Nigel Pearson’s former managerial stint at Pride Park wouldn’t have escaped many as one of the narratives for Saturday’s dogfight against Derby County.
From his time spent at Pride Park he picked up a few friends that he’s now in charge of as well – the irreplaceable, unrelenting running duo of Chris Martin and Andreas Weimann were both at County and Bristol City when Pearson arrived, and on second viewing they’ve come into favour. It’s certainly fair to say that the pair are cemented, secured and seemingly immovable from this team.
Weimann has only missed one minute of football in the league this year and Martin has only been off the field for 75 minutes. They’ve started every game together and are a decent partnership with solid levels of production. But throughout their consistency in the starting XI, there have been calls for more flexibility in the forward line, both in the selection and the performances of the strikers.
With Nahki Wells the only fit option for most of that time there was a good reason why Weimann and Martin, two of City’s hardest- working choices if not the most glamorous, were being literally run into the ground.
With creativity not a forte of this City team perhaps that’s why even a glimpse of Antoine Semenyo got fans excited. For a 21-year-old with only two goals in his 62 Championship appearances to be hailed as such a big difference to the team, it explains the situation as well as anything.
That being said, and with fairness to him, he is exciting, he does bring close ball control when dribbling at pace that arguably nobody else has in the squad. That’s his unique aspect, the unpredictable uncertainty that a young player brings matched up against Phil Jagielka, who is three years older at 39 than his manager Wayne Rooney.
Ayman Benarous had done well behind his senior attacking compatriots but Pearson, asking for experience, experience and more experience from his squad, favoured Weimann for the central attacking midfield role at Ashton Gate against the Rams.
With Martin being the league’s most regular headerer of a ball, having the option to knock it down and flick it on to a willing sprinter in Semenyo, was a useful addition to a thus far one-dimensional attacking team.
Lost in the world of Gegenpressing, false nines and inverted full-backs is a simple equation: pace scares defenders. Running at their own goal is the worst position to be in and, for City, Semenyo adds the fear of that happening.
He knocks the crossword and hot chocolate from the centre backs and gets them out of their comfortable chair in front of a fire. Alarm bells ringing and the knowledge that they could be in for a long day at the office, Pearson’s small but mightily effective tactical change paid off.
Semenyo’s extra speed, his acceleration on the half-turn and his battling spirit to press an uncertain backline was the answer. The last point is one that shouldn’t go amiss when analysing his first game in front of his home crowd at Ashton Gate since October 23, 2019.
Before he could have an effect going forward, he showed aggression to unsettle Jagielka and Curtis Davies, being sharp to close down a loose ball and win a throw in within the first 60 seconds.
He continued his off the ball work throughout, capitalising on loose balls quicker than Martin and Weimann often can. Unrewarding work but extremely noticeable, Semenyo’s effort to limit the Rams in possession led to Callum O’Dowda’s early crossing opportunities.
As much as Weimann covers an immense amount of grass, his willing nature to seek the ball no matter its position often leaves any remnants of a press looking pretty disorganised.
With Semenyo holding his position in the frontline, the Robin’s were able to coordinate a more sustained and effective enclosure to pen the Rams in.
When City have the ball, knowing that he would be fixed to a right striker’s role also helped Martin to control the ball and direct his flicked headers rather than hope. Hence the searching balls into the channel, allowing for open play chances to be more frequent in the first half than previous weeks, certainly when on the road.
It was from good attacking positioning and awareness that Semenyo picked the spot to play a sizeable helping hand for the only goal of the afternoon. Once again taking down Martin’s glanced header, his tight chest control rolled three defenders on the edge of the box which created the space for Alex Scott to run in and score from.
He ought to have had one himself as well, Weimann’s surging run on the right opened a space in the box but Semenyo blasted over, looking giddy to score his first in front of the South Stand.
After working for his chance to play with the ball to feet he started to leave a mark on the game. Leaving Craig Forsyth on the turf and exerting all the built-up energy from being on the sideline he once again breezed into a threatening position that you’d think would have been otherwise vacant in previous weeks.
His end product deserved more really, neither Martin nor a late rush from O’Dowda could get the final touch that Semenyo had probably earned.
As second halves go at Ashton Gate it was a copy and paste of pretty much every other 45 minutes seen this season. Semenyo looked leggy which is to be expected in just a third appearance since mid-September, also a first start of the season.
Even a late nutmeg when tirelessly chasing down a ball in the far-left corner of the ground won’t have bothered him much. Being the only player really putting much pressure on Derby at that point was a moment that summed up his game, and how drowned out and separated any formula of attackers can become underneath a second half defensive display.
He did bring the full package of a Pearson demanded performance and was warmly applauded off the pitch after 73 minutes – a very good shift. The manager was waiting with a ready doubled high five, a quick check in and an appreciative pat on the back.
He didn’t add to his attacking stats but the unnegotiable bursts of energy were consistent throughout, aiding his team to a valuable three points for the third time in four games at home.