Four things Steve Cotterill has changed at Birmingham City

by Gabriel Sutton / 31 January 2018, 08:42

After Tuesday night’s impressive 3-1 win over Sunderland, Birmingham City have climbed out of the relegation zone and up to what feels like the heady heights of 20th.

Having looked in crisis and doomed to the drop barely a month ago, they are now among the Championship’s form teams. The turnaround isn’t complete yet – but the green (blue) shoots of recovery are very much in evidence – here’s four things that Steve Cotterill has done to turn fortunes around.

Fixed the right flank

It may not be the greatest coincidence that Birmingham have won seven games this season but wide man Jota – who featured for the first time in early September – has started just one of them.

The Spaniard thrived at Brentford, but there is something about the tactical and cultural setup at St Andrews that doesn’t quite suit him and that was evident when he came on in the second half.

Blues enjoyed their best football on Tuesday when Jacques Maghoma – who started in Jota’s place – linked up with right-back Maxime Colin, while midfielder David Davis overloaded the flank with vibrant runs.

The combination play between that trio was in evidence for the opening two goals – the first a smooth finish from Davis after Maghoma’s reverse ball, the second a back-post Jeremie Boga header from Maghoma’s cross.

Got goal-grabber Gallagher going

Southampton loanee Sam Gallagher arrived in B9 with complimentary reviews from fans of Blackburn Rovers, where he had scored 12 goals despite relegation. The 22-year-old took some time to win the hearts of Blues fans, given that his only goal in his first 15 appearances was a consolatory strike in the 6-1 drubbing at Hull.

Not only has he now scored six goals in his last eight, he is also working hard for the team. At times on Tuesday, he would press the opposing centre-backs or even the goalkeeper and although he didn’t always win the ball in doing so, he forced rushed clearances to allow his teammates to pick up the second balls.

The 6’4” front man deserved to get on the scoresheet, grabbing Birmingham’s third with a simple tap-in, which came thanks to the tenacity of Davis.

Played N’Doye deeper

In the early stages of Cotterill’s reign, Davis didn’t push into the final third with the same vigour that he did on Tuesday, nor did fellow midfielder Maikel Kieftenbeld close down his opponents as early as he now does. Both players have tremendous energy and are comfortable covering more ground, therefore the increased freedom suits them perfectly.

Equally, Cotterill initially played the powerful but limited Cheikh N’Doye as a number 10 – yet he would look more comfortable doing the job of a bouncer than Juan Roman Riquelme. The Senegalese man though has started to occupy a deeper role, which means not only can he dominate midfields with his sheer presence, he doesn’t have to do as much running. That simple switching of roles has made a huge difference to the make-up of the Birmingham midfield.

Found a settled back-four

After Boxing Day’s 2-0 home defeat to Norwich, Cotterill put Marc Roberts in for Michael Morrison and was rewarded with a 1-0 victory over Leeds United four days later. Since then, the Cheltenham-born gaffer has not made a single change to the back-four of Colin, Roberts, Harlee Dean and Jonathan Grounds.

The latter didn’t have a flawless evening: he got caught in possession a couple of times in the first half, which led to Sunderland’s rare moments of promise. However, the players have benefited hugely from some tactical consistency and the defence in particular appears more confident in collecting loose balls, safe in the knowledge of where one another are. That level of understanding was not there earlier in the season due to the high number of players brought in and the chaos that brought.

Cotterill has not proved the perfect manager by any means – and the next step is to iron out some minor game management issues, which became mildly concerning after the Black Cats pulled a goal back. However, he deserves credit for instilling confidence in the players since Christmas and finding a balanced system. This run of form might not conclusively end the debate as to whether he’s the right man for the club beyond the summer, but it should end any lingering question marks about his position now.

Only seven teams have conceded more goals than Birmingham since the change of manager and of the immediate five relegation rivals, only Bolton have accrued more points in that time. For now, it’s time for the club to galvanize in the bid to beat the drop.

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