"...this is the most articulate and accurate piece written about the club for years!" - Tales from the Front, http://www.otib.co.uk/

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Bristol City Season Preview: Time to stand up

A new dawn:
It’s always exciting, isn’t it? There’s always that feeling of anticipation, of wondering what could be? Even if you’re expected to be relegated, fans talk about the likes of Burnley and of Blackpool and of Yeovil and they say “you never know”. Newly promoted sides discard the caution that should exist and dream of ‘doing a Norwich’ or ‘doing a Southampton’ and heading to two consecutive promotions. We at Bristol City so nearly did that.

Despite these constant over-hyped emotions, which in many cases are shot down in a bitter dose of reality by 4:55pm on the first Saturday, some seasons just feel that much more special than others. Some just feel like it’s your time.

And so it is that Bristol City head into their second League One season with a burgeoning spirit of anticipation and excitement, no, expectation buzzing around Ashton Gate.  But is it realistic to be talking of promotion? 

Five years of decline have seemingly been halted but that upturn was ‘only’ two months of good form and was done with the benefit of a number of experienced loan signings. Wade Elliott – probably the most important of those – has been secured full time but others, Simon Moore and Nyron Nosworthy in particular, with the support of Simon Gillett are not on the roster this time around.  Moore may still arrive – boss Steve Cotterill appears to be waiting for him to be made available once the future of Cardiff’s excellent number one, David Marshall, has been cast.

We’re always seemingly ‘big fish’ in this division, big spenders with big targets and this season bears very little resemblance to the feeling around the camp last season. Last year we were being told it would take some time, we were going to build with youth and we all bought into that, at least until the season started and we couldn’t win a game or keep a clean sheet.  This time around we’ve signed some impressive names and spent some impressive money. Luke Freeman, Luke Ayling & Korey Smith have all been invested in, whilst Wade Elliott & Aaron Wilbrahim add the experience from a higher level.

A change of direction?:
So, is this a departure from the strategy? A move away from one of the ‘Pillars’ we were told so much about 12 months ago? On the face of it, yes it is. We had nothing like this sort of money to spend last summer, despite the departure of so many seasoned Championship performers, and what we did have was spent on Aden Flint, which was misguided at best. However good he may become, he wasn’t the immediate answer we needed for that outlay.  Despite the chatter amongst many fans, transfer fees are rarely the issue these days, it’s more about the signing-on fees and wage commitment which translates directly into the ongoing budget. Now stalwarts Carey, Fontaine and (Marvin) Elliott are off the wage bill, it’s clear we can make more use of ‘one of the biggest budgets in the division’ that we seem strangely proud to boast about (and presumably inflate the prices we’re charged).

So, the journeymen are back? Is the big money being splashed yet again on a group of players just looking to feather their pension pot? Well no, not quite.  Despite assertions early in the summer that youth might not be the way to go – Cotterill was seemingly preparing the fans for an array of signings aged 27-32 - aside from Wilbrahim and Elliott, the average age of the recruits is just 23 years old, whilst possible remaining targets Simon Moore and Kieran Agard are both only 24 years old.

What we’ve done is bring in young men who have had a few years’ experience around the middle two divisions and should be ready to press on.  Players who, if they impress with us for a year or two, might just have a substantial sell-on value and be pushing for a move to the Premier League.  Don’t kid yourself we’re not a selling club if the right bid comes in.  Ultimately there’s still a desire to break even and run this club sustainably and there’s only one way to easily do that without 25,000 coming through the turnstiles each week.

It’s exciting though!  It should be a team full of energy and pace and that will naturally increase attendances and provides noise and atmosphere at the three-sided rectangle that is now Ashton Gate.

The gaffer:
What of the manager? I was one of many unimpressed at the timing, the manner and the reasoning behind the decision to sack Sean O’Driscoll last November. I was certainly less than enamoured at the appointment of a guy I’d viewed as a bit of a journeyman himself, someone who was still living off past successes in getting jobs.  To date, I’m delighted to say, I’ve been proven very wrong. Cotterill ignited the team with something – I’m not inclined to say passion because I think we seriously overdo this perception of need for passion in this country (Luiz & Scolari vs Muller & Joachim Low anyone?), but there’s no doubt there was a different feeling and positivity around the place, even before the truly golden run of form started and he deserves full credit for that.

