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City verdict as Robins win in different ways and a sting to Knight’s tail

City verdict as Robins win in different ways and a sting to Knight’s tail

With miles accumulated on the motorways and in the air and, as a result, Bristol City’s squad probably spending more time with each other on planes, coaches and in hotels, than their loved ones, familiarity could have bred contempt.

But by beating Middlesbrough 2-1, the Robins have emerged from a challenging week with points on the board, a sense of pride at what unfolded in Nottingham, a reinforced feeling of togetherness – as was referenced by Liam Manning post-match – and hopefully a fresh flush of confidence injected.

It is but one win, and it’s been a fair time coming, so we’ll exercise caution when discussing things like steps forward but it at least feels like an obstacle successfully overcome.

Jason Knight and Matty James did the damage in a fantastic first-half performance at the Riverside in which City probably should have led by more than the two-goal margin they had achieved.

That then gave way to a different kind of display, and one not as enjoyable to watch, but Championship points tend to have to be earned through a degree of sacrifice and suffering.

Sammy Silvera’s late goal created some injury time nerves but City banished the butterflies to get the job done. Here are the talking points from Teesside…

Points make prizes

As the ol’ saying goes, a win is a win, and this was very much one of those, something the City team have been increasingly starved of, to the point you were concerned if they were somehow going through some sort of ritual punishment of themselves to eventually attain a higher plain of playing; an act of self-flagellation for not meeting a certain standard.

Never mind that, this was a first league win of 2024, in six Championship matches and since Boxing Day. It tells a tale about the division that despite this barren run, which admittedly has only contained three defeats but without suitable points boosts, the Robins have dropped no further than 14th in the table.

That, in itself, is significant because clearly this was nagging away at everyone; players mentioned it, Manning subtlety brought it up but also remained mindful of not placing too much emphasis on it because, despite the inevitable doom mongers that lurk among us, City had been playing well enough to get more than three points from those matches leading up to this.

But saying that is all well good, people need to see tangible benefits to change and that scoreline and those three points deliver such. It allows everyone to take a breath and eases the pressure for the visit of 25-games unbeaten Southampton to Ashton Gate; a mighty challenge, you’ll all agree but one now City can go into with increased confidence and self-belief, having found a way to win.

And taking a breath is exactly what those players did at full-time, several deep ones no doubt, because this continues to be a taxing programme for what is fundamentally a small squad, but one that should be a little bigger by the end of this week with Rob Atkinson, Mark Sykes and Scott Twine set to return.

Taylor Gardner-Hickman brings the ball forward against Middlesbrough (Photo by Rogan/Bristol City)

Granted, only four of the starters at the Riverside had played all 120 minutes at the City Ground, one of them was Max O’Leary, the other two were Zak Vyner and Rob Dickie, while Sam Bell was substituted after 58 minutes, but that’s not to say that game on Wednesday didn’t require huge energy levels from everyone concerned.

Harry Cornick is like a racehorse with his long strides up and down the pitch, and having done that for 59 minutes against Forest, with all the emotion of the penalty shootout and then having to reset minds for this game, he could only last 45 minutes on Teesside but certainly made his mark.

Travelling is tiring, even if you’re a finely-tuned athlete, and having arrived back in Bristol in the early hours of Thursday morning, followed by some intense sleep, then recovery, a brief meeting on Friday morning before flying up to the north east left little time for proper preparation for this game, yet Boro had a full five days after their draw with Sunderland.

To therefore have achieved such an outcome is of enormous credit to the players and the staff, with City’s analysts high up on the gantry and like coiled springs towards the end of the game, perched on the edges of the seat before celebrating with satisfied fist-pumps, knowing what had gone into that.

Manning kept his trio for the travelling fans, and he knows the importance of the victory in breeding confidence and a sense of a can-do attitude. We don’t want to overstate things but even in the context of Boro’s wild inconsistencies and their lack of a recognised striker, which could well have defined the contest, the odds were firmly stacked in the hosts’ favour.

City’s first-half performance was of energy, purpose and organisation, giving way to a second-half display of dogged determination, concentration and, hey, a bit of luck but who doesn’t need that from time to time? They certainly didn’t get much of it at the City Ground, cough, cough, VAR.

Manning spoke of the nerves and anxiety that seeped into the team in the second-half, with the 2-2 at Coventry just 11 days prior and the defensive collapse at Preston North End a memory less than a month old, while the manner of that painful Millwall defeat on New Year’s Day may have ended up being more damaging than we initially envisaged.

This City side are able to park such grievances but, at the same time, they also have to be used to shape the team. You can make a mistake once, possibly twice, but you need to do so to ensure it doesn’t happen a third time.

