Sunday, 18 December 2016

Blues 1-2 Brighton - In Defence of Zola

Plenty has been said about the sacking of Gary Rowett and the subsequent hiring of Gianfranco Zola, but I won't cover that in much detail. I understand the reasoning for firing Rowett and, even though I don't like it, I see where TTA are coming from.

Instead, I'd like to focus on football, and why yesterday's tight loss to Brighton was actually really quite good.

First off, Brighton are really good. They're second in the table and they're miles better than anyone other than Newcastle. They have and will beat better teams than Blues.

Blues restricted them to their average of 13 shots, four on target, but of those, only two were inside the box with feet, which I don't need to tell you is the most dangerous shot to concede. Sadly, one of them was rifled in by Anthony Knockaert. That is a little unlucky.

Glenn Murray scoring is something that happens a lot in this league, and yesterday it happened to come from a set-piece in the last minute. It's gutting, but Blues were hardly cut apart by Brighton like at Newcastle.

In fact, this chart from @11tegen11 would suggest that Blues were extremely unlucky to lose this.

Brighton taking two half-chances is just unlucky, and to suggest that Rowett's Blues is somehow impervious to bad luck and would have won that, as I have seen from some Blues fans, is a little silly. I understand the upset, but it's not Zola's fault that our luck is starting to swing.

Even the most hardened Blues fan will tell you that they've been a little fortunate in recent weeks; it seems odd to praise Rowett for Kuszczak having three blindingly good games in a few weeks and yet when those shots go in, it's somehow the manager's fault.

So how did Zola go about it? Blues kept the ball much better than in previous weeks and this helped alleviate some of the pressure put on the defenders. This allowed Blues to restrict the opposition from shooting far more than under Rowett, as quite simply, they had less of the ball. Brighton are where they are because they can and do take apart set defences, and Anthony Knockaert especially is fantastic at it.

Newcastle are similarly good, and we saw what they did to a Blues side who sat back and tried to soak up pressure.

It wasn't until the subs came around the 70' mark that Blues started to sit back and Brighton, as you can see from the above chart, started taking shots and creating, but they hardly took Blues apart - them converting the chances blinds people to that.

Blues lined up in a 4-3-3, and passed the ball much better than in previous weeks. There was a clear structure and plan in the passing and Gleeson got on the ball far more than in previous weeks.

Once again, from @11tegen11:

The worry here is how much came down the right hand side, though generally this shows a clear plan and that Blues are able to pass the ball and create a nice network of passing.

David Davis appears to be the weak link here. Where Kieftenbeld created triangles between Stewart and Spector, as well as the midfield triangle, Davis couldn't affect the game as much on the ball. That said, his pressing and tackling ability in midfield can be key and it was he who won the ball back for Kieftenbeld's early chance.

The full-backs played extremely high up the pitch, which was a change too, and we shall see if this continues.

Jutkiewicz is impressive in this chart, as he consistently found himself linking up with team-mates as a target man should.

What does this all mean? It means that this, despite the disappointing result and the frustrating way it occurred, was actually pretty good. Some fans will blame Zola's subs - which is fair enough, but I would counter that a Rowett side would have sat back and been beaten earlier in that game. Brighton are really, really good, and Blues restricted them to headers and awkward shots, which is about as much as you can ask for. Blues' lucky streak has started to swing it seems, and that isn't Zola's fault.

This leaves us with January - and I have no idea what will happen in January. I think Zola may try to bring in a midfielder or two; I can't see him persisting with Davis in every game. Another forward appears likely, what with Donaldson's long-term injury and advancing age, and wide-left is a strange position. I don't know if that's where Fabbrini will play - given how narrow Cotterill was, I wouldn't be surprised - or if that's a role for Adams, or maybe Cotterill is the long term plan there.

In conclusion here, Zola's Blues were good but unlucky, we passed the ball a lot better but sadly got bitten by a bit of bad luck - so let's not that fuel the narrative. Back Zola, and who knows, maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised. It might even be better than under Rowett, the truth is none of us know at this moment in time.

As always, @BCFC_RYB or @ElliottBCFC on twitter, and a big thanks to @11tegen11 for the use of his data vis. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Robert Tesche - A Game-Changer?

