Bristol City verdict: How Nigel Pearson reacted, two sides to Rob Atkinson and long throw debate

By James Piercy

The unfortunate run continues but it's hard to disagree with Nigel Pearson assertion that Bristol City's wait for three points at Ashton Gate will arrive soon; Luton Town's visit on Wednesday should be treated with real confidence.

But the Robins are far from the finished article with the goalless draw against Preston North End on Saturday throwing up some of the good about Pearson's side, and some of the concerning, most notably their inability to score when on top in games.

Time will hopefully heal such faults, as it should their rotten record in BS3, and at base level, City are now a reasonably reliable team under the 58-year-old as this was another performance which wavered around the 6-7/10 mark. That magic x-factor in the final third just wasn't quite on show against the Lilywhites and there were a few hairy moments towards the end of the first-half.

Here are the main talking points from the match ...

Pearson’s chipper mood

It doesn’t offer any particularly great insight to say that Nigel Pearson can sometimes be challenging in press conferences. He has previously confessed he likes to play games with media and, irrespective of the result, you’re never quite sure how he’ll react to various questions.

And that’s not criticism in the slightest, if anything it keeps us all on our toes in an industry where it’s all too easy to get comfortable and fall into formula.

As Pearson began his post-match debrief to the written press yesterday, having spoken to Sky Sports and BBC Radio Bristol, he positively bounced over to the assembled journalists, with joyful fist-bumps and a real sense of positivity. You could even say he was glowing.

He was, understandably, first posed with a question that referenced the home record (while praising the performance) and the City manager puffed his cheeks, made some indistinguishable exhales and noises, and you wondered which way it was going to go.

For the next seven minutes he then spoke enthusiastically and with warmth and honesty about the good aspects of the Robins display, accepted it wasn’t perfect, gave praise to the opposition and even a slight irk at the officials couldn’t ruin his mood.

There were a few sarcastic jokes about comparisons between himself and Rob Atkinson as defenders and Nathan Baker’s role as an auxiliary left-back, each delivered with a playful tone to his voice and a knowing nod at his audience. Then as Atkinson was being interviewed, Pearson loudly quipped in the background that his first-half shot was a toe punt.

In short: he was happy. Not necessarily with a point, as opposed to three and the fact the wait for that home victory goes on, but at the continuing green shoots of recovery – a clean sheet, Atkinson’s development, Tomas Kalas’ seamless return to the starting XI, Han-Noah Massengo, Cam Pring proving Cardiff wasn’t a fluke.

Scorelines are, ahem, the bottom line, and will be the measure of success and failure for Pearson, nobody is getting away from that, but the Robins are in the position where it cannot be the definitive barometer on which to judge this team at this stage of the season. And, to be perfectly honest while hard to avoid, could prove counter-productive.

To use an oft-quoted almost clichéd phrase that emerged in the NBA in the 2010s: Trust the process.

True, Preston had their chances and Frankie McAvoy’s press conference was almost the mirror of Pearson’s in terms of how he assessed the match – essentially a variation of, “we had chances and on another day could have won”.

You could also raise the point that City’s best chances, or at least the closest they came to scoring were the two long-range drives from Massengo and Atkinson, and they didn’t have enough pressure or finesse in the final third; although Massengo really should have done better when he was picked out at the far post and tried to take a touch onto his left foot instead of shooting with his right.

But Pearson knows the residual impact of this performance on the back of the Cardiff victory will maintain confidence in the camp and the defence dug out a first clean sheet of the season which, as a collective, is huge and is precisely he platform he wants each and every game.

Given the options he now possesses – Wells, Semenyo and Dasilva on the bench, Palmer and Scott unused substitutes, and O’Dowda and Williams not even making the squad – the answer of how to convert a 0-0 into a win is probably in there somewhere.

All-round Atkinson

It’s hard to think of a signing in recent Bristol City history who has fitted in so seamlessly as Atkinson (if you can think of one please speak up in the comments below).

The fact the 23-year-old looks every inch a Championship-level defender after one full League One season with Oxford United makes you wonder a) just how good he can get and b) what exactly were clubs missing prior to that.

Atkinson delivered another fine display, offering impressive evidence of both aspects to his defending.

There were some crucial interceptions and powerful headers, either from dead-ball situations or in broken play, plus the customary composure of when to hack it clear and when to play it on the deck to a teammate.

And that, in itself, is where Atkinson stands out. In the first-half there was one clearance down the left channel with Baker caught a little out of possession, Atkinson read the danger and stepped across to challenge.

He had the space to try and attempt a slightly risky half volley down the touchline to a teammate but, true to the Sunday League mantra, “if in doubt, kick it out” the ball went soaring into the Lansdown Stand with no messing.

Around 10 minutes later, as the ball was worked out to him on halfway, the pass was ever so slightly underhit and Emil Riis Jakobsen sniffed a possible interception and an unguarded route to goal.

But Atkinson got their first, dropped the shoulder to take the Preston striker out of the game and then advanced forward, the atmosphere building inside the stadium, for him to unleash a left-footed drive which Daniel Iversen did well to tip wide.

His ability to do the old school rough stuff as well as the most aesthetically-pleasing modern form of defending, coupled with excellent anticipation, decision making and just general football IQ makes him, dare we say, the complete package.

