Monday, 10 December 2012

Wolves 1-0 Birmingham: why I'm sticking with Clark

Evening scorers,

Unfortunately, I couldn't get to the Wolves away game, but I managed to watch it on TV. Following the game, I'd like to explore the general state of affairs at the club and talk about my opinions on them, because on the Birmingham City Facebook page, the majority of fans' status is 'Clark out'. My own opinion is that a combination of patience and lowered-expectations (if that's possible for Blues) is the order of the day. And here are some reasons why.
1. The first half of the performance against Wolves was good (well, mostly).
Despite the defeat, I think there are positives that we can take away from the game. For the first half an hour or so, we had Wolves really rocking and deserved to take a lead. The football we were playing was high-tempo that involved lots of crisp passing; there were a few times where one of our players would get a bit ahead of themselves and try a fancy flick and it wouldn't quite come off, or someone would run in the wrong direction anticipating the wrong pass, before running back hoping no-one noticed. It was frustrating to watch, but it showed the confidence and the ideas were there, they just weren't coming together in the right way. But hey, this is Birmingham City we're talking about, not Solihull Moors.

We played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which I actually thought Clark got right. The idea behind the system being that Spector and Mullins would boss the middle of the park by badgering the ball off people, and playing it out wide to our teenage wingers, Hall and Redmond, to switch flanks and run at Foley and Ward, who aren't the quickest. Marlon King was to act as the main target man who could hold the ball up for onrunners from out wide, from midfield and Elliott just behind him.

This system saw just mixed results in the first half. Whilst we could control the midfield well enough with two holding midfielders, Marlon King seemed quite isolated up front. You wouldn't have expected that to happen with 3 attacking midfielders in, but Wade Elliott had quite a quiet game in behind him, and Redmond and Hall provided so much width, it meant they couldn't cut inside and support King because their sole responsibility was to beat the fullback and whip in a cross- we relied a lot on attacking runs from fullback Caddis for support for King. Therefore, when the crosses came in from Redmond and Hall, King was surrounded by two central defenders who weren't the most skilled and composed defensively, but could outmark King by the power of numbers. I felt in the circumstances with the little support he had (his own goal aside) Marlon did fairly well closing down the defence and goalkeeper, making them panic clearances- Spector and Mullins attained possession on a number of occassions that way.

It was a bit of a catch-22 for the midfield in the second half when Spector came off injured. At the time, I was glad Ravel Morrison was coming on, because he's another creative midfield player who could maybe help King with some more attacking runs off the ball. The problem was though, it was actually having Spector's domineering work rate in midfield that allowed us to control the game and attempt to get the right service to King in the first place. Spector being off the pitch meant that we couldn't even gain control of the ball anyway, so how could Morrison have had the chance to make an impact if we never had the ball? Wolves totally bossed it once Spector came off- Morrison pushing forward left a massive gap in the middle which Mullins, at 33, simply didn't have the stamina to cover and Solbakken's side were all over us. We couldn't get a foothold. It was a disappointing defeat but I feel suitably confident that we can bounce back from it.

2. He might eventually learn where to play Spector.

I'd like to briefly argue the importance of Jonathon Spector playing in a defensive midfield role. Having an energetic, tough-tackling holding midfield player is, in my opinion, an extremely underrated component of a successful football team.
Why did Madrid struggle after selling Makelele? Why have Arsenal never won a trophy since Vieira left? Why have Juventus done so well after signing Pirlo on a free? For me, this all points towards the importance of having a player who can sit in front of the back four, act as the extra support man to outnumber the opposition and break up attacks, always be in space and constantly be helping the team keep possession. Having a player in your team can do that is indirectly multifunctional, in my opinion. Whilst fans might not print their names on the back of the shirts for being able to run past everyone and score amazing goals, the importance of having a player like that, I just don't think you can value.
And that's at any level, I don't think it just applies to the top league. Why would it? It's the same game as far as I'm concerned.
Applying that to the Blues then, I firmly believe that Jonathon Spector is the man for that job. His bullish energy, selfless work rate and team play has been crucial for us in midfield this season. Whenever he's played there, that is, in breaking up attacks. You've also got to take into account that a lot of the time his midfield parter is Hayden Mullins, who is seemingly unable to run or tackle, which isn't particularly handy for a defensive midfielder.
I think if Clark learns to play him in midfield more often, we'll see some results. I'm not going to say this research is totally groundbreaking, but I certainly do think it proves where Spector is best being played.

