They’re all important games, and players will always, “take each game as it comes” but sometimes the clichés need to be cut through and today’s match against Derby County feels pivotal for Bristol City.
Victory would help restore some of the faith accumulated by positives performances against Blackburn and Stoke City which appeared to show an upward trend following a rotten run through October and November, only for defeat at Sheffield United to bring the Robins crashing down to earth.
Manager Nigel Pearson has been reluctant to attribute their frustrating inconsistencies solely to the amount of young players he’s having to select due to injury, particularly in midfield, but that observation should also be noted with the fact that the senior players aren’t performing well either.
Defeat to the Championship’s bottom side, albeit via points deductions, would be tough for the Ashton Gate crowd to swallow and there is a feeling that supporters could turn with a negative result, putting even more emphasis on the trip to Hull City next Saturday.
Pearson has been frank: City need to start winning more games and scoring more goals at home. If they can do that, then the sense of tension and doubt can be lifted. If they can’t, then it multiplies with every passing fixture.
Here is how we think the Robins will line up against Derby …
Goalkeeper and defence
Based on the assumption that Pearson will stick with a 3-5-2, or a variation of, and you’d imagine he’s seen enough from the performances against Blackburn and Stoke City to not abandon that system completely, then Tomas Kalas and Zak Vyner will be two of the three centre-backs.
Nobody came away from Sheffield United with too much credit but Vyner and Kalas, admittedly while losing Rhian Brewster for the first goal, were among the Robins better performers, something that’s been true of each of the last three fixtures since the international break.
Nathan Baker is unable to take his place to the left of the three, due to his concussion and it may be some time before we see the 30-year-old line up in the City defence again.
That should open the door for Rob Atkinson to make his first start since November 2 having battled fitness issues resulting from his illness in October and a calf strain suffered prior to the Coventry City game.
Before his illness, Atkinson was one of City’s standout individuals and his ball-carrying from deep could be a useful asset to help the Robins as they look to try and impose themselves on the visitors, particularly in possession.
Just to slightly contradict the above, if Pearson was to force a change in formation, there would be a shift back to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, and in that event it would Vyner at right-back with Kalas and Atkinson in the middle.
However, with Jay Dasilva out of favour and Pearson seemingly unsure about Cam Pring as an orthodox left-back, playing Callum O’Dowda there appears a risk. So with that in mind, three at the back seems the safest bet.
Andy King and Matty James have trained this week with the first-team squad but their involvement appears unlikely for fear of aggravating injuries, ruling them out for more games. Their importance has been highlighted by the midfield issues across November and when they do come back, they need to stay in the team.
Joe Williams is also out following his latest hamstring problem with the 24-year-old unlikely to return until January.
That leaves Pearson’s options as exactly the same as they were in Sheffield with his central midfielders being Tyreeq Bakinson, Han-Noah Massengo, Ayman Benarous, Alex Scott and Kasey Palmer, and then O’Dowda, Pring and Dasilva on the left, and Scott and Danny Simpson on the right.
The latter name is worthy of more discussion because while Scott has done an admirable job of filling in that position, with Pearson’s desire for greater creativity in open play, surely there has to be a consideration of shifting the 18-year-old into the middle and starting a specialist on the right.
Simpson doesn’t possess nearly the same energy as O’Dowda in getting up and down the field and has mainly been used as an orthodox right-back, but if he was selected, it would free up Scott to operate in his more natural No10 role, supplying the forward line with greater regularity beyond his free-kicks and corners.
Over on the left, you would assume O’Dowda keeps his place, especially given circumstances over on the right. The Republic of Ireland international wasn’t particularly impactful at Bramall Lane (but who was?) and he still represents City’s best outlet down the flanks.
Pring is a logical shift if Pearson does want to mix it up but would be a more defensive shift as the 23-year-old isn’t as accomplished in the final third as O’Dowda.
Moving into the middle and in the holding roles, Pearson doesn’t really have options beyond those who started in Sheffield: Tyreeq Bakinson and Han-Noah Massengo.
Neither emerged with great credit for that game, with Bakinson substituted after 76 minutes, and there is a definite argument for dropping him but with James, King and Williams sidelined, and Benarous, Palmer and Scott too offensive it leaves a sizeable hole.
Perhaps Scott could assume the position he plays for England Under-19s alongside Massengo, but that looks especially vulnerable. It should be a chance for Bakinson to try and put right the wrongs of Bramall Lane.
To return to the more advanced of the middle three, it would be a battle between Scott, Benarous, Kasey Palmer and Andi Weimann.
Pearson’s dilemma with the first two names is does he get a Sheffield or a Stoke performance out of such a young midfield core? He did emphasise on Thursday for energy which could indicate he is comfortable with one of the two teenagers ahead of Bakinson or Massengo.
Palmer hasn’t been included in either of the last three matchday squads so doesn’t appear in contention at all, but Weimann is the pick that then allows the manager to select one, or both, of Nahki Wells or Antoine Semenyo in attack.
The Austrian has played as a ‘false 10’ for Dean Holden and Pearson previously but positionally can be a bit lacking and perhaps leaves Massengo and Bakinson even more exposed than with Scott or Benarous. But he can try and take up positions between the Derby defence and midfield, turn and run at the Rams backline, feeding into Pearson’s wish for greater aggression.
To continue that thread of conversation, does Pearson persist with the Martin-Weimann partnership or is it time to try something different?
Evidence so far this season – the fact they’ve both started all 20 games – would suggest the manager is not for turning, as does the fact he wants the focus to be on the supply line to the strikers improved, rather than the forwards themselves to alter their approach.
As mentioned, for additional pace he has Wells and Semenyo ready and waiting but both have been predominantly used as impact substitutes this season.
The experiment of having Martin, Weimann and Wells on the field together from the start only really worked against Barnsley, in a goalscoring sense as the overall performance wasn’t of a particularly high quality.
So that perhaps rules out Weimann in the No10 role and Wells ahead of him, unless Pearson wants to give it one last try.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to see exactly where Semenyo fits into the starting XI in this system unless the manager surprisingly drops Martin, which seems unlikely.
Bristol City (3-5-2): Bentley; Vyner, Kalas, Atkinson; Simpson, Bakinson, Massengo, Scott, O’Dowda; Weimann, Martin