Much has been said about Stephen Gleeson and his role in the Blues team. Some Blues fans don't rate him, some will defend him to the hilt, some take a moderate view. I think all of them have a point, and even as a fan of his, he is underwhelming at times. That said, he's been a big part of a midfield that has helped revive a broken Birmingham side and his passing range is, at times, astounding; though maybe not as often as we would like.

In the summer, Rowett added Robert Tesche to the ranks after a successful loan spell at the back end of the 2014/15 season. In the three games he has started this season, Blues have put in three superb performances and I wanted to look at how much Tesche affects the teams he's in.

According to expected goal data, which attempts to subjectively measure how good chances a team creates are, the three games against Norwich, Fulham and Reading (in which Tesche started) were three of Blues' best. A 3-0 win against Norwich was backed up by a healthy 2.24 'expected goals' to Norwich's 1.52. This at the time was one of Norwich's poorest attacking performances. I covered the Norwich game and the tactical side to it in my last post if you would like to read about how we stopped them playing.

This was followed by a dominant performance that led to a 1-0 win away at Fulham, where Blues missed a penalty and a series of good chances to make it more comfortable. Blues pressed incredibly well and the second penalty was won by Che Adams stealing the ball on the edge of the Fulham penalty area. Expected goal data had it as a 3.54 - 0.97 Blues win.

The third was a 0-0 draw against Reading. Blues were once again dominant, this time with Jutkiewicz up top who doesn't press as well as Donaldson necessarily does. Jutkiewicz had five shots, four of those inside the box and didn't manage to convert any of them, but expected goal data was once again impressed with Blues.

Since then, Blues haven't created over two expected goals in 90 minutes, and Tesche hasn't started a game - obviously this is a small sample, but it's hard to deny Tesche's influence. To prove it, I took a larger sample.

In his first spell, Birmingham bagged six wins, three draws with only three losses in twelve games, but it's hard to compare that with anything given the shambles that came before it. So I had a look at Nottingham Forest and found an interesting pattern.

Last season, Tesche started and played over 45 minutes in 16 games for Nottingham Forest. In those games, they averaged a goal per game, conceding just 0.69 goals per game on average, and took 1.56 points per game. They lost just three of those 16 games.

In the games Tesche missed, they averaged 0.88 goals per game - not much of a drop, around six goals in an entire season. However, they conceded 1.42 on average, a huge increase; worth 33 goals over an entire season. That suggests had Tesche played for a full season they would have been 39 goals better off than had they not had him all season - obviously this is a massive stretch, but it's hard to completely disregard his impact. They were also 0.6 points a game worse off without him.

Okay, so you could argue that they didn't have a good replacement for him. This year they let him go, which would suggest they thought they did have a good replacement. They are scoring more, at 1.56 goals per game, 0.56 more than with Tesche in the side the year before; but it's a double-edged sword. They're conceding 1.88 goals per game, a huge downgrade on 0.69 goals per game. They're averaging a point so far this season, too.

So, over 46 games with Tesche on those averages, against 46 games this season without on those averages, you get:


46 goals - 32 conceded
72 points


72 goals - 86 conceded
46 points

That's a 26 point difference.

Clearly this is very rudimentary - form swings, averages stretched over a season on a small sample can bring wild, wild differences from reality and Forest's squad is much different to what it was - but that is such a huge difference that it's quite tough to suggest Tesche has no effect.

It's hard to compare Blues with/without Tesche as he's only started three games, but those three were three of Blues' best performances of the season. He allowed Blues to press more aggressively as he is more mobile than Gleeson and intercepts the ball extremely well in advanced positions. He appears to get forward more often and his movement into the box has been great in limited minutes this year.

I'm loathe to draw sweeping conclusions from this, but I thought that Forest's dip in performance without Tesche was interesting enough to share with you all.

As usual, @BCFC_RYB and @ElliottBCFC on Twitter for all your complaints!

EDIT: Robert Tesche achieves a 121 GoalImpact rating, which is a measure of how much better a team is when a player is on the field.

This is about the level of a top Championship player, and importantly is much higher than the average Birmingham player, at around 112. I recommend checking out for more on what that means, but it's another statistical indicator that Robert Tesche is a huge upgrade on the average Blues player.

The highest average GoalImpact rating in the league is Newcastle's, at 124.7, which makes Tesche likely a top end Championship player.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A few tactical thoughts from Wolves and Norwich games

A change in system saw Blues run out comfortable winners over Norwich, as Gary Rowett's 4-4-2 took Norwich by surprise and exploited a few weaknesses in Norwich's defence. This was a far cry from the Wolves game, in which Blues were crushed in their own deep block and failed to get a stranglehold on the game.

