This match was meant to be an interesting battle between two promotion hopefuls: Bristol City, who are looking at a possible play-off place while West Bromwich Albion had their eyes set on automatic promotion from the EFL Championship. Bristol had been struggling for form recently, with two losses in their last four games. Lee Johnson’s men were sat just outside the play-off places and were in desperate need of some consistency to aid their push for promotion.
West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, have been flying. They sat four points clear at the top of the table and were unbeaten in their last four games, winning three of them. Slaven Bilić’s men look nailed on for automatic promotion and sought a win in this game to better their chances of winning the competition.
Bristol City lined up in a 4-4-2 with Jack Hunt and Jay Dasilva as the fullbacks. Callum O’Dowda and Niclas Eliasson played as the wide midfielders, and Nahki Wells played up top with Famara Diedhiou. Bristol decided to line up with two banks of four players to presumably provide extra protection to their goal as they had conceded six goals in their last three games.
West Brom opted to start in a 4-1-4-1, with Romaine Sawyers playing as the sole defensive midfielder. Matheus Pereira and Callum Robinson played on opposite sides of the midfield four, and Hal Robson-Kanu played up top as the lone striker. This system was one that could be easily converted into a 4-3-3 if Bilić was ever so inclined during the game.
The defensive shape
In the first part of this analysis, we attempt to examine the defensive shapes of both teams. Bristol was mainly set in a 4-4-2 when out of possession, although this didn’t happen too much in the game. Although it was intended to be a defensive 4-4-2, one of the Bristol City midfielders would join the front two to create a lopsided 4-3-3. With this, Bristol would have had an extra man up the pitch to assist with pressing, but that wasn’t a regular occurrence. Instead, the movement created space within which the West Brom midfield could slip into and cause chaos.
In the still above, a West Brom player is in possession. A Bristol City player moves up to aid the pressing, but in doing so he has left a large area behind him unprotected and vulnerable to attack. With two simple passes, the ball can be in behind the forward line and this will pose real problems for the now exposed Bristol City defence.
West Brom mixed 4-1-4-1 defensive shape with an aggressive, high-intensity pressing game. The team would be set in the 4-1-4-1, but once the ball came into play the press would be triggered. Once this happens, one midfielder would join Robson-Kanu up top to intensely pressing the ball-carrier. This aggressive style was intended to help West Brom win the ball deep in opposition territory, and prevent them from ever settling on the ball.
In this image, we can clearly see the two West Brom players leading the press. Once the ball is deemed to be vulnerable, either because of its position or who is in possession of it, Robson-Kanu initiates the press and one player from the West Brom midfield will step up to double up their efforts and intensify the press.
In this image, we can see West Brom’s intense press in action. The ball carrier has been isolated by the two West Brom players, blocking any possible passing lanes. They then aggressively close the ball down, forcing the player into a mistake. In the instance shown, they win the ball and quickly look to create an attacking opportunity.
Looking to counter
West Brom came into this game with a clear game plan: utilize the counter-attack. This approach was helped immensely by the fact that Bristol played a very high line, sometimes almost on the halfway line. Robson-Kanu was then tasked with attempting runs in behind and give Ashley Williams problems. To properly utilize the counter, West Brom played long passes. 11% of the passes attempted by West Brom went long. This is in comparison to the 8% of long passes attempted by Bristol City. This tactic was mildly successful as Robson-Kanu scored having put pressure on Williams from a long ball. Robson-Kanu was flagged offside four times, more than any other player. This highlights the frequency with which West Brom attempted to play him in behind the Bristol City defence.
In the still above, we can see West Brom setting up for a counter. In this scenario, the counter is launched from a throw. While most of the Bristol midfield is focused on the throw-in taker, Robson-Kanu makes an unchallenged run into the Bristol City half. Because the Bristol defence is holding such a high line, Robson-Kanu can run deep into their half before he would be caught. in this particular instance, nothing came of the counter, but it is an example of the constant danger that was posed to Bristol City.
Here we can see an example of a long ball causing problems for Bristol City. In this still, Ashley Williams is attempting to deal with a long clearance. The only place can he go is back to his goalkeeper. Robson-Kanu also knows this and pressures Williams into making a mistake. He then pounces on the mistake and goes on to score. What started with a simple clearance ended with the ball in the back of the net because the Bristol defence did could not cope under the pressure from West Brom’s front players, especially Robson-Kanu.
This game was a mess in the middle of the pitch. West Brom’s intense pressing meant that there was hardly ever time or space to breathe, and this suited both their attacking and defensive tactics. On the attacking end, the relentless pressing meant that the Bristol City defence was almost always off-balance. This allowed West Brom to capitalize on costly mistakes made in and around the box. They recorded 79 recoveries, 29 of which were in the opposition half. West Brom had 17 shots in the game, 11 of which came from inside the box. Two goals were scored as a result of ricochets. They mainly attacked through the middle, constantly carving out half-chance after half-chance. 15 attacks with a combined xG value of 1.81 came from the middle. West Brom would look to press very close to the Bristol penalty area. Having won possession, and with the Bristol midfield out of shape, West Brom then attempted to drive into the box, pushing the Bristol City defence into its own area. This is shown in the 11 shots they managed from inside the box, with a 55% shooting accuracy. The high pressing ensured that West Brom always had a route to the box, no matter how scrappy.
Defensively, the intensity of the press meant that Bristol barely had any tangible attacks in the entire game. Bristol finished the game with five shots, only one of which was on target. They also had an xG score of 0.37, compared to West Brom’s 2.32. In an attempt to bypass the relentless pressing, Bristol City sought to move the ball wide, although this produced similar results to when they tried to move the ball centrally. Slaven Bilić created the perfect storm with West Brom’s pressing intensity, and the players rode it brilliantly
The struggle for control
In addition to strangling any influence Bristol might have had, West Brom grabbed control of the game midway through the first half and never let go. Even when they were a man down, they were still in control of the game and still looked to create chances right to the final whistle. Bristol, on the other hand, had essentially no say in the match, unable to create anything meaningful until the 70th minute. Even then, they managed only one more increase in their xG before the end of the game.
In attempting to gain a measure of control over what was an incredibly intense affair, tempers flared and rash challenges were sometimes made. In total, there were 27 fouls made in the game. Ahmed Hegazy and Markus Henriksen were the worst offenders with three fouls each.
West Bromwich Albion was intent on making this game a scrap and did so to great effect, scoring three goals and winning the game. They exploited the rowdy nature of the contest and prevented Bristol City from even getting so much as a look in. Bilić would be very proud of his players especially Robson-Kanu.
Lee Johnson, on the other hand, will be wondering how his team got completely outplayed on the day. Players like Nahki Wells and O’Dowda will be facing questions after that performance, and Bristol City’s race for promotion has just gotten much more difficult.