EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his thoughts on Sunday's massive Second City derby between Birmingham and Aston Villa at St Andrew's.
Birmingham v Aston Villa | Friday 8th March 2019, 12:00 | Sky Sports
You’d have to go back to 2004-05 to find the last time Birmingham beat Aston Villa in a league game.
In the Autumn clash that season, Villa fans had been taunting Blues by singing “down with the Baggies” – about three seconds before their goalkeeper spilt Clinton Morrison’s shot into the net, then it all went slightly quiet in the Holte End.
In the return fixture at St Andrews, that same stopper, Thomas Sørensen, then inexplicably squeezed Emile Heskey’s shot under his arm before Julian Gray wrapped up the 2-0 win for Birmingham – you could almost feel St Andrews shaking.
Blues had the upper-hand against Villa between 2002 and 2005, with two Second City Derby doubles out of a possible three – and even Stern John’s last-minute equalizer in the 2-2 draw at Villa Park in 2004 felt like a victory for B9ers.
Since then, Villa have unquestionably had the better of the derbies with 10 wins in the last 15 meetings in all forms, including a glut of (gut-wrenching) Gabby Agbonlahor glory.
Whichever side of the divide you happen to lie on, it cannot be denied that this is one of the most wonderful, unique rivalries in English football.
It has had everything over the years: two-legged finals, city-crossing coaches, misplaced conceit, misplaced throw-ins, goalkeeping gaffes, handbags, head-butts, thrashings, thronkers, pantomime villains, late drama, passion and emotion with cultural conflict never far from the surface.
It’s Garry Monk against Dean Smith, it’s Blues against Villa – who will come out on top?
Birmingham’s defensive troubles
Birmingham finished 2018 with three consecutive clean sheets, but that solidity has eluded them since the turn of the year, with 20 goals shipped in 11 if we include the 2-0 FA Cup defeat at West Ham.
When Blues have avoided conceding goals, it has not necessarily been down to them being great in their defensive third – but rather due to the way they have forced their opponents back by playing at a high-intensity.
With two forwards to contend with in target man Lukas Jutkiewicz and speedster Che Adams, plus inverted wide men Jota and Jacques Maghoma, opposing sides have been so consumed with the attacking quartet that they had struggled to impose themselves going the other way, which is why ball-winner Maikel Kieftenbeld had been able to dominate centrally.
In 2019 though, composed outfits like Norwich, Swansea and Hull have found ways of playing through that initial press and then found opportunities for overloads out wide, a theme that has become increasingly common since Monk switched from 4-2-2-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond.
Luckily, the declining organisation levels have not coincided with a dip in form for Adams, who stayed in January and has scored 16 goals in his last 20 appearances.
The former Sheffield United man’s pace, power and clinical finishing has ensured that, while the team has not been quite as well-structured as it was earlier in the campaign, Blues are still tallying up points – he will hope to have some joy against a suspect Villa defence which has roundly struggled for stability.
Birmingham have something to play for in the league, of course, with a four-point gap to the play-off places – and a possibility of a points deduction that could potentially threaten their Championship status.
With continual delays to the decision on the punishment for breaching FFP regulations, Blues find themselves in the bizarre situation of entering mid-March playing for promotion and to avoid relegation simultaneously.
Grealish the game-changer
Since Smith took charge, Villa have won six of the 10 games in which advanced midfielder Jack Grealish has played, averaging 2.5 goals per game in that time and 1.2 conceded.
By contrast, they have won two in the 13 games he hasn’t played in, averaging 1.23 goals per game and 1.62 conceded.
Grealish is recognised for his crucial attacking contributions.
He has that ability to dictate play on the edge of the final third and pick those inch-perfect through balls, which he did superbly in last week’s 4-0 win over Derby, as well as score an excellent strike from outside the box.
Indirectly though, the stats show that because he uses the ball so intelligently – he has an 88% pass completion ratio which is remarkable for someone so creative – Villa have a more authoritative grip on their encounters and thus their defensive record also improves with him in the team.
The B6 club’s clear dependence on Grealish is quite striking because there is nothing wrong with their other midfielders per se: Glenn Whelan is very tenacious, John McGinn leads the press and Conor Hourihane is a capable technician.
The collective equilibrium of the midfield, however, only appears complete when Grealish plays – and the fact he will be available for Villa hands them a sizeable advantage.
The Tactics Board
When Aston Villa hosted this derby back in November, Smith promoted the message that Villa would not be treating this game differently to any other.
That process-driven outlook paid off, because his side ran out 4-2 winners in an ultimately controlled display, albeit with one or two moments of fortune in the first half.
Monk however, cannot afford to encourage quite the same mentality.
The summer transfer embargo limited the calibre of player he was able to bring to St Andrews, therefore Blues do not possess the personnel to control this game via a technical, possession-based route.
Instead, they must embrace the unique nature of the derby and summon an even more competitive spirit – a vocal home crowd will certainly help that.
With Dutch destroyer Kieftenbeld rested in last week’s 2-0 loss at Hull, and fit again, derby-loving rottweiler David Davis given much needed minutes, we can expect the ball-winning duo to start for Blues.
They should contribute to a high-intensity first half in which the hosts will look to press high and threaten in transition – they can do that against a Villa side that have shipped 23 first half goals, with only three Championship teams conceding more before the interval.
As we saw at Villa Park, however, the high-octane approach is difficult to sustain.
When Blues’ shape inevitably drops a few yards in the second half, Villa will be able to give Grealish multiple touches of the ball in the opposing half within 10-second periods – Hourihane will probably have more space from a deeper position as well – and from there, one would expect them to gain control.
Once they have that grip, the athletic Tammy Abraham could again show the physical advantage he has over Michael Morrison, which he used to his benefit in the reverse fixture.
The Betting Angle
Considering the make-up of the two teams and their respective derby day policies, it is clear which half of football they are each most likely to thrive in – ‘all-guns blazing’ Blues in the first half, ‘calm and composed’ Villa in the second.
For that reason, BetVictor’s 15/1 on Birmingham to lead at half-time with the contest ending all square looks the best bet for the grudge match.
Birmingham v Aston Villa – Birmingham/Draw (15/1 BetVictor)