I'm going to look at what worked and what didn't.

1. David Davis' role:

I was quite vocal on twitter about Davis' performance in the Wolves game. He was incredibly poor in that game, but I don't think that's his fault. He has a specific set of skills that really suit a pressing game, which is why I actually think he's a decent winger in certain situations. That said, in the double pivot at Wolves his eagerness to press and lack of composure on the ball really showed up. Blues were forced to go long due to Davis' resistance to dropping deep to collect the ball. Davis touched the ball just five times in a central position in Blues' half - Gleeson around 10 or 11, which still isn't good enough, but it's better.

More importantly, he was defensively slack. A lot of Wolves possession came in Blues' left halfspace, which should have been his responsibility as the left-sided DM. It's clear looking at touch-maps (below; Blue represents Wolves touches. Wolves attacking towards left) that this is where a lot of Wolves' joy came and allowed them to put pressure on Grounds and Shotton on that side. Davis attempted just one tackle in this area, and he was the only one to make a tackle there.

Blues failed to defend their left half-space properly. (Via WhoScored)

Now, against Norwich, he played in a system which suited him. Rowett decided to press aggressively, which was especially useful with Cameron Jerome out, as it meant Norwich couldn't play a long ball over the top in order to evade the press. This pressing system suited Blues wingers down to the ground - I've long admired Maghoma's defensive abilities - and Blues won the ball 12 times in the Norwich half, three times as many as against Wolves. Davis often instigated the press and Norwich struggled to get past it, relying on Tettey to be the dictator.

2. Central midfield.

An overlap into the Davis chapter, but Tesche and Kieftenbeld dealt with Hoolahan very well. Hoolahan is an incredibly dangerous player if he can get into 'Zone 14', the space just outside the edge of the box. Tesche and especially Kieftenbeld stopped him getting into that position where he can hurt Blues. Norwich managed to get so far but appeared to hit a wall.

Norwich consistently lost the ball 30-35 yards from goal. (Via WhoScored)

Predictably, Blues had issues in the half-space on the other side, however in a 4-4-2 with pressing wingers that's where the space will be. Norwich gave the ball away many times in the right half-space and as such, Blues were able to win the ball back nearly twice as much as against Wolves.

Tesche and Kieftenbeld were also more comfortable in playing possession football when we needed to and broke forwards from midfield well - including one instance where Tesche really should have scored.

3. The Front Two

Che Adams has made a big difference already. Despite playing in a similar position, he's a very different proposition to Diego Fabbrini. Interestingly, against Norwich, he stayed central and Donaldson shifted out to the right a lot, making a sort of 4-3-3 at times. Donaldson has benefitted most from Adams' ability to press defenders, turn and run at defences and occupy defenders. Donaldson looked much more like the player he was two years ago, as he sprinted past Norwich players, was a physical presence and a goal threat. 

Adams collected the ball in central positions in the opposition half 13 times against Norwich, where he can run at defences. His pace and strength are incredibly useful in holding off defenders and makes him and Donaldson a nightmare to play against. 

According to Expected Goal data, an objective measure for measuring quality and quantity of chances, Blues attacked Norwich better than any other side in the league. Blues created an 'expected' total of 1.7 goals, including the penalty, which is more than Norwich conceded in the first three games put together. Given Donaldson created Tesche's chance, won a penalty and then scored, it's fair to say he was a big part of that. 

It's entirely possible this total is conservative - Tesche's chance had only a 63% chance of being converted according to location and angle, but this doesn't take the speed of attack and position of defenders and goalkeeper into account which would likely make it a better chance. Similarly, Adams' one on one from a tight angle.

4. Conclusions

It's difficult to make conclusions from such small samples, but Blues were demonstrably better against Norwich. On the other hand, that system won't necessarily work against every team. I would, however, play the same side against Fulham, whose left back is particularly dangerous. It's well documented that Fulham have made the most passes in the league, so maybe going and pressing them will be dangerous as they may be best placed to dodge it. I would still try it, however, as Matt Smith will hurt us if we try and play deep, as Fulham will be able to hit him directly. 