Boss Steve Cotterill faces a huge test

There are still question marks though, big ones. I’m still not quite sure that the boss has any real idea what our best formation is. Now I’ve argued long and hard before that the days of old-fashioned 4-4-2 are long gone and formations need to be fluid to adapt, but as a player you still need to have some clue as to where you should be on the pitch.  I sense he still favours a traditional 4-4-2 but we still haven’t got strong enough defenders to make that work in my opinion.

I also sense Cotterill thinks the same and 3-5-2 is the likely way forward early on.  What that formation results in is immense pressure on the wing backs. It’s been fascinating to hear Luke Shaw talk this week of the vast step up in fitness required to play a wing-back position under new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal. This is a chap who looked pretty nippy, agile and fit all of last season.  Have we recognised that fact and understood who is likely to play this role? That’s why you can’t just shove someone out in that position, not least a centre-half by trade in Karleigh Osborne, as was proven so evidently at Wolves last season.  Have we got enough true options to make that formation work?

The squad - goalkeeper:
I’ve already mentioned Simon Moore twice and it seems Cotterill shares my view that Frankie Fielding isn’t quite ‘the man’, even at this level. Many will see a great shot-stopper and equate that to a good keeper. Of course it’s a hugely important facet, but equally critical skills for a top keeper are his organisational ability, his presence in and around the box and his decision-making on coming from crosses and through-balls.

Although it may seem harsh after a decent end to last season, I feel Fielding is lacking in all three of those latter areas, and that does nothing but lead to occasional mistakes and an ultra-nervous defence. Defenders then make errors of judgement because they’re not quite sure what the man behind them is doing and it looks as if they’re the ones at fault, not the keeper. The net result is a shaky looking back-line.

We showed last year we’ve got plenty of goals in us but there are only so many times we can score more than the opposition. Most titles are won on those hard-fought 1-0 scrappy wins that the best teams know how to grind out when the going is tough.

The squad – the defence:
In front of the number one we now have five players seemingly vying for three spots, with major question marks still remaining against Adam El-Abd and Aden Flint. I wasn’t the only to notice our improvement at the back last season came not just with Nosworthy’s signing, but it coincided (or was because of?) the absence of the two A’s. To be fair to El Abd, he couldn’t be blamed for the lack of a clean sheet until January, so Flint must be wondering how much that tightening up will come back to haunt him.  However he is strong, great in the air and a threat going forward, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him feature regularly, but he must learn the difference in positioning when playing in a three, and quickly.

El-Abd has a lot to prove

The same must be said for El-Abd who came with much fanfare and a fair degree of disappointment from Brighton fans and it seemed we’d found our leader – our bulldog who’d put the wind up the opposition and strengthen the back line.  Unfortunately that never happened and with his apparent falling out with Cotterill at the end of the season, it would appear too simplistic to put it down to adapting to a new home and a new position in a back three.

Whether El-Abd will play much part or even still be here in September remains to be seen, but he simply cannot have been as bad as he was for us for Brighton for all the years he was there, so something must be disturbing him behind the scenes. Perhaps a full pre-season and a fresh start may help, but you sense he won’t be given many second chances.

That leaves two right-backs-come-centre-backs in Ayling and Osborne alongside the only left-footer in Derrick Williams who, despite all the mayhem around him, had a reasonable first full professional season.

I’m personally a bit surprised we haven’t tried to tempt Nosworthy on a one-year deal – perhaps we have in fact – but despite five bodies in there (if Ayling doesn’t play wing back), I feel we’re relying on a massive improvement from Flint or El-Abd to ensure we can properly tighten up on last year’s often shambolic performances.

Cunningham, Bryan, Little & Wagstaff appear to be the main options out wide and will need energy in abundance but also enough of a defensive mind to help out the middle three. As alluded to above, it’s a very tough role to get right and us fans should remember it’s as much about their defensive tracking back as looking good bombing past a full-back and whipping a cross in. Another lesson from Brazil’s capitulation in the summer.

The squad – the engine room:
There’s an abundance of options in the middle whichever formation we play, but having lost Marvin Elliott and not re-signed Gillett, we desperately need Korey Smith to be in form from day one and be the enforcer we need, sitting in front of the backs to support and protect them.  Pack and Wade Elliott can play alongside him to manoeuvre the ball around whilst Wagstaff, Reid, Bryan, Freeman and others can support or tuck in from a wider position.

