|Opposition Preview - Bristol City|
Written by ad_wilkin on Monday, 23rd Oct 2023 10:31
Town have already faced one Bristol side this season as they cruised to a 2-0 victory over Bristol Rovers in the Carabao Cup, they now head west to face the higher-ranked team in the city as they take on Bristol City.
City are managed by former Leicester boss Nigel Pearson, who took them to a 14th-place finish last season. A lot of their brilliance last season came from Alex Scott, who, after being subject to a lot of transfer speculation over the summer, was eventually sold to Bournemouth for around £25 million.
The Robins have coped well with his departure with a mix of wins, draws and losses and sit in a mid-table position once again as they come into this one.
They are in mixed form coming into this with three wins (1-0 Coventry, 2-1 Rotherham and 4-1 Plymouth) and three defeats (2-1 Leeds, 3-2 Stoke and 1-0 Leicester) in their last six games.
The Bristol City number one is Max O’Leary. The 26-year-old Irishman has been at the club all the way through the youth system and following a number of lower league loan spells finally claimed the number one spot in October 2022.
He’s made 85 appearances for the Robins keeping 18 clean sheets and has kept three clean sheets so far this season, including in the Robins' latest match against Coventry, but is on –1.29 in terms of goals prevented.
Backing him up is 21-year-old Frenchman Stefan Bajic. Bajic was signed from French side Pau FC and spent last season on loan in Ligue 2 with Valenciennes where he conceded 23 goals in just 11 appearances.
It’s unlikely he’ll get much game time this season and if O’Leary does get injured it will very much be a case of sink or swim for the French youngster.
Starting the season at right back was 23-year-old George Tanner. Tanner is going into his third season with the Robins having slowly becoming a more influential part of the team. He made 26 appearances last season only missing two out of the last 24 games of the season as he nailed down that right-back spot. However, he has missed the last four games with injury and looks likely to be a doubt for this one.
Replacing him for those games was Taylor Gardner-Hickman. The 21-year-old, who is on loan from West Brom, usually plays further forward in midfield but has filled in at right-back before.
He made 31 appearances for West Brom last season so it is perhaps a surprise that they have let him go out on loan. He got his first assist of the season against Leeds with a lovely whipped corner delivery that was nodded in by Kal Naismith and has followed that up with another assist in the last match against Coventry.
The scorer of that header Naismith was picked up on a free in July 2022. The 31-year-old centre-back has established himself as a Championship player with 166 appearances over spells at Wigan, Luton and Bristol City.
He featured a lot as a left wing-back at Wigan and Luton and his versatility is a key attribute. He can also play as a defensive midfielder as well as his current centre-back position.
Naismith has been at fault for a number of goals this season, the most notable conceding a penalty against Leicester which Jamie Vardy converted. He missed the last game against Coventry with injury leaving the Robins very short in the centre-back area.
Alongside him for most of the season has been Rob Dickie. Dickie was signed from QPR in the summer after spending three seasons with the R’s. He was a consistent starter at Loftus Road, playing 119 games in those three years.
He’s been solid both in the air and on the ground so far this season, winning 58% of his duels. He has fallen foul of ill-discipline once so far this season however picking up a red card against Birmingham following a yellow for arguing with the ref and a second for a foul.
He is currently Bristol City’s only fit first-team centre-back and chipped in with the winning goal against Coventry, powering a header into the ground and past the keeper.
Prior to that partnership being established, Zak Vyner had started the first seven games of the season before suffering a knee injury that has kept him out from the Leicester game onwards.
The 26-year-old academy graduate has been an established part of the squad since the 20/21 season and has now made 151 appearances for the club across all competitions and is a big miss.
Rob Atkinson is another option in the middle but has been out with an injury since February last year. He looks to be on the road to recovery and could be back on the bench soon.
Atkinson has been at the club since 2021 when he signed from Oxford and has a very impressive goal ratio for a defender with six goals in 60 Championship appearances so far. Four of those, all headers, came in the spell he was fit last season so if he were to come back into the team he’d definitely be the one to watch from set pieces.
The standout player in the Bristol City defence, however, is Cameron Pring. Pring is another academy graduate who has gone on to play 82 matches for the club.
He provides an outlet down the left-hand side and is currently the defender with the five most successful dribbles in the league (Kyle Walker-Peters currently tops that chart). Combine that with where he ranks for duels won, fourth but second out of the full-backs, with only Preston’s Jordan Storey and Liam Lindsay and that man again Kyle Walker-Peters ahead of him, it makes him an energetic, battling threat down that left hand side and shows how solid he is defensively.
Where he’ll be looking to improve is on the creative side, he has no assists despite averaging 1.3 key passes per game.
