Exclusive: Lee Johnson's Bristol City ready to go toe-to-toe with Man City
The common consensus among most of the Premier League, when it comes to facing Manchester City, seems to have been damage limitation. Sit deep, dig in, form a defensive wall, try to stop them playing and maybe get something on the break.
Teams outside the top six have generally adopted the cautious approach, despite it providing a profoundly tedious spectacle for us neutrals, because trying to attack and being proactive would be competitive suicide, surely.
Not for Bristol City and manager Lee Johnson. Buoyed by the defeat of Manchester United in the previous round, and three other Premier League teams before that, Johnson's side attacked, they pressed, they were aggressive in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. Rather than letting Pep Guardiola's absurd footballing tornado play how they wanted and then attempt to stop them, Bristol City charged into the eye of the storm.
And it damn near worked. Bristol City took the lead and were only denied a remarkable draw by a 92nd minute Sergio Aguero goal. In the second leg, at Ashton Gate on Tuesday, expect Johnson's side to play in the same way. Even more so, perhaps.
"I think we have to be bold," Johnson told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "The players individually have to be bold, I have to be bold in my team selection and tactics. If we're going to fail, we might as well fail bold rather than fail timid.
"I understand every manager's tactical ploys. But we play our way, we've got our identity, everybody we recruit has to play that way, and it has to be entertaining for the fans. We will go with that attitude, particularly at home -- we might even be more cavalier."
It's not just that Johnson's approach almost achieved an unlikely victory, but it displayed a different, more positive way of dealing with this hitherto dominant Manchester City team. In recent weeks we've seen a trend slightly away from the accepted wisdom: Crystal Palace attacked them and nearly won, Liverpool attacked them and did win, so could Bristol City attack them and achieve the implausible?
Why not? They already know they're capable of cutting Premier League giants down, as shown in the United victory, and against Watford, Stoke and Palace before that.
"The players realised that if they play at their best, they can win these games," Johnson said. "We know we'll have to defend at certain times, but we know if we put our bodies on the line, back each other up and then we'll go gung-ho to get that goal."
To an extent, Bristol City can play without pressure, safe in the knowledge they have already achieved something remarkable by reaching the semifinal, but Johnson isn't adopting the attitude of the plucky underdogs.
"We don't want to be brave losers, we want to win the game," he said.
"We do feel we can impose our game as we did against Manchester United, and three other Premier League teams this year," Johnson continues. "I think sometimes you can show too much respect [to big teams]. It's up to our players to hurry, hassle and support each other. And we do have quality, which we'll show during the game, of that I have no doubt. It's all set up for heroes to be born."
Juggling their assault on the Premier League champions elect, and their own attempts to reach the elite, have proved tricky recently. When they beat United, Bristol City were on the edge of the automatic promotion spots in the Championship, but since then they've lost five games in all competitions, the rot stopped (or at least paused) by a tough point at Derby on Friday.
This has caused "peaks and troughs," as Johnson puts it, in the emotional states of the players, but if all goes to plan then Tuesday night will most certainly be the former.
Johnson recently spent some time in Manchester, seeing what elements of their set-up can be translated to his own team. Bristol City are planning a new training ground, and Johnson visited Guardiola's training ground to get advice and glean information to take back south.
He did some learning on the touchline during the first leg, too.
"Any exposure to that level of the game, for me, my staff and the players, is big," he said. "We'll always pick out things, whether that's certain intricate movements and patterns of play they make, or it could how high a line City play, which they use to suffocate the opposition in and out of possession.
"It's little areas like that, you work out what you can implement some of that into your side."
The coaching staff from both teams spent some time together after the first leg, leading to Guardiola's now famous query about whether the lines on the Bristol pitch were some sort of tactical guide: Johnson had to break the news that Ashton Gate is also used for rugby.
"He was very complimentary of the players," says Johnson of their conversation. "It's half-time, so we've both got to be a little bit coy. But hopefully the players earned the respect of Mr. Guardiola, because he's a great man and a great manager."
Not that Johnson will defer to Guardiola on Tuesday. His side's run to this stage of the competition has been based on front foot, aggressive and attacking football, so there seems little point in changing now.
"It's the second-half [of the tie] and we have to forget our feelings and starry eyes for our opponents, because it's a battle;" Johnson enthused.
"The fans are ready for it, the flags are out and the punters are going to turn up and hopefully see a memorable, historic victory."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.