Behind Enemy Lines: Birmingham City

MILLWALL are aiming to stretch their unbeaten home run to five games when they face Birmingham City at The Den on Wednesday evening.

The Lions won both meetings between the sides last season with an aggregate score of 3-0, and will surely be buoyed by Blues’ 4-2 derby defeat at Aston Villa on Sunday.

Lucas Ball spoke to Gabriel Sutton this week.



Twitter: @_FootbalLab

Why do you support Birmingham?

My father had supported them from, I believe, the early 1960s and he started taking me to games in around the late ‘90s.



At first it took me a while to get interested and I didn’t have a season ticket, but then I watched goalkeeper Ian Bennett’s testimonial in the summer of 2003 and I remember really enjoying that.

A friend of my dad’s had a season ticket they weren’t using due to living abroad so I watched us finish 10th in the then-Premiership in 2003-04 and from then on I was hooked.

What's been your favourite season following Blues?

The 2011-12 campaign under Chris Hughton would have to be up there. It was a strange season for us because, in one way, it was the start of a decline having just been relegated with various off-field issues, but in another way, it was a very exciting campaign.

We not only reached the play-offs, losing in the semi-final to Blackpool despite a spirited second-leg display, but we also had a good run in the FA Cup and played very well in the Europa League; we were very unlucky not to qualify from our group with 10 points.

Having watched largely defensive football under Alex McLeish the season before, it was great to see us play some good, counter-attacking stuff.

And the worst?

Probably 2016-17. Most will say the decision to dismiss Gary Rowett in December was the main factor behind our post-Christmas slump that year, but we’d actually been very lucky to be as high as we were when we made the change.

Gianfranco Zola tried to modernize our style of play but could not do so with the personnel, then made loads of changes to the squad in January which disrupted things.

We stayed up on the final day – as we have done three times in the last half a decade.

Were you happy with the appointment of Garry Monk?

Monk was the best manager we could have attracted in our position, because we were staring relegation in the face in March and this is someone who was one of the stand-out Premier League managers in 2014-15.

Our performance levels have improved over the last eight months and there have been almost no games in which we’ve been beaten for effort or dominated throughout, which is certainly progress. I am pleased to have him as our manager.

Having drawn nine games already, I assume that the lack of cutting edge is costing his side so far this season?

That was certainly true in the first two months of the campaign; we didn’t score against Swansea and Bolton in August despite largely dominant performances in both games.

Over the last two months, though, we have found that cutting edge and Che Adams, who was probably our best player in the 4-2 loss at Aston Villa on Sunday, is beginning to find a purple patch after a hat-trick in the 3-3 draw with Hull just before the international break.

Lukas Jutkiewicz is being lauded by fans. Is that as much for his all-round game as goal-scoring prowess?

Jukey has been excellent this season. In August and September, he got through a lot of leg-work for us, battled with centre-backs and won the aerial duels, mainly to allow other players to have shots.

In the last couple of months, he’s applied himself in the same way, but he’s also had that bit more confidence to take shots on in and around the penalty area. He’ll be a real threat on Wednesday.

He has 10 goals in 18 games, but is more required of the players around him?

I can see why you’d think that, but Adams who I’ve mentioned is having a great run and Jota, when fit, is recapturing his Brentford form under Monk.

Maybe we'd want a bit more productivity from Jacques Maghoma, who offers raw energy and direct runs out wide. For those wide men to have freedom in our 4-4-2 system, though, we need our central midfielders to be focused on their ball-winning duties, so it’s rare that you’ll see someone like Maikel Kieftenbeld break into the box.

Millwall won both fixtures last season – do you think that will have any effect on Wednesday?

Yeah, congratulations on doing the double over us last season – took you long enough!

Joking aside, I’m not overly worried about the results from 2017-18 as I think both clubs are in different positions this year. I just can't see us being as poor as we were at The Den last season and, equally, I'm not convinced your lot are at the same high level.

From the outside, I see it as problematic for Millwall that you’ve been so reliant on Steve Morison over the previous three seasons. Now that his fitness levels are not quite what they were, I imagine you’ve got to find ways of performing without him.

Because he seems to be such a unique player, it must be very difficult to identify another striker who can replicate what he offers in terms of work rate, aerial ability, aggression, leadership and affinity with fans.

I like Lee Gregory but I’m not sure he and maybe Aiden O'Brien have the physical qualities to lead the line, especially if you play a lot of long balls. Could maybe see you going for someone like Tom Eaves in January.

What does Monk need in January?

Due to the financial restrictions, I would be surprised if Monk is able to do much business in the winter window. Because it looks very likely that we’ll be in the Championship next season, there might not be a great need to grab at players anyway.

Over a longer period, I’d like to see us add a centre-back and a sitting midfielder who can offer a touch of class in possession. A lot of our chances this season have come shortly after turnovers in the opposition half, but if we can look after the ball better, we can conserve energy better while picking and choosing our moments to attack.

What would be a successful campaign?

Considering that the summer transfer embargo stopped us making more than one permanent addition in pre-season, and that we have so often been mired in a relegation battle, finishing mid-table would be a successful campaign.

Who will be the danger men for the visitors?

Jutkiewicz and Adams. Kieftenbeld in midfield is a real battler, whenever the ball gets played behind our midfield he sprints back at real pace to make sure we hold on to our shape.

Likewise, which Millwall players are you wary of?

Due to the striker issues mentioned – and from the outside, I’m not convinced Jed Wallace has been quite at the frightening level he was at last season – I’d like to think we can keep Millwall quiet from open play.

However, I’m a bit worried about the threat Jake Cooper will pose from either Shane Ferguson or Shaun Williams’ set-pieces.

What are your thoughts on Harris?

I think he deserves enormous credit for aspects of the work he has done with your lot – especially that run towards the play-offs last season, against all the odds.

If you could sign just one of his players, who would it be and why?

Cooper would be the obvious pick for the above reasons. However, I’m a big fan of wide forward Fred Onyedinma, who appears to be having an impressive season on loan at Wycombe. I saw him when covering Walsall a few weeks ago: he loves to run at defenders and is not afraid to shoot.

What's your predicted Blues' starting XI and formation?

We will almost certainly be 4-4-2 and I would expect two changes from Sunday. Gary Gardner missed out due to being unavailable to play against his parent club but he’s been in better form than Craig Gardner this season so they could swap places.

Left winger Jacques Maghoma came off the bench in the second half at Villa Park, so he should be fit enough to come in for Wes Harding, with Kristian Pedersen dropping back into his usual left-back position.

Garry Monk is hoping to get Jota back fit but Wednesday might come too soon for him to start. If he features at all, it is likely to be from the bench.

4-4-2

Camp; Colin, Morrison, Dean, Pedersen; Mahoney, Kieftenbeld, G Gardner, Maghoma; Adams, Jutkiewicz.

Will you be at Wednesday's game?

Yeah. Will be in the Barrow Boy and Banker by London Bridge before the game – be nice to meet some of the NAD readers and/or writers there.

Finally, a score prediction?

I’ll go 2-1 to the Blues.

All the best for the season, and keep up the good work with the website.

Graphic: @ShedCreative 

Staff

(@NewsAtDen)