Ross Bramble has a look at recent events at Birmingham City following their resurgence under Gary Rowett and subsequent spiral with Gianfranco Zola at the helm
Life at Birmingham City hasn’t been easy in recent years. Despite the 2011 League Cup success over Arsenal, the Blues have seen themselves relegated from the Premier League, change managers on five occasions, stave off relegation to League One with the final kick of the 2013-14 season, see their best players sold off and the club creak under the financial pressures. The tide seemed to be turning, however, after the appointment of former defender Gary Rowett as manager during the 2014-15 season.
Rowett’s tenure bought about one of the most stark and instantaneous turnarounds seen in English football in many a season. The change was so dramatic that Birmingham City went from relegation candidates to outside shouts for the playoff positions. Adding to all the excitement was news of a possible multi-million pound Chinese takeover, which was ultimately completed in October 2016 by Trillion Trophy Asia. Early indications suggested that the new ownership would be more likely to invest in infrastructure and modest investment to continue the club’s steady development. The signs were promising – right up until they weren’t.
On December 14th 2016, Birmingham City stunned the footballing community with the sacking of Gary Rowett, and the swift appointment of former Watford boss Gianfranco Zola. The impact of the decision was dramatic – at the time, it was labelled “a disgrace”, “a joke” and “suicide” by sections of the media and Birmingham fan base. A statement from the club attempted to reassure outraged supporters, claiming that “the decision has been taken with a strategic, long-term view and with the club’s best interests at heart”, and that Trillion Trophy Asia were committed to leading the club into a “bright and exciting future.” Well, three months on, and fans can be forgiven for wondering when that dawn is expected to break. With only two wins in 17 games at the time of writing, and Birmingham City sliding down the league standings from 7th to 17th, the golden age of Gary Rowett seems a long and distant memory.
The Golden Age Of Rowett
Back in 2014, Gary Rowett turned up trees with League 2 side Burton Albion. Since taking over at the Brewers, Rowett had ended the club’s dangerous slide towards the League 2 relegation zone, re-organised the side and taken them up into contention for promotion. Their ascension even took them to Wembley a play-off final the season before, where they were narrowly beaten by Fleetwood Town. Appointing Gary Rowett, then, made sense on Birmingham’s half – the Blues were in much the same state as Burton had been when they had turned to him back in 2012. For Gary Rowett, however, the decision to leave for the club he had turned out for back in the late 90s as a player seemed a dangerous and needless risk.
Lee Clark’s Birmingham City had pulled off one of the great relegation escape stories during the previous Championship season, with defender Paul Caddis scoring a vital injury time equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Bolton. The goal was enough to see the side remain in the division on goal difference, but it did little to inspire them for the following campaign. With the side once again labouring in the bottom three, Birmingham axed their beleaguered manager. The toughest pill was still yet to be swallowed, however, as a battered and beaten Birmingham City were trashed 8-0 by Championship leaders Bournemouth, one game before Rowett’s appointment. It was the heaviest defeat in the club’s history, and starkly highlighted the problems plaguing the team.
Despite the profound mess the club found themselves in, Rowett didn’t re-invent the wheel in his efforts to stabilise them. After his unveiling as Birmingham boss, the manager set about plugging the holes in the Birminghan vessel with some simple but effective coaching. Knowing the players weren’t good enough to pass their way out of trouble, Rowett adopted the same 4-4-2 formation he had utilised at Burton, dropping two banks of four deep to close the space between the lines, and cover some of the weaker aspects of his defence. With pacey wingers in Demarai Gray and David Cotterill, Birmingham became a direct, incisive counter attacking outfit, bursting down both flanks and exploiting the natural space left behind by the opponents’ marauding full backs. It was a simple tactical approach that covered the side’s weaknesses and extoled their strengths. And it worked. Very, very well.
The side became genuine threats for their opposition once more, scoring some impressive wins over teams that would have licked their lips at the opportunity to play Birmingham just a few weeks before. The side finished 10th in both of Rowett’s seasons in charge, and in the lead-up to his dismissal, were perfectly placed for a play-off charge. Amazing, then, that he was dismissed at all. But dismissed he was, and in his stead came the Chelsea legend and ex-Watford manager, Gianfranco Zola.
Blue & Sentimental
The Italian moved quickly to alter the style of play on exhibition at St. Andrew’s. Birmingham remained in the 4-2-3-1 shape Rowett had adopted at the end of his tenure, but the purpose of their play was now to maintain possession, pulling their opponents from side to side and exploiting the space their runners created. Success with this approach was limited, and as the games went by and defeats started to rack up, Zola attempted a number of formation tweaks to try and allow his players the extra bodies and support they needed to retain the ball. The team has switched between 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 and now to a 5-4-1 diamond formation, all to stem the flow of goals the side have conceded since Zola’s appointment. As of time of writing, they are still yet to find the solution.
Under Gianfranco, the side have so far won only two games in his seventeen games in charge – a 1-0 win over 10-man Fulham, and a 2-1 win over local rivals and relegation threatened Wolves. Their defeats, however, have included some embarrassing scores and performances. Principal examples of their torrid run include a 4-1 home defeat to Queen’s Park Rangers, and a 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic, who have occupied the Championship relegation zone since October. Frustration amongst Birmingham fans seems to be growing by the minute, with fans calling for the board to sack their new appointee and offer Gary Rowett whatever he requires to return to the club. Aside from the fact it was always an unlikely scenario, the request is now moot, with Rowett’s recent appointment at Derby County.
The problem isn’t so much that Zola’s tactics or philosophy are bad – on the contrary, the Italian’s spell with Watford back in 2012-13 season proved that his passing style has a place in England’s second tier. The difference between Zola’s Watford and Zola’s Birmingham is a simple case of personnel. Birmingham City are not blessed with a technical, ball-playing squad, and treating them as such has severely hampered the side’s chances in the Championship this season. Zola has sacrificed the players’ strengths and identity in a bid to implement his own, and to his great detriment, Gianfranco has discovered them incompatible.
That’s not to say that life under Zola is doomed to failure, of course. A lot depends on the faith Trillion Trophy Asia have in him at this stage. Should they still believe that Zola is the man to take the club forward, they must be prepared to bankroll a massive summer of investment and redesign. Gianfranco’s time at Watford saw the Hornets all the way to a Wembley play-off final, where they were ultimately defeated by Crystal Palace and the now infamous “£100m penalty”; he can achieve similar at Birmingham, but not with the squad he has now. If the ownership has started to question his stewardship after such a torrid half-season at the helm of their new investment, Zola will likely be cut loose before or at the end of the current season. If the club keep the faith, but refuse to invest as heavily as Zola is going to require, the board are playing fast and loose with another season of poor performances and a negative position in the Championship table.
For this season, however, Birmingham City now face the very real threat of relegation to League One, something affirmed by a quick look at the odds on https://sport.netbet.co.uk/football/. Despite upcoming fixtures against basement-battlers Rotherham and Burton, it’s difficult to know exactly where Birmingham’s next points will be coming from, judging by their recent performances. One would like to think that the Birmingham side is still strong enough to stem the tide and keep themselves in the Championship, but stranger things have happened in England’s second tier.
Regardless of what the current season holds in store for Birmingham City, the short-term impact of Trillion Trophy Asia’s takeover and the appointment of Gianfranco Zola has been dramatic. You would forgive fans for questioning whether renewed financial muscle is worth all the hassle, all things considered. That said, there is always room for hope, and although the season’s twists and turns have left Birmingham feeling a little blue and sentimental, the summer could provide Gianfranco Zola the platform to launch his vision for Birmingham City anew.