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Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

During his time at BS3, Lee Johnson’s ultimate aim was to get Bristol City promoted. Whether it be via automatic promotion or the playoffs, Johnson and the board agreed that’s what the club needs to be pushing towards (at the start of his appointment, he even stated Bristol City could be in Europe within five years). However, none of these goals came to fruition over his eventual four-year period, and after a 1-0 loss at home to Cardiff last season, the board decided to let him go. Many people wondered who his replacement would be, and with names like Chris Hughton and Steven Gerrard being associated with the role, fans began to await the appointment of a well-known face at Ashton Gate. After a “rigorous recruitment process” and over a month of waiting, the board decided to go with Johnson’s ex-assistant and right-hand man in Dean Holden. This is Holden’s first permanent venture into first-team management, having previously been interim at Oldham Athletic in 2015. This tactical analysis depicts the style of play Holden will use at EFL side Bristol City, covering how he sets up going forwards, in the transition, and when defending.

Holden’s squad and preferred line-up

Holden inherited much of the same squad that Johnson left him at the end of last season. Five summer signings have since been added to freshen up the changing room, along with a handful of departures within the same period. Holden has now put his stamp on Bristol City this season, which looks a very different side compared to last’s.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Above is the formation Holden used during their Championship fixture against Stoke City. This season, the Bristol City head coach has so far opted to use a 3-5-2 system in all of his games, which is similar in some aspects to Chris Wilder’s at Premier League side Sheffield United. This is in comparison to both Johnson’s 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, which were utilised on several occasions, and within quick succession of each other.

This inconsistency could ultimately be argued why The Robins did not win any of their first five games after the summer restart. So far this season, four of the five new signings have featured in the first team, with only Joe Williams missing out through injury. Chris Martin and Alfie Mawson were included in the starting XI in their league match against Stoke City, with other arrivals Steven Sessegnon and Chris Brunt sitting on the bench.

The data so far

Even though Holden has only two league games under his belt this season (as of writing this), Bristol City’s overall stats are much improved over last year’s. The data below compares the number of shots the team has taken under both Johnson and Holden, how accurate those shots have been, and the average number of fouls and offsides the team has committed during the games played. This data does not include the games Holden took charge of after Johnson’s 2019/20 sacking.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Firstly we can look at the average number of shots Bristol City take per match. As the data shows, City attempted around 10.96 shots per match under Johnson compared to 11.5 under Holden so far. Those shots haven’t just been coming more frequently, but have been even more accurate towards goal. 4.11 shots on target per match under Johnson compared to Holden’s 5.5 will significantly increase Bristol City’s chance of scoring goals this campaign.

When looking at the disciplinary side of the team, Holden’s men have only committed an average of three fouls per game compared to last season, which was 8.76. In 2019/20, Ashley Williams was joint-top in The Championship for red cards received (two), and Famara Diédhiou was in the top 10 for total fouls committed (74) – aspects that Holden will have more than likely wanted to improve upon.

As for offsides per match, this stat indirectly affects the number of shots per match a team can have. There is only a small difference in the statistics as of right now (3.65 vs 3.5), but if Bristol City can continue to improve upon last season for offsides per game, they can give themselves more opportunities to shoot on goal.

Bristol City going forwards

In the opening weekend of the 2020/21 Championship season, Bristol City scored the quickest goal across all matches thanks to Jamie Paterson’s first-minute strike against Coventry. Below we will go over how they managed such a fast start.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Straight from kick-off, Bristol City quickly organise into their favoured 3-5-2 formation for this season. The ball is played to the centre-backs with intention of getting it up the field as soon as possible. On the other side of the pitch, Coventry played with a 3-4-2-1 system that they have used for many seasons now, and have been quite successful when doing so.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Above, we see Taylor Moore play a one-two to wing-back, Tommy Rowe, pushing Coventry’s midfielders and wing-backs high up to press Bristol City in their defensive third. This allows Moore to play a ball over The Sky Blues’ midfield and into Andi Weimann, who is now unmarked.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Holden has decided to play Weimann as an attacking midfielder this season, compared to the striker/wing positions he normally finds himself in. This allows the Austrian to find pockets of space in between the opposition’s defence and midfield to receive the ball, and then create chances going forwards.

Inevitably, we see this happen, as Weimann wins the header and flicks it to Famara Diédhiou, who now has a 2v1 with Nahki Wells against the Coventry defenders. Left centre-back, Dominic Hyam, is forced to come across and press Wells, leaving a large space in their back-line. Jamie Paterson, who is playing in the 10 role, pushes forwards into that space and drives towards the 18-yard-box.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Diédhiou plays a smart ball into Wells, who then squares it to Paterson and Bristol City find themselves 1-0 up within 20 seconds. Essentially, this goal stemmed from the changes Dean Holden has made at Bristol City, most significantly the new formation introduced this season.