4-4-2 seems to suit us but I wouldn't rely on it in every game - but Che Adams has to play no matter the system.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Why NOT signing a striker might be the best idea...

There's been a lot of anger aimed at the club and Gary Rowett, due to the perceived need for a centre-forward - which appears to directly contradict the clamour for Jack Storer and in some corners, Ronan Hale, to get game time. However, I'm going to make the case against signing a centre-forward, though I'm aware it might be controversial.

Three points:

1. Donaldson is actually pretty good.
2. Wide forwards are an economically safer bet
3. Jack Storer

Let's start with the football side. Clayton Donaldson is a lot better than a lot of fans seem to remember. Yes, he doesn't score loads of goals - but 10-15 goals, or 0.27 per 90 as I prefer to use, is pretty damn solid in a team not set up to exploit the centre-forward in terms of goals. There is a reason that all of the attacking midfielders who got significant minutes took more shots than Donaldson per 90 minutes. Jon Toral was a more consistent goalscorer, David Cotterill scored at 2/3's the rate of the Jamaican international and Maghoma at the same rate.

What does this mean? That unless Blues change the way they attack, the striker isn't going to get 25 goals a season. Much of the striker's job in this Blues team is as a facilitator, a creator and a link-up man. Many Blues attacks start with a direct ball to Donaldson who finds a winger or attacker and push forward. He is, essentially, the quintessential target man.

It's entirely possible that we could improve on Donaldson, but it's also quite unlikely for the money we have. Donaldson, were he for example 27, would be worth £3-4m. A player with 0.49 goals + assists per 90 in over 3000 minutes, as well as his ability to link attacks and set off counter-attacks. How do you improve on that for £1-2m?

The answer is through smart scouting and youth development.

Blues cannot compete financially with the top 10 in this league. Everybody knows that. That means we're probably not going to go up this year - which would make spending money on a striker who might score another four or five goals this year a waste of what resources we have. In order to be able to compete with them you need to consistently raise funds by buying under-valued players and selling them on, turning our limited resources into larger resources so we can make a proper promotion bid in the long-term. Ask yourself - which players are worth the most in today's market?

Young, British talent; goalscoring wide players; and centre-forwards, are always worth more money than their counterparts. If Jacques Maghoma scores 15 goals next year, his price would skyrocket - a 28 year old, playing in England, with 15 goals from the wing would cost around £4m in theory if you buy from a top half Championship club. Derby paid around £6m for Tom Ince, who scored at around 0.33 times per 90 last year, though he is younger and English.

Centre-forwards who score goals are very, very difficult to get for cheap. Blues are a team that is set up to give wide men space to attack - so the smart thing to do, economically, is sign cheap, or under-priced, wide forwards and hope they multiply in price.

That's why I love the links with Che Adams and Greg Stewart. They make so much sense in footballing and economic sense. If Che Adams has a decent year, his price will double. If he gets 20 goals over 2 years, he would be worth 5 times the price we pay for him. He's fast, versatile, English, young and scores goals from wide. £1.7 or £2m sounds like an absolute steal, because even if it goes wrong you won't lose much.

Greg Stewart is older, and not English, but he's at the peak age, and should be worth more than £500k. This is a guy who scored or assisted 0.67 times per 90 in, albeit, the Scottish Premier League, from wide. It's a gamble from Blues, should they sign him, but one that makes sense. If he has a good year or two, scores a few goals - he'll be worth a lot more than that. You can sell that and then re-invest in similarly under-valued players. That's how you make enough money to compete.

The final point is the emergence of Jack Storer. It would make sense to give him game time as soon as possible, and signing a striker will only limit that. Storer is 18, and has impressed everybody in pre-season - it would only be fair to let him play at some point at the start of the season. As I've said so many times, young, English goalscorers are worth a LOT of money. He would only have to score a few times this year to be worth a few million, and if he's as genuinely good as Blues seem to think he is, he will be worth more than our entire squad in six months.

Playing Storer makes so much sense for the long term future of the club. Either: He is good, we mould him into the perfect forward for the team and we have the striker we've been looking for without spending much money; He is brilliant, and we sell him for £5m+ and re-invest, improve the squad and improve, slowly but surely; or he is not all that great and we lose... nothing. It's low risk, very high reward.