In 8 games in which Spector has played at right-back, 4 of those games we've lost and deserved nothing else from the game. For example, when we lost 5-0 at home to Barnsley back in September, Hayden Mullins was the only defensive-minded midfield player we had in the team, as Ravel Morrison kept pushing forwards. It left so many gaps in the space between our penalty area and the centre-circle and Barnsley played a lot of quick, short, tidy football, so with 10 men we just couldn't stop them and it was an embarrassing defeat. But if Spector was being played in midfield then I think we might have coped better.

Overall, we lost 5 of those games. The one anomalie was the 1-0 win at Brighton, which was a great way to react to the 5-0 against Barnsley, but I would have considered that result a little fortuitous as Brighton had more of the ball. What's also interesting, is that with Spector at right-back, we've never got a result out of a match and with the consensus being that we deserved to.

We've conceded 16 goals in these 8 matches, which averages 2 goals conceded per game which points towards Mullins' isolation in midfield. If you're conceding 2 goals a game, more often than not, you're going to lose matches. We've taken 5pts from 8, which averages 0.6pts per game. On that ratio, if Spector played at right-back every match, we'd have almost 13pts (12.6pts on average) and would be joint-bottom of the table with Peterborough.

Admittedly we've never won and controlled a game with Spector in defensive midfield, but indeed, we've never done that this season. In fact, not even this season, just we've never won and controlled a game in the entire history of our club. Full stop.

In these 8 matches, fortune has probably favoured us but you could also argue that it highlights our ability to grind out results with Spector in the middle of the park. We've beaten teams like Bolton and Middlesbrough and have drawn with Leicester which is impressive, though losing to teams like Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield suggest that changing Spector's position isn't going to completely turn this season on it's head.

What is interesting though, is that we've conceded a considerably lower total of 11 goals from these 8 matches, which averages 1.4 per game. Compare that to an average of 2 goals a game- the contrast isn't stark but it's certainly noticeable.

We're also gaining 1.5pts per game, which is almost another average point per game higher than with Spector at right-back (0.6pts). In fact at this rate, if Spector played in midfield for every match, we'd have almost 32pts (31.5 av) and would be up to 10th in the table. What's more, is that there would be four teams above us on the same points, so we'd actually be just a point off the play-off places.

To add to the utility of my argument, he's had a noticeable impact when he's played in midfield in other matches where he's either come on as a substitute or come off injured, but hasn't been on the pitch for 60 mins or longer. In the match against Bristol City, we were drawing 0-0 at half-time and Spector came on, so the intensity of our play increased and we won 2-0. At Wolves, we put in a great first half performance and deserved to be in the lead at half-time when Spector was on, but then Spector came off injured and Wolves dominated- in the end we could of lost by 3 or 4. It just tells you the importance he has to the team when he plays in midfield.

Studying the possession statistics, I expected us to have considerably more of the ball when Spector was playing in midfield, as he's so good at chasing the ball down and playing it short. However, the differences in the average amount of possession weren't contrast enough to go into more detail about.

Generally speaking though, I feel hopeful that Clark will eventually spot what Spector brings to this midfield. It does concern me that there are 8 matches in which Spector has played at right-back, and 8 he's played in central midfield which does suggest that Clark doesn't seem to know his best team yet, which won't help players' mental preparation for matches, but our best chance in of having a manager in the long-term who knows his favoured XI, is by remaining patient with Lee Clark I think.

Playing Mullins and Morrison in the centre means an awful lot of pressure is being put on our defence, Morrison's attacking nature means there are gaps in midfield that Mullins simply doesn't have the tenacity to cover.

The average 1 point, and 0.6 goals against, per game difference between Spector playing at right-back and defensive midfield proves that it's no coincidence that we seem to perform better when he plays in defensive midfield. I don't think it'll be the answer to everything, but I'm confident that once his position in midfield becomes established, we may see some improvements in terms of the way we can take hold of games.

3. We've never lost more than two games in a row.

Clark has hardly filled me with confidence this season, I'll admit that. But along with my usual faithful attitude towards managers, what I might give the ex-Huddersfield boss some credit for, is that we've never lost more than two matches on the spin all season. That to me, suggests that he has never lost the respect of the dressing room.

