In a match dominated by set pieces at the Hawthorns, with both Birmingham goals coming from corners, whilst two of West Brom’s three came via a free kick and penalty, it was the hosts who emerged victorious. Despite a poor first half showing in which Birmingham controlled the game, West Brom made some tactical adjustments at half time which swung the game in their favour.
Birmingham, who were hit with a nine point deduction for financial issues, have been dragged back towards the relegation places having been clear of any danger prior to the deductions. West Brom, on the other hand, were looking to apply pressure on Leeds and Sheffield United in the hunt for an automatic promotion place.
Birmingham’s counter attacks
Birmingham were happy to drop into their own half when out of possession. They sat back in a 4-4-2 shape and looked to apply pressure once West Brom reached their half. Before this point, they allowed West Brom possession with little or no pressure on the ball.
As Birmingham used a low defensive block this gave encouragement to West Brom to push further forwards in attack. This, in turn, moved their defensive line higher and thus created more space behind the defence for Birmingham to exploit.
When Birmingham regained the ball their first thought was to pass forwards to exploit the spaces left by West Brom. Jacques Maghoma, in particular, was quick to sprint forward on the left-hand side to support the attack. Gary Gardner and David Davis both sit deeper to provide cover in front of the defence whilst both wide players support Lukas Jutkiewicz and Che Adams.
Birmingham’s zone-orientated defensive structure
Birmingham had a clear plan to force West Brom to play balls out into wide areas of the pitch. They were able to do this by preventing vertical passes through central areas. Both forwards looked to use their cover shadows to prevent Jake Livermore and Chris Brunt receiving the ball, whilst the two centre midfielders sat deeper blocking passes into Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez. Both wide players tucked in towards the centre of the pitch, which encouraged West Brom to play wider.
During the first half, the majority of West Brom’s build-up play was forced into either of the fullbacks. At this point, the Birmingham wide players would apply pressure to the fullbacks whilst using their cover shadow to block any forward passes into the winger. Birmingham’s fullbacks were then able to push closer to the wide player should the ball possessor evade the pressure from either Maghoma or Connor Mahoney.
With Gayle operating as the lone striker for West Brom, Birmingham knew that their centre backs Harlee Dean and Michael Morrison would be able to deal with any high crosses into the box due to their superior aerial ability.
West Brom’s narrow attack
In the first half, West Brom’s attack was extremely narrow as the two wide players, Kyle Edwards and in particular, James Morrison positioned themselves towards central areas. Morrison, operating in an unusual wide right position was constantly drifting infield to receive the ball. This left Mason Holgate isolated on the right-hand side and as a result, led to lots of backwards passes which stopped any momentum being built in their attacks.
Edwards, naturally right footed, was inclined to drift inside when he had possession. This wouldn’t have been an issue had his starting position been wider. His initial positioning meant Birmingham could maintain their compact shape and block any passes into him.
West Brom’s tactical change
Hal Robson-Kanu was introduced at half time to replace James Morrison and the impact made was immediate. Whereas in the first half, Morrison was constantly moving infield and leaving Holgate isolated in wide areas, Robson-Kanu operated wider thus providing a better balance to the attack.
Robson-Kanu’s understanding of when to move infield and when to stay wider caused the Birmingham midfield and defence problems as they were unsure who should be marking him when he came infield. This allowed West Brom to create overloads, which enabled them to penetrate the Birmingham defence, something that they failed to do in the first half.
Edwards’ starting position in the second half was also wider than in the first, before drifting infield with left-back Conor Townsend providing width to the left-hand side of the attack.
These tactical adjustments reduced Birmingham’s effectiveness when it came to forcing the ball into wide areas. As West Brom now had a better structure they were able to play through Birmingham with combinations between the fullbacks and wide men. Whereas in the first half Maghoma and Mahoney were able to prevent passes into the wide men, they were unable to do so during the second half. This was because of their reluctance to move from their compact horizontal shape.
The frantic pace and number of transitions in the second half played into West Brom’s hands as they had the superior attacking players. With more space in which to operate, they were able to cause Birmingham more problems than they managed in the first half.