It was one thing for Lee Johnson to promise Bristol City would imprint their game on Manchester City, the day before their EFL Cup semi-final first leg in a windowless press room. It was something entirely different – and hugely refreshing – to see a group of players imprint their game across the terrifying expanse of the Etihad pitch. Bristol City put their foot to the floor and never let up.
“It’s a funny one isn’t it?” Johnson had said on Monday. “How do you prepare to play them? Do you try and stay in it in the first leg? I think that’s a dangerous game – it could be six or seven nil before you even come out your half.
“So we’ll play our game. Our challenge is to be allowed to play our game or to force the opposition into conceding that we can play our game.”
They did just that. To say Johnson’s team played fearlessly in the 2-1 defeat does them a disservice. They felt the fear, embraced it, sucked it up and played with it churning in their stomach. The players wholeheartedly committed to Johnson’s gameplan: counter-attack in numbers; pressure on every defender receiving the ball with their back turned; three forwards planted around Claudio Bravo’s box at every goal-kick.
It was not perfect, and the latter ploy led to Manchester City’s equaliser. Bravo played out through the initial press to De Bruyne stalking the open plains ahead, who turned and accelerated towards the few remaining opponents before combining with Raheem Sterling and slamming home.
But it was a strategy which had brought so much joy until that point that conceding one goal seemed a fair price to pay.
This was a reminder of an old footballing analogy, that a football team is a bit like a duvet: pull it up to cover your nose and your toes get cold; let it slip down over your toes and your nose is exposed. Every team has a weakness, somewhere on the pitch – it is not easy but it is possible to expose Manchester City. You just have to force their hand.
Time after time, pressure told on the hosts’ defence. Twice early on, Oleksandr Zinchenko’s attempted pass forwards from deep was blocked. They weren’t significant moments but they raised a cheer from visitors’ corner, and might even have passed some of that fear over to a defence so rarely confronted this way.
It was that pressure which told to create the penalty for Bristol City’s opening goal, Josh Brownhill pouncing on a dithering Eliaquim Mangala, springing forwards and feeding Bobby Reid who was felled by the lunging John Stones.
The appearance of Sergio Aguero was the ultimate compliment, one of the best strikers in the world sent on to punish the sheer audacity of their second-tier visitors. Next came Kyle Walker, the most expensive full-back in history, while Guardiola’s arms flailed, clearly irked on the touchline.
With 88 minutes on the clock there were five Bristol City players in the final third, searching for a winner. In the end it was Aguero who found one, but it was the kind of scrutiny City have too rarely been subjected to this season. And it was a reminder that there is a viable alternative to the growing trend of attack versus defence at the top of English football, for those willing to embrace the fear.