To provide cover and both left-back and centre-back, young defender Hayden Roberts was signed on a free from Brighton this summer. He made six appearances for the Seagulls, all in the Carabao Cup but most of his senior football has come in a loan spell at Derby last season. He made 46 appearances across all competitions for the Rams becoming an indispensable part of their side at left-back.
Pring’s form has meant he’s struggled for game time with his two starts having come in the Carabao Cup with the 21-year-old impressing against Oxford with two assists. With City exiting the cup to Norwich, he will have to make do with cameos from the bench for the time being.
He started as a left wing-back against Coventry but looked out of his depth and was hooked after just over 30 minutes.
The Derby links continue going into midfield with 22-year-old Irishman Jason Knight. Knight was a player that Town were heavily linked with over the summer, following four impressive seasons at Derby, three of which were in the Championship where he played 166 games and scored 14 goals.
He’s already off the mark for his new employers with a double against Oxford in the Carabao Cup but has yet to score in the league.
His impressive form has also seen him win 22 caps for the Republic of Ireland, including the latest two international matches against Greece and Gibraltar, something that the man who Town turned to instead, Jack Taylor will hope to do soon.
Where Knight often plays as the most advanced attacking member of a three or also sometimes in the 10 roles, he’s usually supported by two more defensive midfielder. In Matty James the Robins have a player Pearson knows well from his time at Leicester.
James spent four years at Leicester before joining City on a free in July 2021. He was a key player in Leicester’s promotion from the Championship back in 2013 but then struggled for game time in the Premier League as the Foxes upgraded their midfield options.
Since dropping back down to the Championship he has become a regular starter in the Robins midfield and is already on his way to surpassing his best goalscoring season (three goals in a loan spell at Coventry in 2020/21) with two goals to his name already, including a 94th minute winner against Millwall.
Also featuring heavily in that midfield three is Joe Williams. Williams came through the Everton academy and spent time at Wigan before joining the Robins in 2020. He’s started 10 of the 11 games so far and got himself two assists, which is at the top end of the league for a defensive central midfielder. He was due to start against Coventry but dropped out before the match started with an as yet unknown injury.
The Leicester links continue with 34-year-old Andy King. King spent the majority of his career at Leicester, making 379 appearances and scoring 62 goals. He was more of a feature in Leicester's Premier League midfield than James, making 94 appearances.
Now in the twilight of his career he is not a starter for the Robins but provides a good experienced squad option who even filled in at centre-back last season as City suffered a defensive injury crisis and looks set to do so again in this one.
Twentey-two-year-old Albanian Anis Mehmeti joined the Robins in January 2023 and made 15 appearances in the second half of that season. He’s struggled for game time this season with only one league start so far against Birmingham.
Mehmeti was one of Wycombe’s top performers in League One before joining City, making 97 appearances for them and scoring 19 goals and brings a bit of spark and flair to proceedings when he is on the pitch. Although he can play as the number 10 he has featured more on the left wing recently, cutting inside onto his strong right foot.
Mark Sykes is in a similar situation to Mehmeti in that he’s made the switch from central midfield to become an effective right midfielder. He has two goals and two assists in his 12 appearances so far this season to add to his five in 36 last term.
Prior to joining City, he hit eight in 40 for Oxford in League One so he has certainly developed a knack for finding the back of the net. It’s that form and the fact that he can play as either a right winger or a more withdrawn right midfielder that has seen him become a key member of the side this season.
Twenty-one-year-old Sam Bell has been Bristol City’s star man so far this season with four goals so far in 12 starts on the left wing. This beats his record of last season which was the youth product's real breakthrough of three goals in 24 appearances.
All four of this season's goals have come from inside the box and from only 12 shots so far. Conor Chaplin and Nathan Broadhead hit the four-goal mark in 17 and 25 shots by way of comparison.
The first came on the opening day tapping in following a rebound off the post after a long throw. His second he slotted back across the keep after arriving onto a ball across the box.
The third and fourth both came from corner routines. One a tap-in after a driven ball into the penalty box and the other a sweet left footed strike as the ball was bouncing round following a corner.
City have another young prospect in the forward areas in 21-year-old Scotsman, Tommy Conway. Conway hit six goals in pre-season but picked up a hamstring injury that has limited his availability in the first half of the season so far.
He returned from that injury off the bench against Rotherham was a stunning 11-minute cameo off the bench, netting the opener by picking up the ball on the left, throwing in a couple of step-overs before cutting inside onto his right foot and bending a shot into the far corner.
He then went a step further, with Rotherham having pulled back to 1-1, he scored a last-minute winner with a lovely outside of the boot flicked finish from a King cross.
With goals coming from the wings, it takes some pressure of Championship stalwart and one-time Town trialist Nahki Wells. Wells has scored 96 goals in 361 Championship appearances which has him currently sitting eighth in the all-time Championship goalscoring charts, with only Birmingham’s Lucas Jutkiewicz one ahead on 97 still playing in the Championship of those that are above him.