As a few fans have noted, he’s settled into this defence probably quicker than Adam Webster did three years ago and while crude comparisons between two footballers are always a little unfair (albeit understandable), it’s relevant in terms of those next to him in the backline in 2021.

Tomas Kalas enjoyed his best ever season in a Robins shirt during the 2018/19 season when he had a ball-carrier alongside him, allowing the Czech to concentrate on what he does best as a more orthodox, pure centre-back.

The partnership between him and Atkinson is still in its infancy but that’s four games, two wins, a draw and a defeat and four goals conceded and should only improve as the chemistry and understanding develops.

Atkinson’s performances are having an impact on City far beyond him as an individual footballer.

The Massengo effect

I’ll level with you here, it’s getting to the point where the Massengo fanclub on social media is so strong, we’re riddled with nerves when marking him in the player ratings, such is the backlash if he doesn’t outscore his teammates.

After so many seasons of player turnover at Ashton Gate, it’s sometimes hard for supporters to find their guy ; Famara Diedhiou had it among some fans, but was equally disliked by others, Josh Brownhill probably wasn’t fully appreciated until he left, Bobby Reid and Webster burned brightly but too briefly, Marlon Pack was taken a little for granted and Jamie Paterson can probably be filed in the cult hero column, rather than having mass popular appeal.

You’re ultimately going back to the 2014/15 double-winning squad with Korey Smith and Joe Bryan, as even previous hero Aden Flint appears to have slightly sullied his reputation post-City.

Right now you’d struggle to find a Robins fan who doesn’t consider Massengo in their top two favourite players. His name was sung relentlessly prior to kick-off and as the match began and then sporadically throughout the 90 minutes.

And he responded with another smart display in the centre of the pitch which increasingly gives an air of anticipation every time the ball reaches him. And that alone brings something to the party, just giving something extra to the atmosphere which, given the periods of questionable quality and frustrating stoppages, was needed.

Of course, he still has to deliver beyond just being Han-Noah Massengo and even in what is a largely unfamiliar position for him – right midfield – the Frenchman looked the best midfielder on the pitch, gliding into space, moving the ball quickly and that wonderful balance he possesses coupled with real tenacity.

When he does find the target it will cause some noise and he twice came close against the Lilywhites, with his effort in the second-half forcing a strong save from Iversen as he got a few fingers to Massengo’s attempt after he chested down a bouncing ball from about 25 yards.

However, the one in the first-half was the better chance, as he drifted to the back post and found plenty to space to be picked out by Baker only to apply a heavy touch to the cross as he tried to move the ball onto his left foot.

Did the crowd mind? To a point. While disappointed as the opportunity went begging, all the emotions remain bottled up ready to be properly unleashed when he hits the back of the net. And what an occasion that will be.

The long and short of it

In the end we gave up counting but City’s long throw count against Preston was definitely into double figures as Kalas wrapping his hulking arms around the ball, taking several steps back and then launching into the penalty area became a continuous sight.

It’s not just at Ashton Gate, long throws are firmly back in fashion; from the Premier League all the way down the pyramid and you get the feeling that somebody somewhere has deduced the efficiency of them in finding a goal, and that approach has then been mimicked across clubs.

Liverpool caused a mild stir among traditional football types when they employed a throw-in coach in Thomas Grønnemark who, three years later, remains employed by the club who have been pretty successful over that time.

However, that’s not to say Grønnemark is all about long throws, far from it, and that gets to the crux of the problem about them relative to City.

Throw-ins are, or at least were, underrated situations in matches because they give teams an opportunity to catch the opposition out of position when taken quickly and with the right runs made.

Teams sometimes mentally switch off when conceding a throw-in, even if it’s for a second or two, as it’s a natural break in play and a chance to take a breather and think about getting back into collective shape for the next phase.

If the ball can be delivered rapidly back into play and find a teammate, it can be very profitable indeed.

And therein lies the problem when you set yourself up, every time you’re within sight of the final third, to take a long throw. Especially if the person delivering it is a centre-back.

Kalas has to make his way forward, probably from halfway, and that in itself gives the defence time to set itself, before the customary routine of cleaning the ball with a towel, allowing his teammates to pack the penalty area, mentally assessing where it’s going and then stepping back before sending in it adds another few seconds.

However well Kalas delivers each ball, and however strong his teammates are in the air, the issue is they're almost solely relying on a defending player or goalkeeper to make an error – misjudge a header, maybe commit a foul, or drop the ball.

Each one sent in by the Czech, bar one or two where Iversen ever so slightly juggled with his catch, was meat and drink to a big, physical Preston defence who, on the whole, cleared confidently and each throw increasingly became formulaic and predictable - and that's not to blame Kalas, either.

The other issue, from City’s point of view, is the man taking them, would maybe be better served on the end of them, using his aerial power and presence in the penalty area to either get his head to it or occupy defenders and create space for others.

Perhaps City are playing the numbers game and, in reality, if Kalas takes 30 (or whatever arbitrary figure you want) and one produces a goal, it’s been worth it. However, it just feels that if it’s going to be a definite tactic this season, a bit of nuance and variation needs to be applied to truly reap the benefits.

To quote Grønnemark, "I work with the long, the fast and the clever throw-in". City, at present only seem to be covering one of those bases.

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