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Bristol City shot into the public eye with a remarkable League Cup run in the 2017/18 season. Victories over Premier League clubs Watford, Stoke and Crystal Palace granted them a dream tie with Manchester United at Ashton Gate.
After a 2-1 success, in arguably the greatest night in the club’s history, they faced eventual winners Manchester City over two legs. Whilst Bristol City were eventually beaten, they gained plaudits far and wide for their mix of passion and quality.
The 17/18 season saw The Robins finish in 11th place in the Championship. A sour return for a team that was heavily involved in playoff contention at the time of their League Cup heroics. They currently sit ninth in the Championship, two points off the playoffs with two games in hand. All after losing three games out of their last five. Results alone point towards a team with very real capabilities of promotion but what makes them who they are?
The statistics don’t point towards a team with any real identity. In the 18/19 Championship season, they average 51% possession with a pass accuracy of 72%. They shoot 12.8 times per game with 4.5 of those shots on target.
Their xG difference per game is +0.2. All of these numbers indicate a higher mid-table/play-off level Championship side which is uncoincidentally, where they lie in the league. In order to greater understand the bigger picture, it’s important to return that famous night vs Manchester United.
vs Manchester United: a tactical analysis
The beauty of Bristol City’s performance that night was in the tactics, constructed by the manager Lee Johnson. Without the ball, they set up in a 4-4-2, aiming to restrict space between the lines and be as compact as possible.
This came as no surprise. However, on the ball, Bristol City utilised two false nine’s in Bobby Reid and Jamie Paterson. Johnson had scouted Manchester United in a recent game vs Manchester City where he noticed their centre-halves were reluctant to press the opposition forward players when they dropped off into midfield.
Johnson felt this, coupled with the United midfielders’ desire to not look like they were chasing too hard vs weaker opposition, would give The Robins a 4v3 central dominance.
Johnson also deployed Josh Brownhill, primarily a central midfield player, off the right side to help crowd the central zone further.
Ultimately this let Bristol City control the game in the middle without being too suspect to counter attacks by keeping their full-backs mostly deep in possession. Whilst Bristol City were unable to penetrate into United’s box often, due to a lack of forward runs to overload United’s back four, the control of the central zone gave Bristol City a foothold in the game.
The in-game examples represent moments of Bristol City safe possession in the middle third. This allowed them to generate momentum and keep the crowd in the game to ever frustrate the visitors. It’s important to note that whilst Johnson demanded his team look to control the central zone in the middle third, his team didn’t take drastic risks when building out from the back to achieve this position.
Such an approach has been the downfall of many teams before as they turn the ball over to high-quality footballers in their own third. Pragmatically, Johnson implemented a plan from goal kicks that moved the aerially dominant centre-back Flint to the right side to win headers and knockdowns. After this phase of play, Flint would return to his position at centre-back whilst Bristol City took advantage of the territory gain and new position.
Johnson employed similar tactics vs Manchester City at the Etihad in the subsequent semi-final. Whilst Bristol City couldn’t quite achieve the same level of control, Johnson earned significant praise from Guardiola, a man in his own right well renowned for his desires to control the centre. Johnson reported afterwards:
“Pep Guardiola said to me that we played better than most of the Premier League teams that come to Man City.”
Man City eventually ran out 2-1 winners after coming from behind.
After digging deeper into the uprise in Bristol City in recent years, it’s clear Lee Johnson plays a significant role. His tactical flexibility earned his team a famous victory where he blended a mix of a more classical English football style of play to that seen across the continent depending on field position. These tactical ideas are advanced and can only be attributed to a man with exceeding talent.
Given the stats, he’s also able to coach his team in a more orthodox fashion in the regular Championship competition. However, it remains to be seen if Johnson can continue to inspire his team to a play-off spot before perhaps flexing his big-game tactical muscles once more.
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