With half of the season now complete, I thought it was a good time to evaluate where Blues are under Aitor Karanka and how far along the Three Year Plan™.
I’ve pulled stats from the last three seasons along with this year’s season to benchmark where Karanka is compared to the other coaches under the current regime.
Taken as a whole, the most obvious point is that the only start to a season Blues have had poorer than Karanka’s regime was the disastrous 2017/18 campaign.
By Christmas in that campaign Harry Redknapp was only a distant memory and Steve Cotterill was already as popular as a bad case of haemorrhoids with fans. There are some remarkable coincidences with that campaign, which I’ll look to more in the conclusion.
It might be lucky for Aitor Karanka in that he has not played in front of home fans yet. His team has the worst home record, having picked up just two wins and eight points in total from the first half of the season. Eight goals in 12 home games paints a picture of a team that just doesn’t create chances – and I think it’s this more than anything that has fans’ backs up.
What might be more disturbing is the fact that in no season Blues have had a better than 50% home record – which might give some reason to why Blues fans have been so disappointed with the club in recent times.
At least Karanka has had some success on the road, picking up 15 points and only losing twice. This compares favourably with everyone else except Garry Monk – which probably goes to show why his sacking was so controversial. Maybe if Monk (and his agent James Featherstone) had backed off a little bit with the Academy kids we’d be in a much more successful position.
One thing that was apparent in the summer was that Karanka had much more control over transfers than previous managers have had. I think this has been evident by the recent exits of would-be sporting director Kristjaan Speakman and head of recruitment Harvey Bussell.
With this in mind, I think it’s only fair to judge Karanka on how well new recruits have performed. I’ve split the twelve first team recruits into five tiers, and based my placement on them not only on how they have performed, but how much they have cost the club and thus value for money they’ve given.
Despite some fans proclaiming the last window “the best ever”, I was much more circumspect at the time and I think this is reflected by only Ivan Sanchez been placed in the “Good” tier. In 19 league starts and three sub appearances, Sanchez has provided one goal and two assists – which has only been bettered by Jeremie Bela (2 goals 4 assists) and Lukas Jutkiewicz (2 goals 2 assists).
However, as my friend Chris from We Are Birmingham pointed out, it’s not just been his production. Sanchez has shown willingness and desire, when it would have been easy just to give up like Fran Villalba did last season. Had Sanchez got a right foot, I think he’d be a Premier League player – and had Blues played a bit better this season, I’d have rated him excellent.
A few games ago, I’d have put Etheridge in the “Good” category as well but a recent spate of mistakes has seen him downgraded a notch. I think Etheridge has proven himself to be an excellent shot stopper and a definite upgrade on Lee Camp, but I do wonder if the lack of any real competition for the place currently bar the untested Andres Prieto has let in a bit of complacency. I’d definitely give the Spaniard the nod for the Cup game against Man City myself.
George Friend, Scott Hogan, Jonathan Leko, Jon Toral, Jake Clarke Salter, Riley McGree
I’ve put the bulk of the summer signings into the meh category. It’s a bit of a shame cos I expected more from many of them but again the current situation Blues find themselves has affected how effective I’ve seen them as.
I liked the signing of George Friend a lot; he seems a good bloke and a leader and I really do think we’ve missed having more leader types on the pitch. However, the warnings from Boro fans that his legs have gone might have been more than sour grapes, and I really would prefer Steve Seddon at left back over Friend. A good run in central defence could see his rating elevated though.
I nearly put Scott Hogan in the poor category based on the fact he’s on a fair wad of cash for the next four years, but I do think a big problem has been a lack of confidence. There have been flashes; when paired with Jon Toral in the 10 role Hogan has showed how his movement off the last man can be profitable and I think if we can give him the right service, he could flourish. However, he’s had barren runs for the last few years and it’s hard not to imagine he’s going to have another one now.
Jonathan Leko is another signing that I really wanted to work out. He’s the right age and he’s from the local area so it seemed a good deal to bring him in. At times he’s offered glimpses of what he can do and real pace but it’s evident that he’s not the finished article either and his lack of consistency brings him down from okay to meh.
But for injuries Jon Toral might have been in the okay bracket. Like Hogan, we’ve seen flashes – two goals and one assist from seven league starts and four sub appearances but I do wonder if his body is up to the task these days. Unlike Hogan, Toral only has the security of a one year contract and I wonder if Blues will exercise the year’s option they have on him.
