Often Partisan


After the home defeat against Newcastle United, there has been much opinion about the Blues midfield, and how in the last couple of games they have looked off the boil. Craig Gardner has come in for a fair amount of criticism, and in my eyes at least some of it justified. Whilst Gardner is still currently our top goalscorer, there are a more than a few Blues fans who think Craig should be dropped in favour of the Belarusian enigma Alexander Hleb.

Hleb has been injured recently, and even when he has been fit he’s struggled to make it into the first team – his last appearance was the home FA cup tie against Coventry. Admittedly, he did look a class above in that game, but it has to be said our rivals whilst dogged didn’t have much class, and once Bentley had got us back into the tie with his thirty yard blockbuster I didn’t really have much doubt we’d win in the end. In Premiership games, he’s not offered us as much, and it comes back down to the question again of class versus graft.

In a previous post, I opined that there was only one way we could fit Hleb into our team in a 4-5-1 formation. The problem I see is that now we seem to be setting up more as a 4-4-2 I can’t see Hleb fitting in at all. In a team like Blues, Hleb needs a free role to make the most of his better skill and vision; he’s not a grafter in the same way that Craig Gardner is but the Belarusian has a much better range of passing and seems to see better options than our current midfield. Playing Hleb in a free role means the remaining three in midfield have to be disciplined and have to ensure that they cover the entire width of the pitch; something that isn’t possible if you have a winger stood on the touchline – thus you’d need three narrow midfielders (three from Bowyer, Ferguson, Gardner, Fahey) and it means Larsson and Bentley then are out of the team.

It’s a tactical conundrum; the fans don’t like the team set up with one up front; the fans don’t like the team without an exciting winger, but they also want someone with the vision of Hleb in midfield. I cannot see a way that you can have all three conditions met with our current squad – both the Stoke and Newcastle United games proved that with two widemen the central midfield area gets overrun and thus you need players to graft and work harder to retain possession and move it into more advanced positions.

We play Sheffield Wednesday, a League One team, in the FA Cup this weekend, and to my mind this gives us a chance to experiment a little (fitness allowing). I’d like to see us line up with a midfield quartet of Larsson, Ferguson, Hleb and Fahey; with Hleb given the free role and the other three detailed to cover midfield. I’d tell Hleb that this was his one chance to get a starting role in the Wembley final as Bentley is out (being cup-tied), and see how he goes. If it didn’t work, plan B would be to take him off and replace with Gardner and go to a flat four with Fahey (or maybe Beausejour) out on the left.

At the end of the season, Hleb will wing his way back to Spain and Barcelona’s reserves; I can’t see us being able to afford him, and right now I don’t think he warrants a permanent transfer.

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