Birmingham sacked Gary Rowett yesterday for reasons that still remain unclear at this time and Gianfranco Zola was appointed straight away as his replacement within the same day. Rowett, in my eyes, has been one of the five best managers in the league this season, taking a fairly meh Birmingham squad to playoff contention. So it’s a bit bizarre that he’s all of a sudden been fired, given their “overperformance”.
Was it perhaps that the owners were worried about the performances and the league table was lying? After all, before their win against Ipswich that they had lost 4–0 and 3–0 to Newcastle and Barnsley, the latter the more surprising result. But have Birmingham justified their place in the league table at 7th? Are they just very lucky? Analytically speaking, here’s a look at Birmingham under Rowett:
- They’re third last in the Championship in Total Shots Ratio. Even Wigan’s terrible attack is having a larger share of shots in a match than Rowett’s Brum. That’s not exactly great.
- They’re bottom 5 in shots on target allowed and shots allowed and are around average on the shots that they’re taking, while also possess a high save ratio. Still not great signs.
- PDO, the so called “luck measurer” (it’s really not), thinks Birmingham have been playing, well, about right. That they’re converting their chances relatively about average compared to the opposition.
- Expected Goals, you say? Again, below average defensively and slightly above average in attack.
But there’s an issue: Birmingham aren’t a bad or below average team like the stats are telling us. They’re three points off third. When they played Fulham at Craven Cottage, I came away very impressed with their defensive organisation and that they were the first team to truly stymie a really good Fulham attacking force. I put some more thought into it: perhaps they’re letting teams take long shots that they’re comfortable with? If the long shot goes in, then well done. The opponent player has genuinely scored a worldie. But most of the time, it’s extremely likely that the likes of Kuszsack will be comfortable in dealing with it. But they rank 9th with 43% in terms of Birmingham’s opponent shots coming from the outside the box. The remaining eight are all below Birmingham in the league table, with the exception of Brighton and Derby. Perhaps Rowett has figured out a way of winning games that doesn’t seem to add up with the basic numbers? After all, they did pass the eye test when I was there.
So it can’t be the performances. Situations like Nigel Adkins being replaced by Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton are rare and far between and almost always fail catastrophically, the example being a rare exception. The Championship is one of the most competitive leagues around the world and what Rowett did with the squad has been miraculous.
In the end, it came down to trust in the market. Birmingham don’t have any real “big name” players (for the Championship) on their team and they are still relying heavily on players signed in from previous years. Stewart, Tesche, Adams and Fabbrini especially have all featured sparingly, with Lukas Jutkiewicz being the only signing to have played heavily so far that wasn’t on loan at the club last year and, well, he’s on loan. Perhaps Trillion Trophy, with all their wealth behind them and rumoured financial involvement 18 months with the club before they took over, didn’t trust Rowett in the transfer market, to buy the players that would push them to the next step. With the takeover, they finally had the authority to control who was bringing in the players.
Is this a valid excuse? It depends. If TT aren’t confident in Rowett’s ability in the market given Rowett’s previous signings, then why not appoint a Director of Football of sorts to oversee this process? I understand that the DoF position has been one of intense scrutiny in England but surely it’s a better alternative than firing a young and talented manager who has overachieved with what in my eyes is a very average squad. Cohesion should be the name of the game, not firing your manager because you don’t like something he’s done.
The appointment of Zola isn’t exactly going to make top quality players coming to Birmingham. Zola is a celebrity name by all accounts and if that’s what Trillion Trophy wants, then congratulations. But don’t expect much from a man whose only “inspiring” spell in his managerial career has been a playoff final with a Watford team filled with cash, compared to others at the time. Foreign imports will come in, but things have suddenly taken a turn at St Andrews. Let’s see if Zola hits or misses. I suspect it’ll be the latter.
Rowett, despite the shock of what has happened, should leave the club with his head held very high. He’ll have the pick of the clubs in the Championship and possibly even the lowest tier in the Premier League to choose from, whether that’s during this season or the start of next season. Where do I think he’ll end up? If this season, then perhaps the Nottingham Forest job might be available in the near future. Next season, well, we’ll see who the relegated Premier League clubs are first.