WLB Season Preview 2020/21 | Championship: Handicaps
For the last nine seasons, Birmingham have played their football in the Championship and only really once in that time have they ever really looked like getting back into the Premier League. That was all the way back in 2011/12 when they reached the play-offs in their first season following relegation. Since then it has been a series of mid-table or bottom half finishes from the Blues.
Chris Hughton was the man to guide them to that end of season lottery, and man have come and gone in the years since then as they looked to at the very least return to that region of the table. Lee Clark, Gary Rowett, Gianfranco Zola, Harry Redknapp, Steve Cotterill, Garry Monk and most recently Pep Clotet has been the relatively star-studded list of bosses that tried their luck in this role.
The latest man given the honour is Spaniard Aitor Karanka, who has done the vast majority of his managing in the past in the Championship with Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, and he also had less than a season in charge of Boro in the top-flight, where he parted ways after believing he had taken them as far as he could.
Karanka now heads to St Andrews to a club who are greatly in need of someone who can deliver progression. After 18 months out of the game, Jose Mourinho’s long-time friend and colleague will no doubt have more desire to make the most of this opportunity.
The 46-year-old has been linked with many jobs over the course of that year-and-a-half, mainly at this level, but nothing would ever materialise. There would have been many jobs that he quite likely who have had a serious chance of getting if he pulled out all the stops to take on that role. The fact he has decided Birmingham is the right place for him to me is a pointer in itself. The bookies really don’t fancy them, but something attracted him to the role.
Bellingham's sale boosts Blues' coffers
Another likely reason for the bookies offering Birmingham quite low down the promotion-based markets is the departure of star youngster Jude Bellingham to Dortmund. Whilst it is a blow to lose a talent of that calibre, the reality was that this type of move was always on the cards. The feeling from within the club is that they are happy for one of their own to progress in his career, and receiving £25million always helps.
Wether that money is thrown into Karanka’s playing budget remains to be seen, but he has already gone back to former club Boro to recruit George Friend, once dubbed the best left back at this level, and also Adam Clayton, who was frozen out to a degree at the Riverside and now returns to the game with a point to prove. The pair enjoyed great success up on Teesside alongside Karanka, so it makes logical sense to recruit a few of these types to boost the team on the pitch, as well as for dressing room morale.
You get the feeling that Karanka and Birmingham should be a very good fit, and looking back on his successful stint at Middlesbrough you can already see certain comparisons.
That is especially the case up front, as I for one se Lukas Jutkiewicz having a huge role to play. At the Riverside, Karanka always had a focal figure in attack, and players such as Patrick Bamford, Cristhian Stuani and Alvaro Negredo performed that role with distinction.
Whilst they didn’t pull up any trees last season, bear in mind this was a Birmingham side that I didn’t necessarily feel had the best fit with Clotet in charge. He played a style of play which I don’t think really suited the players he had in his squad. That’s why they lacked consistency, and for all they had good spells in October and February, they had a bad Christmas and ended the campaign rather disastrously.
Scott Hogan was signed believing he could rediscover his Brentford form, and whilst he did for a period, he was another to tail off at the season progresses.
Progress to come under Karanka's watch
The way I view Birmingham for the upcoming campaign is that they will ultimately improve as the season goes on, as Karanka will slowly but surely start building some foundations to allow them to kick-on at some stage, just as he did on Teesside.
There are a number of youngsters in the squad, so perhaps the next Bellingham isn’t so far away. Combine that with the experience of Harlee Dean, Maxime Colin, Gary Gardner, Jutkiewicz and the like then there is a rather nice looking balance on paper. Further additions will be sought before the transfer window closes, and I have faith in Karanka to deliver what is required.
Bringing back Jon Toral on a free transfer makes total sense, and he is a former fans’ favourite so that’ll instantly please the supporters. Andres Prieto has made the move from Espanyol to fill up the number one hole, and again Karanka has utilised his Spanish contacts and knowledge to get this deal done.
Ivan Sanchez decided against playing in La Liga with newly-promoted Elche to link up with the Blues, and the Spanish market is one Karanka knows so well. He’ll be an asset and offer something a little different.
Jonathan Leko links up from rivals West Brom, and is this looks a clever bit of recruitment as the reality is they’d have had to pay a much bigger fee if he wasn’t recovered from a long-term injury. He’ll soon be back to his best.
Karanka can find a player too as he signed the likes of Adama Traore, Marten de Roon, Patrick Bamford, Lewis Grabban, Lee Tomlin, Joe Lolley and Daniel Ayala to name but a few with his past clubs. He too may target the foreign market as well, which is where the value is, so this could be an exciting time for Birmingham.
It is worth noting he himself decided to leave former club Nottingham Forest, so he will certainly put Birmingham at heart and do what is best for the club. I happen to think they match together quite nicely, and the bookies don’t agree.
Organised approach could pay dividends
One thing he will do is make them much more organised. Under Clotet, Birmingham have been conceding an average of around 1.60 goals per-game, which is just way too big if you want to achieve anything. Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds for example, the number is 1.02, which is a significant difference.
Managing at Championship level with Middlesbrough, Karanka’s team conceded only 0.76 goals per-game, and they were still scoring 1.37 goals, so they were hardly a park the bus outfit, but they were effective. Organisation is what Karanka does best, and Birmingham have been crying out for that since the Rowett days.
With that being the case, I do think there is value in backing Birmingham in this respective +20 handicap. Whilst many are tipping them to battle relegation, I for one don’t think Karanka would have taken on this job if he didn’t truly feel as though he could deliver more than that.
Clearly this punt is very much a punt in the sense that Birmingham are still a few bodies short of where they’d like to be, and they’re likely to start the season without the injured Jutkiewicz, but I’m happy to put my faith in the new gaffer to deliver.
Championship 2020/21 – Birmingham City +20 handicap (18/1 Bet365)