In summation, Blues aren't going up or down this year, so improving the squad a small amount doesn't really make that much sense. Instead, it makes sense to play young players (Solomon-Otabor, Storer, Brown) and sign young or undervalued players to sell on (Adams, Stewart) and build for the future. It's what Southampton do, it's what Dortmund do, it's what Brentford do (one of the lowest wage budgets, but consistently in the top half) and I think it's what we should do. Rowett is a smart guy, and I'd trust him to buy smartly and have a long-term plan; I just hope the young players get the minutes they need to improve this year - more important than signing a striker, for me.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Oliveira, Wilson, Richardson and Alternative Transfer Targets

It's been a while since my last post, and much has changed. Blues have signed Robert Tesche and Ryan Shotton, which both appear to be improvements on the first team squad. Tesche especially I am a huge fan of, a powerful midfielder who creates chances and gets into great scoring positions quite consistently - or at least did in his last spell here.

The Shotton signing is a sensible one too. He's young, athletic, tall and versatile, so signing him for a small fee is a good deal. He improves the first team and covers a few positions, adds some height to the backline and is generally a good economic deal. If he has a few good years he will be worth a lot more than that price and if he has a few okay years, it's been a worthwhile deal.

Many of the players I outlined in the previous post have moved - Frederic Gounongbe moved to Cardiff, Falk Jensen to Copenhagen, Santos to Alaves and Van Weert to Groningen. I still think Denis Oliynyk is worth a look but he doesn't appear to be on Rowett's radar.

There appears to be something in rumours surrounding Kieran Richardson, James Wilson and Nelson Oliveira, so I'd like to look at them as well as some players who are now out of contract who Blues should definitely look at, if nothing else.

First off, let's look up top. Clayton Donaldson is great, but is aging and surely will struggle to keep up his incredible running and power over another 46 games. Nelson Oliveira looks like a great option if we could get him in, a player who scored 0.35 times per 90 (not including penalties) compared to Donaldson's 0.24, which constitutes around 3-4 more goals a season. He also took a lot of shots, which is always a good sign. 3.97 times per 90 minutes is a lot, though a big proportion appear to be from outside the area. However, he appears to win a lot less in the air despite being a similar size and despite creating more chances, gets less assists. This could be coincidence - people weren't finishing the chances he was creating - or it could indicate that the chances he was creating weren't particularly high quality. I would have needed to watch a lot more of him to find this out. Given his age and the fact he is a full international, I am certainly happy we are going after him and think it would be a good move despite my concerns.

James Wilson is a completely different if interesting prospect. He's lightning quick, making him a completely different forward to what we have, but is also surprisingly good in the air, at least with how much he wins. Last year, he scored at exactly the same rate as Oliveira but is younger and quicker. He creates less, but that may come with age, but the reason I would prefer Oliveira is that I think it's more likely we could sign him permanently. Wilson is liked at Manchester United and has plenty of admirers elsewhere, so I'd be surprised if we could sign him permanently.

I really struggled to find good out of contract options to play up top - I liked the look of Emre Gural but apparently, so did Galatasaray. I think Rowett may have found some great options - goalscorers are rare and expensive so finding these guys on loan is a good move - you can't find them on frees, generally.

I've outlined the fact that I think we need a goalscoring left winger if we are to improve, and thankfully, there seems to be more decent aged left wingers with good scoring records without a club. I've whittled it down to two who I think might be interested and could improve the squad.

Anis Ben-Hatira is potentially a very interesting choice. A left footed left winger, something that Blues don't currently have, who appears to like a shot and seems to score a few goals at a very decent level. My main concern would be that he hasn't played over 1000 minutes for a few seasons, but has impressed in the minutes he's had in terms of goals and shots, if not chance creation. He's a full Tunisian international and would be an interesting signing, but I would have concerns. He has scored goals when he's played and for that alone, he is possibly worth a look on trial as he is out of contract.

Alexander Gorgon is a player who is exciting. He bagged 19 goals from the right wing last year, which even boosted by penalties is still very good. He's reportedly out of contract, and I think it would be silly to not at least have a real look at the guy. He plays in Austria so there are issues with knowing how good the quality is and how well he will adjust, but it's so difficult to ignore a player with such a good record from out wide.

Let's move to the third and final problem position, left back. Kieran Richardson is a 'no, thanks' for me. Given that he was a winger, the fact that he creates less chances than Jonathan Grounds is a bit worrying from full back. The idea behind getting a new left back is either a straight improvement on Grounds (which I don't think he is) or an attacking alternative (which he isn't either).

