Tony Mowbray has been named the new manager of Birmingham City on a two-and-a-half year contract.
The 60-year-old has been hired as the successor to Wayne Rooney, whose ill-fated tenure at St Andrew’s lasted just 15 matches before the club opted to part ways last week.
Birmingham wasted little time in their recruitment process and the appointment of Mowbray will steady a ship that was at risk of capsizing.
Despite languishing 20th in the Championship and the Blues now 9/4 for relegation, there’s still plenty of reasons for Birmingham supporters to be optimistic and Mowbray can be the man to spear a fruitful era for the second city outfit.
We delve into the huge task that Mowbray faces and what the former Sunderland boss will offer.
Birmingham’s decision to part ways with John Eustace in October prompted significant criticism and Rooney’s disastrous reign has only served to heighten tensions amongst a fanbase that have been accustomed to mismanagement in recent years.
Since the finalisation of their takeover in July, Knighthead Capital Management had made vast inroads into establishing a relationship with supporters through significant investments in the club’s infrastructure.
After years of neglect under the previous ownership, Birmingham desperately needed funding to avoid falling further behind rivals. Even St Andrew’s had fallen into a state of disrepair, with the new owners propping up the finances to ensure the stadium was fit for service.
There was an air of scepticism around Eustace’s dismissal and Rooney’s introduction. The scars from Gary Rowett’s sacking in favour of a style change and Gianfranco Zola were still visible.
“No Fear Football” was the message from the board but in the end, it was the opposition that had no fear when they played Birmingham City.
Rooney mustered just two wins from 15 matches as the Blues slipped from play-off contention to relegation candidates.
There were snippets of the high-press and free-flowing attacking football that was promised but it came at the expense of Birmingham’s defensive solidity. Shipping 30 goals in 15 matches with an xGA of 26.1, their vulnerability was unsustainable.
Rooney tried to remedy that in a home encounter with Bristol City. The result was a goalless draw and an xG of 0.10. Manchester United’s record goalscorer was unable to find a quick solution to their woes.
A 3-0 defeat at Leeds United proved to be the final nail in the coffin and the scoreline was generous to a Birmingham side that had evidently regressed under Rooney's stewardship. The performance was a microcosm of his regime; a team lacking identity, structure and leadership.
The first item on Mowbray’s agenda will be to nurse a confidence-depleted backline.
Consistently exposed in Rooney’s system, the defence have borne the brunt of the team’s failings. When appointed Blackburn Rovers manager in 2017, Mowbray immediately set about making his team hard to beat and it yielded positive results, winning 1-0 in two of his first three matches.
A centre-half by trade, Mowbray will look to reinvigorate the club’s captain Dion Sanderson, whose performances under Rooney were of a stark contrast to his starring shows under Eustace.
Only 24, there’s still significant growth in Sanderson. His attitude has been scrutinised of late but with the right guidance, he has all the attributes to be a key component moving forward.
Mowbray’s arrival is likely to be good news for Kevin Long. Overlooked by Rooney for his inability to play out from the back, the central defender was a vital figure in the club’s successes earlier this season and he will feel he has a point to prove.
The midfield pairing will also prove pivotal if Birmingham are to improve their defensive output. Krystian Bielik and Ivan Sunjic had forged a blossoming partnership under Eustace and while they don’t offer much substance offensively, they’re a welcomed defensive layer. It will be interesting to see if Mowbray reunites them, especially in light of current rumours linking the highly-rated Jordan James with a move to Atalanta.
And the new manager has a dilemma in the goalkeeping department. Influential in his first season, John Ruddy’s performances have left plenty to be desired this term, both under Rooney and Eustace. The former Norwich shot-stopper ranks in the bottom half of Championship goalkeepers statistically and if there's no improvement, there may be a temptation to dip into the transfer window for an alternative.
Mowbray’s remit at Birmingham will be to play a possession-based system but the Teessider can demonstrate his tactical flexibility, should his players struggle as they did under Rooney.
The transition from a counter-attacking system to a ball-retention method proved complicated and while Mowbray will want his players operating in a style that he envisions, the new Blues boss will ultimately prioritise playing to his team’s strengths in the search of results.
