The deadline passed this week with little hullabaloo for Bristol City with Nigel Pearson either completely content with his squad or not particularly moved by the options that presented themselves in the final days of the window.
City signed off with four new players, £1.9million spent and 19 players moved on, either permanently or on loan, creating a more streamlined squad than the one Pearson inherited from predecessor Dean Holden.
The lack of activity towards the end of the month means that the impact on the starting XI as it stands will be barely noticeable as George Tanner will need time to adapt to his surroundings, both on and off the field.
But that’s not to say it hasn’t had an effect on certain individual’s positions within the squad and how the next four months could play out for them and their manager …
Perhaps fuelled by a feeling of relief, assurance, to show his manager something or just because he’s good at putting the ball in the back of the net, Nahki Wells’ four-goal haul for the Under-23s against Hull City on Wednesday felt symbolic.
Pearson’s declaration in June that he needed to bring the wage bill, coupled with an admission a few weeks later that he needed to sell first before buying the striker he wanted at the start of the window led to the obvious logic that Wells could leave the club.
After all, he’s one of the better earners in the City squad, has a strong reputation around the league as a proven quantity and, based on the first five league fixtures of the season where he’s played just 51 minutes across two appearances, didn’t appear in Pearson’s immediate thoughts.
The story that broke 10 days before deadline that City were “open to offers” for the 31-year-old caused a slight stir but, in reality, that was true of every first-team player this summer and, as the Adam Nagy episode showed, selling players amid a recession in the transfer market isn’t easy.
But Wells remains a Bristol City player, and to all intents and purposes is settled in the area and at the club, which is a bonus from a personal point of view but professionally he can now focus on winning his place back in the team.
What’s more significant regarding the Bermudian, however, and will be true of the next player we discuss, is that the Robins either were unable to bring in a new striker, or didn’t see the value in any of the options available.
That could be viewed as an endorsement of what’s in the building already, as Wells remains one of only two senior frontline strikers in the City squad (Andi Weimann is a fine forward player but is essentially a support striker) and at 2.9 career games per goal compared to 3.3 for Martin, is historically more prolific.
He offers different attributes to Martin, and to a lesser extent Weimann, and is probably the best finisher of the three as well. Although he’s been scarcely used to far this season, the lack of activity of Tuesday means that’s surely going to change.
Bristol City’s new-old warhorse has become a Pearson favourite at the early stage of the season, operating in the lone striker’s role and getting through an immense amount of work for the betterment of the team.
The fact that Martin is putting in the hard yards after a 2021 in which he’s played precious little football in recovering from a calf injury, at the age of 32, is testament to his own drive, determination and professionalism; something he’s been keen to show his manager following their previous unsuccessful time together at Derby in which he was loaned out.
City’s search for a striker over the summer was either to complement Martin, supplement him or replace him outright in the starting XI, it’s hard to exactly say, but had a new forward walked through the door of the Robins High Performance Centre, the Scotland international’s minutes would have instantly been diminished.
Of course, it’s then a battle as to who can become top dog but Martin would have gone from near-automatic choice, as he has been so far this seen, into a debate alongside the new man.
Wells sort of provides that but Pearson appears so far to be reluctant to play the Bermudian either on his own through the middle or even as a central striker full stop.
Therefore, as it stands, if the manager has a preference for a direct, physical, aggressive type of forward play, built around crosses and early balls into the box, Martin isn’t just the man … he’s the only man.
There is Louis Britton, who remained at Ashton Gate despite loan options, and perhaps the 20-year-old will be used over the course of the campaign but unless Martin has a dramatic drop in performance, the shirt is his, not just for the foreseeable but at least all the way through to January.
We’ll speak about what didn’t happen and how that impacts the team and the manager in a minute, but Pearson has been able put his identity on this team without doing too much in the way of new signings.
That alone speaks of the impact made by Andy King, Matty James and Rob Atkinson who look like they’ve been City players for far longer than a few months and Pearson will hope the same can be said for George Tanner, although the right-back appears more of a long-term project.
There’s a very different feel about City – and the win over Cardiff unquestionably has helped that as had the Robins lost that game, one win in five would create a very different atmosphere in terms of perceptions of the team – which is evidence of the amount of work the manager has done in a relatively short space of time.
There are two aspects of his attitude over this transfer window that jump out: firstly, how definite he’s been in his decision making – with Taylor Moore loaned out knowing he had little part of play, George Nurse sold, and Nagy moved on, and the manager being forthright in his opinion that it’s better City’s clutch of young talent remain at the club to develop.
There was no grey area in terms of his approach as to who stays and who goes – unless you count Nathan Baker’s contract but that was financial-related as much as anything – and what he was saying in June pretty much bore out over the course of the summer.
The second observation was the sense of unapologetic realism he brought to the situation. Football fans in general have grown used to millions spent in summer transfer windows and close to double figures arriving each year, but this summer was always going to be different.
