11 Games In
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this piece was originally to be titled 10 Games In, received wisdom being that this represents the first chapter of a season before which it is foolish to draw any conclusions. However, given the proximity of our last two games, and how fickle football is to prevailing opinion, I thought it sensible to hold fire until after the Boro game. This turned out to be fortuitous – Friday night saw clearly our best performance of the season and, hopefully, some green shoots of progress.
The key now for Pep will be identifying what worked well – particularly in midfield, where we used the ball better than I’ve seen a Blues side for some time – and developing it.
Success leaves clues, as the saying goes, and the best managers can always be identified by their ability to recognise what they have done right. Managers who are able to transplant success from club to club usually share the ability to harness what they have at their disposal and use their tools judiciously. A common route to failure is to try and shoehorn a system around the players and expose players’ weaknesses by asking things of them that are simply not possible
It’s fair to say that performances in the first part of the season have mostly pointed toward that conclusion.
Although our points total is pleasingly healthy, displays have been generally tepid. Too often it has been difficult to see what the game plan is, difficult to see what might have been happening on the training ground and difficult to see where the clearly talented new players would fit in.
By contrast, our weaknesses have been easy to spot.
As much as it isn’t helpful to retread old ground, it is still worth reflecting on the positives of last season where Blues were functional and extremely effective. The manager correctly identified the players at his disposal and played to their strengths whilst trying to mitigate their weaknesses.
We not only scored more league goals (64) than we had since finishing 4th under Hughton (74), we also found the first player to hit more than 20 in a season for 24 years. We had one of the most productive strike partnerships and, according to Sky Sports, the most effective player in the whole league and probably the best header of the ball outside of the top flight.
There was a clear pattern of play, which, although not always aesthetic, was perfectly adapted to the resources we had at our disposal.
Fans were rightly concerned when, in the summer, it became apparent that major surgery was to be preferred to cosmetics. We removed 26 goals from our team with no obvious means of replacing them. We lost both first team wide players, nullifying our most effective threat, and were told to expect a side without wingers.
The pre-season promises of “a fresh and modern footballing philosophy” were starting to look absurd against the reality of a supposedly possession-based team who are not especially good at keeping the ball, and create neither good quality chances nor shots on goal.
The squad is still very much a work in progress and we are particularly light up front and at full back. We currently have four players who could conceivably argue their best position is number 10, no strikers who can run in behind (surely absolutely essential for our style) and one true wide player. It would not take an awful lot for us for us to suddenly be relying on square pegs in key areas: we have looked particularly weak when asking squad players to adapt to unfamiliar roles.
We must also not lose sight of the ten foot tall warning signs concerning the stewardship of the club.
There is the highly irregular situation at the training ground. There is uncertainty as to who is actually in charge of transfers in and out. There was the unusual acquisition of Bernard Sun, who has barely kicked a ball in the Spanish second tier. There are still many, many outstanding questions regarding our FFP status.
The intensity and purpose which characterised Friday night’s win is certainly something to build on. I think most of us would be happy with a season of relative stability in which our style gradually becomes more apparent, bolstered by some sensible additions in January. A few more performances like that will certainly help players and fans feel more confident that what we are trying to do is actually achievable.