I’m not convinced Jake Clarke Salter is fully fit yet either. Injuries have restricted his return to Blues to just five league starts and one sub appearance and I do wonder if he’ll get a run of games to prove his loan worthwhile.
When we signed Riley McGree I thought it was an odd signing and I wasn’t convinced. In five league starts and three sub appearances we’ve seen some flashes of what he can do and his industriousness but with four #10s at the club, it does feel like one of them has to put a marker down to show they’re worth the position. McGree has yet to do that.
Mikel San Jose, Adam Clayton.
I was really impressed that Blues managed to sign San Jose, and some of his passing first off made me think we’d captured a prize. However, it’s rapidly become fairly obvious that San Jose is struggling with the pace of the Championship, and I do not think he can effectively play in a two in midfield or defence. This is a problem, as I think Blues are currently most effective in a 4-2-3-1 and bearing in mind the hefty wages San Jose is on makes him a bit of a dud.
Clayton is another one where Boro fans warned us his legs have gone and in this case I think they were right. In his nine league starts and three sub appearances I’ve not been convinced he’s been worth us signing, and his lack of pace has really cost us at times. With Blues already having a surfeit of central midfielders and Clayton probably being on a fairly hefty wage, he’s in the dud category for me.
Andres Prieto, Alen Halilovic
With only one start in the League Cup, it’s impossible to judge Andres Prieto at all as a signing. I was hoping that Zach Jeacock would be the backup this year but his injury has shown that Prieto’s signing was probably necessary. I’d like to see Prieto get given a run against Man City – and maybe, if he plays well consider him instead of Etheridge for a league game if only to show Etheridge his position isn’t 100% guaranteed.
Dubbed the “Croatian Messi”, Halilovic came into the squad with something to prove but hasn’t had chance yet. One start and three sub appearances mean it’s difficult to judge how well he’s done so far – however the fact he’s allegedly on a wedge means for me he has to prove himself soon once fit.
Looking at where Blues are, I can understand the frustrations of some fans. While not much was outlaid in transfer fees, a fair bit has been spent in wages and as yet, Karanka can’t get a tune out of these players.
I wonder if there is a parallel here with the 2017/18 season – a raft of new players elevating expectations from fans, only for them to crash back down as they struggle to gel. While it was obvious that Blues needed a lot of new players in the summer, maybe this is further proof that vast turnovers of players and instability are not at all good for the club.
There’s an argument that we’ve been stiffed somewhat by referees, but a poster on SHA made a good point that Blues don’t often enough get into positions where they might benefit from some of the inconsistent refereeing we’ve seen.
Unlike most, I don’t think the lack of attacking instinct necessarily all comes from team formation. Every time I’ve watched Blues it feels like that there is a lack of tempo when we have the ball; and that lack of tempo and incisiveness has made attacks slow and ponderous. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Blues played better for two games with Kieftenbeld and Sunjic in the middle offering energy; the key for me now is maintaining that energy with a better retention of the ball.
The biggest problem Blues have is that finances are going to dictate what they do. The ongoing pandemic has meant there continues to be zero ticket receipts, and commercial revenue is down – while the most expensive outgoing, players wages remains as high as ever. That means the powers that be have the decision whether to stick with what they have and hope for better, or to once again roll the dice, spend cash on another sacking and hiring (and potentially another reformatting of the squad) in the hope of changing things.
Again there is a parallel with the 2017/18 season.
In January and February 2018, Steve Cotterill was about as popular as a pork chop in a synagogue with fans. Yet he held onto his job as Blues CEO Ren Xuandong was loathe to sack him as he’d hung his hat on the appointment of Cotterill. On that occasion, BSH Chairman Zhao Wenqing flew in from China to fix the problem and give Cotterill the Spanish archer.
There is no denial that Ren has absolutely hung his hat on the appointment of Karanka, so sacking the Spaniard is going to make the CEO look bad in the eyes of his bosses. Whether that would lead to Ren’s only sacking is another question entirely; however, this time Zhao is only sitting across the stadium from Ren on matchday rather than the other side of the world. There can be no way that the owners do not know the full situation at the club.
Overall, my mark for Karanka this season is a D.
The only reason I’ve not given him an F is because Blues do not currently lie in the relegation places. That being said, things need to change quickly on the pitch if fans are to have faith in the long term goals.