Maybe this win wouldn’t have been secured without having to go through such experiences. Manning certainly seems to think so, and being able to win a little bit ugly in the end – although there was genuine beauty to the first 45 minutes – is definitely something to take with them.

And, look, we’re going to go here briefly, while treading very, very carefully, but beating Boro – their first league double over them since 2016 – is also surely an affirmation of the qualities that exist within this squad.

Take a look at the Championship table, removing the top three, parachute payment clubs from the equation because they’ll be fighting out for the automatics all the way until the first weekend of May. But, with Ipswich’s early season form generating sufficient currency to consider them “good”, from fifth-placed West Brom down to Cardiff City in 14th, can you credibly say any of those sides (and please name which ones in the comments below) are significantly better than this Robins team, based on what you’ve witnessed this season?

It’s going to take a hell of a run to prove that, but once Southampton is navigated, four of their next five games are against teams below them in the table, with a trip to declining Ipswich also among that. There are flaws and weaknesses with this City team, of course, but that is also true of nearly all their rivals in the division. There shouldn’t be any trepidation for these next few weeks. If anything, it’s exciting to see what could happen.

Two sides to the same coin

And so onto the game which was two very different performances but perhaps it was always going to be, given the way Manning had to manage energy levels. For those who have lambasted the head coach for supposedly prioritising “possession for possession’s sake”, hopefully City having 29.8 per cent of the ball at the Riverside will please you; 23.7 in the second half which probably wasn’t in the script but possibly proves a point for somebody, somewhere.

Manning anticipated that Boro would want the ball – they rank seventh overall in the Championship for average possession – and the Robins were happy to let them have it in certain areas, but with a desire to press at specific moments which, for much of the first 45 minutes, scared the bejesus out of those in red.

It’s a risky-ish strategy given the physical toll on this squad over the last week, so essentially compelling them to chase the ball for so long only adds to that, as opposed to looking to hold onto it and dictate things at your own tempo.

What it kind of played out as was City forcing so many mistakes in the first half, capitalising on that through Knight and James’ goals and then asking a Boro side, without an orthodox striker, “come on then, what have you got?”

Middlesbrough’s Finn Azaz (centre) is challenged for the ball by Bristol City’s Taylor Gardner-Hickman (left) and Bristol City’s George Tanner (right) during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough. Picture date: Saturday February 10, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Middlesbrough. Photo credit should read: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

How much of it was choreographed, we’re not sure, because Manning lamented the Robins poor use of the ball in the second period and the spaces between players was such that whenever they did win it back, outside of the first 10 or so minutes when they zipped it about nicely, it was hard to form any connections. But they ultimately reacted well to the game state, and it fundamentally worked.

Key to that was their press with Nahki Wells and Knight especially vibrant in giving Dael Fry, Rav van den Berg and the defensive midfielders Dan Barlaser and Lewis O’Brien little to no time on the ball. The frustration inside the Riverside was audible as the hosts kept misplacing passes or not reacting properly to second balls and both goals were a product of such.

City had already given them a scare when Cornick played on their high line, timing his run to perfection as Dickie looped a ball over the top but unfortunately the forward couldn’t finish as he attacked Tom Glover’s goal at an angle with the parry just evading Knight.

Boro were being forced back, due to how much of the ball City were enjoying and with an inability to find their own rhythm, with space in front of him Dickie was able to take several strides forward and spot the run of Knight beyond the defence with the Irishman then delivering a slightly unorthodox but nevertheless clever finish past Glover.

The second goal, 22 seconds after the restart, best summed up City’s first-half endeavours as first Harry Cornick won the ball down the left and then, after he was tackled, Taylor Gardner-Hickman pressured a pass from Luke Ayling into Hayden Hackney, allowing James to run forward untroubled, with the midfielder cleverly carressing the ball into the bottom left corner, in off the post.

The boos rang out and Boro were in deep water, they had flashes in the final third through Hackney and Finn Azaz but City were well in control and Knight fired an attempt straight at Glover while an even better moment followed on 38 minutes.

Cornick bisected the Boro midfield with a brilliant run across the pitch, angling it to open up a slotted pass into Bell who was far too fast for the home defence. Everything worked like clockwork until the finish as Glover, who initially had tripped in steadying himself, stood firm and the City forward struck his shot against his chest. At 3-0, it surely would have been game over.

O’Leary then made a good save from Sam Greenwood and as boos continued to ring out with increasing volume, City no doubt went down the tunnel anticipating a strong reaction from the hosts.

They initially started the second how they finished the first, with more of an emphasis on possession as a wonderful sweeping passing move lasting well over a minute, ended with Anis Mehmeti and Cam Pring efforts.

