Friday 30 December 2022
Blues slipped to their second defeat in a week at St Andrew’s last night, giving rise to fears that the second half of the season could herald a return to the struggles of the last few years with a battle to remain in the division.
Hull City deserved their win, but they didn’t have to be very good to beat a home team lacking in ideas and energy. Hopes that Tuesday night’s comprehensive defeat at league leaders Burnley might have been a one-off were dispelled on a dispiriting night.
Eustace’s paper-thin squad was exposed as he named an unchanged team for the fourth consecutive game, still missing three of the season’s better performers in Hogan, Hall and Dean. Rumours abound that all three have been cotton-wooled ahead of moves in the window.
It’s that kind of time, a few defeats on the spin and the conspiracy theorists emerge. Likewise, I’ve seen the first tweets questioning Eustace’s position – ridiculous given what he’s done in the first half of the season.
Nevertheless, we’ve seen a distinct downturn in performance since the return after the World Cup, and there may be some truth in the rumours, particularly in the case of Hall whose absence, along with Nico Gordon’s, is shrouded in mystery.
But the most keenly felt absentee is Hogan. The goals, obviously, but as much the movement and pressing upfront. In many ways, Hogan set the tone in the first half of the campaign. The need for a mobile younger forward in the next window has become even more apparent with his absence.
Important absentees have coincided with a dip in form by players integral to the good first half of the season. The two World Cup returnees are the most obvious case in point.
“… wandering around like he’s on a Sunday afternoon stroll”
Bielik’s been off the pace since returning from Qatar, wandering around like he’s on a Sunday afternoon stroll rather than competing in the hustle and bustle of the Championship. The worry with the Pole is that he’s achieved his aim for the season – a place in the Polish squad – and that motivation will now be lacking for the rest of the season. And that’s a worry as his role is crucial in the way that Eustace got them playing.
It’s no coincidence that Bielik’s recent inability to knit things together in midfield and protect the back four has coincided with increased use of the long ball – or Roberts kicking the ball into touch as it’s also known. And don’t start me on the resurgence of the long throw.
Hanibal is a cause for concern as well. He was lucky not to see red against Burnley the other night and, not for the first time, Eustace had to haul him off before he was sent off. But that’s an ongoing challenge with the Man U loanee, what’s newer is that his running with the ball, so effective before Qatar, seems to have morphed into headless chicken.
Unlike Bielik, Hanibal is young and not used to the demands of the two/three games a week Championship. A rest may be the answer. That’s hard when Eustace has so few resources at his disposal but on the evidence of his sub appearance last night, Jordan James seems ready for another run in the side.
Another way that the World Cup might have worked against us is that it’s given others time to suss us out. It’s fair to say that we were a bit of a surprise package in the first half of the season. The break for Qatar has allowed others to take us a bit more seriously and plan accordingly. The main result of this is, tactically, Longelo has been identified as a defensive weak link and has been duly targeted to great effect in the last two games.
The overall result is a staleness to Blues since the restart – one that seems to demand change. Like Roberts’ long throw, you shouldn’t keep doing the same thing if it isn’t working. Eustace hasn’t much room for manoeuvre in terms of personnel, and who knows if he’ll get more to play with in the window?
Tactically he did change it last night. His hand was forced slightly by injury to Sanderson, but we went to a back four with a diamond in midfield and two bruisers up front. With Graham replacing Longelo at left back, he and Max were able to link with the wider players in the diamond and get the ball in from wide more often, rather than the big boot down the middle that we’d employed for most of the game. The change also had the advantage of getting Chong back into midfield where he’s undoubtedly more effective.
The downside of the change was that it exposed Bacuna to midfield harrying in more dangerous situations than before. With Max bombing forward there wasn’t much cover behind Bacuna.
Bacuna’s a talented player on the ball but lightweight. When he lost the ball for Hull’s goal, it wasn’t the first occasion that it had happened on the night but, this time, without the cover it proved fatal.
They’re coming thick and fast at the moment. Monday’s game at home to Middlesbrough is a stern test with the Teessiders on a roll since the appointment of Carrick. And a real test for Eustace’s credentials – can he change things to pull us out of this mini-slump?