The team-by-team Football League tactics bible – #3: Bristol City

Ahead of Bristol City’s vital trip to basement boys Portsmouth this weekend, we decided to employ two up front for a discussion of the Ashton Gate club’s tactics this season. Over to Paul Binning (aka The Exiled Robin) and Will Jones (often found To The Left of Ross) for the inside track on City’s tactical travails.

Current formation and variations

PB – Since Derek McInnes arrived he has favoured a 4-5-1 formation, with Nicky Maynard originally as the lone striker…

WJ – …although West Brom loanee Chris Wood or Jon Stead now seem first choice for the position…

PB — Yes indeed, but this has, on occasions, been fairly fluid with Albert Adomah, Stephen Pearson and Neil Kilkenny in particular getting forward to support, but ultimately, with Kalifa Cisse and Marvin Elliott often both sitting in front of the back four it’s been about controlling possession, solidity down the middle and trying not to concede too many.

One notable change had been the pressure City try to put on the opposition when they’ve got the ball. The home win over Southampton was remarkable as the leaders were forced to play along their back-line inside their own area on a number of occasions, such was the pressing from Maynard and the midfield – it seems a real feature of McInnes’ style…

WJ – Underneath it all though there’s a sense that McInnes has a 4-4-2 in him just waiting to burst out. The midfield five is a recognition that he came into a relegation battle and wanted to make us tough to beat. Twice in January he set up with two strikers and a central midfield pair consisting of Elliott and Neil Kilkenny. Now we’re starting to see a Kalifa Cisse – Steven Pearson combination, with loanee Sean Davis another option. Against all but the weaker teams, however, this makes us easy to play through unless we sacrifice a lot of flair. Albert Adomah and Yannick Bolasie are our most dynamic wing options, but don’t seem to understand the concept of tracking back — in a middle four they have to go, with utility men and converted full-backs taking the wide roles. The question of whether or not McInnes is able to find the balance between solidity and creativity will almost certainly decide whether we stay up.

Comparing and contrasting with the recent past

WJ – The abortive Steve Coppell tenure aside, McInnes’ mind is the first truly fresh one dedicated to our tactics since Gary Johnson joined the club in autumn 2005. Johnson was an old-school tactician, a die-hard 4-4-2 man believing in big-man little-man partnerships, plenty of running and sticking the big centre back up top when chasing a late equaliser. After three years of success with this dynamic, a series of odd loan signings, some strange substitutions and wilful persistence with a flawed system saw it become stale and predictable both under Johnson and his effective replacement, hitherto assistant manager Keith Millen. McInnes’ arrival provided an opportunity for a dilapidated set of team-talks and tactics to receive an overhaul…

PB — …and the signs are this is exactly what has happened. Johnson and Millen are obviously long gone whilst coach Alan Walsh — a legendary player from the 80’s — also left the club on the day McInnes was appointed. There appeared to be a very ‘safe’ feeling around the squad but that is no longer the case. Whereas there used to be a core of 7-8 players who were always selected under Johnson and then Millen (albeit a slightly different selection), McInnes has proven in recent weeks by dropping Skuse, Maynard and Kilkenny amongst others, that he’s prepared to change things around according to the opposition and the circumstances as he sees fit. St Johnstone fans said on his appointment that one of the aspects of management he was known for was changing formation, style and tactics depending on the opponents and match situation and this has certainly been borne out in his first three months.

Key Attacking Players

PB – Plan A is undoubtedly getting the ball to Ghanaian international Albert Adomah. Tricky, pacy and able to cut inside and out to bamboozle defenders, recently most teams have double-marked the smiling winger and this has stunted City’s revival. If Adomah doesn’t shine then the level of threat carried is seriously diminished, although that has recently been altered slightly by the signing of Chris Wood…

WJ – …who was identified by McInnes as the man to remedy the side’s lack of power up front. Wood is the classic hold-up player, able to keep the ball in the opposition half while attacks develop, and importantly also able to occupy two defenders, providing Adomah and Yannick Bolasie with space to run into. With only one goal so far, he’s yet to produce the goal-scoring form he displayed on loan at Birmingham earlier in the season, which does raise concerns about where the next goal comes from.

PB — perhaps that says more about City than Wood?

WJ — True. Brett Pitman, top-scorer last season, is out of favour with McInnes, apparently on the basis that his fox-in-the-box Number Nine style doesn’t fit a team which needs to pack the midfield and scrap for every point. He’s also failed to shake his “luxury striker” tag in any of a series of goal-free ten minute cameos and has needed to bide his time.

PB — It speaks volumes about the current side that it’s difficult to name another key attacking player. The goal threat is all too often minimal and the only tenuous inclusions I could offer would be Marvin Elliott from set-pieces when he occasionally gets his 50p-head deflections on target and Neil Kilkenny when he’s freed to play a little further forward and links pay to the forwards quickly. However he unswervingly seems to sit too deep and ruinously slows momentum to walking pace.

