Bristol City depth chart: How Lee Johnson has serious options ahead of Championship restart
With the 2019/20 campaign likely to recommence in mid-June, we analyse and assess each positionby James Piercy
Lee Johnson was perhaps undercooking things a little when he stated earlier this week that he has "options".
That was in reference to looking at Bristol City's quintent of forwards - Benik Afobe, Famara Diedhiou, Marley Watkins, Andi Weimann and Nahki Wells - who could very much be the fab five for the Robins down the final stretch of the season.
The return of Afobe has reinvigorated belief that maybe, just maybe, with the break and the chance for key players to regain fitness, City have an excellent shot at making the play-offs.
But it's not just attacking part of the field in which the Robins look rich in resources as we delve into each position from front to back, revealing the impressive depth now at Johnson's disposal.
For all the changes to Bristol City’s squad over the four years Johnson has been in charge, the one department that is at its strongest now, in 2019/20, is goalkeeper and probably more than when the head coach first highlighted as such at the start of the season.
After suffering a groin injury in February, expected No1 Dan Bentlety is back fit again and in training, as witnessed by the saves that were showcased during this week’s session but there is genuine debate as to who will don the gloves against Blackburn for the restart.
Niki Maenpaa was arguably City’s man of the match against Fulham before the lockdown and would undoubtedly have been between the sticks for the game at Ewood Park, should the schedule have run as normal.
Now, with Bentley’s fitness restored, Johnson has a real decision on his hands between two outstanding Championship goalkeepers, with two strong candidates in reserves in the experienced Rene Gilmartin and Joe Wollacott, with the latter also able to operate as the squad’s homegrown player.
Jack Hunt has been the go-to right-back for much of the season, starting 24 of a possible 37 league matches with on-loan Pedro Pereira his deputy with 12 starts.
The common consensus has been that Hunt has started games where City want to press on the front foot with a more obvious attacking intent, and Pereira is the assured defensive presence whose tended to operate in a flat back four, more than at wing-back.
If Johnson wants to play a 3-5-2 then Hunt is likely to be his man, then again if he wants that formation but with a little more focus on the defensive front, then he can turn to Pereira; and if the situation calls for a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 or 4-3-3 (and with the extra attacking options this could be the way City go), then the Portuguese comes into play as a starter.
It’s a great option to have with Johnson often flitting between the two, depending on the opponent, formation or match situation – either at the start or during games – and going into the final nine fixtures that system is unlikely to change.
Pereira is also playing for his future, at least in BS3, should be intent on remaining in Bristol. With City possessing an option to purchase the Portugal Under-21 international on a permanent transfer, if the 22-year-old can deliver some truly excellent performances, that will help convince the board that Benfica’s rather lofty asking price is worthy of consideration.
Beyond the recognised first-choice duo is Zak Vyner who returned from his loan at Aberdeen in January but missed the six weeks of the campaign thereafter with a shoulder injury.
It’s unclear exactly what the long-term plans are for the academy product, who's spent the last three-and-a-half seasons on loan and, on the whole, has impressed at Accrington, Plymouth, Rotherham and Aberdeen, but he should be a more-than-able third option, plus can fill other positions at centre-back and defensive midfield.
And, should he be given an opportunity, has that extra air of motivation to prove to Johnson he is an individual worth considering for the future as a low-cost squad addition, who knows the club and fulfils the homegrown quota.
Jay Dasilva was just starting to hit his stride before lockdown struck and the England Under-21 international must have felt a sense of frustration that having built up his fitness following his fractured tibia, he’s then forced to kick his heels once again.
But, at the same time, it gives him that extra bit of time to build up his muscle power and allow the injury to heal just that little bit longer to ensure that when City return to action he can truly hit the ground running, or sprinting past opposing full-backs, we should say.
Dasilva is clear first-choice but that’s not to dismiss the role of Tommy Rowe is providing cover on the left, as he did so diligently in the first-half of the season and, should City’s season prove successful in terms of league position or promotion, his consistency in performance from August to December would have been vital.
