Zola: the questionable appointment that has divided Birmingham City

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Birmingham City have never been a club renowned for frequently sacking their manager. The sacking of Lee Clark back in 2014 was the first manager we had sacked since I started following the club in the late 1990’s – all other managers in between this time had left of their own accord or had been snapped up by a more attractive club. The major roots of the loyalty with our managers is down to the fans, as despite the troubled times of recent years, they have always stuck by the team and backroom staff. However; after two months in charge, and just one win to show for it, Gianfranco Zola is beginning to lose even the most loyal of Blues fans. 

We could sit here all day and complain, as many people on Twitter still do, about the sacking of the fan favourite Gary Rowett and the controversy which surrounded it, but we won’t. The matter-of-fact is, the board sacked him due to him failing to show full commitment to the club alongside a few disappointing results, including a dismal 3-0 defeat at home to Barnsley. Trillion Trophy Asia (TTA), who completed the takeover of the club in October, were clearly not going to be pushed over by an uncommitted manager who could’ve jumped ship mid-transfer window, which would have limited the clubs ability to sign players. Zola was then appointed within 24 hours, with the majority of the contemporary focus going towards the upcoming transfer window.

Gianfranco’s previous managerial record wasn’t outstanding to say the least, but there was no doubt in his ability to produce flare,  football of which we have rarely, if ever, seen down St. Andrews. Take a look at Watford’s 2012/13 season which Zola managed – they did the double over us, scoring 6 and conceding 0 in the process, and demolished Leeds 6-1 in their own backyard. Watford were the top scoring club that season, with an impressive 85 goals coming across the 46 games. The main criticism of that season, of course, was the inability to gain promotion with their loss in the play-off final to Crystal Palace. There is something interesting to take from looking at this season from Watford. After 13 games, they were actually struggling in 16th place, just a mere 4 points above the relegation zone. You can make of that what you will. Either way, the proof of some form of success in the Championship, along with being a big name in himself, was enough to lure TTA and Panos Pavlakis into securing the Italian.

So, 14 games into Zola’s reign, and we find ourselves with just 1 win and coming off a 4-1 home thrashing at the hands of fellow strugglers QPR. Questions are being asked in recent games about Zola’s team selections, with formations chopping and changing maybe once too often. It appears Gianfranco is still trying to find the right balance with the team, especially with the new additions in January. The changes makes sense though, and criticism on this front seems uncalled for. In the game against QPR, we started off in a sort of 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 formation, which looked odd on paper, however this formation was the one that was switched to in the 2nd half against Preston, one which we were in control of. Prior to this, Zola adopted the formations used frequently by Rowett and attempted to fit these formations in to his style of play. Again, this is something which would be harsh to criticise, as he attempted to keep the players comfortable in a tried system, with an addition of his own touch.

However, there are some things which have deservedly come under fire from the Blues fans of late. The once-solid centre back pairing of Morrison and Shotton seem to have crumbled since his appointment. It seems neither are used to the “play from the back” style of play Zola loves to push onto his players, and prefer it the old-fashioned way. As much as Gianfranco wants to play his own way, he must let Morrison and Shotton play the way they’re most comfortable with. Another deserved criticism towards Zola would be his team selections. For the QPR game, the formation made sense with Nsue and Keita bombing forward as wing-backs and looking fragile in defence, but an inexperienced Dacres-Cogley playing a sort of centre back role? Strange. He seems to struggle to find the best midfielders and wingers in the team as well. Our defence is poor, without doubt, but our inability to control the play in the middle is definitely  contributing to our downfall. Saying that though, we don’t exactly have midfielders who are blessed with this ability. Gleeson and Tesche are better off in holding roles, but have been below average all season. Davis and Gardner are more “get stuck-in” box-to-box midfielders, and sometimes don’t seem too comfortable on the ball, but can definitely produce game changing moments. Kieftenbeld definitely has the ability to control the play, but as the others, has been performing below standard. Frei and Adams are the two bright sparks in the team recently, however both seem to be stuck in-between the starting XI and the bench.

As much as a lot of people are looking to make Zola their scapegoat, maybe they should turn their attention more to the players and their performances. There is no question about their passion for the club – just look at Jutkiewicz’s winner against Fulham and the celebrations that followed. However, they are letting Zola down just as much as they are letting the fans down. Nsue brought much excitement with the announcement of his signing, but defensively he has looked about as useful as Callum Reilly did playing at RB in the Lee Clark days. Keita has looked extremely promising, and is someone I can see being snapped up by a Premier League club within the next few years. Again, defensively just looks too fragile in an area that is letting us down. Grounds, he tries his hardest in all honesty, especially adapting to the CB role in recent games, but makes the one too many mistakes which often prove costly. Every one of the midfielders are under-performing, some more than others. Jutkiewicz’s goal record possibly means less criticism is coming towards the forwards, however the amount of spurned chances we see per game is concerning.

To put it simply, we haven’t been good enough in any department. This ranges from the players, to the management, to the board and Panos Pavlakis. Defensively we are fragile. In the middle, we’re struggling to control the game. Upfront, we’re missing a handful of chances every game. Zola has a lot to answer for and the next few games could decide his future with the club, if there is one. In his most recent post-match press conference, Zola has stated we’re “working every week on the same problems but not eradicating them”. If we’re working on things in training and they’re not coming into fruition in games, management has to be questioned. Imagine how much things would be different now if we held onto that 1-0 lead against Brighton in his first game in charge? This has been the running theme as well, we certainly have looked decent in some games where we have been unlucky to not come away with the 3 points. 1 win in 14 isn’t a fair reflection in my opinion, but we certainly haven’t been THAT much better than what the form table shows.

Zola out? Not just yet, however it isn’t half close. The 4-1 defeat to QPR was inexcusable, however some of the Blues fans chanting “you’re getting sacked in the morning” and what-not to Zola need to pull their heads out of their backsides and realise that does absolutely no favours to anyone apart from their own self-centred egos. There’s nothing wrong with making your voice heard when you’re disappointed in the results, in fact I encourage being vocal so the team knows how displeased we are, but think again when you want to chant stuff like that towards your own manager. The next few weeks are going to be crucial going forward, with or without Zola, but we should count ourselves lucky we aren’t *yet* in relegation panic mode. We should look ahead to getting this useless season out of the way, and focus on the possibility of promotion next season, as we definitely have the potential to do just that.

Up the Blues, and Keep Right On.

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