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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Bristol City mid-season review: What is going so wrong?

How to solve a problem like Lee Tomlin:

The signing of Lee Tomlin in the summer was supposed to be the big signal of intent. Lee Johnson and Mark Ashton have received plenty of plaudits for their work in adding young, talented players to the squad, and had contract extensions been handed out to the pair of them at the end of September, the news would have been widely acclaimed.

However, a couple of months on, we can’t buy a win – or even a draw come to that – and many of those exciting signings haven’t had the impact everyone would have hoped for.

To address that first, I think it’s clear the policy in the summer was to make a number of signings ‘for the future’. Certainly Calum O’Dowda, Taylor Moore and Gustav Engvall fall into that category to a greater or lesser extent, yet many are now questioning why we spent over £5m on that particular trio. Rightly or wrongly, they were bought for potential and I think any major impact this season from any of them would have been seen as a bonus by the management team. Unfortunately, we’re now in a position no-one really expected to be in, and the clamour for their inclusion grows by the day.

The January transfer window brings a different set of requirements and, therefore, surely an alternative type of target, with a more experienced ‘general’ needed to ensure heads don’t drop so quickly when we come under pressure, and to help us organise defensively at set-pieces.

Off the top of my head I think I’d like us to sign a goalkeeper (Fielding isn’t good enough on crosses, set-pieces or organising his area, O’Donnell seems to have lost basic confidence), a right-back (Matthews isn’t fit enough and Little isn’t good enough to play regularly at this level), perhaps a centre-back with more experience, a truly defensive-minded central midfielder, a striker and maybe a pacy winger who’s ready for the first team. However, to find players of the right quality and who are made available by their clubs is especially tricky and we’ll probably have to settle for two, maybe three signings in key positions.

It’s easy to say now we shouldn’t have sold Luke Ayling and I know many said it at the time, but the position we were in then was that we had a good servant who wasn’t in the frame to play first team football, and we were offered a good amount of money for him to give him the opportunity to play for one of English football’s big clubs. To have rejected a bid approaching £1m for your reserve full-back would have seemed just as strange had Matthews stayed fit and played 25 games so far this season.

The midfield seems a real problem at the moment. Earlier in the season Marlon Pack and Bobby Reid were playing as well as anyone, and whilst they’re still both performing to a decent level much of the time, I have little doubt that Johnson’s masterplan was to have the experience of Gary O’Neil sitting alongside the engine of Korey Smith in the middle to protect the defence and break up play. That seemed a partnership of great promise in theory, but Smith hasn’t seemed to be able to get fully match fit having missed the start of the season, whilst O’Neil’s early steadiness has dissipated to quite some degree.

We must stop conceding goals so easily when we’re put under pressure, either from mistakes, set-pieces or from standing off too far, which we do too often to be successful at this level.

So why is this pressure building? So often we’ve had a good 15-20 minutes of possession, looked really bright and good, but then something happens and confidence drains out of the team.

One of the major problems boss Lee Johnson has in my view, is that he’s essentially trying to build a team around two players – goal machine Tammy Abraham and his self-styled maverick, Lee Tomlin, into a specific formation and it isn’t really working with the players we have.

Tammy has had an incredible start to life in the Championship and has adapted remarkably quickly, showing his class. But anyone who’s seen him, and the team for that matter, flounder somewhat in the last couple of months has called for him to get more support, usually in the mould of a second striker. 

However, Johnson’s problem is how you do that and accommodate Tomlin? If you play a second man up top, like Wilbraham, then can you play Tomlin in behind them? That means three men not defending when we lose the ball and that’s not enough. So you are then forced to play Tomlin out wide, where I think it’s clear to everyone he is nowhere near as effective and where he, some argue, sulks a touch and works back even less than he usually does, feeling like he’s been left on the periphery of the game.

If you had an old hand like Wilbraham or the likes of Jon Stead up-front alone, Tomlin could more naturally fit in behind them, let them take the hits and hold the ball up and play off them, but that’s not really in Tammy’s game at the moment, and until Johnson resolves this dilemma in his head, he’s going to cause himself selection problems.