It’s a big year for the much-heralded local lads too. Reid and Bryan undoubtedly had far less of a part to play in the second half of last year, as Cotterill’s loan signings helped us up the table but equally left fewer chances for development. This remains the angle I’m most interested in terms of Cotterill’s approach. He talks a good game about bringing through the youth but aside from calling Wes Burns into the squad for a few games, which he proceeded to talk up at any opportunity as per his Patrick Bamford claim to fame, he showed little inclination to play the youngsters in my view. 

Yes, they’ve got to earn their place, but they won’t develop by playing reserve games and it would be a dreadful shame if we get in that Catch-22 situation Gary Johnson always found himself in where the stakes get so high that the manager feels they simply can’t be risked with the responsibility.

The squad – the hitmen. “We’re Bristol City, we’ll score more than you”:
Undoubtedly the huge positive to take out of last season, the only consistently, obviously strong area, was our attacking line. For all their quiet moments, (allegedly) disinterested spells, missed one-on-ones and moments of immense frustration, JET & Baldock were the most potent partnership in the division and one of the best across the country. Only Ings & Vokes or Suarez & Sturridge were comparable, and neither of them will consistently pair up again this time around for differing reasons. Various alternatives were tried at different times but Paterson, Barnett and the rest were never able to break the mould.

I can’t help but still feel that Cotterill doesn’t fancy JET as a player too much, but I was pleasantly surprised how he stuck with him and seemed to be giving him his confidence back by the time the lighter spring days were with us. The signing of Wilbrahim could well be a marker for a more traditional front-two partnership (and a more direct approach?), allowing Baldock to feed off his scraps and lessen the burden of him leading the line and being the premier goal getter, but JET won’t go without a fight and some early season form like last years will make him a hard obstacle to budge.

Can Wilbrahim add another promotion to his cv?

And if Baldock goes – sorry, but you’re naïve if you think that still isn’t a possibility – then Kieran Agard would be an intriguing replacement.  A chap who was released by Yeovil two years ago has had one, sensational season and it would be a big challenge to repeat that at a club with greater expectation, but if he can then he’d be another quality addition.

And then there’s Luke Freeman. Still a bit tricky to say exactly where he’ll play but no doubt the fans who saw him stand out in a 4-1 defeat over the Christmas break last year will be rushing to their seats in anticipation to see how he can support the front men. This could just be the signing of the summer in this division.

The squad – overall:
It feels a better balanced squad than last year – and to be fair even O’Driscoll consistently admitted he was still a year away from getting the balance he wanted, but we’re still 2-3 players short in my view. An organised, better all-round goalkeeper, a more solid, stronger centre-half (possibly left-footed to help cover Williams) and a better defensive wing-back might be on the radar.  I can’t help but feel we’ll have to rely on outscoring the opposition to win the majority of games (that’s not the simpleton statement it sounds!), and not too many teams other than the very best are ultimately successful utilising that approach.

Does Fielding have a good enough all-round game?

It’s a big second season for many. Fielding, Williams, Flint, El-Abd, Osborne, Reid, Bryan, Pack, JET and others – early signs of promise or initial rustiness can’t remain unsubstantiated for long now we’re clearly aiming for the top. It’s also a big second season – and first full season – for the gaffer. Cotterill has started well, he’s certainly achieved his first objective which was to keep us up last year, emphatically in the end.  He ticks a lot of boxes but he must be clearer on his best line up and set-up than he was last year. He must also deal with the expectation he now faces having spent a fair whack of the owner’s money – he was in an almost no-lose situation last year and could only really become the unlucky inheritor or the hero. He’s started on the path to the latter but a promotion challenge – as we found out last time we were in this division, is a different matter entirely.

If he does survive the year then we’ll be doing OK, certainly in and around the top 8. He’ll also have become our longest-serving manager since Gary Johnson, five incumbents ago.

If captain Sam Baldock stays then that will be a huge boost. I was, still correctly in my view, critical of him last winter when he was missing plenty of chances. I just didn’t see a striker who could score 20+ goals because he missed so many simple chances. More importantly they were often at critical stages of the match and it ended up costing us a number of points.  But boy did he prove me wrong in the end and I’ll be as delighted as anyone if he is still here come next May. 

