BCFC: A Zugzwang Situation

Saturday saw another dispirited display from Birmingham City on the pitch continuing what is an alarming slump in form. Off the pitch, anger started to boil over from fans with many confronting the directors area to demand Hong Kong parent company Birmingham Sports Holdings Ltd sells the club.

St Andrew's taken 26 December 2018

Some things seem to be certain in January in recent years; not only is it cold and shit weather-wise, but it almost seems guaranteed that Blues will be playing crap and protest is on the cards.

In recent times I remember the red pocket protest in January 2020, while last year fans protested in earnest forcing Blues Chairman Frank Zhao Wenqing to say something publicly on the official website for the first time in an attempt to say “we’re listening”.

It might be a new year now but things don’t seem to have changed much in comparison to those times.

On the pitch we’ve once again got a young manager who has started off well only to see his team drop off alarmingly in form and composure.

Off the pitch we’re once again remembered that the club is in a parlous state with disinterested owners, complete with two stands that remain half open in a stadium desperately in need of freshening up.

I’ve seen much comment on social media about why Blues keep ending up in this state; why we seem trapped in a vicious circle of bringing in a new coach and having hope only to have it all dashed from us and end up fighting relegation again.

It’s something I’ve thought a bit about myself too; to try to understand just why this situation is so cyclical.

A chance discussion in my local with a non-football fan has brought forward a concept from the game of chess which might help give an answer, which is known as zugzwang.

What the eff is Zugzwang?

Zugzwang is a German term which has the dictionary definition of:

a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage.

At a high level, chess is a game of trying to create a situation where one cannot lose.

Because of the complexity of the game there are literally thousands of directions a game can go, and it’s easily possible to get into a position where everything looks okay but there is no further good way forward.

This is what “zugzwang” is – and it’s a situation Blues habitually finds itself in.

Think back a couple of months to the time before the world cup break.

At that time Blues were flying pretty high in the table, playing half decent football and some of the more optimistic among us thought that the playoffs were a possibility. Even I got caught up in it, writing a piece about the “p” word.

However, as seems to have happened a few times in recent years, those performances have tailed off.

Whether you blame the formation being utilised, complacency from players, the number of injuries the squad has had to contend with in context of how few Championship-quality players it has, the fact remains the same – many Blues fans are now looking down rather than up.

It’s as if that point before the World Cup break was the best position we could be in, and every move we have made since has taken us down a bit further.

Some moves have been forced.

Head coach John Eustace wouldn’t have chosen Harlee Dean and Marc Roberts to get injured, but those injuries have meant Blues trying to patch up their defence.

I don’t think Eustace would have chosen to have six loan players either, but only being able to replace the injured loanee Przemyslaw Placheta with another loanee in Reda Khadra has meant he has had another thing to take into account when juggling his squad.

Equally, some moves are voluntary.

While having six loans forces one to be left out, it’s been the decision of Eustace to leave out the only proper left-back the club has in Manny Longelo, trying to fit in players to fill the gap.

Likewise, while Eustace only has certain players to work with, he’s the one who chooses the formation and the way they are set up to play.

The net result is Blues are now 19th in the Championship table following five consecutive league defeats, six points ahead of the relegation zone.

Regardless of the ownership situation, if Blues are to escape this continual circling of the relegation drain there needs to be some serious thought from those in charge to break this cycle.

We’ve seen too many short-term fixes to get us out of trouble, but within twelve months the club is back where it started.

This gives rise to the feeling that sooner or later the club will fail to drag itself out of relegation trouble and finally drop a division.

Breaking the cycle

I think one of the biggest things we have to face as fans of Blues is that there is a more deep-rooted problem than just inconsistent players and an inexperienced manager.

The short-termist nature of how the club has been run for the last few years has caused a situation where the squad is a ragtag mixture of loans, unfulfilled talents and deadwood.

We complain about how bad the squad is, yet the wage bill still cripples any chance the club have of investing properly.

Despite a lot of work to move on players on high wages in recent years I understand that there are still six players in the squad who are earning more than £1M per year.

That high wage bill in relation to the turnover the club can produce leaves it heavily dependent on cash infusions from other sources; be it transfer income from selling players or money put in by owners of the club.

With current owners who either don’t want to or can’t put too much more money into the club, it leaves Blues limping from season to season hoping to strike it lucky in the loan market or via an academy prospect.

Even if new owners come in, there has to be some rationalisation of the wage bill to make the club a sustainable prospect.

My understanding from speaking to people connected with Maxco was that if they had pulled off a takeover, they would have limited wages for new players to £15k per week (£780k per year) because any more would be financial suicide.

There would also have been some reliance on selling players too because there isn’t the income in the Championship to help finance the club in other ways.

The other thing I think we need to accept is that Blues cannot continue the trend of firing managers in the spring because of a run of poor results, only for a new manager to suffer the same fate a year on.

Every time the club fires a manager, they have to pay them off, which is money that cannot be invested into the team or the club. Sooner or later we’re going to have to stick and take what comes.

This might all feel a bit miserable, but I do not believe all hope is lost.

The end of the worst

The good news is that the end of this season sees another bunch of high-cost contracts come to an end.

While that means those players will either need to accept much lower deals, or be replaced by players that will, it also means that Blues will be somewhat less crippled in the transfer market.

Even if new owners don’t come into place by the end of this season, if Blues can hold out this season there is an opportunity to put into place positive changes that will help prevent this yearly cycle.

My hope is that at the end of this season Blues will look at their usage of the loan market and see it for what it is – a short term fix that only invites further trouble down the pike.

I think we have to be brave and move on from bringing in loan players to plug gaps in the squad, and instead do our best to fill those gaps with players signed on permanent deals.

I accept that without a change in ownership there isn’t going to be an appetite to spend transfer fees, but my hope is that with a somewhat lower wage bill the club can try to bring in some free transfers who can help rebuild the squad.

More importantly, I think Blues as a club need to take a deeper look at why the squad is so imbalanced.

For example, it’s one thing that the club doesn’t have a first team left back that it owns, but there isn’t one in the u21 squad either.

Likewise, I think the club needs to examine why there is a surfeit of midfielders coming through the academy in comparison to other positions and try to balance that out a bit better.

As much as I want new owners to buy the club, I think it’s really important for anyone who is in charge to understand the fundamental problems the club is facing and how they affect any chance the club has of making progress.

The bald fact is it’s not a coincidence the club is stuck in this loop; it’s a product of the way the club has been run for the last few years and the decisions that have been taken.

I think the owners need to realise that the reason fans are so angry with them is because this repetitive pattern is evidence that they either don’t know or don’t care what they’re doing.

What they should also realise is that it’s not only the football club that is stuck in this loop.

I’m of the belief that the owners are in a zugzwang situation too, where every step they can take is a bad one that is going to cost them dearly.

As any chess player knows, there sometimes are times when it’s best to turn over your King and walk away.