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Birmingham City, Covid-19 and a new option at No. 10

Birmingham City lost their Championship match against Millwall in the first half at The Den.

This was always going to be a difficult match but two set-piece goals inside the first 40 minutes gave the visitors a mountain to climb.

They had a go, a half time formation change made Blues more likely to score – but it also left them open at the back and in the end Millwall ran out deserved winners.

Here’s what stood out.

Laid low

Blues’ pre-match press conference reverted to Zoom for the first time in several months, with the presumption that rising cases of Covid-19 had forced the decision.

As it turned out, some of those cases were in the Blues camp with Lee Bowyer’s entire back room team forced away from the training ground for the week.

“They have all had Covid,” Lee Bowyer explained. “They share an office, two of them share driving, so four of them have been off all week. I had to borrow Craig this week because I was on my own.”

Gardner was present on Saturday too, in the dugout with the head coach, while conditioning coach Sean Rush was also at The Den.

Bowyer insisted the absence of Mark Kennedy, Paul Harsley and Andy Marshall did not have a deleterious affect on the build-up or the match itself.

However, in a division where there is so little to separate at least half of the teams, despite the scoreline including Blues and Millwall, this cannot have helped.

As Bowyer pointed out it didn’t stop Jeremie Bela tracking Tom Bradshaw for the second goal but at the very least it must have been an unneeded disruption.

Out -stand-in’

Goalkeeper coach Marshall was present to see how Neil Etheridge fared in his first Championship start since being hospitalised by Covid-19 in the summer.

The 31-year-old has made a couple of appearances for in the League Cup and featured for the Under 23s on a handful of occasions but had spent the last seven games on the bench.

However, Matija Sarkic’s tight hamstring, which emerged in training on Thursday, allowed Etheridge to make a personally significant return.

He did well too. There were a couple of edgier moments with his kicking and sweeping up but his shot stopping was good, particularly in the second half when he had to keep out chances from Bradshaw, the excellent Benik Afobe and Scott Malone.

For all the complaints about the depth of the Blues squad not many Championship clubs would be able to call on a back-up goalkeeper of the quality of Etheridge.

It will be interesting to see if the man in possession keeps the shirt.

Max impact

For the second match running Bowyer reacted to a toothless first half by playing most of the second with a diamond formation.

At The Den he went to a back-four, with Jeremie Bela substituted and Kristian Pedersen moved across to full back.

Ivan Sunjic sat at the base of the diamond, Riley McGree and Jordan James on the side, with Troy Deeney at the apex.

The switch certainly breathed life into the visitors from an attacking point of view – but it also left Marc Roberts and Dion Sanderson two-on-two with Afobe and Bradshaw.

Birmingham City’s Riley McGree (left) battles for the ball

It also put a strain on James and McGree to help out their full backs – McGree’s failure to do that on a couple of occasions saw Pedersen over-run by Jed Wallace and Danny McNamara, an issue which led to the third goal.

And Jordan Graham on the right applied himself well but if it’s a stretch to ask the winger to play wing back, it’s probably too far to expect him to play right back.

Wing back offers him at least some chance to utilise his attacking potential, at full back he’s coming from 20-30 yards deeper.

With a full squad to choose from the diamond quite suits Blues – but Bowyer is going to need Maxime Colin back to confidently start games with it.

A little sparkle

The head coach praised Deeney after the match, not only for his goal but also for his overall performance, saying: “I think that is the best he has played since he has been at the club. He caused them problems all day.”

Deeney spent the second half as the play-maker at the top of the diamond and it was his exchange with Scott Hogan, when he burst into the box from a slightly deeper position, that showed just how effective the 33-year-old can be in that role.

Birmingham City's Troy Deeney celebrates after scoring
Birmingham City’s Troy Deeney celebrates after scoring

He also played just behind Hogan in the first half but whenever he came short to collect possession and got turned there weren’t enough support runners, particularly from wing back, from where the ammunition for was supposed to come.

To be fair to Deeney though, throughout the game he found space, showed good touch and vision and obviously took his goal emphatically.

If Blues aren’t able to source a replacement No. 10 for McGree and Tahith Chong, Deeney – with Hogan and Lukas Jutkiewicz ahead of him – could well be the answer for as long as he’s needed. And as long as Blues can put some pace around him.

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