Rowe, alongside Gilmartin, is also a dressing room leader and glue between all the various groups that naturally form in a squad, and his professionalism and personality is also important in assessing City’s strengths.
Should Dasilva suffer another injury and Johnson want a greater attacking presence on the left, perhaps as a wing-back, then Callum O’Dowda has shown his suitability in that role before, giving the head coach – just like at right-back – a trio of good and varied options.
Yes, losing Adam Webster was a big blow and, yes, City aren’t as good a defensive side as they were in 2018/19 but the reasons for that don’t fall squarely on the centre-backs because, quite frankly, the depth in this part of the field is very strong indeed.
So strong in fact, you can make a case for any two or three of Tomas Kalas, Nathan Baker, Ashley Williams and the on-loan Filip Benkovic being starters.
Quick reminder as well, that three of those players are full internationals who would have been preparing for Euro 2020 this summer. That’s how strong the Robins are in the heart of defence.
Kalas has endured a difficult and frustrating stop-start season, riddled with injuries to his calf and knee, but in the period before the shutdown looked to be returning to his dominant best. As is the case with others, this two-month break would have done him the world of good.
Johnson has remarked that the Czech can too often be his worst enemy in pushing himself to come back and convincing himself that he’s ready when he’s not. Two months in isolation would have denied him such folly, allowing muscles and ligaments to heal.
A fit Tomas Kalas is an elite-tier Championship centre-back, make no mistake.
Beyond City’s record signing is his dancing partner in the squad in Nathan Baker who’s enjoyed arguably his most consistent campaign for City and would be some fans’ picks for player of the year.
Big, strong, powerful and committed, Baker is a beast in the air and his chemistry with Kalas probably pushes him just ahead of the other two candidates, but there isn’t a great deal in it.
A Kalas-Baker pairing is wall-like in its dominance but does fall down a little bit on the distribution front which is where Benkovic comes in. A highly-skilled, ball-playing defender, he gives City an immediate passing source from deep and also possess height and power in a defensive sense.
Admittedly, the Croatian hasn’t proven a home run of a loan signing just yet but two months of listening to Johnson-isms and mental bonding with the squad will have helped, even if they haven’t been able to get out on the field until this week.
Certainly in a back three, Kalas and Baker competing for aerial balls with Benkovic then able to either drift back as a sweeper or into midfield ala Webster, gives a nice balance.
Then we come to Williams, who – bar the red card against Brentford and header at home to West Brom – has been a fantastic addition to the squad bringing all his experience, calmness and sense of authority to the team and the dressing room.
He lost his place in the wake of the 3-0 defeat to the Baggies, but his athleticism and character make him an easy option for Johnson to turn to, should he wish. Like Korey Smith and Maenpaa, is on an expiring contract, and these final nine games could help decide his destiny at City.
With Taylor Moore ineligible, even if Blackpool’s season is curtailed, Vyner is the fifth option for what is a very strong compliment of centre-backs.
You can dispute the use of the term but this is a good way to divide Johnson's central midfield options as Jamie Paterson and Kasey Palmer don’t really fit the moniker.
Smith is the one true and reliable defensive midfielder is the squad who Johnson has branded the “daddy” in terms of the assurance he brings to the younger elements of the squad like Han-Noah Massengo.
The Frenchman certainly looks a better player with Smith alongside him as Massengo has that extra layer of security to mitigate the obvious risk of entrusting a teenager with so much of the ball.
Despite what has been an outstanding debut season, Massengo is still very much finding his feet, not only in the Championship but professional football itself, and there will be natural peaks and troughs across 90 minutes.
Pictures from training this week and quotes from the 18-year-old highlight he’s focused on weight training and building his muscle mass, which can only be a positive in the rough and tumble of England’s second tier. A stronger Massengo is great news, given his technical skills and thirst for learning under Johnson.
