The imminent arrival of Frankie McAvoy – he officially starts on Sunday – will I suspect be of some comfort to Alex Neil.
Already in his fledgling City career he has witnessed all that is good, bad and indifferent about the current group and, over the course of 270 minutes of football, will have already formed a view. But the arrival of his assistant at Hamilton will afford him a familiar face off whom he can bounce ideas and thoughts.
While Mike Phelan and Gary Holt provided the club with the continuity needed when changes are made mid-season, the departure of Phelan and arrival of McAvoy will offer a different dynamic to City’s management team.
To date, Neil’s has been a lone, albeit very authoritative, voice in the Colney and Carrow Road changing rooms but the task of getting a different message across to a squad lacking direction will be made easier with an ally; one who shares exactly the same footballing ethos.
As ever, the one thing they have against them is time. Nineteen games is not many when you have been tasked with turning said bunch of talented under-achievers into a cohesive unit capable of mounting a promotion push. The task is even more difficult when the terrain is unfamiliar.
At Hamilton is was achieved starting at the very bottom and working upwards. It was a project. Here the foundations are already in place but it’s the tweaking at the top that’s needed.
While it may still be a project, it’s one with a maximum life of nineteen weeks. And with the Accies it was achieved using a group of young players, many of whom had been there since they were schoolboys.
But still, regardless of how unfamiliar the surroundings and how different the personnel, the core task remains: winning games of football. Or, to be more precise, winning at least thirteen games of football… starting on Saturday.
How much input Master McAvoy will have on the line-up at Birmingham remains to be seen – probably very little given his official start date – but Neil will no doubt have spent most of this week wondering just how he can shuffle his pack to reinvigorate his new charges’ promotion push; one that suffered a nasty blow to the solar plexus last Saturday.
While the defeat to Brentford threw up more than a few questions over the hunger/desire/appetite [delete as appropriate] – all of which have been discussed at length over the last five five days – it also laid bare the problems City have in the defensive third.
Not since the 5-0 win against a ten-man Huddersfield back in mid-December have they managed a clean sheet.
Part of Neil’s conundrum is that the shortcomings are manifold, but the most obvious one – and the first one that needs addressing – is the central-defensive pairing. While there are no shortage of candidates, the challenge has been to find a pair who together are solid, composed and water-tight.
With the season now 27 games old we still are no closer to finding that magic combo. At least five have been tried but none have been successful enough to earn a prolonged run.
Despite bringing three new centre-backs into the club in the summer – Carlos Cuellar, Ignasi Miquel and Jos Hooiveld – Neil Adams saw fit to begin the season with Russell Martin alongside Michael Turner. It perplexed a few of us at the time and continued to do so as the season progressed.
Martin, for me, is neither sufficiently dominant in the air or quick enough to spot danger, yet still, we understand, sees centre-back as his best position. Whether that, given his position as captain, will carry sufficient clout to convince the new manager remains to be seen, but his reversion to right-back may be a clue.
With Jos Hooiveld no longer of this parish, the pairing of Cuellar and Turner appears, on paper at least, to be one that should be more than fit for purpose. Both have bags of experience, both have played consistently at the highest level, but put them together and it doesn’t click. Or at least it didn’t last week.
While neither are likely to miss much in the air, their fleet of foot across the ground is less convincing – as confirmed when faced with the likes of Andre Grey and Kadeem Harris. Given their clumsy treatment of the aforementioned Grey when giving away ‘that’ penalty, it would be a big call if Neil were to hand them both the stripes for tomorrow.
It will be interesting to see if the manager perceives Sebastien Bassong’s reintegration into the fold, and impressive hour for the Under-21s, as sufficient for him to be thrown into the heat of battle at St Andrews. As ever, with him, it will boil down to attitude.
Miquel, Bassong’s central defensive partner in the Under-21 game, may also consider himself in the reckoning after an equally impressive outing. Again time will tell, but it seems odd that his high-profile summer arrival from Arsenal has yet to yield even a sniff of Championship action.
Other facets of the defensive conundrum revolve around the right-back berth where Martin, along with his fellow Scottish international Steven Whittaker, has failed to deliver consistency. A good afternoon against Cardiff followed by a horror show against Brentford was representative of the season to date down that side of the pitch.
On the left side Martin Olsson, ironically, had one of his better afternoon’s against Brentford, but he too has lacked consistency this season. While I don’t expect him to make way for Javier Garrido tomorrow, if he were to decide that South Wales is for him then the Spaniard would prove a more than capable replacement.
But, having batted around the alternatives, I confess to being no closer to deciding what my strongest defensive line-up would be. In truth the full-back positions appear shoo-ins for Martin and Olsson but the task of perming two from four (five when Ryan Bennett is fit) in central defence is an unenviable one.
All will be revealed of course at 2pm tomorrow, upon the release of the team-sheet, and we’ll learn more then about how the new manager responds to a poor performance. Will drastic surgery be the answer? Or will it be a case of giving those who failed a chance to put it right?
Either way I’m hoping to see them operate as a unit and to defend as if their lives depend on it. Tick those two boxes and it will at least be a start.