Aitor Karanka has had a decent start as Head Coach of Birmingham City and he is showing the Sky Bet Championship that his methods are adjustable.
We are only eight games into the season and the Spaniard has already tinkered with his side's formation three times. For most of their games this season, Karanka has deployed his usual 4-2-3-1 formation that his old pals George Friend and Adam Clayton will have been all too familiar with from their shared time at Middlesbrough.
Resilient but toothless
For most matches this season where Karanka has set up his side in his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape, his side have looked defensively solid but there has been a lack of threat in the final third. There appeared to be a struggle in transition from defence to attack which really overlooked their defensive solidity.
For the last two seasons, the Blues have been used to their attacking threat coming from two forwards in the traditional 4-4-2 system. In 2018/19, it was an unprecedented success with the exceptional form of veteran Lukas Jutkiewicz and current Southampton striker Che Adams. The duo scored a combined 36 goals that season. Whilst it took until January to find a replacement for Adams to play alongside Jutkiewicz, Scott Hogan came in and had a very quick impact.
The Ireland international scored seven league goals in his first eight games after joining Blues on loan from rivals Aston Villa. Like his teammates, post-lockdown was a torrid affair for Hogan who blanked in all of Birmingham's nine matches after the resumption of the 2019/20 season.
However, the form of Hogan and Jutkiewicz pre-lockdown had clearly caught the eye of Karanka as he deployed the 4-4-2 formation in the home game against Rotherham United last month following Hogan's permanent switch. It was ineffective as it took a late Jeremie Bela penalty to salvage a point for the Blues, having conceded a penalty only minutes earlier. The side were still missing the crucial link between the midfield and the attack to get themselves in great scoring positions.
It was only on Wednesday night at home to Huddersfield Town that the Blues scored their first goal from open play this season. That late winner from Jutkiewicz will provide a huge psychological boost for his side.
Another formation Karanka has used this season is a 5-4-1. It was used at Carrow Road against a strong Norwich City side but it was not a pretty affair. It looked like a side who were camped to defend and hold out for a 0-0. Norwich were in complete control of that game and while Blues defended ferociously, Norwich could have easily dealt more damage than the solitary goal they managed to grab late on.
There was no real attacking threat from Birmingham who always seemed to launch the ball up-field in the hope that Hogan would latch on to one of them. With Jutkiewicz ruled out after a positive COVID-19 result, Hogan was unable to bring the raw physical attributes that his fellow striker would have brought to the game. It seemed a five-at-the-back system would not be featured again.
Four days after the poor Norwich performance, Karanka deployed another system with three centre-halves away at QPR. This time it was a 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape with a pivotal three-man midfield. Former Spain international Mikel San Jose made his starting debut alongside the tenacious Ivan Sunjic and Gary Gardner.
This trio were brilliant in chasing and breaking down QPR considering the absence of creative players Bela and Ivan Sanchez. It was the first game where the Blues looked capable of scoring after they created some great chances and were denied by a standout goalkeeping display from QPR's Seny Dieng.
The constant running from Sunjic and Gardner, with San Jose's excellent positional awareness and vision were quashing any real threat QPR had for the majority of the game. Hogan supported by Jonathan Leko looked a more dangerous player as both attackers had chances and stretched the QPR back line.
It was arguably their best performance of the season and it showed that Karanka could have some success with this shape as long as there is a constant balance of players defending and players attacking. This was severely lacking against Norwich with so many players behind the ball when Birmingham were in possession.
Add Jutkiewicz and Sanchez to the formula
Moving forward, the 3-5-2 shape seems have to brought the best out of Karanka's side and could be a real threat to teams this season. With the return of Jutkiewicz from his isolation period, if he were to partner Leko, an effective partnership could blossom. A glimpse of this came in the final period of the victory over Huddersfield in midweek. The two seemed to combine really well, leading to the dramatic late goal which sealed the three points for Blues.
As for Ivan Sanchez, he has undoubtedly been Birmingham's best player so far this season. His excellent flair and dribbling glides him past numerous players at a time. He has been the one player who looks most likely to create something and he is a real asset to Karanka's side.
He could take Karanka's 3-5-2 to the next level if he were to play instead of either Gardner or Sunjic. If deployed behind the two forwards, it would mean more running for the two midfielders behind him but it would add a creative dimension in the final third. Although he's favoured on the right-wing, he can play centrally and he certainly has the ability to make an impact in that position.