A week is a long time in politics they say – just ask Liz Truss. In football, the opposite is true. The relentless nature of the league-cup-league cycle crammed between international breaks meant that the City players had barely drawn a breath since the humiliating performance in the southwest. An improved performance midweek passed in a heartbeat, a quick breath and then the team sheets dropped for yesterday’s game.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to some was that the back four were the same players that started against Plymouth. Other than that, Przemysław Płacheta came in for Hwang Ui-jo, and Jon Rowe moved infield into the hole behind Adam Idah.
The game began with City dominating the ball and Birmingham dropping deep, happy to concede possession to City’s back line in exchange for packing their own half. City were moving fluently, putting some good moves from the defence all the way forward, but all too frequently they met massed blue ranks and the ball ended up back where it started.
After six minutes, Jack Stacey and Christian Fassnacht exchanged passes on the right before the subsequent cross was blocked for the first corner of the day. City took it short and Rowe shaped to shoot, only to be blocked, triggering a Birmingham break. Rowe and Dimitri Giannoulis did well to get back and stop Miyoshi before he threatened the City goal.
The domination of possession continued. After eight minutes, City worked the ball from the back. A great ball into space behind the defence saw Placheta get to the ball, only for his cross to be blocked.
More was to come. City worked the ball from left to right, then back to the left where neat interplay saw Placheta play a through ball to Giannoulis in an excellent position. His cross was first blocked and then cleared.
Then Rowe made a muscling run and forced a pass through to Idah. The Irishman had three players around him but muscled space before shooting just wide.
Next it was a Gabriel Sara ball with the outside of the boot that put Stacey in a good position which just ran away from the City defender.
On 20 minutes, City came the closest yet from an unlikely source. Kenny McLean hit a raking diagonal to the left corner of the Birmingham box. Giannoulis, yet to score for City, gambled on the defender heading back to John Ruddy. He intercepted the ball and lobbed the former City stopper with the outside of his left boot, only for the ball to drop agonizingly wide.
After barely seeing the ball for the opening 25 minutes, Birmingham then gained a toehold in the game. Giannoulis attempted to shield the ball out for a goal kick only for Birmingham to nick it. City won it back and as Fassnacht broke he looked to be fouled. Nothing was given and Miyoshi played a great ball to Stansfield on the right. His cross somehow eluded everyone as it ran across the six-yard box.
City struck back. Rowe ran at the defence before playing a ball to Placheta. The Pole’s cross hit the top of the crossbar. Fassnacht played it back in but Idah could only direct his header straight at Ruddy from a promising position.
Birmingham continued to exert more pressure. Another Stansfield cross somehow evaded the lunging Hogan.
The half ended with a Langelo ball in being blocked by Shane Duffy, bouncing up and hitting his hand as he stumbled. Referee Ward correctly dismissed any claims for a penalty.
That may sound like an all-action first half but, for all the domination of possession and the eight attempts on goal, City were still moving the ball too slowly, allowing Birmingham to shift their defence and swamp most of City’s attacks.
It needed to improve in the second half. It did.
City were out on the pitch a good 90 seconds before the opposition. They were raring to go and from the kick-off, Mclean hit a glorious diagonal ball behind Drameh for Placheta to race on to. His cross was blocked for a corner which was cleared but when the ball came back, McLean headed across goal causing chaos in the box but the ball just wouldn’t drop for a City player.
On 52, Birmingham should have scored. Miyoshi played a ball between Stacey and Duffy for Stansfield to run onto. His shot was blocked by the chest of Angus Gunn.
Three minutes later, City were in the lead.
A lovely little ball from Placheta behind Drameh found Giannoulis after a clever curving run. The Greek produced a perfect left-foot cross to meet the head of Sara, who powered the ball past Ruddy from six yards.
Five minutes later it got better. A poor ball out of defence was contested by the sliding Stacey. As the ball broke loose, a clever back-heel by substitute Hwang found the onrushing Rowe. He ran at goal, did a Disco Dale stepover before cutting a left-foot shot past Ruddy at the near post.
It was nearly three as City broke quickly, Sara finding Idah who hit a powerful shot just over the bar.
Birmingham came closest when Miyoshi wrong-footed three City defenders only to see his shot rebound off the bar, the follow-up being blasted over by Bacuna.
Then Rowe found Hwang. The Korean could perhaps have taken the ball a step or two further but he shot early over the bar to his clear frustration.
City were looking to close up the game, adopting a safety-first approach that saw Idah withdrawn for Forshaw and latterly, Batth and Sainz coming on as City switched to a back five to see out the minutes.
Not that Birmingham were laying siege to the City goal. Other than a late James header from a dangerous cross and head back, that sailed over the bar, they failed to trouble Gunn in the City goal.
City saw the game out without further incident and were fully deserving of the three points. Slipping Rowe into the gap behind Idah worked. In a lethargic first half, many of City’s best moves came when Rowe turned and ran at the Birmingham defence. Clearly worried by the pace of Placheta, the decision to double-mark him meant that Rowe had more space and freedom than of late and used it effectively.
Placheta had a good all-round game, despite the fact that the deep-lying Birmingham often denied him space to run into and at the full-back. Idah too was more effective. It is the most fluent that City have looked in attack since the loss of Josh Sargent.
Credit also to the recently derided Hwang. He was a lot more involved yesterday with clear signs that he is coming to terms with the way City want him to play.
All in all, a brave selection by Wagner in retaining so much of last Saturday’s team was rewarded in the most convincing display since that fateful day at the New York Stadium