Often Partisan

Piano Players and Piano Shifters

Despite a creditable draw yesterday at Ewood, one criticism I’ve seen levelled at Alex McLeish has been his reluctance to include more flair within the team. Whilst Martins, Bentley and Zigic all missed out with injury Hleb was available and on the bench, and many blues fans felt that as the second half drew on, we missed having a creative outlet massively.

It’s not just yesterday either; it does seem like there is a mindset from McLeish to leave out players who are (to use a phrase by @petebowler) “piano players” rather than the “piano carriers”. McLeish seems to like picking players who will “put in a shift”, who’ll graft in the middle and scrap, instead of players who are a bit more maverick but who can pick a pass, who can play the “Hollywood” ball to give us good goal-scoring chances. I can understand the frustration; whilst recently we’ve ground out results the fare hasn’t been great and football after all is an entertainment business these days – teams aren’t just expected to win but to look good in doing so.

However, I think that such criticisms are slightly myopic. At this moment in time, with seven matches to go, Blues are in a position where they have fate in their own hands. It’s not so much “shit or bust” any more; sensible play and picking up home points will see us stay up. Cutting out defensive mistakes (like the Ridgewell one yesterday) will see us keep clean sheets, and you can’t lose a game if you keep a clean sheet. It’s not about playing not to lose, but playing in such a manner that we won’t lose. To do so requires graft, and requires the team to play together as a team, with everyone helping out, everyone being ready to cover and to put their body on the line… and this is where our flair players are lacking.

I think a lot of it is to do with attitude. Compare someone like Barry Ferguson with say, Aliaksandr Hleb. Ferguson has continually played through the pain barrier, taking injections to combat the pain of a busted rib so he can keep playing his talismanic role in midfield. Yes, Ferguson does play slightly further back than maybe we’d like, and yes his passes are often sideways but he is the heartbeat of the team; he is always trying to win the ball, to boss the midfield and to provide extra cover for the back four so we can keep the opposition out. In comparison, Hleb, who is a much more talented player has been not much more than a peripheral figure in most matches he’s played; he’s only made eleven starts in the Premiership and only completed 90 minutes twice. He’s suffered with injury – but from what I’ve seen some players play on with gritted teeth, whilst others wimp out… and Hleb seems to be in the second category. Yes, he’s a loan player – and there was no way he was ever going to sign for us permanently but you’d think he’d want to put himself in the shop window.

McLeish is kind of stuck in a catch-22 situation; what he wants is creativity as well as consistency, but to have both is incredibly difficult. If a flair player goes missing in a game for Blues, we suffer massively as we don’t have many flair players and we can’t carry passengers. However, without a creative type player in the team we’re often short of ideas going forwards, and we’ll never really progress as a team. To find a player that is not only creative but consistent with it is like finding rocking horse poo – it’s incredibly difficult. For us to become a truly established Premiership side though, with aspirations for the higher reaches of the table we have to find some talent – which is going to take a lot of luck or a lot of dough. I hope that Blues fans will give McLeish a bit of patience in doing so – if he keeps us up this year he’s more than surpassed expectations and he’s deserving of another year to show us what he can do.

Talking Points sponsored by John Hicken Industrial roofing and cladding materials

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