Using stats to find full backs is nigh-on impossible with the publicly available stats, so I only really used chance creation and assists for some measure of attacking ability. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a start.

Sebastian Boenisch is a fun player. He's taller than Grounds, so Rowett will like that, but appears to offer more attacking threat. He tends to get a few assists and takes a weirdly large amount of shots, which could indicate aerial threat in the opposition box. He's a Polish international and last played for Bayer Leverkusen so it's very unlikely he'll move to Blues, but he fits the bill and much would depend on wages and his willingness to drop to the Championship.

Nicolai Boilesen would maybe be my pick. 6'1, Danish international, 24 years old and having played at the top level of Dutch football a lot should be quite experienced. He has recorded more assists than Grounds and has a higher pedigree, so may be an upgrade. However, I think Jonathan Grounds is actually pretty good and I'm not sure it's going to be easy to find an improvement.

A few other options are Derick Tshimanga and Emilio Izaguirre who would be available, but I have very little idea how good they are. Tshimanga has played for Belgium but they are famously short of full backs, and Izaguirre was rated highly by Celtic though we have no idea how well that translates to English football.

In conclusion; I like the Tesche signing a lot and the Shotton signing makes sense even if it isn't exciting. Oliveira or Wilson would be good signings and both are better goalscorers if possibly worse creators than Donaldson, but having more options is always good. We still need a left winger and I think we should look abroad - Gorgon is exciting and surely worth a look. Jonathan Grounds is good but there are options out there to add to the position.

I will be keeping an eye on all players I have picked out to see what happens to them and whether it was ever realistic for Blues to sign them, and whether they were actually good, so look out for that. Feel free to follow the blog on twitter at @BCFC_RYB or me personally at @ElliottBCFC.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The State of Play - Squad, Signings and Problem Positions

If you'd have offered 10th place to Blues fans when after that Bournemouth game, I think we all would have snapped your hand off.

But now, having been so close to the play-offs, it feels like a missed opportunity.

However, the team is, in my eyes, in a better place this summer than it was last. We have players tied down to contracts, we have Fabbrini, Vaughan (who I still like) and Kieftenbeld in areas where we may not have had players last summer and we have a thriving academy. It's all looking good, right?

Obviously Blues need to strengthen if we want to get into the top six, and there are some obvious areas for that. However, the one I think is most pressing might not be the one you are all thinking about. To me, Blues desperately need a winger.

Thanks to @Torvaney on Twitter, I have this chart which shows how Blues' performance dipped post-January.

Essentially, this chart shows that Blues were creating enough high quality chances to score 1.1 goals a game, on average, but that dipped to around 0.7 after January. Blues are not a free-scoring team and the defensive style has a lot to do with that low number, but 1.1 is fine for a team with such a defensive focus.

However, 0.7 is not. After February we went on a terrible run of games and the signings had no impact on the team. We were essentially carried by David Cotterill's obscene ability from free-kicks and whilst having Cotterill and Fabbrini and his incredible ability to win free-kicks (nearly six times per 90 minutes in an, albeit, small sample) means those numbers aren't quite as bad as they seem, we still need another threat.

This is not shocking news to anybody who watched Blues, but it is a cause for concern. The main difference between the team before the new year and after was Demarai Gray, who of course now has a Premier League winners' medal. Dimmy only grabbed one goal and one assist, but I think his leaving had a huge effect on attacking output.

I understand that this sounds odd, but Gray offered incredible pace, which allowed the team to transition quicker on the counter (shots coming from fast breaks are converted at a higher rate traditionally), he offered a lot of shots, which though not a lot of goals came from them, you feel that over the course of a season he might have scored a few, and it also made the attack more versatile. One issue we have had since is that so much of our play came through Toral and Cotterill, which has made it easier to defend against us. Gray gave us a third option and dragged defenders out of position, as well as keeping defenders honest.

Maghoma is a neat player. I'm a huge fan of him especially against big teams as I think he defends infinitely better than Gray ever did and the numbers back that up. Raw numbers aren't great for measuring defenders, but when a winger is making three times as many tackles, it's fair to say he's a better defender. I think we all knew that anyway.

