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Physical stats, no square pegs in round holes - Bristol City's four steps to success next season

By Richard Forrester

Nigel Pearson dared to say it after his side were defeated by Huddersfield on the final day of the season - the word "promotion" reverberating around the press room.

It was an ambitious statement by the Bristol City manager, but after watching the opposition run out comfortable 2-0 victors to cement third spot in the Championship, Carlos Corberan's side have set the bar of what can be achieved on a small budget.

The Terriers' total cost of their squad comes to £17.2million, while Luton who take on Huddersfield in the play-offs stands at a measly £3.4m. To put it into comparison, Bristol City's stands at £36.2m, according to data from football finance expert Kieran Maguire.

Put into context where the two sides ended last season, Huddersfield finishing two points behind City in 20th spot and Luton in 12th, it does inspire confidence and optimism that with the right calibre and blend of players, the right coaching, mentality and momentum there's no reason why Pearson's comments can't be considered so farfetched.

For those who missed Pearson's lofty ambitions, he said: "We’ll get better and the challenge for us now is to put together a campaign which gives us a chance of getting promoted ourselves.

"That may sound like pie in the sky but it doesn’t matter. We need to aim high, there’s no point in setting the bar low. Players that come in will need a strong desire to achieve. We need to find that competitive edge that allows us to overachieve results-wise."

So what do City need to change to have the best chance of progressing up the table and build on their decent end of season form?

Players in the correct positions

It seems obvious, but after watching Pearson fit square pegs in round holes throughout the course of the season due to necessity through injuries and form, it's an issue that urgently needs addressing.

Right wing-back is the obvious stand-out position - a constant problem that wasn't addressed that became synonymous with the ongoing inconsistencies on the field.

Pearson utilised six different players at right wing-back last season, eventually settling on Alex Scott to fill the makeshift role. The midfielder emerged as the most consistent performer and he became a victim of his own quality having had to sacrifice performing in his favoured role in the middle of the park.

Andi Weimann slotted in at wing-back and as expected, performed admirably including the away victory at Blackburn where he made a late run into the box to memorably volley in Joe Williams' sliced effort in the final moments. But again, it stifled the fluidity of the attacking trio with Antoine Semenyo and Chris Martin missing out on his movement when in a No10 role.

Zak Vyner, forward Sam Bell, Jay Dasilva and George Tanner have also had their moments at wing-back. Dasilva's versatility is useful but as a natural left-footed player, he's more suited to the opposite flank.

Tanner is the standout to make the position his own, but after coming back from injury and making his first foray in the Championship, he needs a more experienced head to provide competition for places.

Pearson has spoken of the need to sign a wing-back this summer but he wants one who can be trusted enough defensively to drop into a right-back role if and when he needs the flexibility to switch up his tactics.

It's a similar situation on the left with Ayman Benarous featuring there for a handful of games at the end of the season. His ACL injury that will keep him out of action until at least Christmas has emphasised the need to strengthen in those positions in particular.

A defensive midfielder

The defence can't be solely accountable for the 77 goals conceded last season. City have been carved open too easily in the midfield on too many occasions.

Injuries to Joe Williams, Matty James and Andy King haven't helped matters, especially the former who is arguably one of the better midfielders in the Championship on his day.

One stat, in particular, highlighted the importance of Williams in the side and emphasised why Pearson needs a player with tenacity and doggedness to sit in front of the defence. City have conceded 16 goals when Williams has been on the pitch and scored 24, giving him a personal goal difference of +8.

Compare that to Han-Noah Massengo, for all his quality, has struggled to provide that defensive shield to protect those at the back. While he has been on the pitch, City have conceded 53 and scored 35 - with a goal difference of -18.

Matty James' stood at -3 just for further comparison and Andy King -6. Williams also had the average highest number of tackles for a midfielder per game in the City side with 2, the 42nd highest in the Championship and 24th highest compared to other midfielders.

68 per cent of shots against also came through the middle of the pitch. 12 per cent came down the left side and 20 per cent down the right - again proving the frailties that have plagued City in that right wing-back role.

It can be argued that City haven't had a natural defensive midfielder since Marlon Pack left for Cardiff in 2019. After the defeat at home to Birmingham City in March, Pearson was asked whether signing a defensive midfielder would be one of his priorities going forward.

Blunt in his response, he said: "Yeah, well we don’t really have any at the football club. We don’t have any."

What City have been lacking is a defensive-minded player who has that physical presence and the intimidation factor to unnerve opponents. Perhaps a player with that ilk will help improve the defensive record that has seen City concede 53 goals through open play.

Winning 'gritty' remains one of Pearson's aims heading into next season and perhaps with the exception of Williams, City don't have a midfielder that would inspire confidence coming out on top of a 50/50 challenge.

Physical stats

Interestingly, on two occasions towards the end of the season Pearson highlighted his admiration for the physical stats of both Bournemouth and Huddersfield.

Speaking after the Cherries defeat, he said: "Their physical stats mirror many Premier League clubs, physicality means being able to play the modern game of football. It means dynamic, pacey, power - those are the physical traits that reflect the modern game.

"Teams that come down from the Premier League normally have a level of athleticism that a lot of the sides that have usually been in the Championship for a long time or sides that have been promoted from League One don't possess.

"The divide is massive between the Premier League and Championship. It's not all about the technicalities, it's also about the physicalities too, it's a different game and it will continue to develop in that way."

Dominic Solanke in action against Bristol City (Daniel Murphy/JMP)

Then on the full-time whistle after the 2-0 defeat to Huddersfield on the final day as they booked their third place in the Championship, Pearson said: "When you play against a side, like today, who have explosive players, physically they are up there with Premier League stats. They [Huddersfield] have got real pace and power."

If Pearson wants his side to be progressing higher up the league and pushing for a play-off spot, it can be assumed he will want to look for players who can match those rigours of the modern game.

The likes of Antoine Semenyo fit into that category. Only one player in the Championship spent more time on average pressing down their opponents than the striker in Peterborough's Jeando Fuchs.

But the manager will want to have more of that in his side, particularly in midfield and at wing-back, two areas in particular that he is determined to strengthen.

Preventing late goals

Bristol City conceded 19 per cent of their goals between the 81st and 90th minute - higher than any other period in the game. That equates to 15 goals in total although, it should be said, that record did improve towards the end of the season.

Compare that to the 71st and 80th minute, where the Robins conceded just six.

After conceding in the 2-2 home draw with West Brom in March, it was the 11th goal conceded in the 90th minute or beyond. It was also pointed out that it meant City had thrown away 11 points just at home by allowing their opponents to score in stoppage time.

It's easy to look back in hindsight but an extra 11 points would have lifted them up to 11th alongside Queens Park Rangers. That's without taking into consideration the points dropped in stoppage time away from home.

The draw at Preston and defeat at Coventry were also two away games that stood out in the memory that saw City concede late on.

Whether it comes down to the mentality of his players, the game management or just simply confidence, in reality it should be an issue that could easily be resolved. Even though every side has its fair shares of late heartbreak, City's appear a lot more regularly than their rivals.

There almost became a sense of inevitability in certain games that City were going to concede late when faced until late pressure. In Pearson's and the player's defence the West Brom draw was the final time that his side faced late drama but they still need to stop that sense of vulnerability if they are to show any signs of progress.

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