One of my clients once decided to carry out a worldwide survey of its staff. As consultant to the project, I was to join the third meeting of the Working Party.
This sounded interesting, not least because the first two meetings had been in Rio de Janeiro and Singapore. So, what would be the location for the third meeting that I was to join?
I felt a bit similar last night. Like many readers, I’d thoroughly enjoyed the Bowles family’s account of their adventures following The Canaries in Germany (one of my favourite countries). Now I was following City to…. Luton.
Actually, I felt a twinge of excitement. Not at visiting Luton, but because it was my first real chance to see our new-look squad.
It’s still pre-season, of course. Other MFW writers have eloquently described the limitations of pre-season games as an indicator of what’s to come, yet here we are, just 10 days away from the real action. Surely we’d see something of the set-up and personnel Daniel Farke envisages for Birmingham.
Well, some and some. We seem to have settled on a 4-1-4-1 formation – no messing around with different set-ups as we saw at this stage last year. And the full-backs – at least tonight – playing more like wing-backs and looking to be positive at every opportunity.
Positive was the operative word for the first half. As fans, we were all frustrated last year at the lack of drive in midfield and the sterility of much of our possession. It seems Farke shared our concern and is addressing it – both in the philosophy of our approach, and bringing in players like Kenny McLean and Ben Marshall who are prepared to impose themselves on the game.
Two reservations about the positivity. First, this was against Luton, who provided competitive but technically limited opposition. Second, we lost much of the momentum in the second half – especially in a 20-minute period when we allowed the Hatters to dominate. If we’re to improve on last season, that first-half philosophy has to stick for 90 minutes when the real action starts.
Personnel-wise, it’s still hard to guess which eleven will start at Birmingham. Surely Timm Klose, Tom Trybull, Onel Hernandez and Moritz Leitner won’t be held back as they were last night. On the other hand, a number of alternative players made a strong case for themselves last night.
Encouragingly, among those who caught the eye were some of our youngsters:
- Max Aarons, looking as composed and energetic as Jamal Lewis last year
- Todd Cantwell, now maturing into a impressive midfielder
- Louis Thompson, looking like the player we saw and admired a couple of years ago (delighted for him)
- Ben Godfrey, making use of his physical strength as a centre-back
All of them played the full 90 minutes.
Other clear positives include Kenny McLean, an all-round midfielder who should thrive in the Championship; Ben Marshall, who injected the kind of purpose we lacked last year; and Teemu Pukki (how did other clubs not see his ability? And frankly, who cares?)
Some deft touches and turns suggested Emi Buendia could be a force for us this year. And it’s good to see Grant Hanley back to provide his reassuring presence.
Speaking of which, we have ourselves a goalkeeper. Tim Krul was obviously keen to play, looked sharp and wasn’t afraid to let his defence know what he wanted.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Marco Stiepermann. Last year I thought he seemed a good player looking for his best position. On the evidence of last night – and apparently other friendlies too – that position could be central.
There are bigger tests to come, clearly. Last year we looked much more secure with three centre backs – can we be strong with a standard back four, allowing a more adventurous approach up front? And can we sustain the positive mentality that we showed for the first 45 minutes at Luton through entire games?
Fingers crossed for Jordan Rhodes, of course. It was the kind of block tackle that can damage ankle ligaments, but it didn’t look over-serious. Hope I’m right on that one.
If we’re far from sure who’ll start at Birmingham, that highlights perhaps the most encouraging thing of all. The squad Stuart Webber inherited was unfit for purpose in many ways; not only was it overpaid and undermotivated, it was patently lop-sided.
The glaring and longstanding gap in central defence was fixed last summer; this summer, it was the turn of the attack to be rejuvenated. Suddenly – and while meeting our financial imperatives – Webber has assembled a squad of considerable quality and proper balance.
There’s competition for places everywhere, and it shows in the players’ performances.
It’s a big over-simplification, but in essence we can think of Maddison’s sale as filling the parachute payment hole. The sale of Josh Murphy (and I’m assuming Nelson Oliveira) will have financed the arrivals of Ben Marshall, Emi Buendia, Teemu Pukki, Jordan Rhodes, Felix Passlack and Tim Krul, plus the permanent signing of Moritz Leitner.
Looks like a remarkable piece of deal-making to me.
Some of the squad’s virtue remains theoretical until the Championship whistle blows, of course. Our game isn’t played on paper, or even at Luton; it’s played in front of full houses at Carrow Road (a major selling point for our acquisition of players, evidently), vocal and partisan crowds at Villa and Leeds, and of course at Burton and Rotherham.
And at Preston North End on a Tuesday night in February (that’s really on our schedule this year).
But whisper it quietly: some of the signs are encouraging.