Bristol City: A year on from Lee Johnson

After 195 league games, Lee Johnson was sacked a year ago today. His replacement Dean Holden only lasted 37 matches before being replaced by former Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson.

It may feel like a lot longer, but exactly one year ago today (July 4th, 2020), Bristol City parted company with manager Lee Johnson after a 1-0 home loss to Severnside rivals Cardiff City.

The result all but ended the Robin’s season, as we sat 12th in the Championship table, 11 points off the play-offs with only five matches to play. 

To give some context on the game, Filip Benkovic hit the post at 0-0 for the Reds, with Benik Afobe and Freddie Hinds both being on the bench. If you want to recall; Lee Tomlin assisting Danny Ward for the only goal of the game. Tomlin was part of the trio of ex-Bristol City players who started on the bench for the Bluebirds, alongside Marlon Pack and Aden Flint.

So, it has been 365 days since the four-year reign of Johnson ended. No matter what you think of the man, whether you were Johnson In or Johnson Out, there is no denial that he took the club forward and into the best position it had been in a long while.

The progression was clear season on season, improving league finishes three years in a row. The progression fuelled with Steve Lansdown money, effective transfers, good relations with Chelsea and a massive help from Johnson’s tombola machine that seemed to pick his matchday teams.

The question is, has the club progressed from where it was exactly one year ago today?

I will start off with one of the key reasons progression on the pitch was possible: the players the club owned and the transfer policy the club had.

Under Johnson, who was being well puppeteered by Mark Ashton, the club’s mantra when dealing in the transfer market was “to sign players under 24 years old with good sell on ability.”

It may have seemed a risk, especially in the 2016/17 season as the young players that had been bought in looked like they were not up to the level of the Championship. Throughout the four-year spell at the club these players developed, and as such so did the younger signings in following years.

Out of the 40 players signed between the summer of 2016 and the winter of 2020; 23 (57%) of them were under the age of 25. Of that group of 23 players, 12 were aged 21 or under. This equates to an average age of 24 years and 6 months per signing.

A further 11 signings aged 25-29, which can be reasonably seen as the prime years of a football players career.

This means that six of these players were signed over the age of 30; Goalkeepers Luke Steele (32) and Niki Maenpaa(33) and a quartet of free signings in; Gary O’Neil(33), Eros Pisano(30), Tommy Rowe(30) and Ashley Williams(35).

To mark of the second part of the quote, market value on players have certainly risen since we have signed each player. Using ‘TransferMarkt’ and their ‘Market Value’ evaluation on every player, we can conclude that 22 of Johnson’s signings increased their transfer value. Eight players kept the exact value whilst only 10 or a quarter had lost their market value.

Graph showing Adam Webster’s Market Value increase over his career.

The average market value increase per player was over £500,000. This is boosted by Adam Webster’s increase of over Seven million pounds, Josh Brownhill’s 3.8-million-pound increase, whilst Nicolas Eliasson, Han-Noah Massengo, Dan Bentley and Robbie Cundy have increased by at least one million pounds.

With six more players; Hordur Magnusson, Taylor Moore, Callum O’Dowda, Bailey Wright, Tyreeq Bakinson and Mo Eisa have all increased by at least £500,000.

I will have to note a few certain points for this. The Market Value of each player is an estimation on how much a player would be worth if sold, and not what a club would sell the certain player for. As an example, Adam Webster had a Market Value of just over £8,000,000; whilst City sold the defender to Brighton and Hove Albion for £20,000,000. Whilst Jay Dasilva has remained the same value since his permanent signing.

Jay Dasilva has not had his market value increased since his signing.

Furthermore, I have excluded three players from this list, Rene Gilmartin, Stefan Marinovic and Rodri (remember him?) Gilmartin as he never played for the club and was more of a youth team coach, Marinovic was an emergency backup signing (He was 27 if you wanted to know) whilst I honestly completely missed Rodri whilst collecting the data.

I have also not included any of the 15 loan players, but the average age of each loanee was 23 years old.

Yes, there is a smaller sample size when looking at the signings made by both Dean Holden and now Nigel Pearson, but there is a slightly worrying and bemusing trend that is starting to emerge.

Of the eight singings since the summer of 2020, only two have been under the age of 30. Joe Williams (23) from Wigan, who played 60 minutes of league football in his debut campaign, and Matty James (29) signed on a free in the past week.

Chris Brunt signed at the age of 35 had his contract terminated due to injury at Christmas. Adrian Mariappa and Danny Simpson both 34 came in as cover last year. New boy Andy King is 32, having most recently played in the Netherlands. Whilst Chris Martin is 31 and the train wreck signing of Henri Lansbury was 30.

Now, these signings were made to add experience to the squad. Last seasons injury record was abominable, with many players coming in to cover the absent players, whilst also in hope of helping the development of the youngsters thrown into the first team.

Despite an atrocious league finish in the Championship, one positive from this season has been the impressive number of players developed from the youth squads to make appearances in the first team this season. Some brought into the team as desperate measures, whilst some were on the edge of first team action.

10 youth teams players made their first team debuts for Bristol City in the 2020/21 season. This excellent feat an unbelievable testament to the work from the likes of Brian Tinnion the Player Pathway manager, and the coaches from the youth teams.

Tommy Conway looked sharp up top and grabbed his first senior goal in his career against Millwall, his six appearances the second most of any of the club’s league debutants.

Second to only Tyreeq Bakinson, who to many was the club’s player of the season. It is hard to believe that he was signed the same day as Matty Taylor, yet only made his league debut for the reds at the start of this season. The 22-year-old played 34 league matches scoring four goals in the process.

