McLeish tactics lay foundation for superb win
To those who dismiss the role of tactics in football matches, Sunday's Carling Cup final was a classic case of what can be achieved when a system and its players combine.
Was Birmingham's victory over Arsenal down to tireless effort by their midfield, a superb display by their keeper and a huge dose of luck for the winning goal?
Or was it because Birmingham boss Alex McLeish chose a system where his team could play to their strengths and expose Arsenal's weaknesses?
The truth is probably a combination of both elements, but it is worth underlining how some of the more human aspects of the match came as a result of the framework McLeish set up.
"For all the good things that Birmingham did, Arsenal were poor by their standards," said former Gunners full-back and Match of the Day pundit Lee Dixon.
"But that's taking nothing away from Birmingham. In every department, I thought they performed well.
"There was a lot of talk beforehand about the way that they would play, that Arsenal were going to pass them off the park, but that didn't happen. Birmingham stuck to their guns and their midfield was solid for the whole game."
Birmingham had tried this formation in both Premier League matches against Arsenal this season, only to lose 2-1 at the Emirates, where Zigic scored the opening goal, and 3-0 at St Andrew's where Cameron Jerome was preferred up front to the giant Serb.
Although the game at Arsenal was a lot tighter, Birmingham still had lots of problems supporting Zigic and it was clear from the outset at Wembley that the likes of Lee Bowyer and Craig Gardner were detailed to make thrusts into Arsenal's final third whenever they could.
This policy almost paid dividends as early as the second minute, when Zigic found the advancing Bowyer only for the midfielder to be denied what looked like a clear penalty when his run was incorrectly ruled offside.
The added benefit of starting with the 6ft 7in Zigic was that it would pressure Arsenal at one of their weak points. Arsene Wenger's team have conceded the highest proportion of set-piece goals in the Premier League this season - 52% of goals have been conceded in this way.
And so it proved at Wembley, with Birmingham taking the lead from a corner.
Blues defender Roger Johnson won the first header, Arsenal centre-back Johan Djourou failed to mark Zigic properly in the six-yard box, and the Serb nodded home.
The build-up to the corner also involved Zigic, who has now scored four goals in his last five games, but to accuse Birmingham of simply lumping the ball up to him at every opportunity would be wrong.
From the pass map to the right, it would seem that many of the balls played into Zigic came from distance, with more than half of them courtesy of Blues keeper Ben Foster. But of Birmingham's 338 passes only 15% were hit over 35 yards. (Only 6% of Arsenal's 514 passes were the same.)
Much of that was down to midfielders Bowyer, Gardner and Blues captain Barry Ferguson who can all pass intelligently and recognise the value of retaining possession when defenders have won the ball back.
Having established a tactical foundation early in the game, Birmingham almost took a 2-0 lead when Zigic failed to lift the ball over advancing Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny following good work from Gardner.
Yet as the game wore on, more of the personal elements began to emerge.
Without injured skipper Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere was the driving force behind many of Arsenal's attacks. It was following a shot from the England midfielder - a shot that hit the bar - that the Gunners equalised through Robin van Persie on 39 minutes.
The fact that a 19-year-old was bossing proceedings for Arsenal showed what a supreme talent he is but he did not get the support he needed from his fellow midfielders.
Where other Birmingham players could draw strength from Bowyer's incessant pressing or Johnson's ability to dispossess Arsenal's forwards, the likes of Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky failed to make a telling impact for the Gunners. The Gunners' cause was not helped when Van Persie went off injured after 69 minutes.
Even as the game entered the final quarter and more room became available for him to unleash his lethal shots, Nasri could not find a way past the superb Foster.
At this stage, McLeish's side were hanging on, especially as Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger threw on Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh to test the fitness of the injured Johnson.
But having established a platform for success - and his players having expended almost every ounce of their energy to stay in the game - McLeish took a last throw of the dice.
With only seven minutes remaining, the Scot sent on Martins to forage up front with Zigic - and the on-loan striker scored the match-winning goal in the 89th-minute following a horrible mix-up between Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny.
It was a fortunate denouement, no doubt. But with Zigic playing his part in the goal as he rose to flick on Foster's free-kick, credit must go to McLeish for his tactical acumen right until the end.