Where do we go from here? The performance wasn't awful, certainly a lot better than the second half last week, but we never really looked totally comfortable, despite periods of domination. Birmingham aren't a bad team but they are a team in our 'league' and so one we really must be looking to beat at home. Failure to beat teams of this ilk is a disaster waiting to happen. Our home is pathetic; just three home wins in 22 Premier league games. We aren't going to repeat last years heroics on the road so we must improve at the KC and fast.
I wasn't aware that there was a problem with Kamel Ghilas not eating due to Ramadan; otherwise I would've slaughtered Phil Brown for leaving him out. However, it appears his hands were tied. Getting rid of Kilbane was a plus point in his favour. The system wasn't right though. PB is obviously trying desperately to send out a more attacking side at home but it just isn't working. Midfield wasn't as disastrous as against Spurs but we were still badly outnumbered at times. He also didn't learn from the Spurs game with his striker selection as JVoH and Altidore are as unsuitable a partnership as Cousin and Folan. If PB felt he couldn't use Ghilas then it had to be one of the two big men with Geo or Fagan as a partner. When it came to substitutions, PB failed miserably again. The midfield already looked weak; swapping Marney for Barmby is ludicrous. Nicky couldn't play in there 5 years ago, he certainly can't now. I actually heard someone suggest that PB is negative, which is a stupid thing to suggest. He's not negative, he's naïve. In trying too hard to chase a win, we left ourselves open and lost.
As a unit, they were much improved. A couple of times early on, there were signs of indecision but that wore off as the game went on. Zayatte was very impressive again. He took control of a lot of situations and his ability to bring the ball out of defence is superb. McShane had a terrific start and did really well to get challenges in early and make interceptions; he was exposed by Geo, who wandered all over, but didn't look troubled at all. In the second half, he went to pieces, making two or three really rash decisions that let Birmingham in. He got forward well though and delivered a couple of really good crosses. Sonko didn't get involved an awful lot. He was often the spare man at the back as Zayatte attached himself to Benitez. Dawson did a decent job in defense, especially as he was often exposed by counter attacks when everyone else was up for set pieces. Going forward though, he's just too slow. He needs to many touches, he hardly ever gets beyond Hunt and his crosses aren't good enough. He was most effective when he slid the ball into JVoH's feet.
Boaz made five wonderful saves. The curling shot from Lee Bowyer that he tipped over the bar was probably the best, though he did a great job of standing up to Benitez's strike just prior to the Brum goal. Most of the saves came from snap shots, usually as our midfield stood and watched them shoot. Benitez was a tricky opponent though; he was quick, had superb control and was able to shoot from any angle with force. Having got away with some lapses due to Myhill's wonderful 'keeping, it was a big disappointment to concede form a corner. O'Connor wandered in at the near post and planted his header past Boaz, like the last Sunderland goal last week and the Wolves equaliser, it was terrible marking.
It was a strange game in that it swung from end to end in clumps. We'd have five minutes of pressure, and then be under the cosh for five, then in control for five, etc. When we were on top and we'd forced them back, we looked fine but when it was their turn, their three in the centre of midfield bypassed Marney and Oily quite easily. They didn't have a great deal of possession nor did they look like running us ragged but every time they got near the goal, they were able to get shots in. This is the situation were we badly miss Ash.
It was good to see Marney back, if only because Kilbane is so awful. Deano started well, he was demanding the ball, using it well and winning it high up the pitch. Then the clock struck five passed three and he promptly disappeared from the game. That's slightly harsh as he did a lot of chasing and harrying but his input in terms of tackles made and through balls went completely. He did rack up a few in the "silly fouls" column though. He's still got a long way to go if he's going to beat Fagan for this year's award. Olofinjana had one of his better games. Unlike Marney, he started poorly, looking indecisive on the ball but he got into it and was probably our best outfield player. He got in behind them a couple of times which has been a rarity form our midfield and he looked strong in possession. He doesn't go into tackles in the way you'd expect form a man of his size and ability. When we don't have the ball, he always tracks runners and he's in the right position but doesn't seem to have a defensive mindset or ability to go and win the ball. When he played for Wolves against us, he was always combative aswell as good going forward; I want to see more of that from him.
Stephen Hunt had about his worst game for us. His touch was awful, delivery was poor and he didn't carry the ball well. There were a lot of good situations that he would've exploited if he'd been on his game. Geo is never particularly effective stuck out on the right but wandered around a lot to try and influence the game. He forced a good save from Hart, capping one of our better moves in the game and opened up some situations just from the threat of his shooting.
When you compare us with Birmingham, it shows up the lack of threat from our midfield. They got lots of midfield players around the box and they forced saves from the goalkeeper. We rarely did.
The Front Line
As mentioned, there was no chemistry at all between the front two. Despite being a bit slow, I thought JVoH did a decent job; he competed in the air and held the ball up well. Unfortunately, Altidore was awful. He was too slow to react to anything that came in, he's always on the back foot. He should've scored twice but was too slow to get his shot off the first time and too slow to react to the other. His good work came when he was able to take the ball into feet and spin defenders but otherwise, he just wasn't good enough. Like the midfield, we were guilty of not forcing saves from the goalkeeper. We got into good crossing positions, we delivered balls in, we had plenty of corners and we had good ball around the box but still Joe Hart only had to make a couple of saves. There were goalmouth scrambles in the first and last couple of minutes and it's hard to know how the ball stayed out, similarly when Sonko delivered an incredible long throw-in. Things improved a lot when Ghilas was introduced, he was everywhere. He's got all the energy and appetite of Fagan but has far more ability and a good brain. It's a shame he was deemed unfit to start.
So the question remains, where do we go from here? I still believe in Phil Brown but the number of fans who don't is growing by the week and results like todays won't help. I'd have to concede that he does look a little desperate at the moment. We're throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Still, next week is an easy game, Liverpool away; we'll turn them over no bother. Whatever the system we go with, Ghilas has to start and Boateng needs to come in and protect the back four. I'll also be disappointed if we make too many changes for the cup game in midweek. Forget fringe players, it's a good opportunity to give our back four another game together and give JVoH or Altidore a much needed 90 minutes. If we can put in a good performance at Liverpool then win, lose or draw, it will stand us in good stead for a run of five games that we should be getting points from. Failure to do so would make the future pretty bleak.
Ratings: Myhill 9, McShane 6, Dawson 6, Sonko 6, Zayatte 7, Geo 6, Hunt 5, Olofinjana 7, Marney 6 (Barmby), Altidore 5 (Ghilas), Venegoor of Hesselink 6 (Mendy).