It’s safe to say Tomlin’s own performances have been as mixed as City’s. The away games over Christmas offered prime examples of what he does, and doesn’t bring. At Wolves he gave away possession too easily on three or four occasions in deepish areas, adding to the pressure on the back line, but he also produced four passes/through balls of real quality which led to chances and, indeed, to Tammy’s well-taken goal. At Ipswich he was heavily criticised for being anonymous, not getting involved and not working back. He was played out wide. He is a genius at times, far too good for most teams in this division when he’s on song, but Johnson needs to ensure he gets the most out of him when things aren’t going his way too, and that perhaps is the problem many have faced.

With regard the called-for support for Tammy, I’m not personally convinced he needs another striker alongside him, but we need pacy, attack minded players in a ‘3’ behind him. I’m sure he wouldn’t look like he needs more support if he had Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas buzzing in and around him, running past him and breaking the defensive line. I’m obviously not suggesting we could sign players of that quality, but the best we’ve looked this season is when we’ve had Tomlin, Bobby Reid and Jamie Paterson on song. They got close to Abraham quickly, they ran past him and the touches, the one-twos and the pace in attack have been present at times. 

But Paterson has mysteriously disappeared from the frame, and Luke Freeman, Joe Bryan and others just don’t have the same style and pace to do the same job. Now we look ponderous in midfield, we get caught too often in possession and a few of the players seem to like to let the ball run when they receive it rather than take a touch, presumably trying to keep the ball moving quickly but possession gets conceded too cheaply, too often.

As depressing as much of this sounds, I’m going to end on a positive note!

We are progressing as a club.

The stadium is fantastic and the atmosphere in and especially around the ground in the sunnier early months of the season was fantastic.

On the pitch, last season we conceded four goals on no fewer than seven occasions, and were absolutely battered by Rotherham, Derby and Burnley in the final five weeks of 2015. Only Brighton have beaten us by more than one goal this time around and we’ve been ‘in’ every game besides that, even if some performances have been disappointing. It’s easy to argue we’ve been unlucky and a couple of bits of luck at crucial times in certain games would’ve seen us half-a-dozen points and places better off.

At times when we have the ball we look fantastic. Quick, neat, direct with lots of movement, quick runs and the likes of Tomlin, Reid and Abraham in particular linking together especially well.

Johnson is still undoubtedly learning and he has a stiff task ahead of him. But remember, however good a deal it was, he lost one of the division’s top strikers in August and probably hadn’t truly expected to, and I’m sure he and Ashton are already working on a plan as to who replaces Tammy (and Wilbraham) next season.

He must work out how to make us more solid defensively and forego some of the attacking intent which is admittedly good to watch when it works well, but we need results right now, not excitement. The strange thing is he did exactly that against Ipswich at home but has not approached a game in the same way since, especially odd when we’ve had some winnable away games where keeping it tight and scoring on the break should have been more than possible.

Personally I’d be interested to see what we could do with three at the back, even if that articular set-up was the downfall of Steve Cotterill a year ago. A 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2 formation would suit many of our players better than the current set up. Taylor Moore could come in alongside the centre-back pairing and the wing back position undoubtedly suits Little and Bryan more than the traditional full-back. Two could sit in the middle and help out the back five, and with wingbacks further forward perhaps have more options when winning the ball. This allows Tomlin and Reid/Paterson/Freeman – whoever – to get closer to Abraham. Perhaps we could go with two strikers and Tomlin in behind in home games, but I fear it would be exposed when away at some tough venues. Of course we can all be football managers sitting on the sidelines. It might not work but what’s for sure is I can’t see the harm in trying something new right now.

We have some talented players – definitely more so than this time last year in my opinion, but they’re not working together right now for a number of reasons.

In Tomlin we have a player who has a magic wand for a foot at times, and one of English football’s hottest prospects in front of him rattling in goals. In October we could list a handful of players who weren’t even making the bench and could deem themselves a touch unlucky, so there is depth to the squad.

We have an owner who backs the team and the club to the hilt and will undoubtedly shell out more of his hard-earned cash this transfer window.

With a couple of experienced signings, even if they’re on loan until the end of the season, a touch of luck along the way and if Johnson can focus on tightening up the leaky backline, 2017 can still be a good, progressive year for City.

What is certain is that we need a win, and fast. Hopefully a victory against Reading can dampen down much of the unrest and disappointment felt right now and re-invigorate our season.


The Exiled Robin

1 comment:

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