Early away day tactical woes
As Lee Clark touched on after the Watford defeat, Blues have started poorly in all four competitive games so far this season.
We went 1-0 down to Barnet after a sloppy opening period, whilst Charlton could have been a few goals clear, had Bradley Wright-Phillips been any good in the air. On those occasions, Blues came back to steamroll their League Two opponents and snatch a draw against the newly-promoted Addicks.
However, the previous two games have found Blues leaving themselves with simply too much to do after poor starting performances. In both games, two first-half goals have effectively killed Blues' chances, despite improved second periods.
In Yorkshire, Clark admitted he had got his tactics wrong. Blues had setup with three in midfield as they looked to control the game in the middle of the pitch and build from there. However, Marlon King was left isolated as the ball was launched at him from centre-backs. On the rare occasion he did win and hold up the ball, the support was hardly arriving in droves.
When Nikola Zigic came on, Blues looked much better. The ball retention instantly improved and the attacking approach they adopted was causing the previously rampant Wednesday to backtrack.
Blues had a new target to find in Zigic and the wingers seemed to be given more freedom to commit full-backs and get crosses in, from which they ultimately profited.
Clark's admission that the substitute changed the progress of the game meant that there was no doubt Blues would arrive at Vicarage Road playing 4-4-2 with Zigic starting - and so they did.
However, again Blues started slowly. Giving away third-minute penalties will not help anybody, but neither will failing to press a team crammed with exciting and dynamic young players. Hayden Mullins and Darren Ambrose started in the centre of midfield, but found themselves overrun as Watford's triumvirate of Murray, Vydra and Abdi interchanged and occupied the space between Blues' midfield and backline.
The Watford full-backs were also causing problems. The Hornets split their centre-backs at all times and pushed Lloyd Doyley and Daniel Pudil on as auxiliary wingers, leaving ex-Villa man Jon Hogg to drop in as an emergency third centre-back when necessary. With the full-backs pushing on and Watford's midfield relatively narrow, it meant that The Hornets always options across the park.
The inclusion of Chris Iwelumo was a surprise, but it worked. The big man did not allow Curtis Davies and Steven Caldwell an easy afternoon and was exemplary in his hold-up play, controlling the ball and finding the more 'exciting' players in the home side.
However, again, the second half was better. Granted, Watford may have been slightly more conservative in their approach as they had a two-goal cushion. But Blues seemed much more like the team from pre-season.
A high defensive line was employed, meaning Iwelumo was as isolated as his counterpart King had previously been. Blues were pressing all over the park, forcing the hosts to rush their clearances and ultimately play high balls to Iwelumo, with the ball more often than not running through to Jack Butland. The passing was better and, crucially, shorter as Blues moved the ball across the park instead of in a direct line to King. Burke was given freedom to float and run with the ball and he nearly found Lovenkrands after a great run.
Whilst Blues did not trouble Almunia much more in the second-half, it was at least more encouraging and left the feeling that if they could start as they finish, they would have a much better chance of gaining that first crucial league win.
The most perplexing aspect of the starting performances is that throughout pre-season Clark has drilled the importance of pressing the opposition into his players. So you have to wonder whether he has changed his tactics or whether the players have forgotten all the good work they put in out in Austria and then back home? Judging by the pressing in both second halves this week, it seems Clark has reaffirmed his desire to keep that tactic in action to the players at half-time.
Tuesday sees Blues return to the Capital One Cup and Clark has a dilemma now. Does he keep the same team and tell them to put right their wrongs and try to gain confidence? Or should he bring in some of the substitutes and offer them the chance to dislodge the under-performing incumbents?
Either way, a better start is essential, coupled with a return to the high-tempo, pressing game we've seen in fits and spurts so far.