Aitor Karanka has stepped down this week as Birmingham boss.
Karanka has been by no means the only problem at the Blues, with owner Xuandong Ren often coming in for criticism, but the Spaniard did not help himself.
The former Middlesbrough manager changed formation and personnel repeatedly, was slow to make substitutions and failed to impose a coherent playing identity.
Lee Bowyer is the man to replace Karanka, signing a contract until 2023 – but is he the man to keep the club up and get it back on an upward trajectory?
Here’s how he can go about doing that...
1. Encourage a high press
Bowyer won promotion with Charlton in 2018-19 and, in the Championship last season, they were good without the ball.
The Addicks pressed well in the first halves of their games, conceding just 25 goals that year before the interval – the joint-eighth fewest in the Championship.
In the second half of their encounters, meanwhile, Bowyer’s side generally dropped off but they still had the guts, heart and desire to put bodies on the line.
If Bowyer can use his man management qualities to get that same energy and mentality out of Birmingham’s players, it will go a long way to helping them beat the drop.
2. Consider Etheridge’s position
Etheridge had a fantastic start to his Birmingham career.
The former Walsall goalkeeper, who with Cardiff in 2018-19 became the first player from the Philippines and Southeast Asia to play in the Premier League, looked a top recruit initially, conceding just 16 goals in his first 17 games.
December errors against Middlesbrough and Derby, though, knocked the 31-year-old’s confidence and while he remains a competent shot stopper at this level, he looks prone to mistakes.
Andrés Prieto, a summer recruit from Espanyol, has been more than patient throughout Etheridge’s poor form and impressed, in terms of distribution especially, in the 3-0 FA Cup defeat at Manchester City.
There’s an argument for Bowyer to give Prieto a run of games.
Lee Bowyer has traded Charlton for Birmingham
3. Settle on a centre-back combination
Bowyer has a dilemma at centre-back.
Blues can get height from Marc Roberts, aggression from Harlee Dean and organisational nous from George Friend, but each of those defenders are limited where their colleagues are strong, giving the new boss an awkward puzzle.
Roberts and Dean, as we saw against Bristol City, have limited positional awareness, Roberts and Friend lack the courage to throw themselves in the way of shots, while a pairing of Dean and Friend would leave Birmingham vulnerable to aerial bombardment.
Bowyer must hope the mysterious absence of Jake Clarke-Salter is not injury related, because the Chelsea loanee looks Birmingham’s best defender, having formed a good partnership with Roberts for a spell in the second half of last season.
The alternative is to move to a three-at-the-back system, something Bowyer did at times in his two full seasons at Charlton, but that has rarely worked for Blues this year.
4. Get Colin and Sanchez combining
Maxime Colin showed in 2018-19 under Garry Monk that he has the potential to be a top six Championship right-back.
Iván Sánchez, meanwhile, has shown flashes of ability as an inverted, left-footed right-winger, looking skilful, technically gifted and not afraid to be a bit nasty from time to time.
In January’s 1-0 win at Middlesbrough, Sanchez drifted infield with the ball, then played a fine reverse pass to release Colin, who put in a sharp low cross for Scott Hogan to tap home.
The real shame for Birmingham is that the duo have not linked-up like that more consistently – partly because Yan Valery joined in January without since offering much - and getting them to do so will be key.
5. Build around Bela
Jérémie Bela has mustered 17 shots on target this season, which is the fourth-most out of all the left wingers in the Championship.
Not bad, given that Brentford’s Sergi Canos, by comparison, managed only two extra with 21 more efforts at goal.
The France-born Angola international, who loves to run at opponents and is capable from set pieces, did not offer those sorts of numbers last year, when Pep Clotet used him as more of a conventional right winger who attacked the byline and put crosses in.
The 27-year-old did that job well but Aitor Karanka has favoured inverted wingers and, with Sanchez bringing quality on the right, a return to his former position is not on the cards.
Sanchez and Bela are two of the players Bowyer will need to get the best out of, and the question is whether he’s happy to move away from his preferred formations – 4-4-2 diamond and 3-5-2 – in order to incorporate the duo, but they must be used correctly.
Because Bela is the most naturally physical attacking player Birmingham attack, defenders have been guilty of using him as a wide reference point but it simply does not work: he’s 5’8”.
If the passes to Bela are too high, they will go over his head and out for a throw-in, too low and they will be intercepted: Blues need to get Bela on the ball but only at the right times.
6. Consider two up top
It would be a brave move for Bowyer to start with two attacking wingers in Sanchez and Bela as well as two out-and-out strikers, but one that would make Birmingham a threat.
One of the main things Aitor Karanka was criticized for is employing a direct style – Blues played on average 80 long balls per game, the fourth-most in the Championship – but often with no target man.
Hogan, a 5’11 poacher, has frequently been the lone front-man in that type of system and, although in certain games Gary Gardner pushed up from midfield for goal-kicks to provide some semblance of aerial prowess, the team looked disjointed.
This would have been forgivable if Birmingham did not have a target man in the squad, but Lukas Jutkiewicz has been fit for most games and Sam Cosgrove – similar stylistically to “Jukey” – signed in January.
Jutkiewicz was vital under Monk as a reference point and, between mid-January and early March when Birmingham went on a 13-game unbeaten run, formed a great partnership with Hogan.
Bowyer might be tempted to bring that partnership back to life, or even start Jutkiewicz as a lone striker – but that would mean benching the top goalscorer.
