Everyone at Middlesbrough would have been thankful that there was not a mid-week game this week as the players returned from their forced covid break to get back into the swing of things before they face Birmingham City on Saturday.
This isn’t the first time Middlesbrough have faced Birmingham this season, as the team travelled to St. Andrews just three games ago. They took all three points away from that game with a bountiful 4-1 scoreline. Since then Birmingham City has continued in its bad form and may look towards the club recovering from extensive positive covid tests as the place to start getting themselves back on track.
Season so far:
If Birmingham City chairman Cho Hung Paul Seun believed that hiring Actor Karanka may result in the team challenging at the top of the table this season then he will be disappointed. The blues are currently 19th place in the table, gaining a point per game on average. While the team has won just 5 games so far this season, their ability to earn a point has been more impressive, with 8 games finishing on level pegging. More alarmingly for Birmingham, however, is that 10 or 43% of their games have ended with the team on the losing end.
Perhaps the most alarming thing about the side, is the number of goals that have been conceded by the St. Andrew’s based side as the ball has got past Etheridge 29 times in the past 23 games. This alone doesn’t sound particularly concerning, but Karanka prefers to build his teams from a solid defensive base while the offensive side of his teams are rarely prolific, as with Birmingham who have scored 17 goals so far this season.
A look at the clubs recent form hints at a concerning trend that could spell the end of Karanka’s time at the club. Over the past 5 games, Birmingham City have only earned a single point, in a 0-0 draw to Nottingham Forest. While two of the losses over the recent period, against Derby County and Middlesbrough, saw the team sink 4 goals. To make matters worse Birmingham have only scored 3 goals over this period too, 2 against Cardiff and 1 against Middlesbrough.
This shows that Birmingham City are currently in a rut of form and will need to pull themselves out of it soon if they wish to remain in the championship. Further still, this run of form could spell the end of Karanka’s time at the club.
Comparison: Birmingham City vs Middlesbrough
The nature of Birmingham City’s current situation is highlighted when comparing the club to Middlesbrough. The most notable and important of these statistics is the points difference, which puts Middlesbrough 13 points ahead.
Meanwhile Middlesbrough has been considerably more dominant in an attacking sense scoring 11 more goals than Birmingham City and while both teams are level in terms of goals scored from set pieces; the difference between the two sides is seen with goals from open play, here Middlesbrough have scored twice as many goals as their upcoming opponents. This is hardly a surprise either as Middlesbrough are dominant in all notable offensive team statistics; though the lack of big chances from the blues will be the biggest offensive concern for Aitor Karanka and his backroom staff. The 18 big chances that they have made equate to less than 1 per game, to put this into perspective, Middlesbrough, who aren’t a particularly offensive side, have made 32 big chances so far this season.
Defensively Middlesbrough has had more clean sheets than Birmingham City, which highlights their defensive superiority. However, due to Birmingham City finding themselves under pressure more often than Middlesbrough, they have better clearance and tackle numbers. It is important to note here that Birmingham have a talented goalkeeper in Neil Etheridge and his save rate shows that he is doing all he can to stabilise Birmingham City’s defensive issues.
Finally, the two teams have had a similar average possession, which may pose some questions about which team will have the majority of the ball in the upcoming game. Middlesbrough struggle to turn games in their favour when they have 50%+ possession and as such will hope that Birmingham City are willing to play a more possession based game.
Gary Gardner/Harlee Dean/Jeremie Bela/Jon Toral/Lukas Juktiewicz/Mark Roberts/Scott Hogan (2)
Marc Bela (4)
Most Yellow Cards:
Ivan Sunjic (6)
Most Red Cards:
Adam Clayton, Harlee Dean, Kristian Pedersen (1)
One to watch: Jeremie Bela
Birmingham City may have struggled going forward and their attacking options have failed to be prolific in front of goal with 7 players sharing the top goalscorer spot with just 2 goals. While this is an indication that there are goalscorers across the team, the fact that none of the players have been able to get past two goals is an issue that Birmingham will be aiming to address. In this list of goalscorers is Jeremy Bela, who signed for the club on a free transfer in November 2019. He is a pacy winger with a number of tricks in his locker that he deploys when one-on-one with a defender, often getting the better of his opposite man.
While he has the pace and trickery to cause Middlesbrough problems, it is Bela’s added end product that will make him particularly dangerous to the Teesside side. As already mentioned, Bela has converted 2 chances so far this season, but he has also made 4 assists, the most in the team. This means that he is the player most involved in Birmingham’s attacking successes. If Middlesbrough can subdue the 27 year old then it would go a long way to blunting Birmingham City’s attack.
Manager: Aitor Karanka
The Spanish manager needs no introduction to Middlesbrough fans, as the Vitoria born former defender managed the club between 2013-17. He started his professional career at Athletic Bilbao, a club that solely plays Basque born players, making 118 first team appearances and scoring 2 goals. He would later move from Bilbao to Real Madrid for 6.0m Euro’s in 1997 playing 93 games in total despite missing the majority of the 1998-99 season due to a heart condition. A move back to Bilbao followed, where he made 64 appearances between 2002 and 2006. His final move was to Colorado Rapids for one season in the MLS in 2006, where made a total of 28 appearances before hanging up his boots.
Two years later, Aitor Karanka was back in football but as the manager of Spain’s U16’s side, staying with them until 2012 when he moved back to Real Madrid as assistant manager under Jose Mourinho. Yet, he was still relatively unknown when he signed a contract to manage Middlesbrough football club in 2013, where he proved his worth as a manager in what has arguably been his best stint as a manager so far, leading the club to promotion in 2016 following a failed playoff final. Since then he has managed both Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City with mixed results.
Referee: Darren England
Many football fans will be aware of the name Darren England as he is a referee with a decent reputation in the game. So far this season, Darren England has made 5 appearances in the Premier League in games featuring Wolves, Newcastle, Fulham and Manchester City. He is far from exclusive with the Premier League though, having also refereed 4 games in the championship, two of which included Norwich City. It appears that England is a referee that is between the two leagues and ends up refereeing in both when needed. It is clear that Darren England isn’t afraid to distribute cards either, handing out a total of 34 yellow cards in 13 games this season, though he rarely goes further than a warning, with him presenting only 1 red card so far this season.