Bristol City got there in the end. It may not have been pretty at times but with a one-goal advantage and a low-scoring Derby County team needing to react on the front foot, the Robins were able to see the game out with some confidence, an all-too rare occurrence this season.
Alex Scott’s fine goal was the moment of the match and achieved a victory that was expected but welcome nonetheless, creating a much-needed 10-point buffer on Peterborough in 22nd while also illuminating the erratic nature of the Championship as Nigel Pearson’s side are only three points behind Middlesbrough in ninth.
But that is also a trademark of the division, and even more so in 2021/22 with only three teams of genuine, consistent quality and the rest, probably down to Cardiff City in 21st, much of a muchness, and the respective match-ups then determined by a series of tangibles and intangibles too numerous to mention.
City’s season will be one of consistent peaks and troughs (I mean, it already has been) but these three points have helped alleviate concern around the club and the team, albeit that unease never far away given the perilously small margins between success and failure in the second tier.
Here are the main talking points from the contest …
Foundations for fortress Ashton Gate to be rebuilt
Not so long ago a deficient display against a struggling Barnsley’s side brought celebration as the Robins secured their first win at Ashton Gate since January and Pearson’s maiden three points on home soil.
On the back of that 2-1 victory, which ended a 17-match winless run in BS3 – a remarkable statistic that really bears repeating for reference – City have gone four matches unbeaten at home, beating Derby and Stoke and drawing with Blackburn.
The Robins identity has flipped from an efficient winning machine on the road but one who struggles to exert any authority at home, to now potentially the opposite.
The win over the Rams wasn’t perfect, far from it, but did continue a theme from these recent matches at Ashton Gate where City have delivered strong performances in the first half, only to lose a sense of control after the break.
As Pearson noted City should have finished the visitors off before the interval as, after Scott’s opener, Chris Martin, Antoine Semenyo, Andi Weimann and possibly Callum O’Dowda, albeit the latter two slightly off-balance, all had good opportunities to score.
Martin in particular couldn’t cap an encouraging performance with a goal as O’Dowda got to the byline, had plentiful options in the box, elected City’s No9 only for him to drag his shot wide of the far post.
But these are also encouraging signs that Pearson’s side are finding a level of comfort at Ashton Gate and ability to break teams down, and their decline in each respective game after the break could be a symptom of an inability to make the most of these chances; if they were to have taken a 2-0 lead against Derby, would that second-half performance have been markedly different? Probably.
To further the point all five goals scored in this mini-run on home soil have been in the first-half.
Four games unbeaten isn’t time for huge celebration but is a decent enough sample size to indicate something has changed in BS3 and each positive performance and result is reason to look forward to seeing City play at Ashton Gate, which is a statement that hasn’t been applicable for much of 2021.
With home games on the horizon against Huddersfield (19th in the Championship away from home), QPR (sixth) and Millwall (15th), they represent good opportunities to only enhance that feeling.
Another defensive tick in the box
Consecutive wins at Ashton Gate, and consecutive clean sheets, Dan Bentley wore a big smile after the game where he quipped that the only touches he had in the game were with his feet. “That means something is going right,” the captain said.
City conceded just nine shots to the Rams, one on target at an expected goals of 0.8 – well below their average for the season at home of 13.6 and 1.5, respectively.
We have to make note that this was against statistically the Championship’s joint-worst attack in terms of goals per game on the road at a paltry 0.45, and 22nd for xG at 0.88, but after the disaster that was Sheffield United – albeit with the defence playing okay overall (realtively speaking), only to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of chances the Blades created – it was important.
Goals build confidence for attacking players and likewise clean sheets have the same effect for defensive units.
Zak Vyner and Tomas Kalas have been consistent throughout this batch of games since the November international break and their regularity in selection has allowed the chemistry to build accordingly.
The best defences are reliable, and that virtue can only be developed by routinely having the same faces on the pitch so that they can form an innate understanding of what their teammate will do. A good backline moves as one, in and out of possession.
Much like the performance against Derby, there were some hairy moments (and we’ll focus on Rob Atkinson in a minute) but overall Kalas and Vyner kept the Rams at arm’s length, allowing Bentley to be a content observer.
You can even argue that Derby’s best chance, which arrived rather fittingly given how the start of this season has played out for City, in injury time was a result of fortune rather than failing.
Kalas made a crucial header to stop a cross and as Scott stretched to prevent it going out for a final minute corner, he was unable to muster the required power to clear it and volleyed straight to Ravel Morrison who fired wide; in any other moment of the game, Scott probably lets that drift out.
City’s match-winner claimed his second senior goal and it was some strike, but also hit almost effortlessly so clinical was the teenager’s technique.
As the ball broke to him on the edge of the area Scott applied just the right power, precision and spin with his left, and it’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t have a weaker or stronger foot, to blast a finish past Ryan Allsop which the Derby keeper could barely watch as it curled away from him and into the net.
It was a goal seeped in confidence from a teenager just 17 games into his professional career and it’s right to have conversations about how high Scott’s ceiling is; consider any City prospect of the last 5, 10 or whatever years and where they were at that age at that specific stage of their career, chances are they weren’t at his level.
Much can go wrong and Pearson is careful in how he speaks about the midfielder in order to try and keep a lid on expectation, not build pressure or allow heads to get too big.
But we are barely scratching the surface here, and he’s not even playing in his right position. In fact he’s not even operating in a position similar to his best role which, common wisdom dictates is either as a No10 or a goalscoring No8 – the possibilities and eventualities remain excitedly open.
Right wing-back is a huge departure from playing as an offensive central midfielder but Scott has settled astonishingly well for a senior pro, let alone someone who turned 18 in August and only signed his first major deal in March.