At Blackburn, Mowbray created a side that prioritised retaining possession and were one of the Championship’s entertainers in the early stages of the season. As results deteriorated in the second half of the campaign, Mowbray reinvented his Rovers side into one that looked to harm opposition on transition. The style change was evident in their possession statistics; they ranked 3rd in 2020/21 to 18th in 2021/22.
Birmingham’s only away win under Rooney came in a contest where they sat in a low block, happy to cede possession before attacking fast and direct on the counter.
Mowbray has the tools to fall back on that if he fails to implement the possession-based system that he brilliantly nurtured at Sunderland.
He will be afforded the time to get Birmingham playing in that style, but those plans may benefit from being shelved until the summer when the club can invest in new recruits.
As mentioned above, a priority for Mowbray is to prevent Birmingham from shipping goals but his arrival can benefit the club’s attacking players.
Rooney’s side had looked threatening in matches; they scored twice against Ipswich and Leicester before chalking up three goals away at Plymouth. They failed to win any of those contests but Mowbray will be keen to afford individuals the freedom to express themselves in the opposition half.
A theme of his tactical style, Mowbray’s sides have ranked highly for successful individual take-ons. Last term, no side completed more than Sunderland and with the likes of Siriki Dembele, Koji Miyoshi and Juninho Bacuna within their ranks, Birmingham’s electric talents are likely to be given licence to engage defenders.
Mowbray encourages his side to get the ball out to his creative players as quickly as possible, thus setting up one-on-one situations from which his attacking individuals can prosper.
And if Birmingham’s artistic players are benefiting, it will lead to an improved service for Jay Stansfield.
The on-loan Fulham forward has been a shining light during a turbulent period. Amid rumours of a potential recall this month, Mowbray’s arrival could be a timely one with Stansfield a crucial figure in the Blues’ hopes of climbing the table.
As witnessed with Bradley Dack, Adam Armstrong, Ben Brereton Diaz and Jack Clarke, Mowbray's got an excellent track record of making a player the focal point of his attack and receiving a flurry of goals in return.
Birmingham – and Fulham – will be hoping to see something similar.
Sunderland’s youth strategy had evolved while Mowbray was at the helm and he deserves credit for the blooding of academy players during his stint at the Stadium of Light.
One player who benefited significantly from Mowbray’s tutelage – and one who Birmingham fans know well – is Jobe Bellingham, with the midfielder forging a career path of his own in the North East.
The oldest side Mowbray fielded at Sunderland had an average age of 23.9 years and despite the vast inexperience, the Black Cats were in the play-off mix at the time of his dismissal.
His track record of integrating academy players extends back to his Blackburn days, with the Lancashire club increasingly reliant on the talent from their Brockhall production line.
Birmingham have stars of their own that are knocking on the first-team door and Mowbray will see that they get their chance.
17-year-old Romelle Donavon came to the fore during Rooney’s tenure and has prompted excitement, while there is a strong contingent of players all under the age of 25 who can develop into profitable assets in the future.
Coventry City fans may disagree but Mowbray has experience of leaving a club in a better state than the one he inherited.
Blackburn’s alarming decline showed little sign of halting until Mowbray orchestrated an immediate return to the Championship. Consolidating them in the second tier, the only real blemish on his record at Ewood Park was his inability to steer Rovers into the play-offs.
Despite his top six shortcomings, he departed with the club in a far more prosperous position, aided by shrewd recruitment and maximisation of academy resources.
At Sunderland, he continued the work of Alex Neil and now Michael Beale has the foundations of a young, exuberant squad.
The appointment of Mowbray may not have left Birmingham fans in hysterics but he’s exactly what the club needs at this stage of their ambitious project.
A Premier League return is on the agenda for the owners and they have the resource to get them there, but Mowbray’s task at this stage is less demanding; oversee progress after years of stagnation and assemble the building blocks for the club to move forward.
Positive results will help to reconnect supporters that had grew disillusioned during Rooney’s tenure but first Mowbray must restore unity in a side whose confidence is depleted.
It’s not an easy job but one he will relish; Birmingham appear to be in safe hands.
To Win Outright