Okay, you can look at it the other way around and say we've never won two matches back-to-back. We've been awfully inconsistent this season, it's like we've been in a constant state of taking one step forward, and then two back.

After we lost at Wednesday and Watford early in the season, we then took 7pts from our next 3 games. Then we lost a shock 5-0 home defeat to Barnsley who were near the bottom, then we won 1-0 at Brighton who were top of the league. We then took just 1pt from our next 3, then we came back from 3-0 down at Millwall to claim a draw before winning at Leeds who've got a great home record. Then we lost at home to Ipswich who were bottom of the table, then we took 4pts from our next 2, then we lost a couple, then took 4 from 2 again including a fightback win against Middlesbrough who are near the top, and then we lost at Wolves.

Just by telling the story of our season factually, you'll know just what a topsy-turvey one it's been so far. It's so frustrating, because there were times like the wins at Brighton and Leeds where everyone thought we're going to start climbing the table, and then we'd lose the game afterwards making the previous win that promised so much, almost irrelevent in terms of forward momentum.

I would be prepared to reluctantly jump on the 'Clark out' bandwagon if we'd lost 5 of those matches in a row. Then, I'd be inclined to think that he had completely lost the respect of the team, that they weren't motivated to play for him. That, combined with his questionable tactics, would make me want to see the back of Clark.

However, it took a massive effort for us to come back from the 5-0 drubbing at Barnsley to win at Brighton. When we were 3-0 down at Millwall and had only picked up 1pt from our last 3, a lot of teams would have switched off. But Clark must have done something right in terms of motivating the team to come back and nearly win it, the passion within the team must still be alive.

4. We were greatly overachieving under Hughton.

A lot of 'Clark out'ists are questioning: "well how could a team that finished 4th last season, won at Brugge in the Europa League, went on a good FA Cup run and a team that always looked such a constant goalscoring threat, turn into one that's just above the relegation zone in the Championship? The squad hasn't changed, the situation with the board was the same as it was last season, so the fault must lie with the manager."

These are valid points, but the answer to them are simple I think: Clark isn't bad, Hughton was an incredible manager. I'm not saying here that Lee Clark is completely blameless, and his mistakes, such as team selection have at times cost us. However, the main difference in the teams performances from last season to this, is that Hughton got this team punching well above it's weight.

He had to sell all of his best players and build a new team from scratch that consisted of loan signings, academy graduates and free transfers. There was no money to spend and to get that team of players playing the way they did at times last season, with such exciting football, was just wonderful. I'm barely exaggerating when I say we'll never, ever, have a manager as good as Hughton. I was so gutted when he went.

Clark then, always had big shoes to fill. Unless he was a manager of Hughton's calibre, I don't believe we were ever going to reach the play-offs again this season. Yes, he has disappointed so far because to be 19th is a very big drop and like I say, he's not blameless, but I feel that the best way for the club to put his faults right is by letting him gradually establish his best team, and given a couple of seasons to evaluate his squad and hopefully improve it if we get a takeover, I think things will all come together.

5. The situation with the board is completely unsustainable.

In my book, 90% of the blame lies with the board. Blame wouldn't even be the word to describe it, because Carson Yeung blatantly doesn't care about the club. I think he's been involved with us purely for business reasons, but now we aren't in the Premiership anymore, he's hidden away somewhere in Hong Kong.

The whole situation with the money laundering case is very worrying to say the least. If I was a chairman that genuinely cared about the fortunes of my club, my first instinct would be to do everything I can to let the fans know what's happening. He hasn't done that, and so clearly doesn't care about the club. The worst thing is, when he sells us it'll be to whoever offers him the most money, possibly another foreign consortium like what happened with the Venky's at Blackburn, who know very little about the way a football club is run.

This will have undoubtedly had an impact on Clark. He's had no money to spend, and has had to rely on 'hand-to-mouth' transfers. People have put the signings of Papa Bouba Diop, Paul Robinson for example on 1 month contract deals down to poor long-term planning from the manager. What I would argue, is that he had no choice. The board weren't putting any money into the club, and so he had to invest the negligible financial muscle he had from bank loans, into very temporary deals. This aspect of his reign in charge of the club isn't Clark's fault I don't think.

