BCFC: The Eustace Question

Tuesday night saw Birmingham City slump to a heavy 3-0 defeat away to Watford. That result means that while Blues lay in what is becoming a traditional 18th place, the gap to the bottom three is down to seven points after Blackpool’s hammering of QPR.

Pre Match St Andrews

With Blues having lost 10 of their last 14 league games, the pressure is very much back on Head Coach John Eustace.

It’s been a tough second half of the season for Birmingham City fans. On December 16 after beating Reading 3-2 at home Blues lay in 7th place in the Championship and some fans were dreaming of a finish in the upper reaches of the table.

Since then, Blues have taken just ten from a possible 42 points and are now stuck in the familiar position just above the relegation zone.

There’s been some murmurs online about the position of Eustace, with this time of year seeming being synonymous with Birmingham City managers getting the sack.

Indeed, today marks the second anniversary of Aitor Karanka getting the push while Steve Cotterill went on 3 March 2018 and further back Gianfranco Zola falling on his own sword on April 17, 2017.

I wanted to put some thoughts together about Eustace and where Blues go from here.

Expectation and Stats

Cast your mind back to the start of July when Eustace came in as Head Coach.

The departure of Lee Bowyer had been protracted with Bowyer unwilling to walk away from the club for financial reasons.

There was a toxicity around the training ground with rumours that the players were about to down tools rather than turn out for the former Charlton boss.

This all meant Eustace came in without much time to work with his squad before the season and being forced to integrate new players on the fly as they slowly came in before the transfer window shut.

I’m not sure what expectations the owners will have had before the season, but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt I feared that this was the season we went down.

I was lucky enough to go to Kenilworth Road for the first league game of the season away to Luton and while I thought Blues battled hard it looked like we were going to struggle to score goals and win games.

Fast forward to now, and while Blues aren’t in a great position I think we’re in a better one than I had feared we would be.

As much as we had our hopes built up by the good form just before the World Cup break, I have to admit I felt that was a false position and that we would see some correction before too long.

Yet despite the horrific run of results of late, I think the stats prove that Eustace hasn’t done that bad a job.

As of the Watford game, Eustace has been in charge for 41 league and cup games, winning 12 of them for a 29.3% win percentage.

While it might be considered damning with faint praise, that win percentage compares favourably with Bowyer (28.8%), Pep Clotet (27.7%), Cotterill (25.9%) and Karanka (21.1%).

More interestingly, it is only just short of Harry Redknapp (30.8%) and Garry Monk (32.2%) which in my eyes show that Eustace isn’t as poor as some would think.

Although it’s not felt like it sometimes, Blues have also been better in front of goal under Eustace than the previous two managers.

Under Eustace, Blues have scored a total of 47 in 41 league and cup games, which is about 1.14 goals per game.

During the period that Bowyer was head coach, Blues scored 62 in 59 league and cup games, which is 1.05 goals per game; while under Karanka that figure was a miserly 26 in 38 league and cup games, which is just 0.68 goals per game.

From a purely statistical standpoint, John Eustace has realistically not done too badly.

The Squad

While it’s easy to look at numbers from a purely objective standpoint, I think it’s harder to do that when looking at the squad.

I know that there is a whole load of stats out there like the much-maligned xG stat, but it’s my impression that most fans prefer to judge players on what they see rather than a list of numbers.

I’ve not seen enough games this year to realistically make a judgement on how good players are other than to opine that there is a lot of inconsistency in the squad.

One week I’ve seen some players have absolutely barnstorming games and then look like a lost soul the next and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the frustration.

It’s this inconsistency, in addition to some of the injury problems and the lopsided nature of the squad which I think has hampered Eustace this season.

I think it’s been hard for Eustace to rely on players because of that inconsistency, particularly some of the younger players who are inexperienced and who are only just starting out their professional careers at first team level.

In saying that, I can also understand the frustration fans have with Eustace relying on formations where we just don’t have the players to make it work.

For example, I’m not sure why Eustace is so keen to play with three centre-backs when it’s obvious we don’t have players who can fit into the specialised wing-back position.

I’m no tactician but I think the 4-2-3-1 we played against Rotherham United has to be the way forward, even if means playing Auston Trusty in a less-familiar left-back role.

Equally, I think with Troy Deeney injured and Scott Hogan going through a horrible loss of form and confidence, Blues would be better off playing three of their young attacking midfielder types off Lukas Jutkiewicz in forward areas to an attempt to play to the squad’s strengths.

I’d genuinely like to understand some of the reasoning Eustace has for the selections he has made; hopefully the new Birmingham Mail reporter covering Blues Alex Dicken can pick up on Brian Dick’s excellent work and try to push Eustace into explaining things in his press conferences.

The Future

I ran a couple of polls on social media on Wednesday evening to try and gauge some reactions from fans towards John Eustace, and while not massively reliable they both indicated that respondents were willing to stick with Eustace at least for now.

From speaking to people who go to away games I get the impression that while there is concern from the hardcore away support that Eustace may be in over his heard, there is also an acceptance that Blues have had worse managers and that there are bigger problems than Eustace at the club.

What makes me worry is that even among the away support there is a growing disaffection towards the club in general due to the length of time that the club has been struggling both on and off the pitch.

I get the feeling that Saturday could be a big game in the short-term future of the club. Win against QPR and I think there will be a feeling that we might have enough on the board to escape being sucked into the bottom three; lose and I fear that worries will grow hugely.

Queens Park Rangers come into the game in a horrific run of form, culminating in getting smashed 6-1 on Tuesday night by a Blackpool side who remain in the bottom three.

Since coming in as QPR manager on February 21, Gareth Ainsworth has led QPR to one win and three defeats, conceding 12 goals and scoring just four.

While they beat Watford in their last home game, that victory was QPR’s first home win since October 22; a stretch of ten games at Loftus Road.

In short, Saturday’s game should be viewed as winnable and therefore I think it would be reasonable to expect Eustace to put out a team that is set up with that in mind.

Past Saturday, it’s hard to know what will happen, especially considering the potential for new owners should OPL be successful in their takeover bid.

I really want John Eustace to succeed in his role as head coach. It’s clear he’s a likeable guy and unlike previous seasons he has retained the confidence of the players.

However, I have to admit that as much as I don’t want the club to go through the rigmarole of another manager search, we’re entering a time when the club needs to start picking up results again.

Three points and a good performance on Saturday will help things settle down once more, and will make for a calmer international break.

It’s over to you now John to make that happen.