Key Defensive players

WJ — In all the won’t-he won’t-he Nicky Maynard heat and anxiety, the news of Liam Fontaine’s decision to sign a new contract didn’t get the attention it perhaps should have done. Fontaine has been a defensive mainstay for a number of years now and maintains a consistent level of form. He’s a defender in the mould of Rio Ferdinand, his ability to read the game and grace on the ball making up for the fact that he’s not built like a classic centre-back. A vocal player and genuine leader in a team with too few, the defence always looks considerably more assured for his presence. He’s also one of the players happiest to go head-to-head in a “constructive discussion” with David James…

PB — and I would include ‘Jamo’ in this list. Even though for the former England stopper is now 41, he still often shows his class when called upon and a particularly skittish start to the season, where he was even dropped by then manager Millen, seems to be behind him. Unfortunately many of his top-class saves have recently been in vain, such as during the defeat at Reading where two penalty saves and a further full-stretch tip around the post belied his advancing years.

And finally, I’ll also throw in one of the very few young players to come through to the first team squad in recent years, Welsh under-21 international James Wilson. Although in and out of the side under McInnes who seems to prefer to pack his side with experience when possible, Wilson often impresses with his pace and recovery ability that is unmatched within the current squad.

WJ — I want to agree with you about Wilson — I remember when the likes of Everton were supposed to be keeping tabs on him as a teenager — but he’s got a lot of mistakes in him too. While I don’t deny he’s fast, I’d say full-back Ricky Foster matches him for speed and recovery with fewer rushes of blood to the head thrown in. I’d say it’s Wilson’s lack of positional sense, rather than his lack of experience, that stops McInnes seeing him as a regular pick. Of course the latter should lead to the former and I’m certainly not about to write the lad off.


WJ — Until February, our main strength under McInnes was been defensive organisation. Outgoing boss Millen was desperate to provide scoring, entertaining football, a la Kevin Keegan, but forgot to shore up at the back. Think Keegan’s Newcastle but without Shearer or Asprilla to outscore the opposition, leading inevitably to 0-5 defeat at the hands of Ian Holloway’s Blackpool. Following Millen’s Waterloo, McInnes worked hard on defending set-pieces, defensive organisation, covering players, workrate and ball retention. He packs the midfield, leaves no man up top on corners, and has generally taken the universally recognised approach that when taking over a struggling side, one builds from the back.

The last six weeks have seen this slip considerably, which has led to the failure to win more than one game in nine. Perhaps this is because of an unsettled back four, but nevertheless when we display any strength at all it’s been organisation and workrate.


WJ – Under Gary Johnson (latterly) and Millen this was two-fold: Conceding late, crucial goals and a lack of a genuine attacking threat. McInnes appears to have dealt with the former which is down to fitness and mental aptitude more than anything else but has yet to find the golden formula for providing a consistent threat throughout the game. Stop the wingers, stop City.

PB – The current weaknesses are all too apparent. The team is conceding too many goals and not scoring. Basically they’re not good enough. Recent opposition fans have been scathing in their views, describing City as the worst side they’ve seen this season and it’s difficult to argue. The goal difference is the worst across all 72 league clubs even though the team is set up to be tight with three in central midfield. 3-0 defeats are all too common so that tactic isn’t working, but it is doing a fine job in stopping any kind of consistent danger to opposition defences.

The wide men seem caught in two minds too often as to whether to get forward or not and the problem City had in October under Millen — leaving the sole striker too isolated up-front — has been reignited.

How to beat us

PB – It would be mildly churlish to just write ‘turn up’ here but that is what it feels like right now. No opposition coach is going to be reading this dossier for hot tips on how to beat this current outfit, everyone seems to be working that out for themselves.

The key is still to stop Adomah. The Ghanaian remains the most potent attacker in BS3, although his effectiveness has diminished since Maynard’s departure and there remains a niggling feeling he’s not 100% fit following a few knocks and bruises before Christmas.

WJ — “Play at home” would be the other glib response — we’re yet to score away in 2012. Come to Ashton Gate, and you’ll beat us by playing big defenders — we don’t seem to be able to win headers in the box, or work out that high crosses are therefore not the strongest weapon in our armoury — controlling midfield or deploying a recognised striker (seriously, everyone half-decent from Kevin Phillips to Clive Platt picks up a goal against us). This is perhaps the trickiest section to write as everything from Crawley’s unreconstructed up-and-at-‘em to Brighton’s tiki-taka-esque possession football has flummoxed us entirely. If you’re a Championship football team, sad to say, you’re probably doing enough as it is.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.


  1. Mike Roberts
    March 13, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. It’s the most coherent thing written about City’s season that I’ve read. It’s still incredible to think that there are still two sides worse than we are in the Championship and that if we stay up it’ll may be because of Portsmouth’s situation rather than anything that might still happen on the pitch.

    Having said that, if we’re playing in the Championship in 2012-13 then it can go two ways. Apocalyptic failure or bottom third ‘stability’: in 1970-71 we were in a similar situation. Five years later we were promoted to the old first division.

  2. Relegation Week: Will the Robins rise away from the relegation zone? » The Seventy Two
    March 22, 2012

    […] clear to see from your recent tactical profile of the team that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. Do you think enough of these problems can […]


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