Maghoma however does not shoot enough for me, and he doesn't create enough for me. He creates just one chance a game on average and shoots just over once a game. That's not terrible, but Gray had a much better output in terms of those numbers. Gray also took players on more than Maghoma did -
but there isn't too much in that. Maghoma is a very decent ball carrier, I just think Blues may be able to improve in that area.

Finding somebody as good as Gray at carrying the ball, beating players and getting shots off is not easy, and finding a good left winger on a cheap budget is so tough. One player who Blues were linked with last summer is Christian Santos of NEC, who according to is out of contract this summer and can play up top, behind the striker and out wide. He has scored 17 goals this season but quite a few were penalties, and has scored around 0.37 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. Given that he isn't an out and out forward that is very good, and given Blues' propensity for creating chances for wide players and midfielders, he might be a decent option.

I used a few simple techniques to try and identify some more potential players that Blues should take a look at, and found Denis Oliynyk and Rasmus Falk Jensen. Both are reportedly out of contract, left wingers and have some good signs. Oliynyk creates 1.7 chances a game, more than Maghoma and Gray did, shoots nearly twice a game and has scored 0.22 non penalty goals per 90. These are really encouraging signs, though he doesn't take players on as often or as well as Maghoma. That said, Maghoma is a good option on the counter and maybe a more direct winger is needed against the poorer sides whom have consistently dumbfounded the Blues attack.

Falk Jensen is currently playing in Denmark and as such we have little data on him, but as we know from the Brock-Madsen signing, Rowett likes to scout in such leagues. Falk Jensen scored 5 goals and grabbed 11 assists in Denmark's top division, and has consistently pitched in with a few goals in the last few years. He's 24, a full Danish international and out of contract, can play on both flanks and every single clip I can find of him seems to involve him running onto a ball at pace or dribbling past someone, though obviously this is not a great way of figuring out if he's good or not. It's more a comment on his style.

That said, there is of course no guarantee that any of these players would want to join, would be successful and won't be snapped up by other teams. However, we have seen with Kieftenbeld that English football can be a massive draw for players even in top divisions elsewhere. I also must stress I haven't watched these players and these are mere recommendations for further scouting. Falk Jensen is likely to move this summer I'd imagine anyway and Blues may struggle to get him.

Another major reason for Blues' decline was a struggle to keep goals out. We were quite fortunate earlier in the season (which I touched on in previous posts) and I think defensively especially. A powerful centre half is absolutely necessary in my opinion and that's not exactly a unique opinion. Finding one will not be easy, however, as the most obvious options out of England are either way too old, or Dan Burn. Burn wasn't too bad and would suit the style that Blues play - but he's been a part of a defence that has shipped goals and Blues should maybe be looking for someone better if they want to improve.

The other option is Ben Turner, but I think this would be a risky acquisition given his injury issues. If he can prove his fitness I think he'd be a very decent player, but that is a massive if.

A defensive midfielder, or more a two-way midfielder, would be ideal. Robert Tesche is out of contract but again he has had injury problems and there's no guarantee we'd get the player who helped us climb the table last time.

I think every Blues fan knows we need a Tesche-type and a centre half, but I think the winger is the most important part. That really is the biggest difference and as much as I like Maghoma, I think we need to try and improve going forward, because Maghoma is ineffective against the weaker sides in the league, in my opinion.

Another position that Blues fans love to talk about is centre forward. Last season Blues were a team who created chances for the wingers and number ten as much as if not more than the forward, though this could be partially the fault of Donaldson. Donaldson has been great for Blues but he is 32 and appears to be slowing down, and a lot depends on the form/fitness of Vaughan and Brock-Madsen, but it might be worth Blues finding another striker.

Finding a striker for cheap/free who has a decent scoring record is, as you'd expect, tough. Tom van Weert looks an okay option, 25 years old, scores at around 0.35-0.45 per 90 minutes with no penalties and creates about as many chances as Donaldson, but he would come from a foreign country which can lead to problems with assimilation and these are not outstanding numbers.

From Belgium, there is a forward called Frederic Gounongbe who may be worth a look. He's 6'4, scored 13 goals last year and has around a one in two record over his career. He's out of contract and has played six times for his nation Benin. Again, it's difficult to tell if he's any good, but he might be worth a look if he's on a free.

I hope this piece has been interesting and I'd like to see Blues look at these players, even if nothing comes of it, I think we have to look outside of this country. There's very little value in England and gaming the system is much easier with signings like Kieftenbeld - cheap, underrated and from 'smaller' nations.