This season Wells has scored two with age maybe starting to catch up with him. Despite that, he is still an experienced Championship marksman and will need to be watched closely by Town’s central defenders if he is fit enough to start.
Wells picked up an injury against Leeds and it remains to be seen how long he’ll be out so this could open the door to Harry Cornick. Cornick led the line against Rotherham to give the Robins a more physical presence up top and has also been a highly used sub with Pearson rotating his front four, much like Kieran McKenna.
Although he brings work-rate, he is not a prolific goalscorer with his highest return in the Championship 12 in 38 games for Luton in the 2021/22 season. However, if he can hold the ball up and bring City’s tricky wingers into the game, he should be a more than adequate replacement for Wells.
Also in that frontline but seemingly out of favour this season is Austrian international Andres Weimann. Weimann, 32, had been a regular starter at City apart from in one season where he suffered a cruciate ligament injury and really excelled in 2021/22 scoring 22 goals in 46 appearances which saw him finish third in the golden boot race behind Dominic Solanke and Alexander Mitrovic. Mitrovic scored an obscene 43 goals that year.
Age and the form of players in his position are the likely reasons he hasn’t started that many this season with his gametime most likely to come if Pearson decides that Knight needs a rest, but he has the versatility to come on in any of those front positions and is a very strong option to have on the bench. He could even feature alongside Knight in this one given the Robins' injury problems.
We’ll finish off with one for the future and a youngster who is pushing into the squad. Ephraim Yeboah is only 17 but is a talent for the future. It’s unlikely he’ll play against Town but he has made two sub appearances in the Carabao Cup and seven in the league this year.
With Town’s Friday night game against Rotherham called off, Ipswich have had a longer break to work on things and also recover from knocks and international duty. Because of that we could see what is close to Town’s first-choice XI in this one.
Vaclav Hladky should be in goal, with a back four of Brandon Williams, Luke Woolfenden, Cameron Burgess and Leif Davis. The league's most effective midfield, Sam Morsy and Massimo Luongo, will also likely start.
The question of who will replace the injured Wes Burns was never answered on Friday night. I had Omari Hutchinson down for that one but I feel Kayden Jackson's pace in behind could prove to be more of an attribute for this one. Next to him will almost certainly be Chaplin and Broadhead with George Hirst leading the line.
Bristol City ditched their 4-3-3 formation and went to a back five in a 1-0 victory against Coventry at the weekend with King playing in an unfamiliar centre-back role. This only lasted for 30 minutes before Pearson switched back to the 4-3-3. This was partly due to injuries and fitness issues with Wells and Naismith picking up new knocks, Knight suffering from illness, Tanner and Vyner longer term injuries and Williams pulling out on matchday.
O’Leary is fit and will start in goal but this is about as much as is certain. Skyes started at right wing-back against Coventry, whereas he’s a natural winger. I think he will drop back to his more natural position for this one and Hickman will slot back into the right-back slot.
If Naismith is back fit again he will partner Dickie. If not, then King looked solid enough in there to fill in again for this one. Pring will start at left-back.
The midfield three is harder to pick. James is a cert if he passes concussion protocol rules following a collision in the match against Coventry and depending on Williams's fitness could end up playing alongside Knight and Weimann.
That leaves a front three that will definitely include form players Bell and Conway.
Cornick could start as a central striker and push Bell out right with Wells injured, but the other option for Pearson is playing Bell centrally with Sykes down the right and getting some rotation in that front three. I think Pearson might roll the dice and go for the latter in this one.
So far this season Bristol City haven’t really been a passing team or a dribbling team. They rank 15th in terms of possession and 18th for progressive carries. They are a battling team and have mid-table tackling stats and have good conversion rates when they do get shots on target.
They have previously tried to be compact and tough to break down, with a lot of hard workers in their team and will rely on the individual talent of Conway and Bell to provide the threat up the other end.
If they do play with a 4-3-3 and with Bell as a false nine it will create a midfield overload for them and make it a lot harder to pick up their players. This is something that Blackburn and Leeds both did very well against us.
This attacking mantra is likely to be enforced due to the lack of defensive players available to them and could leave them exposed going the other way. Neither Knight or Weimann are battling midfielders which will leave James quite exposed.
It should leave a lot of gaps going the other way however which Town’s front four will relish. I can see Broadhead in particular having a lot of joy in this one.
With Bristol City’s injuries I think this could be a far more open game than a lot of Town’s away games so far. The Robins' normally defensive midfield will be forced to be more attacking which could make the game more open.
As we all know, if a game opens up with Town there are certainly goals to be had. I think Bristol City will definitely pose a threat but I’m going for a 3-1 Town win.
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