Returning to Smith, we are potentially in the home straight of his time at City, with the 29-year-old’s contract expiring at the end of the season.
A brilliant servant to the club, should he prove his fitness over these nine games – and hopefully more – it will go some way to convincing the powers that be that it’s sensible to extend his stay at the club beyond 2020.
Markus Henriksen is also in a position of effectively playing for a contract, if he wants one, with his deal at Hull City expiring and the Tigers possessing zero willingness to keep him at the club.
The Norwegian was a little sluggish in the four appearances he made for City after arriving on deadline day – perhaps a byproduct so little competitive football following his exile at the KCOM Stadium – but has the ability to be a real asset for the Robins.
At his best, he can add defensive smarts and physical strength but also be a good passer and carrier of the ball from deep, linking the play and helping create attacks.
Johnson had previously compelled him to “get with the programme” and, like Benkovic you’d hope these two months have helped integrate him into the collective psyche of the squad and what’s required.
Adam Nagy was in danger of being the great “what if” of this season with his ankle injury and the ensuing saga ruining a real eye-catching entrance as a City player in August.
The Hungarian was trapped between rehabilitation and having to play, and both were subsequently being affected; Nagy wasn't quite fit enough to deliver his best and when he was on the field it was damaging his recovery.
With two months on the sidelines, which would only have been afforded during pre-season, hopefully that ankle and foot are as fresh as they can be, giving Nagy the platform to be the deep-lying playmaker and/or metronome City want him to be.
Liam Walsh and Joe Morrell are not eligible for this season, due to the obligations of their loans with Coventry and Lincoln, but James Morton is the young player flying under the radar a bit having travelled with the squad on a couple of away trips and under consideration for 2020/21.
With the 21-year-old holding midfielder in the background, it cements yet another strong area of the field if Johnson can find the right blend, which has largely eluded City this season.
Ahead of the anchor of the team, are the playmakers whose numbers were swelled in January by the return of Jamie Paterson who burst back into life in a City shirt, displaying all his technical ability and the extra attacking edge he gives.
Paterson can be a central No10 in a midfield three – as although he’s not a defensive specialist, can still be tigerish in his pressing – or switch to the right or the left, depending on the system.
The true central playmaker is, of course, Kasey Palmer whose influence on the team diminished with the injury sustained by Benik Afobe in September.
Without having the attacking outlet to run in behind, as Famara Diedhiou operates more with his ack to goal, Palmer’s main weapon was stifled and he resorted back to being used as an impact substitute.
He has put in work in terms of developing his game beyond just being a playmaker but because of City’s slight failing in providing a strong defensive platform in the middle of the park, Palmer hasn’t quite been trusted enough by his coach.
But with Afobe back, Nahki Wells now firmly part of the squad and a midfield unit potentially stronger and more efficient, the opportunity is there for Palmer to shine.
Moving onto the flanks and City have arguably the Championship’s best winger in Niclas Eliasson and an individual who not so long ago was one of the league’s best up-and-comers.
No player has had a weirder season than Callum O’Dowda whose been in and out of the side, taking into account his contract situation, of course – playing wide, in a central three or at left-back and left-wing-back – without firmly nailing down a spot.
His versatility could also be his biggest problem, as the Republic of Ireland international could be viewed as someone to plug a hole, rather than command a set position but, as we witnessed in the 2018/19 season, O’Dowda is a fantastic player in transition.
With Afobe back and Wells in the side, the Robins should play on the front foot a little more, at pace and with width. If they do, O’Dowda’s game is tailor-made for it, Johnson just needs to find the right position for the 24-year-old.
Returning to Eliasson, the Swede stands atop the Championship assist standings alongside West Brom’s Matheus Pereira with 12, and is fourth for key passes per 90 (of those who have played 15 or more games), heightening his case for being the most directly creative player in the division.
It’s been a breakout season for the 24-year-old and one that has reportedly drawn the attention of Lazio and Celtic, also taking into consideration the fact that he has only 12 months remaining on his contract – once that extension is exercised, which we’ve been repeatedly told it would.