Pearson established that at the start of the window and stuck to the script throughout. There were no hints he wanted or thought he deserved more budget, just an acceptance of the parameters he was working in – at least publicly anyway.
To the point that Steve Lansdown saw fit to highlight that aspect of his character when speaking before the Blackpool clash on the opening weekend of the season.
His conduct may have run contrary to what everyone wants a summer transfer window to be, but it was absolutely necessary in keeping expectations firmly rooted in a sense of reality.
But for all the praise towards Pearson the man and his message, it cannot be overlooked that in June he said he wanted someone “to put the ball in the back of the net” and by September 1 his collection of strikers was exactly the same group as he started the window with.
Looking at it from a logistical point of view, signing any player this window was difficult due to budget restrictions, wage demands and everything else; given that bringing in a new striker is often harder than any other player – due to the levels of competition – it’s understandable that this was the position that slipped through his fingers.
There were forwards on the move on deadline day: Andre Gray (Watford to QPR), Andraz Sporar (Sporting to Middlesbrough), Abdallah Sima (Brighton to Stoke), were all loaned, plus you could add Saido Berahino (Zulte Waregam to Sheffield Wednesday) into the equation.
The manager, though, did maintain he would only sign someone if they improved on what City already had (and, of course, were commanding a salary that fit into the new budget) so given agents would have been making the above players – Sima aside – known to a host of clubs, the only assumption can be is that City simply said no or were outbid.
There’s not much Pearson can do about the latter, but if it’s the former it either speaks volumes of his faith in Sam Bell, Louis Britton, Tommy Conway and perhaps Antoine Semenyo or is somewhat of a gamble given what he has at his disposal.
In his preferred 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 there is room for only one orthodox striker, which as we know up to now has been Martin. Weimann is now playing centrally, albeit in a withdrawn role, and we’re yet to see how Pearson will use Wells either in that system or adapting it accordingly.
Should Martin sustain an injury which, at 32 and starting every game is very much an eminent risk, what happens next? Does Britton come into the team? Does Pearson revert to a two-man partnership of Wells and Weimann, or go to a three with Semenyo, Bell or Conway in the mix?
On the face of it, there are options and flexibility, and it would be fascinating to see exactly what would happen in the event of Martin’s absence from the team, but it’s probably not want the manager wanted in June and he’ll be hoping he doesn’t have to make too many decisions of that nature before January.
Following City’s defeat at Middlesbrough, Vyner was verbally thrown to the coals by fans after being rinsed by Isaiah Jones and, all of a sudden, the Robins previous problem position became a very big problem again.
Doubts over Vyner’s 1v1 defending – arguably the biggest weakness in his game – plus fears over just how many games Danny Simpson could and perhaps should play, coupled with no obvious alternatives meant that flank all of a sudden lacked solutions.
But Vyner returned to the team against Cardiff and delivered a strong performance, of greater stability and assurance, and it looks to be his shirt to lose with Simpson now behind him in the pecking order.
In truth, that was always going to be the dynamic this season with Simpson part-player/part-mentor and probably not expecting many more than 20 appearances; Vyner had the right to consider himself City’s first-choice right-back.
But that dynamic has completely changed with the arrival of George Tanner from Carlisle United. Granted, the 21-year-old is unlikely to be thrust straight into the starting XI at the expense of Vyner, having never played in the Championship before, and the expectation is that this campaign will be a period of bedding in for the Manchester United academy graduate.
He will still have to play, though, to build his experience and while taking minutes off Simpson, who seems happy in a supporting role and shouldn’t impact his place in the squad too much, it could well do Vyner’s.
The other side of the it is that with a definite competitor in the position, and not just for this season but far beyond into the future, the 23-year-old now knows his performance levels can not slip and that battle could now not only improve Vyner, but also aid Tanner’s own development.
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In the great midfield reshuffle of 2021, unquestionably the biggest loser has been James Morton who came within days of a switch to League One MK Dons, only to be undone by Russell Martin taking the Swansea job, and is still at City but with next-to-no chance of playing.
With the Robins out of the Carabao Cup, the only room for experimentation Pearson has is in the FA Cup third round in January and with Morton behind Han-Noah Massengo, James, King, Joe Williams and Tyreeq Bakinson in centre midfield, not to mention Kasey Palmer and Alex Scott in advanced roles and potentially Callum O’Dowda, it’s hard to see how he plays a single minute, barring another injury crisis.
It’s strange that a loan deal couldn’t be arranged, especially as another player so obviously on the outskirts of the squad and of an age when he needs to play, Taylor Moore, was allowed to sign for Hearts.
Perhaps a move couldn’t be found, but surely there was a team in League Two who would have taken him? At 22, unfortunately Morton is now in limbo – at least until the January window – and will have to simply knuckle down and hope that circumstance and fortune favour him.