Tactical breakdown: how Bristol City got away with three points at Middlesbrough


The Championship is slowly but surely coming to a close. Both Middlesbrough and Bristol City are challenging to secure a spot for the playoffs to keep their Premier League hopes alive. It proved to be a close match with the Bristol City getting all the points up North.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at two tactical trends during this Championship game. We will have a look at how Middlesbrough’s attackers struggled with the visitors’ defence and how Bristol City’s counter-attacking style of play gave them the win at the Riverside.


Middlesbrough vs. Bristol City. Credit: Wyscout

Both Championship teams started with a three-man defence at the back and five midfielders. The only real difference in their formations was that Middlesbrough opted to play Assombalonga as the striker with Fletcher moving between attack and midfield. Bristol City chose to have two strikers up front in Weimann and Diédhiou.

Middlesbrough attack struggling

Middlesbrough were the home side and were fighting to get in the Championship play-offs position. They needed a win and that was the reason for their attacking approach to this game with a 3-5-1-1 formation where they were a central role for the five-man midfield.

Middlesbrough 3-5-1-1

Ball possession was slightly in favour of the home team with 54% and they wanted to make the most of it by utilising their midfield. In case of an attack, the three-man defence moves up to the halfway line and the midfield broke up in different sections. Downing went to the left near to the line and Howson and Shotton did the same on the right as you can see below.

Middlesbrough midfielders keeping the playing field wide

Obi Mikel and Saville are the central midfielders who orchestrate the beginning of the attack. In the image below you can see Obi Mikel making the movement to pass the ball to Shotton, whilst Saville makes sure the Bristol City midfielders need to have the eyes on him.

Obi Mikel and Saville orchestrate the attacks

This Obi Mikel-Saville block stays in the middle behind Assombolonga and Fletcher, and especially Obi Mikel is the architect with 61 completed passes out of 68. The attacks of Middlesbrough had their origin from the midfield.

A long ball from Randolph and Obi Mikel heads the ball through

The attack often started with the long ball by goalkeeper Randolph which goes directly to the midfield. In the case above it’s Obi Mikel who attempts to head the ball through to either Fletcher or Asombolonga.

Fletcher passes the ball back as he has no options going forward

Fletcher passes the ball because he can’t pass the ball to Assombalonga or Downing on the left. Shotton receives the ball and is moving up to the opponent’s halve to make an impact. The home team slightly favoured the right side to state their attack on, as 36% of their attacks were played their – 31% over the middle and 33% over the left side.

Fletcher making a run down the line after a pass by Shotton

The next step in their attack is that the attacking player of Middlesbrough will give a cross into the box where different players have arrived to attack that particular cross. That’s the general idea of how they wanted to play their attacks. In this case, it’s Assombalonga who gets the ball on the right side.

Downing makes a run into the box anticipating a cross from the right

Instead of making the cross, the strikers chooses to make a run at the defenders and take his chances of getting a goal.

Bristol Citys numbers make it difficult for Middlesbrough

When Assombalonga finally gets a shot, there are many Bristol City players in the box. They force the striker to take the shot because he can’t reach any of his other players. Middlesbrough struggled to convert chances against Bristol City because of this reason and Bristol City was quite comfortable in defence because of it. The home team had 23 shots in this game, but only seven of them were on target.

Bristol City’s counter attacks

Bristol City had to endure quite some attacks on their defence when you look at the 23 attempts Middlesbrough had. Still, the visitors came away with all three points because of their strong counterattacks.

Bristol City 3-5-2

Their 3-5-2 formation was ideal for both defensive and offensive situations. The defenders were strengthened by Paterson, Pack and Brownhill in defensive mode so that the defence actually consisted of six players.

Bristol city wins the ball and begins the counterattack

There is a line of four defenders assisted by three players that play in front of them. that made it difficult for the home team to come through it. But when Bristol City captured the ball, they were very quick to come out in a counterattack.

Three Bristol City players are in full pace to go after the ball, against four defenders

Their pace makes it possible to get into a space to pose a threat to the Middlesbrough defence. That defence is the only thing preventing Bristol City of scoring a goal because their midfield was going deep into the opponents’ half. This poses problems in front of the Middlesbrough goal when it’s a 3-v-4 situation.

3-v-4 situation in front of the Middlesbrough goal after the counterattack

When you look at the shots Bristol City produces there are a few interesting things to conclude. They had 14 shots in this Championship game, of which two were brought forward by a counterattack. The only goal of the game was the consequence of a counterattack. The corner following that attack led to the goal scored by Webster.

Final thoughts

Middlesbrough and Bristol City both needed to win to keep their Championship playoffs hopes alive. This meant that they both had to attack to get three points at the Riverside Stadium. In the end, Bristol City’s defence and transition from defensive mode to a counterattack was superior to the attacking style of play by Middlesbrough. Bristol City is looking good for a playoff spot right now.