When, in the 2017-18 season, a run to the semi-finals of the EFL Cup pitted his side against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Bristol City manager Lee Johnson spared no effort or expense – a £450 bottle of wine was purchased to lure the former – in securing one-on-one post-match sit-downs with two of football’s greatest minds.
Johnson welcomed Mourinho into his office at Ashton Gate following a shock 2-1 victory over United in the quarters, and he sat opposite Guardiola at the Etihad after the Robins’ cup streak was ended one step short of the final.
He was searching for advice, pointers, any kind of golden nugget of information that he could glean from the pair who, between them, have won 16 league titles and four Champions Leagues. In the end, Johnson found the two men, who have feuded bitterly in the past, share a common trait each might not recognise in the other.
“It was about the tactical ideas,” Johnson remembers of his meetings with the rival managerial megastars. “It was interesting because it wasn’t just me firing questions. That’s what impressed me with Guardiola and Mourinho. I don’t think you can be as successful as they are without being top humans, top people. Obviously they’ve got very different media styles, but, in a one-to-one, you can sense they’ve both got a humility.”
In his four years in charge of Bristol City, between his 2016 appointment and his departure in July, Johnson strived to mine every possible resource in an effort to broaden his managerial skillset and improve his team. No potential gain was too marginal.
He spent time shadowing NHS doctors and nurses and studied how the SAS and the Red Arrows operate under pressure. He invited a wide range guest speakers, from Ian Wright to members of Rudemental, to share their experiences with his players.
“When I go on my case studies, it’s not always necessarily built around football,” Johnson explains. “It can be built around a theme or a philosophy that builds into football. When I went to the NHS, that was more about decision-making under pressure, and the SAS was more about communication, particularly when you’re in high-pressure environments. And also the Red Arrows, which was very interesting, was more based on critique and feedback in a post-mortem of a football match.
“Those communication techniques become really important. It’s all building this toolbox to be able to deal with what can be a very complex set of circumstances in a football dressing room.
“I’m always conscious to call them marginal gains, but it’s ways to implement your thought processes, your philosophy and get [the players] to buy into it. And, more importantly, to retain the information. In this era, it’s really important that we find that route in as quickly as possible.”
Even dating back to his early days as a 33-year-old manager in charge of Oldham, Johnson has sought to broaden his skillset by studying other coaches, clubs and cultures. He has spent time observing the methods of Barcelona and Real Madrid, watched how his dad – Torquay manager Gary Johnson – coached a low-on-confidence Latvian national team, and spent extended time with the City Football Group’s various clubs and RB Leipzig.
“I thought I’d pull back maybe four or five nuggets of gold to share with Bristol City,” he says of his time with Leipzig, and I remember writing down 47 things in a three- or four-day spell.
In his time at Ashton gate, Johnson’s borderline-obsessive attention to detail (he would, for example, measure the length of the grass at away grounds) drove a slew of technical innovations, from using drones to record training sessions to installing pitchside screens to deliver instant feedback.
“I’ve always loved a gadget,” he admits. “You have to apportion a certain amount of time to make sure the world-class basics are there, the fundamentals of your game and your culture, but at the same time spend that proportion of time finding those marginal gains or one per cent or technological advances you can improve with. It’s trying to find those minute moments you can influence.”
He also adopted the principles of tactical periodisation, a training methodology developed by Vitor Frade, a Portuguese academic at the University of Porto, and espoused, in particular, by Mourinho and a string of his compatriots. The premise is most simply explained as ensuring a team or manager’s tactical and philosophical aims are worked towards in every aspect of the players’ work, with each training drill, for instance, replicating some aspect of a match situation.
“First and foremost, it’s to simplify the complexity,” Johnson says, “to be able to relate your ideas and game models to make sure everybody understands. From that, the football club and the team gains an identity but also a structure. It’s a really good organisational tool.”
But Johnson extended this approach beyond the confines of Bristol City’s training ground. “Part of that tactical periodisation piece was to move all the way down to wives and social,” he continues, “that they’ve got an understanding of how the team is picked, how the manager thinks, how the players are going to respond, and how they can reframe the player to get back to that fighter mentality.
“I know that sounds a long way from the football pitch but, as we know, when players are happy, when their families are happy, they play their best football.”
Obsessed as he is with chasing advantages and improvements for his team, Johnson insists he applies the same honest scrutiny and desire to get better to himself, his successes and failures, methods and motivation.
“You’ve got to understand that you don’t know everything,” he concedes. “You can’t be the Mecca of all knowledge when it comes to football. You’ve got to get good staff around you, you’ve got to trust the staff and you’ve got to strive to improve. That’s what gets me up in the morning, that constant strive to improve.
“You’re never going to reach perfection, and sometimes being a perfectionist can be a problem – that’s something I’m studying at the moment; it’s the perfectionist in me that needs to taper down. But that thirst for knowledge, that’s what I enjoy. That’s just built into my personality.”
Johnson may have fallen short of his ultimate aim of getting Bristol City promoted to the Premier League, but prior to his sacking in July after a run of nine leagues games without a win, he’d delivered year-on-year improvement at Ashton Gate and was, at the time, the Championship’s longest-serving manager.
He looks back on the last four years with “a warm glow”, but the last few months have given him time also to analyse, to scrutinise, to obsesses. He’s turned down a couple of job offers he felt weren’t quite right for his next step. But, still only 39, he won't stand still for long.
“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on every decision that’s been made,” he says, “and take all the successes and the failures and try and redefine and improve.
“You’ve got to keep learning in this game. You’ve got to keep adapting.”