turn over in the last third.
Another admirable quality of this team is their character. Rather than Blues taking the lead, which looked increasingly likely as the half wore on, it was Burnley who grabbed the first goal late on. That slip from Longelo gave the chance for the substitute, Gudmunsson, to advance with the ball on the edge of area and let go a lovely curler which left Ruddy with no chance.
Previous Blues side would have been completely deflated by this setback, but galvanized by prompt and progressive substitutions by Eustace, Blues forced Burnley back and started piling on the pressure.
Juke came on to make it three up front, Hall provided even more attacking threat, with the team going to four at the back to allow for more bodies up front.
“By the end, Burnley were relieved to get away with a point”
And it worked as, with his first involvement, Hall scurried down the right-hand side before delivering a great near post cross which Hogan met first and turned beyond the Burnley keeper – Scott’s always better when he doesn’t have time to think about it.
By the end, Burnley was relieved to get away with a point, as Blues peppered their goal and chances were created.
Close but no cigar on a few occasions, Blues had to settle for a point and a feeling that they maybe deserved more – another sign of how far we’ve come.
Blues have now strung together a nice run – just the one defeat in eight – which, along with the nature of the performances, suggests that this is no flash in the pan.
As long as we can keep Eustace, others will be taking notice of the job he’s doing at St Andrew’s, there is a real feeling that the trajectory is upward at long last.