Thereafter it was backs to the wall, and that particular structure stood tall. A lot has been made of the apparent formation change with City noticeably switching to a back three and the wing-backs tucking in to create a 5-4-1 by the end but, in truth, and I can only reference my own eyes, there were elements of a three-man defence in the first period.

Whether it was influenced by what had happened at Ashton Gate in November, as Boro quickly responded to a 2-0 deficit in the opening stages, or his team’s declining energy levels, the dynamic changed but that initial period is reason enough to suggest that City wanted to play a certain way in the second half but the hosts, to their credit, didn’t let them.

Marcus Forss was having considerable joy down the right, constantly getting into space behind Pring and outside Dickie and a succession of pull-backs were cause for concern, although never led to anything of serious danger for City.

O’Leary was called for duty on a few notable occasions, primarily from Greenwood as Azaz created a chance for him inside the area but the City keeper was the equal, as he was four minutes later when the Boro was forward was rolled down the inside right channel, had daylight in front of him but found the shoulder of the Robins No1.

City were, to an extent, inviting pressure onto themselves and not making the most of the few opportunities there were creating with Gardner-Hickman making a clean break over halfway but turning to his right, when there were greater options to his left and the moment was gone.

The extra legs of Ross McCrorie helped, with the Scot making one fantastic covering block as the ball was zipped into the six-yard box, and Joe Williams who despite his midweek efforts put himself about with typical zeal as Boro now had a fresh midfield obstacle to overcome.

O’Leary batted away Van den Berg’s blast from deep as the pressure continued to build but even with the creeping anxiety that may have been steadily increasing in anxiety, from our position at least, it still felt kind of comfortable.

Greenwood did finally have it in the net as he broke down the inside left and found the top corner of O’Leary’s net but the flag was up. For what it’s worth, Michael Carrick and a member of the Boro staff thought he was onside. Oh well.

Dickie and Vyner defended the box doggedly with legs and heads, supported by those around them and the frustration was maybe more on the hosts, as scores as Boro fans streamed out, missing Silvera’s fortunate consolation as he deflected in a cross off his back.

Tanner made a rare misjudgement at the death as he clattered into Silvera, just outside the penalty area, presenting Boro, and Azaz, with one final opportunity but as had been the case throughout they failed to take it.

Knight finds his range

That’s two in two for Knight and five for the season which, when added with his four assists, gives him a goal contribution every 321 minutes, or every three-and-a-half games. These are encouraging numbers but undoubtedly could be improved, especially given the position he plays and the attacking opportunities he’s afforded, something he himself has maintained throughout the season.

City are not a high-scoring team, at least not yet because the ultimate plan is for this to change. Manning prioritises shape and rest defence to a point, which creates a platform, but as the last six weeks have displayed, you can’t win games and climb the table without scoring goals. Apologies for stating the obvious.

There is pressure on Knight to deliver in the final third beyond his outstanding pressing out of possession and the way he knits the play, just like there is on Mehmeti, Bell, Cornick – who may reflect on that one-on-one with Glover more so than his penalty miss against Forest – and will be on Scott Twine when he returns to fitness, hopefully some time this week.

The fact that the 22-year-old is happy to bear such a responsibility is further testament to him as an individual and player. He is young in years but not experience or game wisdom and a five-minute conversation with him reveals as much.

A one-striker system is not always immediately beneficial to the individual selected for that solitary role as Tommy Conway and Wells are evidence of. They do have to sacrifice an element of their own self-scoring interests for the good of the team.

Bristol City’s Manager Liam Manning during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough. Picture date: Saturday February 10, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Middlesbrough. Photo credit should read: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

But what that means is, the midfielders (and defenders, step forward Mr. Dickie) have to contribute and what’s been especially pleasing is the two types of goals Knight has scored this week.

His strike at Forest was, firstly, converted with real composure as he met Bell’s cut-back at pace, arriving into the box, and albeit with goalkeeper Matt Turner largely out of the picture as he had dived to his left to deny Andy King, had the composure to guide the ball into the net as a number of defenders attempted to cover.

The Irishman has been guilty of times of lacking a bit of finesse with his finishing, opting for power over placement, almost channelling his relentless intensity into the velocity of the subsequent shot. But that was finished with real composure and class.

His strike at Middlesbrough can also be boxed into that category but in different circumstances, as he was on the last defender, anticipating Dickie’s run and next move, timing his run accordingly. It was the movement of a striker, really.

With Glover to beat but clearly not 100 per cent satisfied with either his body position or the proximity of the ball to his feet, Knight elected not to take a snapshot, but get it under control and then pirouette back around to his right.

It’s not exactly in lesson one of finishing school, and you could argue it looked a little ungainly, but in the moment it was the highest-percentage finish available to Knight as it then took Glover out of the picture and allowed him to put the ball over the line with his stronger right foot.