And that is testament to perhaps his biggest strength as a footballer: yes, he’s excellent on the ball, has a wonderful sharp technique, can clearly strike a ball – in motion and from a dead ball – and possesses a real tenacity about his work, but there is a high football IQ at work here.
Playing at wing-back requires more than just the ability to get up and down over the course of a game – and that’s his third straight game where he’s completed 90 minutes – positioning is absolutely crucial, as is the knowledge on when to make a move in line with the defence, midfield or attack.
If anything, Scott is playing slightly within himself in an attacking sense, he doesn’t get forward that much in the role he is playing, certainly not at the same level of O’Dowda. But that also feeds into his intelligence; it would be natural for him to concentrate on the attacking aspects of being a wing-back but that is likely to be detrimental to the collective defensive effort by leaving too much space in behind, therefore he picks his moments carefully.
Derby did have some joy down the City right, with Craig Forsyth in particular whipping in a number of crosses, but that is to be expected to a point but what’s also impressive about Scott is that even if he’s beaten once or twice, he keeps at it, never gives up and each moment is played in isolation.
What’s also fascinating about this little experiment – and once George Tanner returns to fitness, either against Hull or Huddersfield, you’d have to imagine Scott returns to a central role – is that it’ll make him a better and more rounded player.
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James’ timely return
The City manager doesn’t play mind games by using his pre-match media briefings to either hide or keeping the opposition guessing over the availability of certain players, he would – at a guess – view that as unnecessarily dramatic and probably a little childish.
So when he said on Thursday that, “not at the moment” in relation to Matty James’ availability for the weekend he was being open and honest. Likewise, after the midfielder had taken a pleasantly surprising place in the matchday 18, and then coming on for the final 23 minutes to try and bring some structure back to the midfield, the boss branded it a “bonus actually … not what I expected.”
Clearly having trained on Thursday, James’ performance at the Robins High Performance Centre on Friday was of a suitable increase in level to include him on the weekend.
Even the naysayers who whinge about James’ apparent lack of pace or mobility – which is a pretty basic take – can now see how important he is to this team and how vulnerable the midfield has looked in his absence.
He brings an assured presence to the field for his teammates, particularly the younger ones, verbally and visually guiding them with how he plays, but also uses the ball sensibly and is a really good defensive operator as he showed in his cameo against Derby.
Tyreeq Bakinson is persona non grata among elements of the support, admittedly driven by his inconsistency and a pretty rotten performance against Sheffield United and due to a languid style that just annoys some people, but he was much better on Saturday. There was some loose passing but his positioning and awareness considerably improved making the City midfield more fluid in possession.
As Derby changed shape after half-time, switching more to a 4-2-3-1, the game got increasingly stretched and Bakinson became a little lost, as did Andi Weimann, with the central area increasingly bypassed as the Rams went wide and Tom Lawrence played on the turn, driving forward, it then needed James’ understanding and nous to try and counteract that.
These are all areas of the game Bakinson has freely admitted he needs to work on alongside with the need to move the ball quicker and with greater frequency.
James is that reference point for him and it’ll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old plays in a trio with the veteran and Massengo when he can operate a little further forward, utilising his passing and long-range shooting.
As Pearson stated those 23 minutes not only helped City see out the game but also was the perfect amount of time for James to help build his match fitness. Now he has a full week’s training to get primed and ready for Hull City next Saturday.
Atkinson back in the habit
Nathan Baker’s unfortunate absence has been slightly negated by the fact that City have a ready-made replacement in Rob Atkinson; although with centre-back stocks a little thin should any issues befall him, Kalas or Vyner, the Robins would look really stretched.
But there were also slight question marks over the 23-year-old’s return to the side. He struggled at Sheffield United against a rampaging Morgan Gibbs-White, although it wasn’t the easiest set of circumstances to make a return to action, and Pearson had noted his fitness levels had been affected by the illness he suffered in October.
Indeed, Bristol Live understands that when Atkinson joined the club from Oxford United, the most significant jump he had to make wasn’t in technique, understanding of the game or quality, it was in physical output having played non-league football just 18 months earlier.
He, like many others in this squad, are still finding their way in the professional game, even if he plays with the air of a senior pro.
Six days after Gibbs-White twisting and turning him inside and out as the snow fell in Sheffield, Atkinson had another testing assignment with Wayne Rooney selecting Festy Ebosele on the right wing.
The 19-year-old was arguably the best player on the field, possessing blistering pace and a real precise dribbling style that kept City’s defenders guessing all afternoon, to the point that Cam Pring got so fed up late in the game he just simply hacked him down by the corner flag.
Given his role as a striker, Atkinson wasn’t afforded the same blunt instruments as he had to be a little more intricate in his approach as he tried to shackle the Rams winger.
There were a couple of occasions when Ebosele got past the City defender, leaving the backline open and exposed but his delivery was either not quite accurate or there was enough cover to mitigate.
But that would be unfair on Atkinson’s overall performance because for the times he may have been beaten, there were an equal number when he thwarted the teenager.
In the first half, Ebosele pushed the ball past him and looked to have serious yards on the City No5 only for the defender to increasingly gain ground as the move developed and then wrap a long limb around the ball, tackling it out to safety.
He gave as good as he got, providing good protection in the air, and also lasted the 90 minutes with no dip in performance, adding once again to that aforementioned defensive consistency and cohesion.
What Atkinson can bring, more so than Baker, is ball-carrying and penetration higher up the field and twice in the second half he cropped up in the final third to drive into the penalty area as an additional attacking player.
That was evidence of his confidence, having worked his way back into the team over the preceding 60 minutes or so and it was a welcome glimmer of an attribute City haven’t possessed in his absence. Welcome back, Rob.