Louis Britton also opened his professional goalscoring account with his debut goal on the final day of the season. The big lad was top scorer in the Under 23 league with 16 goals, and looks like a right handful for defenders.

Rylee Towler was given the almost impossible job of making his professional debut in a position he had never played in his life, being thrown into the 6-0 loss to Watford at left-wing-back. Despite that, his 6 appearances for the club were inspiring.

Owura and Opi Edwards played three and four matches respectively, showing excitement when on the ball.

Sam Bell, Sam Pearson, and Alex Scott all deputised, with the latter being an instant hit with the fans, with hopes of the attacking midfielder possibly getting more game time next season: but with realistic opportunities of first team football out on loan in the football league.

Although the future looks bright, with many more youngsters than just the ones I have mentioned coming through the ranks, football is all about the here and now.

And the now is currently showing us as the sixth worst team in the league. Despite an excellent start of the season, winning the first four matches, to only win 11 in the remaining 42 is embarrassing.

The attacking output of the team is the worst the Championship has seen since the records began. You do not win matches without having shots and that is what the team is very shy of. The reds having the lowest shots out of any team this season, and as I mentioned of any season.

During Lee Johnson’s 195 league match reign, Bristol City averaged 1.42 goals per match. This stat seems to be padded by the first two-and-a-half years, as during the second part of the 2015/16 season and the full 2016/17 season; the reds averaged 1.59 goals per match. This slightly dropped to 1.45 goals per match in the 2017/18 season.

A large drop off is clear during the 2018/19 season, which was the closest the reds have gotten to the play-offs since promotion. The season was built with a solid back line, but the lack of a fully clinical goal scorer like Jonathan Kodjia, Tammy Abraham or even Bobby Reid hindered the promotion push. The 1.28 goals per match was only marginally beaten by the 2019/2020 where 1.29 goals were scored per match under Johnson before his sacking 41 games into the season.

Now compare that to first Dean Holden’s team, where only 36 goals were scored in his 37 matches in charge giving a 0.97 goals per game ratio.

Looking deeper into this however, 17 of the 36 goals were scored in the first 10 matches under Holden: giving a rather dismal record of 19 goals in the remaining 27 games. This equates to 0.7 goals per game: a ratio lower than that of Aston Villa’s relegated side in 2016.

It is not much better looking at Nigel Pearson’s record either. 1.125 goals a game. 18 scored in his 15 matches at the helm. 50% of the goals scored under Pearson came in just three matches (20%) with 3-1 victories over Middlesbrough and Swansea City in the first two matches, and a 3-0 away win against Birmingham City. Otherwise, it is 9 in 12 or 0.75 goals a game.

So, going back to the low number of shots; over Dean Holden’s spell in charge, the team had 8.35 shots per game, with 2.89 shots on target per game.

This slightly beats the 7.13 shots per game, and 2.66 shots on target per game under Pearson. To put those stats into context; under Nigel Pearson, Bristol City have an attempt on goal every 12 minutes, and a shot on target every 34.

Something that Lee Johnson’s teams were never lacking was attempts on goal. In all four seasons while Johnson was head coach, City had at least 10 shots per match. 2015/16 and 2016/17, the numbers were at its highest, at 15.72 (currently over double what the current team offer) but with only 4.3 shots on target per match in that time, it was the lowest percentage at 27%.

Even when the club was at its lowest under Johnson, when the club record 8 league losses in a row was achieved, the football on the pitch, at least attacking wise was still okay. Over 14 shots and 4 on target per match are currently numbers that fans can only dream about.

8 losses in a row seems like a breeze with the standards of the season just gone. Since the turn of the year Bristol City have lost 16 out of 24 league matches. Winning only twice at home in the calendar year, both in January with the most recent being the backs to the wall 2-1 win against Huddersfield Town on January 26th, where the visitors hit the woodwork more times than we had shots on target.  

Since then, a club record seven consecutive home losses have occurred, with the record being 9 losses in the last 10 at home, the other being a 0-0 draw against Nottingham Forest. 10 home games without a win are unacceptable, even with the mushy excuse of no fans being in the stadium, would that really have changed things?

For a fan like myself who has a season ticket in the Dolman Stand, I have paid £1482 to ‘watch’ Bristol City play at home since January 2018. In that time, there has been 79 home league matches, with Bristol City winning 26. That is less than a third of all home matches won. This means that each home win is worth £57.

So going back to the original question, has the club improved since Lee Johnson was sacked?

Well, on the pitch it is a definite no. Less output on the pitch in attacking scenarios, an inability to defend any set piece and the club has given a new definition to the word ‘homesickness’.

The plan in the transfer market has been demolished, there is no clear strategy anymore besides signing almost retired squad players. The mass exodus of players at the end of the season has cut the squad in half, leaving us with a rebuild so big we have already had to resign Nathan Baker, who 45 days earlier had received his P45.

As it stands, there is not a clear plan that I can see to get back to at least challenging for the play-offs, let alone achieving something special. But with Nigel Pearson at the helm, a new medical team in charge and the fresh exciting new faces coming up from the youth ranks, optimism is still here. It may be buried deep down but it is still there.

So yeah, Lee Johnson took the club as far as he could, and it was the right time for him to go. It has not been pretty as of yet and relegation was a massive risk last year. But with fans back and a full preseason under Pearson already commenced, the 2021/22 season will hopefully be a much more comfortable and enjoyable season than what we have had to endure.

Thank you for getting all the way to the end of this feature, if you would like to share it around that would be great, and if you have any comments or thoughts, get in contact with me on twitter, the link is here!

Matt Mehdi-Daley 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿🇧🇦 (@MatMehdiDaleySJ) / Twitter

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