After six interesting games under Sabri Lamouchi we are now able to discern the system which he has put into place at Forest, and what it means for their style of play this season.
Our new Head Coach has so far deployed a 4-1-4-1. In modern tactics, this formation has developed separately from a couple of different ideas. The more defensive idea saw teams retreating their wide forwards from a 4-3-3, in order to form a defensive block behind the ball, but we have also seen a possession based ethos, as elite teams began cultivating the 4-1-4-1 as a more flexible twist on the 4-2-3-1.
This possession hogging, passing style of the 4-1-4-1 was developed by the likes of Luis Aragones, who switched to this system during Spain’s victorious Euro 2008 campaign, and Joachim Low with Germany, but perhaps the best example is Pep Guardiola using a lot of the principles at Barcelona, and implementing them into a 4-1-4-1 at Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
These are the teams and managers that Lamouchi is clearly influenced by.
I understand any scepticism; at first glance Lamouchi’s Forest do not play the possession football typical of the top teams employing this system, in fact The Reds have averaged just 43.7% of possession this season – only 3 Championship teams have seen less of the ball.
Nor have they perfected the high-press so essential to the tactics of Guardiola and friends, in fact Forest have tended towards a conditional style of pressing so far.
But Forest’s movement and strategy when they gain possession is a clear replication of what these elite teams have been developing over the past decade.
The idea is to pass the ball out from the back using systematic, coordinated movement to give the man on the ball options rather than having to play long balls.
Any team would play attractive passing football if they could – the shorter the distance you are passing, the easier it is to control the ball, and it looks great. However unless you have movement off the ball the opposition will simple mark all your outlets, forcing the long ball.
The strategy utilized in this 4-1-4-1 system is to open up space in the middle of the pitch for your players to move into and receive the ball, rather than passing to them where they are more static, and easily marked.
This is done by pushing the full-backs up when you gain possession, splitting the central defenders and dropping the defensive midfielder into what is now a back three.
You now have three short options for your goalkeeper to play the ball to (which should be an easy first rung on the possession ladder) and a large gap has appeared in front of your defence where the midfielder would have been. We’ve seen Forest do this all season, as Ben Watson has been dropping in-between Michael Dawson and joe Worrall.
Watson has almost looked likes a ‘regista’ at times – a deep lying playmaker, he has a great range of passing and has been very good, however Dawson and Worrall have particularly impressed. These three have rarely played hopeful long balls, the system requires them to play good passes.
A quick word on the goalkeeper; it’s clear to me that Aro Muric was brought in due to his bravery on the ball. Some of his passing has looked clumsy, but it has been the instinctive, at times one-touch football that is an asset when playing this kind of system – you can see why he is so highly regarded by Guardiola, and I can see him getting back in this Forest team because he has attributes useful to this style of play.
This space in midfield Watson vacates is ideal to develop possession, as to get the ball here the midfielders automatically have to come deep to offer themselves as an outlet – even this very basic level of movement complicates things for the opposition; any defender following the Forest midfielder is automatically leaving space, to which his teammates also have to adjust or the press will fail.
Forest have been employing one of the central midfielders in a ‘shuttle’ role – this player shuttles between the defence and advanced midfield, staying quite central in order to be close to this space in the event of Forest losing the ball. They are there either to provide the outlet in this part of the pitch, or to support the outlet as a possible second pass.
The other central midfielder (sometimes the same player – they switch roles) has often been involved in the more rehearsed movement that Lamouchi has set up in order to advance possession, for example this player quite often makes a run out to one of the wings while the winger tucks into central midfield. We know this is rehearsed because, typical of teams still learning their system, this ploy is more prevalent towards the start of a half of football – once the opposition start causing Forest problems this central midfielder has tended to be more cautious in my opinion.
The role of the wide midfielders in this system is important. We have seen Joe Lolley, Albert Adomah and Sammy Ameobi coming into the middle of the pitch a lot, sometimes even into that deep sweet-spot, to get on the ball.
They need to do this as part of the movement-orientated style of play, but also to make room if the full-back is advancing; remember, this passing approach is all about creating space for your players to run into, and that includes space away from your own team-mates too. The further you spread out, the further the opposition has to be spread out, and the easier it is to play passing football.
The wingers also have an important role in mixing things up however, as if they push up they are very useful in pinning back the opposition defence, while other players make the movement for the ball.
Lewis Grabban has attracted criticism this season for not being involved enough in games, however the forward in this system often has to come deep to get on the ball. He has been doing this very effectively, and it has fit in with the team’s strategy, especially when he has done so during the attacking transition, where the central midfielders in particular have sometimes been out of position.
All this movement is designed to help players find space to come and get the ball, but also to create that space by moving not just your own man, but dragging any opposition defender out of the way too. This is a key principle in this style of play. As Guardiola put it “Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other.”
These are tactics recognisable from the games so far. Forest have been deliberately inviting their opponents onto them at times, as I suggested in my review of the West Brom game, but we have also seen one or two stunning moves, characterised by fluid passing and movement which has dragged their opponents around the pitch, the brilliant first goal against Fulham is an example of this.
All this sounds rosy – but we have seen how difficult our opponents have made it already this season. For all the fantastic movement off the ball and the technical ability our players clearly have, the majority of teams have been able to shut Forest’s passing football down quite effectively.That is because, as clever as the movement can possibly be, the easiest way to pass out from the back is to go through that area of space we have created by withdrawing Watson, so most teams have pressed this area aggressively.
Some systems will give our opponents a particular advantage in this; West Brom and Preston used a 4-2-3-1 which overloaded this area of the pitch, because their attacking midfielders are naturally in a position to press and crowd these positions.
Leeds manager Marcelo Biesla changed his system to target this area by man-marking Thiago Silva and pressing the other players on the ball in this area. Charlton also pressed us here.
But we have seen that when teams get their pressing wrong against us, Forest have been able to beat the press and wreak havoc. For example Fulham naively pressed too aggressively for their 4-3-3 system. This had the effect of reducing our possession in general, and particularly the time our defenders had on the ball, but once this initial press was beaten out midfielders were dangerous, particularly our wingers whose share of possession increased by 49.7% compared to the previous games.
Forest currently have problems with their own pressing system; Silva and Alfa Semedo in particular have appeared unfamiliar with their roles. There is not enough space to explore this properly here, but this has affected the transition from defence to attack and is an area Lamouchi needs to address quickly.
But once Forest have more practice with the Frenchman’s system – it is still early days after all – once they sort their off the ball issues out and start beating the opposition press with more regularity, we are in for some attractive, technical, winning football.
It will be interesting to see whether Lamouchi continues with this more direct style or attempt to instil a more possession based philosophy.
Thanks for reading.