A quiet week supporting Plymouth Argyle? Never. Whilst a second stoppage time winner in as many weeks against Rotherham United was gleefully entertaining, we were quickly brought down to Earth by the abrupt departure of manager Steven Schumacher to Stoke City. The footballing gods were never going to allow us to relax for a few days.

Amid the fallout, you’d be forgiven for forgetting we have a game coming up this weekend. But it’s fast approaching, and it kicks off a period of four festive fixtures in the space of ten days. Given Neil Dewsnip’s recent comments to the press, he and Kevin Nancekivell look set to be in charge for all four. How vital, positive or otherwise, could that prove to be by the end of the campaign?

The ‘good’ news, if that terminology is appropriate, is that caretaker managers don’t tend to divert from their predecessor’s style. Back in 2019, Nancekivell kept the same shape as Derek Adams for his caretaker game in charge against Scunthorpe United, and it would be a surprise to see Schumacher’s style axed in the forthcoming quadruple header. With that in mind, we’re free to preview the fixtures with the assumption that Argyle will carry a degree of continuity.

The first visitors since the change in the dugout are Birmingham City. Of course, they’ve experienced a managerial switch of their own this season, and this one was highly-publicised. Sitting in 6th, Birmingham’s new owners opted to part company with John Eustace, very unfairly according to some (and they’d be right). Success under new manager Wayne Rooney has been comparatively light, though he did secure his first win on the road during his last trip in Cardiff.

We have two teams in front of us, both with managerial dramas and both on the same number of points. But how similar are Birmingham to Argyle? Let’s delve in…

Style of play

Generally speaking, Birmingham do use a very similar shape to Argyle. There are occasionally variations in the shape of the midfield, but as standard they tend to have four defenders, three in the middle, and three attackers. I’d expect to see the same shape deployed on Saturday. Only twice this season, against Millwall and Coventry City, have the Blues switched to playing two out-and-out strikers. They’ve won neither.

Predicting the exact identity of Birmingham’s lineup is trickier. Siriki Dembele will be one of the wingers, and could be joined on the other flank by Juninho Bacuna, though it’s not out of the question that Bacuna could switch positions to allow Koji Miyoshi into the side. In midfield Krystian Bielik is a likely starter, and I imagine we’ll see him alongside the in-form Jordan James and Ivan Sunjic, who made 18 Bundesliga appearances last season on loan at Hertha Berlin.

Meanwhile, the defence has been chopped and changed ever since injuries hit Kevin Long, who was having an excellent season before a series of hamstring setbacks. Dion Sanderson has missed just one game all season, so will surely take his place at the heart of the defence. But with Long unlikely to return in time for Saturday, any combination of players could make up the rest of the back line.

On the ball, Birmingham and Argyle attack in very similar ways. The wingers are key and, rather than being used as wide men looking to feed a striker, they’re expected to create and finish chances themselves. This use of genuine inside forwards can be demonstrated by the fact that Birmingham attempt so few crosses. They’ve put in 315 so far this season, the 23rd highest figure in the league. The only Championship side to have attempted fewer? Plymouth Argyle.

But whilst the teams are similar in possession, they are very different without the ball. When Argyle have lost possession this season, they’ve preferred to fall back into their shape to force the opposition to play around them – I imagine Schumacher had that in mind when changing to a 4-3-3 and solidifying the midfield. The fact that only Hull City have made fewer tackles than Argyle all season is testament to the fact.

Birmingham are at the opposite end of the scale. They’re not necessarily on the ball often, with an average possession of 44% across the campaign, but they aim to get it back quickly whenever they’re dispossessed. They’ve actually made more tackles than any other side in the league with 409, a pretty substantial 127 more than Argyle. That can of course come back to bite them, with such an overcommitment meaning only three teams have been dribbled past more regularly. Morgan Whittaker and Bali Mumba may well be licking their lips.

But they, and Argyle as a whole, can’t expect an easy time on the ball. Along with Birmingham’s tackling numbers, they’ve been involved in more ground duels than any other side, and their desire to regain possession can occasionally lead to them bending the rules. Only Stoke have committed more fouls than Rooney’s side this season. Birmingham’s Bielik, Bacuna and Jay Stansfield all rank in the top six for fouls in the division.

There is clearly no shortage of commitment in this Birmingham side. But do they have the talent to pull off such a style of play? In truth, it’s a mixed bag.


Siriki Dembele is one player who does bring plenty of quality to Rooney’s side. He missed the reverse fixture in August due to injury, but has appeared in the last 15 games since recovering, starting 11. He’s got the potential to be such a livewire on the ball. Only Georginio Rutter of Leeds United and Sunderland’s Jack Clarke have attempted more dribbles this season than Dembele’s 99, and as Birmingham’s joint-top scorer along with Stansfield, his end product isn’t too bad either.

Unlike Whittaker, who we know loves to run with the ball and go for goal, Dembele’s dribbles tend to be with the aim of bringing in his teammates. Fellow winger Bacuna has actually attempted far more shots this season, and Dembele’s work in the build up has been instrumental. Take a look at Bacuna’s winning goal against Cardiff, with Dembele beating his man and dragging in defenders in the build-up.


With Dembele bursting down the right, Argyle may wish to avoid playing one of their more attacking options, such as Mickel Miller or Kaine Kesler-Hayden, at left back. It may be shrewd to switch Joe Edwards to the left for this one – the skipper will surely start somewhere given events of the past week. Or perhaps Dembele could be repelled by Brendan Galloway, fitness permitting of course (I feel that always needs to be said with Galloway).

How to deal with Dembele remains a question for the new management team. But they’ll need a plan to stop both him and another player who has impressed me in recent weeks: Jordan James. Under a new manager, you often find that one player in particular has a lot more success than they did previously, as we’ve seen with Lewis Warrington’s run of games under Leighton Baines. For Rooney, James has been that player.

