It should be pointed out that the previous points tally is a false figure; aside from last season’s games against Barnsley, and the Stoke calamity, Forest were not as poor as 1 points out of 21 suggests.
This season at least, Sabri Lamouchi had the team doing broadly what he wanted – aside from player error at crucial times, they were mainly solid and the trademark fluid movement was there. But poor finishing, opposition goalkeeping heroics and the loss of key players cranked up the pressure and asked Lamouchi questions to which he didn’t have the answer.
With Forest flailing around towards the bottom of The Championship, the new manager’s answer was a tried and tested one; take the team back to basics.
We’ve seen this before – several managers have come in with The Reds struggling and asked the players to prioritise the simple, off the ball work above all else, notably Billy Davies, Steve Cotterill, but most obviously Dougie Freedman.
Freedman’s plan was extremely straightforward – he based his early tactics on denying the opposition time on the ball in a restricted central strip in front of the Forest goal. The simplicity of this plan made if effective, because it was easy for the previously disheartened Forest players to do.
Against Blackburn Forest shaped up in a 4-2-3-1 not too dissimilar on paper than a Lamouchi selection, however it was geared towards the players maintaining more of a rigid and solid defensive shape.
The strength of this system is it’s flexibility – it is both attacking and defensive depending on the strategy in play. The extra line of players means the formation is elongated, which is good for pressing and getting players forward, however if this is the focus then the area in front of the full-backs becomes vulnerable. Hughton played conservatively against Blackburn to prevent this, having the wingers drop back to form a bank of four to help protect the danger zones either side of the defensive midfield.
With the wingers sitting deeper, and lacking the choreographed movement when turning over the ball indicative of their play last season, Forest found it difficult to beat Blackburn’s press and were forced to play longer balls bypassing the midfield. However, the defensive, 4-4-1-1 slant on they system made it easier for The Reds to drop back into shape when they lost the ball, resulting in a solid, but uncreative performance. I've looked at this match in more detail, which you can read here).
Joe Lolley won the game with a fortunate goal, but Hughton will have been most pleased that the team were so solid against dangerous, previously free-scoring opponents. The challenge now was how to increase creativity while maintaining defensive solidity.
The creativity problem persisted in a dull first half in the next game, against Rotherham, leading to Hughton replacing Luke Freeman at half-time with an extra attacker, Lyle Taylor.
I had expected Forest to line up in a 4-4-2, but Taylor appeared to me to play in attacking midfield. The 4-2-3-1 was being used more aggressively; with the quality of players at Hughton’s disposal, and the wingers pushed further up the pitch than against Blackburn, goalscoring opportunities were more frequent. The game ended 1-1, but the upturn in attacking threat convinced Hughton to start Taylor as well as Lewis Grabban in the next game, against Derby.
This time Forest did line up in a 4-4-2, in a game which proves the vulnerability of the system in elite football.
I think Hughton played this system because he wanted players forward to support an attack but still wanted the security of two banks of four to provide defensive coverage across the pitch. Despite their league position, Derby are a better team than Rotherham, and they play with three attackers – Hughton was probably concerned they would be in a better position to exploit the danger zones in front of the fullbacks in a less conservative 4-2-3-1.
Taylor and Grabban appear to have been instructed to focus on being available to lead the attack, rather than to drop into midfield for the ball too much, but the system did not work tactically because Forest could not get the balance right between attack and defence – if they committed men forward they were vulnerable defensively, because of the shape of the two team’s systems.
This made them more nervous to get forward, and along with Taylor and Grabban’s instructions not to drop back into midfield this created a second hole in which the Derby defensive midfielders were getting on the ball and dictating play.
The lack of presence in the second hole made life difficult in possession too, as there was no pass available here when coming forward. Forest’s means of attack was either longer balls to the attackers, or to play down the flanks; Prepared for both routes, Derby were the better team in the first half.
Hughton reverted to the 4-2-3-1, and along with the introduction of Anthony Knockaert this changed the game. With Joe Lolley playing in the number 10 role the Forest midfielders were now able to hold their own. The Reds still played reasonably conservatively, but the massive injection of talent in Knockaert helped build possession from their own half. Again, the game ended 1-1.
Hughton has continued searching for the right balance between defensive solidity and creativity. He appears to have settled on the 4-2-3-1, with the tactical questions arising from the midfielders and their positioning. When supported the midfield looks solid, and capable of building possession from deep, but as the wingers have been getting forward, and as the team have been afforded more licence to move around the pitch, opponents have been taking advantage of space appearing in the Forest midfield on the turnover.
They have also been caught out of position a lot through through not closing down players quickly enough, and have found themselves in no-mans-land during the Forest press more often than players of their calibre should be.
Ryan Yates has done better; his fitness and energy have enabled him to cover the ground and be in position more often than his midfield partners. He is starting to show signs of being the one to run Forest's midfield. That Yates has coped so much the easier of the four players possibly indicates that the defensive midfield as a unit have been tired and overworked, confirmation that Hughton is yet to find the balance between attack and defence.
With the new manager's feet under the table we might see more movement off the ball. Forest have a lot of good attacking players and have looked dangerous when they've had possession in the opposition half.
We can expect to see a target man arrive in January to give Hughton an extra option up front; with more ability to make the ball stick in advanced areas the midfielders will be able to sit closer to the 4-4-1-1 when they need that defensive bank of four across the pitch, relieving pressure on the defensive midfielders.
Forest have a difficult period coming up. A clash with the improving Barnsley is followed by games against Bournemouth, Swansea, Watford, Reading, Norwich and Brentford. If they are able to get twelve points out of those seven games we’ll know that Hughton has found the right balance between attack and defence.