Bristol City in possession

Holden’s 3-5-2 system encourages his centre-backs to spend more time with the ball at their feet, becoming more comfortable when having to play the ball forwards from the back. The decision to play defensive-minded midfielders in Han-Noah Massengo and Tyreeq Bakinson creates that link between the backline and midfield when playing forwards through the opposition.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

When in possession, both Zak Vyner and Taylor Moore spread wide to create space around them. This gives either centre-back opportunities to drive forwards if they get played the ball, knowing there will be a wing-back or midfielder in front of them who they can then offload to.

Above, we see Massengo drop into the hole to provide a more central option if needed, however against Coventry, The Sky Blues were very good at cutting off any potential passes that could’ve gone to the Frenchman. However, due to their formation, Bristol City could stay comfortable in possession and keep the ball moving around the back.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

If ever Dan Bentley found himself with the ball at his feet, most of the time he was able to give it to his centre-backs. When the goalkeeper had the ball, the three of them would, again, spread wide to provide him with multiple options to play to. If one pass wasn’t on then two others would be available, sometimes even the wing-backs dropping in if needed.

Holden, having his defence organised this way, has allowed them to become more relaxed when on the ball. This is in contrast to the way some centre-backs can feel when in possession, which can be rushed due to a lack of support around them, and therefore kick long to avoid being caught on the ball.

Bristol City in transition

When going from defence into attack, the majority of balls will be played through the defensive-midfielder. Whether it be Massengo or Bakinson, the centre-back will play it to the six, who will then look for a pass to either wing-back. When on the wing, Bristol City begin to move into the opposition’s third during these transition phases.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Above we see Tyreeq Bakinson, selected ahead of Massengo for the Stoke game, playing a ball into wing-back Jack Hunt to foster an attack down the right side of the pitch. Holden has made Bakinson that pivot in the Bristol City midfield, who has the ability to spread passes out to the wings where The Robins start the majority of their attacks this season.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Here we can see the midfield triangle Holden created against Stoke, using Bakinson, Weimann and Paterson, to help his players keep possession easier when in the busy middle third. Here we see Weimann linking up with Bakinson in the City midfield during the buildup of their first goal against Stoke City.

When Bakinson receives the ball he plays it to Paterson, who then has two options to progress the attack. He can try moving towards the Stoke defence and potentially find Wells or Chris Martin, but instead plays into Hunt and the wing-back drives up the pitch.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

The Robins have two target men in their first team (Martin and Diédhiou) which gives them aerial options when going forwards. Above we can see Jack Hunt picking out Chris Martin, who has been the main forward outlet for Bristol City this season. This is how The Robins scored their first goal against Stoke, where the ex-Derby man won the aerial ball, and Nakhi Wells was first to the knockdown to then beat the goalkeeper.

Bristol City’s defensive structure

Holden’s men kept a well earned clean sheet against Stoke during that Championship matchup, preventing The Potters from having a single shot on target. His chosen 3-5-2 system means Bristol City can use five attackers when going forwards, but also allows them to defend with a flat back five when the opposition has the ball.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

Here we can see how Bristol City organise themselves during defensive phases. The back five are very structured, with the defenders using a man-mark system to pick up the Stoke attackers. Holden instructs the midfield three to also get behind the ball to do two things. One, they cut off passing lanes through the middle of the pitch, preventing any through balls aimed behind the backline. 

And two, the midfielders press Stoke towards one side of the pitch, suffocating them against the touchline and restricting their options going forwards. Above we see Stoke attack Bristol City down their right-hand side, so Holden also instructs Tommy Rowe to move more centrally. The space Stoke has in Bristol City’s defensive third is very confined, leaving the attackers with little options going forwards.

Bristol City defending on the front foot

When having to press the opposition further up the pitch, Bristol City use their two strikers to reduce the time defenders have on the ball.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

We can see here both Wells and Martin are pushed up very high to restrict the goalkeeper’s options from the goal kick. Weimann has also moved forwards and will press the middle centre-back if he receives the ball when Stoke plays out.

Dean Holden: Is he the man taking Bristol City to the Premiership?

The Stoke goalkeeper opts to play to the LCB, therefore Martin quickly shuts him down along with both Wells and Weimann. This puts the defender under immediate pressure, causing him to play the ball long and risk losing possession.

Because Holden has instructed his strikers to press this high, his midfield players then have instant opportunities to play forwards when they win the ball back. Weimann becomes that link-up player in the hole, allowing The Robins to quickly start attacks in the opposition’s third.


This analysis shows that during their matches this season, Holden’s chosen tactics have made Bristol City perform better, compared to when under Johnson. The change in philosophy has massively contributed to the way The Robins play, and the team as a whole looks more comfortable under this system.

Holden has made signings who fit the way he wants to set up, and an outcome of this is results are coming their way. The data so far shows that Bristol City are an improved side compared to the last campaign, and it will be interesting to see how long this strong run of form can continue for the West Country side.