If you'd have offered 10th place to Blues fans when after that Bournemouth game, I think we all would have snapped your hand off.
But now, having been so close to the play-offs, it feels like a missed opportunity.
However, the team is, in my eyes, in a better place this summer than it was last. We have players tied down to contracts, we have Fabbrini, Vaughan (who I still like) and Kieftenbeld in areas where we may not have had players last summer and we have a thriving academy. It's all looking good, right?
Obviously Blues need to strengthen if we want to get into the top six, and there are some obvious areas for that. However, the one I think is most pressing might not be the one you are all thinking about. To me, Blues desperately need a winger.
Thanks to @Torvaney on Twitter, I have this chart which shows how Blues' performance dipped post-January.
Essentially, this chart shows that Blues were creating enough high quality chances to score 1.1 goals a game, on average, but that dipped to around 0.7 after January. Blues are not a free-scoring team and the defensive style has a lot to do with that low number, but 1.1 is fine for a team with such a defensive focus.
However, 0.7 is not. After February we went on a terrible run of games and the signings had no impact on the team. We were essentially carried by David Cotterill's obscene ability from free-kicks and whilst having Cotterill and Fabbrini and his incredible ability to win free-kicks (nearly six times per 90 minutes in an, albeit, small sample) means those numbers aren't quite as bad as they seem, we still need another threat.
This is not shocking news to anybody who watched Blues, but it is a cause for concern. The main difference between the team before the new year and after was Demarai Gray, who of course now has a Premier League winners' medal. Dimmy only grabbed one goal and one assist, but I think his leaving had a huge effect on attacking output.
I understand that this sounds odd, but Gray offered incredible pace, which allowed the team to transition quicker on the counter (shots coming from fast breaks are converted at a higher rate traditionally), he offered a lot of shots, which though not a lot of goals came from them, you feel that over the course of a season he might have scored a few, and it also made the attack more versatile. One issue we have had since is that so much of our play came through Toral and Cotterill, which has made it easier to defend against us. Gray gave us a third option and dragged defenders out of position, as well as keeping defenders honest.
Maghoma is a neat player. I'm a huge fan of him especially against big teams as I think he defends infinitely better than Gray ever did and the numbers back that up. Raw numbers aren't great for measuring defenders, but when a winger is making three times as many tackles, it's fair to say he's a better defender. I think we all knew that anyway.
Maghoma however does not shoot enough for me, and he doesn't create enough for me. He creates just one chance a game on average and shoots just over once a game. That's not terrible, but Gray had a much better output in terms of those numbers. Gray also took players on more than Maghoma did -
but there isn't too much in that. Maghoma is a very decent ball carrier, I just think Blues may be able to improve in that area.
Finding somebody as good as Gray at carrying the ball, beating players and getting shots off is not easy, and finding a good left winger on a cheap budget is so tough. One player who Blues were linked with last summer is Christian Santos of NEC, who according to transfermarkt.com is out of contract this summer and can play up top, behind the striker and out wide. He has scored 17 goals this season but quite a few were penalties, and has scored around 0.37 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. Given that he isn't an out and out forward that is very good, and given Blues' propensity for creating chances for wide players and midfielders, he might be a decent option.
I used a few simple techniques to try and identify some more potential players that Blues should take a look at, and found Denis Oliynyk and Rasmus Falk Jensen. Both are reportedly out of contract, left wingers and have some good signs. Oliynyk creates 1.7 chances a game, more than Maghoma and Gray did, shoots nearly twice a game and has scored 0.22 non penalty goals per 90. These are really encouraging signs, though he doesn't take players on as often or as well as Maghoma. That said, Maghoma is a good option on the counter and maybe a more direct winger is needed against the poorer sides whom have consistently dumbfounded the Blues attack.
Falk Jensen is currently playing in Denmark and as such we have little data on him, but as we know from the Brock-Madsen signing, Rowett likes to scout in such leagues. Falk Jensen scored 5 goals and grabbed 11 assists in Denmark's top division, and has consistently pitched in with a few goals in the last few years. He's 24, a full Danish international and out of contract, can play on both flanks and every single clip I can find of him seems to involve him running onto a ball at pace or dribbling past someone, though obviously this is not a great way of figuring out if he's good or not. It's more a comment on his style.
That said, there is of course no guarantee that any of these players would want to join, would be successful and won't be snapped up by other teams. However, we have seen with Kieftenbeld that English football can be a massive draw for players even in top divisions elsewhere. I also must stress I haven't watched these players and these are mere recommendations for further scouting. Falk Jensen is likely to move this summer I'd imagine anyway and Blues may struggle to get him.
Another major reason for Blues' decline was a struggle to keep goals out. We were quite fortunate earlier in the season (which I touched on in previous posts) and I think defensively especially. A powerful centre half is absolutely necessary in my opinion and that's not exactly a unique opinion. Finding one will not be easy, however, as the most obvious options out of England are either way too old, or Dan Burn. Burn wasn't too bad and would suit the style that Blues play - but he's been a part of a defence that has shipped goals and Blues should maybe be looking for someone better if they want to improve.
The other option is Ben Turner, but I think this would be a risky acquisition given his injury issues. If he can prove his fitness I think he'd be a very decent player, but that is a massive if.
A defensive midfielder, or more a two-way midfielder, would be ideal. Robert Tesche is out of contract but again he has had injury problems and there's no guarantee we'd get the player who helped us climb the table last time.
I think every Blues fan knows we need a Tesche-type and a centre half, but I think the winger is the most important part. That really is the biggest difference and as much as I like Maghoma, I think we need to try and improve going forward, because Maghoma is ineffective against the weaker sides in the league, in my opinion.
Another position that Blues fans love to talk about is centre forward. Last season Blues were a team who created chances for the wingers and number ten as much as if not more than the forward, though this could be partially the fault of Donaldson. Donaldson has been great for Blues but he is 32 and appears to be slowing down, and a lot depends on the form/fitness of Vaughan and Brock-Madsen, but it might be worth Blues finding another striker.
Finding a striker for cheap/free who has a decent scoring record is, as you'd expect, tough. Tom van Weert looks an okay option, 25 years old, scores at around 0.35-0.45 per 90 minutes with no penalties and creates about as many chances as Donaldson, but he would come from a foreign country which can lead to problems with assimilation and these are not outstanding numbers.
From Belgium, there is a forward called Frederic Gounongbe who may be worth a look. He's 6'4, scored 13 goals last year and has around a one in two record over his career. He's out of contract and has played six times for his nation Benin. Again, it's difficult to tell if he's any good, but he might be worth a look if he's on a free.
I hope this piece has been interesting and I'd like to see Blues look at these players, even if nothing comes of it, I think we have to look outside of this country. There's very little value in England and gaming the system is much easier with signings like Kieftenbeld - cheap, underrated and from 'smaller' nations.
To conclude: Blues need to replace Gray, badly, but finding an improvement up front might be very very tough. We need a centre-back and a midfielder, in my opinion, but we may again need to look outside of England. There's almost no value in Premier League players on 15k+ a week, or Championship rivals who will overcharge us.