Either way, tactical balance is imperative and more long balls to Hogan should not be an option, but hopefully it won’t be: Bowyer’s preferred formations have generally incorporated two out-and-out centre-forwards.
Lee Bowyer and Craig Gardner celebrating leading Blues to the Prem next season. pic.twitter.com/uvlToc2WQv— Nικος Ξυδιας (@Greekbluenose) March 15, 2021
7. Fire up Šunjić
Ivan Šunjić is a midfielder who plays best when performing on the edge.
Only three Championship ball-winners who have passed 30 games this season have attempted more tackles per 90 minutes than his 3.4, which shows there is a will there to make his presence felt.
Šunjić gets criticized for his use of the ball, but the former Croatia Under-21s captain is very tenacious and could come good in the run-in.
Ordinarily, Birmingham would look to warrior Maikel Kieftenbeld to patrol the midfield in a crucial run-in but, unfortunately, “Kaizer Kief” was controversially sold to Millwall and his former manager, Gary Rowett, in January.
The onus is therefore on Šunjić to step up when it matters.
8. Get Gary Gardner going
Gardner formed a sound midfield partnership with Kieftenbeld in 2018-19 and could be a similar support option for Šunjić.
The 28-year-old is not outstanding at anything, but he has a combative side, is tidy in possession, has the drive to get forward and can hit the odd strike from distance as well as being reasonably tall at 6’1”.
The alternative to Gary, whose brother Craig is on the coaching staff, would be Rekeem Harper, but the West Brom loanee is more unpredictable.
Harper has a higher technical ceiling than Gardner, but his base level is much lower and while he’s had some good games for Blues, there have been others in which the 21-year-old has struggled.
The former England Under-19s man has at times been criticized for playing backwards passes that land his side in trouble, or even hiding – whether that’s shirking the physical side or not being there to collect the ball off defenders.
Playing Harper seems risky for a relegation battle and Bowyer may be more inclined to pair Gardner with Šunjić, so he has a central midfield that will cover all bases.
Whether Birmingham are operating without wide players, or operating with
Lee Bowyer certainly passes the Blues manager jumper test pic.twitter.com/vW55XzcCRQ— Tom Jones (@TomJones1875) March 15, 2021
9. Give youth a chance
Jude Bellingham is a generational talent who earnt Birmingham a whopping £25 million on his move to Dortmund, making him the most expensive 17-year-old at all-time.
It would be unreasonable to expect Bowyer to help unearth another Bellingham, although Jobe Bellingham - Jude’s 15-year-old brother - is also coming through the ranks and has attracted reported interest from Manchester United.
More realistically, Bowyer needs to trust the youth now and again, because kids can inject some life and exuberance into the team and excite supporters.
Wes Harding had that effect when he came into the team at the back-end of the 2017-18 campaign, Demarai Gray before that after Jack Butland, Jordan Mutch and Nathan Redmond had come through the ranks in the early-2010s.
Bowyer, though partly enforced by injury, was brave enough to give Alfie Doughty game-time at Championship level last season, after the speedy left-sider had been on loan in the National League with Bromley in the early stages of that campaign.
Doughty showed plenty of potential and has since joined Stoke, who have Premier League ambitions, vindicating Bowyer’s faith.
The likes of Josh Davison, Ben Dempsey and James Vennings were not able to massively influence games at that level, but their involvement last year shows that Bowyer is prepared to be brave with selection and is not averse to giving youth a chance.
Geraldo Bajrami loves a scrap and the young Albanian could have his moment under Bowyer, likewise left-sided defender Nico Gordon, midfield all-rounder Jack Concannon and attacking midfielder Odin Bailey, who has proved to have a wand of a left foot on loan at Forest Green.
10. Keep a consistent side
Karanka tinkered with personnel far too much.
That would be understandable if players were performing badly at the time of being dropped, especially given the unique nature of this campaign, but that is not the case.
Attacking midfielder Jon Toral scored a brace at Reading in December but didn’t feature in the next game and hasn’t been seen since January, while his positional rival, Alen Halilovic made a great impact from the bench at Bristol City, then was one of the better players in the first half at Nottingham Forest before being withdrawn.
Elsewhere, Kieftenbeld played well and was then sold, Jake Clarke-Salter was brilliant for a three-game stint then was mysteriously dropped… all these oddities, it would be possible to forgive in isolation, have had a cumulative effect of creating a strange vibe around the club.
Under Bowyer, it could be more straightforward.
Run: you’re in. Don’t run: you’re out. Play well: you keep your place. Simples.
11. Connect with fans
The best Birmingham managers in the last decade – Chris Hughton, Gary Rowett and Garry Monk – have all been strong leaders.
That does not mean loud, madcap Barry Fry types who run on the pitch every time there is a goal, but people who have a clear feeling for what the football club means to the people, who manage the PR side well and who communicate their thoughts effectively through the media.
Lee Bowyer is perhaps a touch rawer in his media-handling than Hughton, Rowett, or Monk, which has it’s pluses.
Bowyer’s style should resonate well with what is predominantly a working class fanbase who like passion and honesty in those who represent the club, which is something they are not getting at boardroom level.
Charlton fans were feeling similarly apathetic about their club when the former midfield took charge in Spring 2018, and he instantly changed the mood around the Valley.
Blues fans will be hoping he can do likewise in B9.