He didn’t snatch at it, didn’t second guess himself and delay to the extent that defenders could get themselves back in positions – although the change of direction did provide a small glimmer of hope for the retreating Boro defenders – there was a method to it.

Knight’s targets for the season are unclear but with 15 games remaining, if he can just improve his efficiency and bring the contributions-to-minutes ratio down a tad, finishing the campaign with 10 goals isn’t out of the question.

That is dependent on himself but also probably City as an attacking force with signs, and we don’t want to get too carried away with this part because it’s a pretty small sample size, that the Robins are showing signs of hitting their attacking straps.

We should say again, really, because removing the Leeds game as an outlier, as they were just totally outplayed, the last three league games around that have averaged 13.3 shots per match with an average expected goals of 1.23; the three matches before that – Birmingham, Millwall and Preston – produced 9.3 and 0.8. If you take the block of three prior to that – Sunderland, Hull and Watford – it was 12.6 and 1.3. Hopefully, therefore (and there’s perhaps an element of confirmation bias with the specific selection of data here) that three-game period in the middle where the Robins didn’t look particularly potent is an exception.

Southampton, QPR and Sheffield Wednesday can further shape how this plays out, but with a regular-ish sources of goals elsewhere – and James’ also claimed his second winner of the season – perhaps there is reason to be optimistic, and while that burning desire for a No9 remains, there are a few encouraging signs it can be ever-so slightly mitigated against; something which we write with extreme caution, admittedly.

Fate falls in their favour

Consider this as a position: Without the injuries to Rob Atkinson and Kal Naismith over the last three months, that defensive performance in the closing stages wouldn’t have been possible. Allow us to expand.

No doubt, throughout this period of a game every three-and-a-half days from the start of December, Manning would unquestionably liked to have rotated/rested elements of his team outside of the midfield and attack. He’s successfully bounced between Gardner-Hickman, James and Williams, with a spicy sprinkling of King, in the central midfield positions, Bell, Mehmeti, Mark Sykes and, to a lesser extent in a starting capacity, Cornick have been alternated in wider roles, while Conway has been helped by the return to fitness of Wells.

But the defence has remained largely the same. McCrorie has added a new dimesion, as will hopefully Haydon Roberts who looks set to start on Tuesday, but the cup tie at Forest was the first time since December 12 that the quartet of Tanner, Vyner, Dickie and Pring had been broken up and 50 per cent of that decision was down to suspension.

Had Naismith and/or Atkinson been in the picture over the period leading into and over Christmas before giving way to the New Year, it’s very unlikely the Tanner-Vyner-Dickie-Pring unit would have remained in situ. That’s not a criticism of their performances but perhaps between the Birmingham and Millwall games or post-Preston, Manning may have seen fit to make a few tweaks to preserve fitness, sharpness and increase competition.

Those options haven’t been available to the head coach – although hopefully will soon – but in the absence of such an ability to change, it’s helped foster a real chemistry and understanding between the four of them.

Manning often talks about players knowing their roles, and that is relevant not just how they perform but in the individuals around them. Such has been the regularity at which Vyner has had Tanner to one side of him and Dickie to the other, he knows precisely what the other man is likely to do, and vice versa.

There’s no doubt this wasn’t a perfect defensive performance, after all Silvera’s goal denied them a clean sheet and the 1.5 xGA is actually greater than they surrendered against Leeds, Coventry and Watford. Props to Max and Boro’s profligacy.

But this was a unit that worked together. When Pring was breached by Forss, which happened quite a bit, there was Dickie to step across with those long legs to create a necessary barrier.

Vyner also makes a considerable amount of his clearances with his legs high in the air. As someone whose 5-a-side ability is now reduced to barely more than a light job, it makes you wince with the pulled hamstrings that would create in these particular steadily ageing limbs, but the defender’s athleticism is hugely impressive.

Tanner’s reading of the game is perhaps one of his greatest assets, witness how quickly he clamped down on Hackney in the first half when the Boro midfielder had space to turn in the first half.

With O’Leary having his third strong game in a row – “not Championship quality” they crow – it all adds up to an increasingly cohesive unit, operating in unison and functioning at a high level.

The capabilities of Southampton on Tuesday may render some of this redundant and provide a necessary counter, bringing the deep-seated prejudices about O’Leary or Tanner’s abilities to the fore once again – but with these three points in the bag, and the back five performing well, they’re certainly in a good spot to try and thwart Russell Martin’s side.

As mentioned, Roberts and McCrorie have added depth and variation, both in selection and in-game and, after completing 45 minutes for the Under-21s at QPR on Saturday, Atkinson may well find himself on the bench for that game. The speed at which he returns to the starting XI, though, is unclear and that should be something to celebrate.

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