Still only 19, the Welshman is slowly but surely making himself key to Rooney’s style. Eustace took charge of Birmingham’s first 11 games this season, in which James played for 193 minutes, or around 19% of the total minutes available. In the 11 games since Rooney arrived, he’s played 668 minutes, or 67% of those available. It’s been a stark upturn for a player who doesn’t even turn 20 until July.

Rooney’s style has directly benefited James by getting him more involved in each game. Under Eustace he was involved in an average of 3.73 ground duels per 90 minutes, but under Rooney that has shot up to 9.55 ground duels per 90. And that involvement has helped James work towards resolving a serious Birmingham problem: goals from midfield. He is in fact the only Birmingham player to score from open play this season who doesn’t traditionally line up in the front three. That includes both Brum goals in Monday’s 3-2 defeat to Leicester City.

James also scored the winner against Sheffield Wednesday from the bench, which nicely brings me onto the final strength I want to mention: goals from substitutes.

Many will remember Argyle’s success in that area last season, with substitutes scoring more goals for Argyle than any other club in the EFL. After a slow start this campaign, the Greens are slowly catching up on that metric, but still sit behind Birmingham. The Blues have had eight goals scored by substitutes this season, with only Ipswich Town (ten) seeing more.

Argyle ought to heed that warning; it was of course Stansfield who scored the winner from the bench in the reverse fixture at St Andrew’s. And another name familiar to the Green Army, Lucas Jutkiewicz, could also cause issues late in the game. His two goals this season have come as a substitute, which is hardly surprising given that only Harry Cornick (Bristol City) and Marcus Harness (Ipswich) have made more substitute appearances than Jutkiewicz this season. Rooney may well see him playing a similar role to Tom Eaves last week.

Whatever happens, Rooney will have options available to him to change the game. Argyle will need to keep their concentration from the first minute to the last.


The above may all seem well and good, but there is a reason Birmingham have seemed so vulnerable since the managerial switch. In short, they’ve found it difficult to keep the ball out of their own net. They’ve conceded 21 goals in the 11 games Rooney has taken charge of, practically double the 11 they shipped in the same number of games under Eustace.

I have a couple of thoughts as to why their defensive record has been so poor. The continued absence of Long hasn’t helped, but even when he is around, their defence as a whole never feels too far from dropping a clanger. Only Ipswich have scored more own goals this season, whilst only Leicester have made more Opta-defined mistakes leading directly to a shot or goal. Ethan Longelo, for instance, was culpable for Hull City’s opener in a 2-0 defeat back in October.


I’m also not convinced by their ability to defend set pieces. They’ve conceded five goals from set piece situations so far this season, which is far from the worst record in the league. But their expected goals (xG) against from set pieces is much more alarming – 9.59 in that metric is indeed the worst figure in the Championship, and accounts for a whopping 31% of the xG the Blues have faced across the campaign.

It’s a clear suggestion that, whilst the total goals conceded doesn’t yet reflect it, there is an obvious underlying issue with Birmingham’s set piece defending. It may not matter this weekend – after all, only QPR have a lower attacking set piece xG this season than Argyle’s figure of 4.5. However, this would seem a good time to change the narrative – Argyle did indeed score from a set piece when Nancekivell was last in charge through Lloyd Jones.

Then there’s goalkeeper John Ruddy. If I’m honest, the veteran has provided me with a conundrum, because he has at least done some things well this year. His total of 77 saves this season is bettered only by Rotherham’s Viktor Johansson, though that is of course mainly a reflection of how well a team defends. But Ruddy has also done well with balls into the area. His total of 31 high claims is more than any ‘keeper in the league, suggesting that even if Argyle did want to switch to a crossing game, it wouldn’t be effective.

With all that said, it’s undeniable that his shot stopping this season has been generally substandard. Using post-shot xG data, we can see that Ruddy has conceded 6.33 goals more than the average goalkeeper would against the same shots. That’s comfortably the worst figure in the league.

It can be caveated slightly – Birmingham’s higher number of own goals count against him, and his figure of -6.33 goals prevented isn’t helped by the fact that he’s played more minutes than some of those around him. But those caveats are only slight. His prevented rate of 0.8 (the number of goals the average ‘keeper would concede for every 1 Ruddy concedes) still puts him in the bottom five.

In truth, Ruddy has been seriously inconsistent. You can possibly get away with that as an outfield player, but not as a goalkeeper. Against Middlesbrough, Rooney’s first game in charge, Ruddy had a near-flawless game before his day was ruined by a late Morgan Rogers winner. But just a few weeks ago against Blackburn Rovers, his performance was appalling.


Given Argyle’s week, it’s abundantly possible that Ruddy may enact Sod’s Law and save one of his storming games for the trip to Home Park. But if I’m one of Birmingham’s new owners, I’m looking at an underperforming 37-year-old goalkeeper and thinking that the January window acts as the ideal opportunity to search for an upgrade.


Across this piece I’ve explored how Birmingham like to play, and mentioned the fact that there should be continuity in Argyle’s setup. And yet, I have absolutely no idea what to think about how the game may progress.

The ultimate hope is that a siege mentality engulfs Argyle’s squad, and that they use the opportunity of the first game without Schumacher being at home to put another opponent to the sword. But equally, if Argyle concede the first goal as they have in their previous two home games, they may find it much easier for their heads to drop, given the traumatic week they’ve been through.

Just looking at the game in its own right, it would appear that Birmingham’s strengths lie in their attack, whilst their main weaknesses are at the back. For Argyle, it’s a very similar story. So let’s go for a high-scoring encounter, and the same result we saw last weekend. 3-2 to Argyle.