Bristol City will be looking to build upon their success from last season where they narrowly missed out on the playoffs on the last weekend of the season. Manager Lee Johnson has overseen an impressive turnaround from when he first took over the side, which found themselves near the relegation zone in the Championship.
Despite calls for his sacking from fans on a couple of occasions as a result of some poor runs, owner Steve Lansdown stood by his man and the club are reaping the rewards of his patience. This tactical analysis will examine the potential approach for the upcoming Championship season including the different tactics that they may employ. In this scout report we analyse the new signings may fit into the team.
Last season saw the evolution of the side, with key players in Joe Bryan, Aden Flint and Bobby Reid leaving the club, who had all played a big part in the success of the previous season. Lee Johnson set about adapting his high pressing style from 2017/18 into a side built on a solid defensive partnership in Adam Webster and Tomas Kalas. With Famara Diedhiou operating as the lone striker, the high press wasn’t as prevalent due to his lack of game understanding and individual behaviours, in comparison to Bobby Reid, who led the line.
Issues last season
Bristol City struggled to score goals last season managing 59 goals in their 46 league matches. Part of the problem was the lack of goals provided from midfield. With Marlon Pack and Josh Brownhill operating in central midfield, neither of whom scored with any regularity (scoring two and five respectively). The signing of Sam Szmodics would appear to be an attempt to address this issues as he registered 14 goals from midfield last season.
Often Diedhiou was left isolated as the gap between himself and the rest of the midfield was too large for the midfield to make up when longer passes were played to him. At times Bristol City’s eagerness to get the ball forward caused problems for themselves as they couldn’t get sufficient support around the ball, therefore leading to turnovers in possession.
This issue could be resolved in a variety of different ways including playing with a front two, advancing the defensive line higher up the pitch and allowing the centre midfielders to position themselves higher.
At the time of writing, Bristol City have been busy in the transfer market looking to strengthen the side ready for the new season. They have secured the permanent signings of Jay DaSilva and Tomas Kalas from Chelsea after both impressed on loan last season. Daniel Bentley was also signed from Brentford, in a much-needed signing in the goalkeeping department, with just Nikki Maenappa as the only other senior goalkeeper on the books from last season. With Kasey Palmer returning to Chelsea from his loan spell, Sam Szomdics was signed from Colchester to provide further options in the more advanced roles in the side. Capable of operating behind the striker he offers competition to Jamie Paterson depending on the system Lee Johnson decides to employ.
New signing Sam Szmodics displays qualities in the pressing phase of the game. Here we can see him leading the press against Exeter, despite not playing as the central striker. These tendencies could prove important as there are very few players in the squad that possess the qualities required to press effectively. With the loss of Bobby Reid to Cardiff two season ago, Lee Johnson hasn’t had the personnel to implement his pressing system with Famara Diedhiou being unable to start the press. With Szmodics in the side operating close to Weimann, Johnson will have the players to use this strategy against certain sides this season. Important to this tactic will be to have players capable of understanding the pressing cues which will require sufficient work in training.
The permanent signing of Jay DaSilva was certainly welcomed by fans as his attacking skills and ability to manipulate the ball in tight areas of the ball made him a popular figure during his loan spell. With the skills to keep the ball, he gives Bristol City an outlet on the left side of the pitch with which they can maintain possession of the ball when under pressure.
If Bristol City can get DaSilva on the ball in advanced areas of the pitch he can use his attacking skills and provide crosses into the box for the likes of Diedhiou to attack. He is very adept at creating space for himself to cross the ball into the box when in the final third as he uses his body to feint inside before attacking the space on the outside of his defender, therefore positioning the ball onto his stronger left foot.
A change in formation?
With Lee Johnson showing his ability to adapt strategies depending on the skill sets of the individuals in the squad this season promises to be an interesting one with early signs in pre-season of a potential change in formation from last season’s 4-1-4-1 which the side mostly operated out of. In the first pre-season match against local side Hallen, the side was set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, whereas in the following fixtures a back three has also been experimented with.
The 4-2-3-1 formation offers a change in dynamic if not necessarily a huge change in personal. Although it is difficult to read too much into a pre-season fixture especially one against a local side, the three positioned behind the frontman were deployed as a narrow three. This potential change in formation provides the side with more players in support to the lone striker, which as discussed earlier was a problem at times last season.
With Niclas Eliasson, Callum O’Dowda, Sam Szmodics, Jamie Paterson, Antoine Semenyo, Matty Taylor, Andreas Weimann, Marley Watkins and Hakeeb Adelakun all capable of filling the three positions behind the striker, Bristol City are blessed with options to choose from.
Using a narrower front three requires width to be provided from the fullbacks or the play can become too predictable. If the fullbacks stay deeper in possession passes into the central areas of the pitch can become difficult as the opposition can stay compact horizontally as they have a smaller area in which to cover.
Bristol City have two fullbacks in Jack Hunt and DaSilva who are both stronger offensively than defensively. With two sitting midfielders this will allow both fullbacks to position themselves in more advanced areas of the pitch when in possession. This aggressive positioning will allow the narrow front three to combine with the forward to penetrate in dangerous central areas.
Three at the back?
In recent pre-season fixtures, Bristol City have operated with a back three, therefore providing another potential system that could be employed during the season. This formation was used sparingly at times last season often depending on the strengths of the opposition. One such occasion was away to Sheffield United, where Johnson set the side up to match Sheffield United’s formation. This proved a tactical masterstroke as Bristol City came away 3-2 winners.
If deploying a back three, it would most likely be Bailey Wright who would come into the side alongside Kalas and Webster. As he is the weakest of the three on the ball Johnson will most likely play him in the middle of the back three with Kalas on the right-hand side and Webster on the left side.
The use of a back three again allows the fullbacks to position themselves higher up the pitch as they have sufficient cover in the three central defenders. The use of a back three also enables Johnson to operate with a front two which will help to provide Diedhiou with support closer to him.
From the few clues that have been garnered from the pre-season fixtures so far, it would appear that Lee Johnson will be placing greater emphasis on his fullbacks to provide attacking width. Whether this is achieved through deploying a back three or adapting his formation with four at the back, the fullbacks will surely be a key part of their attacking threat next season. The flexibility that Johnson has shown over his managerial period at Bristol City suggests it would be unlikely that they will operate in the same way this season.
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