It’s been a long eight years since the Sky Blues were last in the second-tier. That 4-1 loss at Shrewsbury Town, that Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Area Final, administration, Sixfields, Callum Wilson, Nathan Delfouneso, the return to Coventry, that roar when Frank Nouble scored, another false dawn, losing to Worcester City, Tony Mowbray, James Maddison, Joe Cole, Darius Henderson, Andre Wright, Russell Slade, Mark Robins’ return, that ‘even better second touch’, League Two, losing to Forest Green, ‘we’ve got Michael Doyle’, that wonderful night at Meadow Lane, another Wembley win, beating Sunderland 5-4, St Andrew’s, a first league title in over half a century.
Both the club and the division have changed significantly since 2012. While this is now an upwardly mobile football club, the first task this year is to ensure that we stay up in a division packed with clubs who can freely make multi-million pound signings. An away trip to Bristol City will provide a good barometer of the kind of teams we’ll be competing with this year, who have established themselves as a top-half Championship side in recent years. If we can show in this opening game of the season that we’re already up to speed with this level of football, it should stand us in good stead for the rest of the campaign.
The team selection for this game is boosted by the return of Leo Ostigard from international duty, the availability of new signing Ben Sheaf, plus Michael Rose and Fankaty Dabo returning to fitness after long spells out injured. Whether any of the aforementioned four are fit enough to start and last 90 minutes remains to be seen, Leo Ostigard seems the likeliest to come into the side, followed by Ben Sheaf, then Michael Rose and Fankaty Dabo.
Leo Ostigard should slot in seamlessly to the right side of the back three, which underlines the challenge that Declan Drysdale would have faced getting into the starting XI regardless of his seemingly unfortunate red card against MK Dons last week. If Michael Rose isn’t fit to start, it provides the opportunity for Kyle McFadzean to demonstrate that he is up to the task of Championship football and make it a very competitive fight for places in central defence over the opening few weeks of the season.
Given how the lack of thrust Josh Pask offers at right wing-back, the temptation may be strong for Mark Robins to throw Fankaty Dabo back into the fold for this game. However, it is probably too great a risk at this stage in Fankaty Dabo’s recovery from a fairly long-term injury to expect him to start here.
In central midfield, Liam Kelly demonstrated last week that he provides an important element of defensive ballast in that area of the pitch. Given Gustavo Hamer’s predilection for entering forcefully into challenges, Kelly’s ability to ease that defensive burden on our new man in midfield could be especially important in reducing the number of set-pieces we concede in dangerous areas.
Finally, Matt Godden’s struggles to lead the line effectively last week – particularly, his inability to stay onside – harmed his prospects of being our first-choice striker for the opening weeks of the season. While he could be handed a reprieve this week due to concerns over Tyler Walker’s fitness, Godden must know that he’s going to need to put in a big performance sooner rather than later if he wants to retain his place in the starting XI.
Last Time We Met
Bristol City fans are likely to have fond memories of our last meeting, a 0-0 draw at Ashton Gate which saw them secure the League One title back in 2015. For the Sky Blues, the point not only helped us moved towards safety but felt like a window into the possible future if Tony Mowbray could be kept in charge for the following campaign.
The Sky Blues put in an admirable shift against a side expecting to put on a show for their fans to win a league title, and probably had the better chances to win the game. With the likes of Reda Johnson, Grant Ward, and John Fleck starting for Coventry City and James Maddison on the bench, the best chance of the game fell to Nick Proschwitz, who was unfortunate to see a chipped effort saved and for Bristol City’s party to avoid having been pooped.
The Manager – Dean Holden
That 2014/15 season has further relevance to this game, accounting for current Bristol City boss, Dean Holden’s, only prior managerial experience before stepping into Lee Johnson’s shoes in the Ashton Gate dug-out towards the end of last season. That fifteen game spell in charge of Oldham Athletic – also following the departure of Lee Johnson – saw Holden register just three wins but provides little evidence as to how he’ll do at Bristol City.
The appointment of someone of such limited experience over the summer was severely underwhelming for a club that had seemed to be gearing itself up for the Premier League. In Holden’s defence, his tenure at the club thus far has gone fairly well – three wins from six games – and he seems to have added a level of intensity that was missing from Bristol City’s game towards the end of Lee Johnson’s time at the club. Over a longer period and under the pressure of meaningful football, it remains to be seen whether Holden is the right man for the job.
Who To Look Out For
What stands out most about this Bristol City squad is the hoard of talented central midfielders that they have amassed. Most notably from a Sky Blues perspective, this includes Liam Walsh – who is likely to be out injured for this game – but last season’s star player for us isn’t guaranteed a start when competing against the likes of Han-Noah Massengo, Adam Nagy, Joe Morrell, Joe Williams and Kasey Palmer.
Furthermore, Dean Holden found some success towards the end of last season, when his options in midfield were more limited, by playing two forwards in Jamie Paterson and Andi Weimann much deeper than they have been accustomed to. Much like the England side in the 2018 World Cup, having two very attack-minded players roaming from the most advanced positions in a central midfield three means Bristol City can overload the penalty area and cause havoc against teams not wary to this threat.
Essential to this style of play is the width and quality of delivery provided by the wing-backs, with left wing-back Jay Dasilva one of the best in this division in his position and right wing-back Jack Hunt also capable of being at that level on his day. With the hard-working target-man, Famara Diedhou, capable of occupying more than one of our defenders, it could open up a lot of space for the likes of Jamie Paterson and Andi Weimann to thrive on, as well as Diedhou’s strike partner, Nahki Wells.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
One of the big weaknesses of a three-man central defence is in dealing with midfielders making late runs into the penalty area, which is exactly what Bristol City have based their game on under Dean Holden. With the three central defenders tending to be in a flat line, it’s that space in front of the defence that is exploitable and will mean that Liam Kelly is likely to have a lot of work to do to try and deny Bristol City’s attacking midfielders getting into dangerous areas. Furthermore, with Bristol City being able to switch the play quickly to their wing-backs and possessing a physical centre-forward, it could leave our defence all over at sea if we aren’t disciplined in our shape.
With Bristol City missing their defensive leader, Nathan Baker, to a long-term injury and another key centre-back in Tomas Kalas unlikely to be available for this game after his involvement with the Coronavirus-hit Czech national team, we should be able to at their back-line if we can stay resolute at the back. The concern is whether our 3-4-2-1 system is too narrow to provide a genuine counter-attacking threat, but with Callum O’Hare’s energy in that forward-line and Ryan Giles’ pace from left wing-back, we should threaten if those two can be brought into the game.
Moreover, this game will be about us adapting to the pace with which football is played at this level and the diversity of threats that teams have. If we are as rusty as we were last week at both ends of the pitch against MK Dons, we are likely to be punished. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we were to lose this game if it taught us some important lessons that we end up learning from quickly over the opening months of the season.