Tuesday night football returns to Carrow Road this evening as we welcome Birmingham City for tonight's Sky Bet Championship match.
Ahead of the game we spoke to the Birmingham Mail's Brian Dick to about the Blues start to the season, Aitor Karanka and what we can expect from our visitors in terms of tactics this evening.
canaries.co.uk: It has been a solid start to the season for Birmingham. Have the supporters been happy with how the campaign has begun?
BD: Given the way last season ended, not so much limping over the line as falling over it, it’s fair to say things are much more positive now. It all got off to a bit of an inauspicious start when they lost the Carabao Cup opener at home to League Two Cambridge but that turned into something of an instructive exercise for Aitor Karanka, underlining just how much help the current squad needed.
To have transformed them into such a strong, well-organised unit since then is hugely creditable. Luck was ridden a little against Brentford but honestly the games against Swansea, Rotherham and Stoke could all have produced wins too – even if they might have stretched the point a little.
canaries.co.uk: Defensively Birmingham suffered last season, with only Luton Town, Charlton, Hull City and QPR letting in more than them. How much of an impact has Aitor Karanka made towards improving that already?
BD: It is a total reversal. Blues have gone from being a bit of a soft touch defensively to being much, much more compact. They’ve mostly played a 4-2-3-1 with the two defensive midfielders protecting the back line and that ‘back six’ has been pretty much impenetrable. Karanka has repeatedly said it’s the foundation on which his teams are built and it’s certainly looking to be the case with only one goal conceded from open play.
canaries.co.uk: From the games so far this season, what are the main differences between the way you play under him to fellow Spaniard Pep Clotet?
BD: From January, Blues played with two up front as Lukas Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan combined to form what was a pretty effective partnership. Unfortunately, momentum was lost during lockdown and after that, for a variety of reasons, the team didn’t fire the way it had beforehand. Karanka has quickly identified defensive solidity as the main priority and sat Adam Clayton and Ivan Sunjic in front of the defence. Jutkiewicz has tended to start most games as the lone striker with the hope that he can be serviced from the flanks by Ivan Sanchez and Jeremie Bela. So far the goals have come from dead-ball situations, two to Bela and one to Harlee Dean, and thankfully Karanka’s Blues are much, much more effective at set-pieces in both boxes.
canaries.co.uk: What would represent a successful season for Birmingham this campaign? Has Aitor Karanka been tasked with getting a top six finish or would top 10 be seen a good progress by those in charge?
BD: Karanka steadfastly refuses to set any public targets, referring to his time at Middlesbrough when he said at his unveiling that he wanted to get Boro promoted, which took him three years. That will be the aim here but it’s implicit rather than explicit. The manner of the recruitment suggests that, of the 10 new arrivals, Neil Etheridge, George Friend, Adam Clayton and Ivan Sanchez all have experience of winning promotion so you can read something into that. I think the Championship feels more open than it has in recent years too, with the disrupted off-season and no obvious powerhouse. However, for those of us who have watched the team struggle for the last few seasons anything inside the top 10 would be big, big progress. At this stage predicting a top six finish feels like star-gazing in another universe.
canaries.co.uk: Aitor Karanka has brought in a couple of his old Middlesbrough players to the club in Adam Clayton and George Friend. What have you made of them so far?
BD: Hugely influential, both in word and deed. The one thing you notice about this Blues team – and maybe it’s because there aren’t fans in the ground, is how vocal they are. Clayton, Friend and Etheridge have all played a big part in that. Friend has slotted alongside Harlee Dean at left-sided centre half almost without missing a beat and he’s had a case to be man of the match in every game so far. Clayton has not only played well, with his anticipation and desire to play forward - but he’s had a very positive effect on Sunjic next to him too. For free transfers they’ve been excellent signings.
canaries.co.uk: Scott Hogan has also offered competition for places up front. Have you been impressed with him so far and are we likely to see him or Lukas Jutkiewicz start up front?
BD: We’ve not seen too much of him yet to be honest. He’s had one start, when Blues went 4-4-2 against Rotherham and that didn’t quite fire as hoped. The big question surrounding Hogan’s return was whether he’d be the pre-lockdown model or the post-lockdown version. Up until March he was lethal, scoring seven goals in eight Championship games. Afterwards the chances and goals dried up in a misfiring team. He’s a proven finisher at this level though and everyone at Blues is hoping he can rediscover his best form. Jutkiewicz remains such a solid player and one who in the last two seasons has taken his goal scoring to a new level.
canaries.co.uk: Birmingham look to be lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. How do you think they will approach the game from a tactical point of view at Carrow Road?
BD: I’m sure it’ll be about being defensively sound first and foremost, making sure no silly goals are given away and trying to make the most of opportunities to counter and at set-pieces. Sanchez looks really dangerous in transition and he’s looked the most likely source of attacking inspiration so far. Don’t expect an end-to-end game of basketball!