To conclude: Blues need to replace Gray, badly, but finding an improvement up front might be very very tough. We need a centre-back and a midfielder, in my opinion, but we may again need to look outside of England. There's almost no value in Premier League players on 15k+ a week, or Championship rivals who will overcharge us.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Importance of Youth

There are plenty of sentimental reasons to play academy players at every level of the game, but for teams whose finances aren't entirely secure, there are economic reasons too. For Blues, this means that our young players have to be given game time if we want to progress - which may be slow, but it could be very fruitful.

Look at the last few players Blues have sold for a decent fee - Nathan Redmond went for £2m and is realistically worth a lot more, Demarai Gray went for £3.75m due to some contractual issues when he was realistically worth double that and Jordon Mutch went for an obscenely small fee too, due to some poor management from the board with finances. Now, by all accounts, Blues appear to be in a better place financially and even signed a player for £1.5m.

When you look at that signing, it was a move which was made to strengthen the side - whether that has happened yet I'm not sure - but it was financed by the sale of Demarai Gray. What made Gray worth so much money (relatively) was that he was young, fast, English and in an attacking position. These will always bump up a price, because of the homegrown quota. Attacking players will always cost more than defensive players, whether that be sensible or not. Pace is a quality that is sought after by so many teams and due to the recent rise in counter-attacking sides having success, this is likely to continue.

So what does this mean? Blues have to take advantage of the inflated prices for young English players by giving game time to these young players. At that age, you really only need 5-10 good games before your price rises to around £4-5m, which is gold dust to Blues. Viv Solomon Otabor is the obvious choice for the next player, with his obvious physical attributes and decent chance creation numbers in such a small amount of time. Viv appears to be the archetypal modern counter-attacker due to his incredible pace and willingness to carry the ball, but needs to get into shooting positions more and take more shots. This will come with coaching and game time.

Viv needs to play a lot more next year. He needs to be starting more often, and coming off the bench when he doesn't. His ability will be useful on the break anyway, but more than that, he needs game time. He signed a new deal in January I believe, and if next year he has a decent year, he would be worth circa £5m. £5m would allow Blues to sign two or three players to improve the squad, bring some more youth through and continue the cycle.

If it doesn't work out for Viv, and he doesn't become a Premier League or upper Championship level counter attacker in the next year, then Blues will have a 20-year-old attacker with blistering pace, willingness to carry the ball and hopefully by then a player with decent output. He will still be a threat at this level, meaning we will have to sign one less wide attacker. To me, it's almost a win-win situation.

Who else is there that could be worth giving some game time? Emmanuel Mbende is a name that has been touted around, as a somebody who is very good on the ball, but maybe not as good in the air as his frame would suggest. Ball-playing centre-backs are another sought after commodity (just ask John Stones) because as pressing becomes more commonplace, defenders who can break lines of pressure with a pass are invaluable.

Mbende needs to be given a few games in the cup, or even in games where Blues are expected to dominate, as that passing might come in handy. He may even be moved to defensive midfield, if what I have heard is correct. He might not be worth as much there, in terms of transfer value, but he could fill a much needed gap there - which again, makes economic sense.

Youth is not just a nice idea, for teams of Blues' level it's almost a necessity. Fortunately, Blues have a very good academy and great staff - Kristjaan Speakman seems to be a very good talent spotter and youth coach and Blues need to make use of it.

With the noise coming out of the club, it seems they are looking to the youth teams a bit more, which is a great thing. Alex Jones seems to be scoring goals, and further down, David Popa and Ronan Hale seem to be bagging quite a few. They only need to score a few at a senior level to be worth a decent chunk of money, which has been proven time and time again.

Reece Brown is the interesting one here, for me. Brown has all the talents to be a Premier League playmaker, whether that be as an 8 or a 10. Unfortunately, there is little data about him due to his restricted game time in the last few years, so I can't be certain about this, but Rowett has said as much. How we can sort him out, I really don't know, but there is clearly a problem with Reece that is stopping him from becoming the player we know he can be. It's a shame, because he is another that could be worth a lot of money to Blues.

Blues have to look at the youth, and I think Rowett is smart enough to see that. Young, homegrown players and certain styles of player are worth a lot of money to a club like ours, and that money will help the club compete. We have to take advantage of this by using our academy talents and using the transfer fees to grow.