However, despite what some fans seem to think, if a Championship club comes in with an offer in excess of £1.5m then I’m pretty sure the club would look at it, with only one year left on his contract. And if a Championship club on the edge of the potential play-off picture comes in, say a Brighton, then despite his captaincy and the fact he’s first choice, he’ll want to move. No player would refuse when there’s a chance of playing a part in a promotion to the Premier League. That’s simply a fact of life and it happens all the way up to the top. Look at Liverpool’s complete inability to even try to hang on to Suarez when the bigger club came calling.

Opening Day:
So what of the first match? Away to Sheffield United is quite simply the most difficult match of all 46 possible permutations we could be facing. The favourites and the biggest club in the division, away from home at a venue we haven’t been successful at for about 200 years.  But we’re second favourites overall and arguably the second biggest club (Preston, amongst others, may dispute that fact), hence the reason Sky TV have picked up on this blockbuster and got us to launch the division’s fixtures. The fact we might be bottom of the league once again by 2pm on Saturday shouldn’t concern us given the 45 matches still remaining, but there will no doubt be a big psychological blow dealt by victory for either side. When you add in the recent statistics released by the Football League talking about how important the result of match-day one (as the US might call it!) was last season in the make-up of those teams promoted, you start to wonder if we’ve been dealt a truly bum hand!

First matches tend to stick in the memory for those that attend. I personally can recall a number over the years, from a spectacular 3-3 draw with Portsmouth when Andy Cole & ‘Jacki’ combined for the first time, to a 5-0 win over Notts. County that signalled a false dawn. Then there was the infamous Gerard Lavin incident at Reading, Carl Hutchings’ revelation as a world-beater in a 2-2 draw at home (he wasn’t) and a sizzling hot trip to Grimsby with the temperatures well into the 30’s.  Sometimes these games have little significance, sometimes they’re an incredibly insightful indication of how the season might progress, as I’d argue last years was, with plenty of goals, a leaky City defence incapable of defending resolutely, goalkeeping errors and ultimately, dropped points in a game we should have won.

Whichever way that first result goes it seems certain we’re in for an exciting season, but will it be a promotion season? It certainly could be. You couldn’t look down our squad list, or review the players we’re still seemingly after and doubt our ambition and ability, but that doesn’t always lead to success.

I’ve seen more than one or two fans talk about being as excited about a squad as they have been since 2005, when Marcus Stewart and Michael Bridges were the big signings ready to fire us to the glory we’d missed out on so often under Danny Wilson. Two months later Brian Tinnion stood alone in an empty Liberty Stadium in Swansea in his final moments as manager following a 7-1 defeat. Bridges and Stewart didn’t last a whole lot longer.

Let’s hope that not only there is no false dawn this time, but that we can get something at Bramall Lane, follow it up with a profitable start at home and make sure we’re never out of the picture.

My prediction? Top six is distinctly possible. I guess anything else will be disappointing given the way we finished last season and some of the signings we’ve made. I think the top two might be a stretch too far at this stage, bearing in mind many of this squad were bottom of the league just a few months ago.  I’ll stick my neck out and say fifth.  Last year I said 10th-12th, although I didn’t quite anticipate getting there in the way we did! Let’s hope I’m as accurate this time around!

It’s nearly here, the only thing left to say is…

The Exiled Robin

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1 comment:

  1. This is the most rational and well considered article I have read on Bristol City this pre season. Like the author I too believe that our defensive fraities will drag us down the league. However, I do not think, or at least hope, that we will be involved in a relegation fight this season. Sadly, I could be proved wrong.

    Another weakness in our squad which seems to be overlooked is our lack of numbers. By my reckoning we have a bare squad of 20. This includes Reid, Bryan and Burns. If we have a number of long term injuries (last season we had Pearson, Kelly, Flint, Elliott) we are down to the "bare bone" of a team. This will result in the lottery of the loan market once again.

    Like the author of this article I also thought O'Driscoll was poorly treated by the board. He was effectively sacked for implementing the naive 5 pillars policy that the board forced upon him. He was sacked for doing what they wanted!

    I personally didnt rate Cotterell particularly highly when he came. I have been proved slightly wrong. He did get us out of the mess, but this was only done in the final two months of the season. I am concerned that this season, when expectations are slightly different, he may be found out and found wanting.

    only time will tell

    In my heart am hoping for a top 10 finish with anything higher then that a real result. In my head I can envisage another season of struggle but hopefully not as bad as last season


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