6. Who else is there?

These are two key questions that I would pose to fellow Blues fans thinking about starting a 'Clark out' campaign. Firstly, is it worth it? If the board had any sense of common decency, they would have made big attempts to sell the club, or at least let us become aware of what is happening behind the scenes. They know our attitude towards Carson Yeung being in charge of our club, and are clearly involved with the club for business purposes. They just wouldn't listen to us.

What's more, is that campaigns would be totally unsettling for the players. The very mixed nature of our form, if nothing else, proves that the players have never lost their respect for Lee Clark and obviously remain motivated to play for him. It would be impossible, utterly impossible, for the players to stay focused on the pitch if the whole ground is chanting 'Clark out'. If we did want to start that type of campaign, we'd have to accept great, great deal of hinderance on the team's performances in the short-term, with potential long-term rewards seemingly unlikely but also slight.

The second question I would ask, is who else is there available? They would have to want the job, and we'd have to want them. Let me know if there are any managers that I've missed out, but so far the names that spring to mind are Alan Curbishley, Paul Ince, Roy Keane and Owen Coyle.

I'd maybe settle for Curbs, but he's been without a club for 4 years and I think that's a long time to take out of the game, he could be better off starting from scratch with a lower league club. I wouldn't want Paul Ince to be honest, he nearly relegated Blackburn, didn't do well in his second spell at MK Dons and left Notts County early in 2011. I couldn't see him doing any better than Clark. Roy Keane, I like his honesty and the fact that he captained United means he could be a great motivator, I don't want to judge him too much on not getting Ipswich promoted because he didn't have the financial backing there, so perhaps him but he's still a very young manager and would be a big gamble. I'm also not sure if many fans would want him in given his history in Saipan. I'd be happy with Owen Coyle but would he want to come to us? I would doubt it personally.

The climate of available managers doesn't favour us at the moment, and I think the chances are we'd end up with a young, unproven manager who can't do a better job than Lee Clark, plus it would mean we'd have to start the process of having a manager who doesn't know his best team all over again.

7. In conclusion

I think that as fans, we need to have faith in our manager. Over time, the issues with the board will be resolved I feel, if when Clark has had some money to invest and time to get to know his team in 2 seasons time, and we're still a long way off the top half, then we can think about a change.

For now, I firmly believe that the best approach is to get behind the manager, get behind the team and unite. If we chose to protest, it'll unsettle the team and probably have no impact on the boards' state of mind, and even if we do get a new manager, he won't be any better and will have to start from scratch.

And I'm not asking fellow fans to pretend that everything is fine and dandy; as fans we pay a lot of money to watch the team play and when they don't put in a good enough performance there is nothing more frustrating. What I'm asking for is for us as fans, not to let this frustration boil over into pressing the panic button. We need to acknowledge that this club has gone back a step since being in the Premier League. Because of the situation with the board, we're not the club we used to be in the Bruce years. In terms of our status and place in the grand scheme of English football, we're back to about where we were in the 1990s. That's the board's fault, not Clark's. 


  1. One word, FANTASTIC!!!
    I'm truly so impressed! :D
    As I was reading it I was so tempted to copy and paste the whole thing into a word document and highlight and annotate the this and that, good sentence structure, brilliant points, words I liked and just one two places where the sentence didnt read quite right but anyway, I didn't wanna come across as a school teacher marking your work! XD
    Your charts on Spector really take the article to a new level of professionalism, and I liked your point on getting behind the manager. It's easy to jump on the 'manager out' wagon when thing's aren't going well, it's another thing to reason everything out (consider results, consider other available managers etc) and come to the conclusion that the best thing is to stick things out. I really liked that section. ;)
    All in all the article is absolutely fantastic! I think you should print it off, stick it in a letter and send it off to the Birmingham City board! I'm sure there are MANY City fans who agree with you on your points and it would do the board some good to see such a strong piece of writing that's been well reasoned with original research gone into it. Who knows? they might even hire you to write the reviews on their website! XD
    You're definitly going places Gabriel! Your writing's way too good not to take you there. Absolute class piece, well done. ;)

  2. Thank you :)

    Cheers for the feedback, thinking of putting this up on some other blogging sites. Glad you liked it.