But while Eliasson is extremely potent and a wonderful player to watch, two factors slightly count against him being the nailed-on starter he was across winter.
With Afobe back, Diedhiou’s place in the team is not as assured as it was, denying the Swede his go-to aerial target and the return of the on-loan Stoke striker plus Wells, may compel Johnson to try and play more on the deck and through the lines, rather than around teams.
There is also the central midfield situation as the Robins probably function best with a central three. If you then field wing-backs, that further squeezes Eliasson out of the XI as he is a pure winger.
The one system which City haven’t really deployed that would be suitable would be a 3-4-3/4-3-3, which pushes him more into a forward role – and Johnson wants to see more goals in his game, encouraging Eliasson to break into the box – and solves the problem of central midfield.
Either if he’s starting or emerging off the bench – with a case often presented he’s more efficient as a replacement – Eliasson is a fine weapon to have in your armoury.
And here’s where it gets really complicated but also rather exciting as what has been an area of weakness for City in recent seasons is now bursting at the seams with quality: Afobe, Wells, Diedhiou, Andi Weimann and Marley Watkins.
It’s hard to know exactly where to start but there is understandably considerable excitement around Afobe’s return, given his struggles personal and professional and the fact he was so, so good before his ACL injury.
Afobe transformed the Robins attack from slightly predictable and static, to free-flowing, flexible and with a sense of flamboyance.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect such an immediate impact once he does get back on the field, and the excitement must also be tempered with obvious reservations about his long-term injury status given his previous ACL issues.
But a full-fit Afobe for nine, as opposed to two or three as was originally envisaged, is a sizeable boost.
How he fits into the team is a real mystery of which there is no correct answer but it’s a puzzle Johnson and his staff are going to have a lot of fun working out.
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Does he start immediately or off the bench? Certainly Wells’ strong form he was showing before the break implies he’s No1 with the Bermudian signed in January to provide that extra layer of firepower and his two goals have been an encouraging start.
Like Afobe, Wells has that extra mobility to come short and exchange passes before bursting beyond defenders and into space.
Even if he’s not on the ball, he’s dragging defenders out of position with his movement, making room for others – perhaps Afobe, perhaps Diedhiou.
And the Senegalese is the interesting individual of the piece because he’s had an excellent season – even if his goalscoring rate has him on course for 13 again – providing a rather small-in-stature City team that much-needed physicality.
But the Robins sometimes do look a little flat-footed with him in the team, as he naturally plays with his back to goal, wanting the ball to feet or in the air where he can drift to the far post – hence the Eliasson connection.
That’s not a criticism, at all, but Johnson now has enough strikers where he can play at least two definitive styles: solid and wide, with Diedhiou in the team, or expansive and quick with Afobe and/or Wells.
It also didn't escape notice that Diedhiou, Wells and Afobe were training together in a group this week with club media channels displaying their interchanging of passes on the edge of the area before one of the three shot.
On the field this could be in a 4-3-3 with Diedhiou the central figure, occupying defenders and then Afobe and Wells working off the Senegalese.
That’s before we’ve mentioned City’s roadrunner Weimann, Johnson’s great favourite in terms of the way he carries out tactical instructions and is absolutely essential to the team in how he sets pressing traps from the front.
His off-the-ball running is another gift for others however, with Afobe returning, the Austrian looks best suited in a 4-3-3, a previously discussed, if Johnson wants to go down the route.
With Antoine Semenyo committed to Sunderland, irrespective of if they play this season again or not, that leaves the fit-again Marley Watkins as another option – almost a Diedhiou-type physical presence who can also operate in a wide role.
The Welshman, in truth, isn’t really a striker, he’s more of a defensive winger but has that aerial ability and presence at set-pieces that lends him to a central striking role, if needed, but his tactical flexibility provides Johnson with yet another option … of which, quite clearly, there are numerous.