Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City have been stitched up. The least entertaining team in the Premier League is Birmingham City
. What is more, they will probably be relegated. None shall mourn their passing. The memory of several other aspects of their game, however, may continue to cause sobbing.
Birmingham can pass the ball in basically competent fashion, albeit mostly in front of the opposition, and they retain a certain defensive sturdiness which is padded out by a fine goalkeeper, who occasionally enables his team to scrape improbable victories such as the one over Chelsea. Beyond these qualities Birmingham offer nothing. They have little creativity and no cutting edge. They have no pace. They do not even have the power of Blackburn and Stoke, nor the dynamism of Wolves, who inflicted an emphatic 1-0 defeat on them in their last outing. And Alex McLeish can do little about these shortcomings, since he has been told that there is no money for purchases in January.
Birmingham need at least one effective striker. Nikola Zigic has been a flop so far, lacking the strength, nous and, despite his huge height, the aerial prowess to be a dangerous target man. Cameron Jerome lumbers around diligently but does not have the class regularly to trouble even middling Premier League defences. Kevin Phillips is on the wane.
Birmingham's next match is away to Everton. At St Andrews in October Everton won 2-0 and the home side could not muster a shot on target. That has been symptomatic of their season: they have managed fewer shots on target (and off target) than any other team in the league. That is only partially the fault of the blunt strike force. It is also because of the poverty of the play behind them.
Barry Ferguson remains influential, but he rarely penetrates. Lee Bowyer, too, looks to be in decline. Birmingham's principal supplier to the forwards has been the inconsistent Sebastian Larsson, who can deliver a mean set piece. Defend the Swede's corners and free-kicks and you have nullified Birmingham. And you don't have to defend them regularly: Birmingham have won fewer corners than any team in the league.
When Larsson's deliveries fail to arrive, Birmingham's fall-back option tends to be to launch long balls towards Zigic, irrespective of the fact that the Serb seldom makes meaningful use of them. That is not something Birmingham did when Christian Benítez was up front, which is not to say that McLeish should have kept the Ecuadorian, who, for all his admirable energy and trickery, was infuriatingly wasteful.
McLeish has been unlucky with injuries. Alexander Hleb was a worthy acquisition and would probably have brought some unpredictability, but he has featured only fleetingly. Injury and loss of form have also afflicted James McFadden, who was once the team's chief conjurer. Craig Gardner has brought much-needed vim – plus shooting of rare ferocity – to midfield when he has been able to play, but that has not been often enough.
In the absence of these players, and with Jean Beausejour yet to make an impact, the Blues have plodded. This is also backed up by Opta statistics: Birmingham have completed fewer dribbles and through-balls than any other team in the league, and have the lowest tackle success rate.
There is a staleness about Birmingham. Without the injection of a lot of new blood, it is hard to see how they can finish above at least three teams.