Forest’s recent game against rivals Derby County was interesting in regards of how astute they have become under Sabri Lamouchi in the defensive phase of play.
Forest do not see a lot of the ball under Lamouchi; their average possession is just 45.5% - only Hull, Cardiff and Millwall have less in The Championship. At times possession has dropped into the 20-30% area, however there is a clear correlation this season between low possession and results, and the Derby game was another example of the opposition having more of the ball but Forest coming out on top.
If I had asked at the start of the season whether fans craved only having 30% possession against the likes of Luton Town, I guess this prospect would not have excited many, however it resulted in a win and this low amount of the ball has not entailed a poor, or even a defensive style of play.
Lamouchi isn’t instructing his players to park the bus, he has set them up to draw opponents forward and win the ball in situations where Forest can strike fast. It is the dual features of tolerating opponents possession in certain situations, and then attacking with direct football that has caused low possession.
The 4-1-4-1 has become prominent in world football – probably because elite clubs want their midfielders to be more flexible. However for non-elite teams like Forest it brings fundamental problems when out of possession.
We’ve seen teams use a 4-2-3-1 to exploit the space either side of Ben Watson already this season, but Derby highlighted another issue – that the 4-1-4-1 is a wide formation and is therefore vulnerable against a narrow midfield.
For the first 15 minutes or so Jayden Bogle was causing havoc by getting the better of Sammy Ameobi. This should not be fatal because when out of possession there is a principle that you require a positive overload – if the attackers are coming with five players the correct number of defenders is six.
Forest did not have this overload in midfield areas due to their wide formation and Derby’s narrow diamond system. Often when a Derby player managed to get the better of his man, Forest’s midfielders were spread too wide and the spare man was too far away to help cover.
The issue arose in other areas, but the main area was Bogle attacking Forest’s left hand side. As you can see from the diagrams (they all expand when clicked), when this happened Joe Lolley was effectively the spare man, however due to the shape of the system he was on the wrong side of the pitch to help.
Once Bogle was past Ameobi, other players had to abandon their own responsibility to challenge him, giving Derby the initiative. They were struggling to react in time, and leaving other areas vulnerable, other players unmarked.
This downside to the 4-1-4-1 – it’s width when out of possession – is a real tactical problem unless you have players flexible enough to take the initiative on their own; at this level players usually struggle to do this.
Lamouchi made the adjustment himself; he clearly changed Lolley’s instructions. Lolley had been staying up the pitch in an effort to be available in space when Forest won possession, but I believe he was instructed to pick up Tom Lawrence specifically when Bogle had the ball. This freed up other players, usually Watson, to be the spare man and created that positive overload we love to see.
Forest looked much more solid after this tweak, and the conditional press that Lamouchi has implemented started to be effective.
The basic instructions for the Forest press appear to be to allow the opposition to have possession in their half as a default, unless Forest are already high up the pitch when the opposition gain possession, in which case they press more aggressively until the team can regain it’s shape.
The Forest press is quite interesting from a strategic point of view. It has been fascinating to see strategies developed at elite teams filtering their way down to our level. Lamouchi is not exactly a trailblazer, but he has brought some of these ideas to Forest.
The Forest press is not just there to put pressure on the ball, it has added subtleties. For example, Lamouchi wants Forest to use the press to force passes into areas the team are ready to defend.
This starts with Lewis Grabban. I’ve heard him called lazy, perhaps because fans like to see strikers pressing energetically to close down opposition defenders, but this is contrary to Grabban’s instruction.
Grabban’s role in Forest’s press is not necessarily to win the ball – if he does, great, but he is there mainly to influence where our opponents play the ball. He does this by cutting the pitch in half.
When a defender has possession in his own half and the Forest press has not been triggered, Grabban will be positioning himself to stop a switch in play. By blocking this often easiest pass, Grabban is cutting the pitch in half, or to put it another way, reducing the defender’s options.
At the same time the Forest defensive unit, recognising that Grabban has cut the pitch in half, crowds into and condenses the half of the pitch which is easiest for the defender in possession to play into. The man on the ball now has to play into an area crowded with Forest players, play a riskier pass to the other side of the pitch, bring the ball forward himself, or play back to the goalkeeper. Ideally he doesn’t want to do any of these.
This pre-pressing method was influential in the goal against Derby. Bogle’s options had been reduced exactly as described above; Grabban had cut the pitch in half and the Forest defence had condensed onto his side of the pitch – there were no passes on, so naturally Bogle wanted to switch play to where Derby has men in space.
This is what he attempted to do, but Grabban was positioned to make this difficult. It was no coincidence that the striker was there ready to capitalise of this mistake.
Derby manager Phillip Cocu placed the blame for the defeat fully on Bogle’s shoulders, but he must take some of the blame. In the first half Lamouchi recognised an aspect of Derby’s play that was causing Forest problems and rectified it – Cocu should have known how Forest were setting up pressing traps and making switches of play dangerous, and prepared his team.
This feature of Forest’s press has been a big factor in Forest’s success this season, but there are plenty of other examples – my favourite from the Derby game involved Ryan Yates
Forest were deliberately allowing an easy pass to the player at the base of Derby’s midfield diamond. Sometimes they let him have the ball, however when the conditions were right, a pass from one of the central defenders to this player triggered an aggressive press.
As soon as the defender plays the ball, we see Yates sprinting at the midfielder about to receive possession. This midfielder has no time to do anything other than pass back to the defender – this reverse pass is predictable, not only because the defender is already in the midfielder’s eyeline, but also because Grabban is also part of the trap, cutting the pitch in half to reduce options.
Yates then continues the aggressive press by following the ball back to the defender, who now has very little time and is in danger of being dispossessed. This is a nice little trap and is typical of the Forest approach in sitting back until your opponent does what you want, then taking decisive action.
Having not viewed the Luton game, I was delighted to see how Yates fitted into the Forest midfield; as I have touched upon earlier, this system is not the simplest but the youngster looked like a veteran. He complemented Tiago Silva surprisingly well and the duo could not be faulted.
Derby struggled to perform their usual game-plan. A feature of their play is that their defensive midfielders see a lot of the ball, but this was significantly reduced against Forest – they touched the ball 29.6% less than the average of Derby’s previous 5 games. This was because Derby were forced to bypass these players by Forest’s conditional press.
There are, however, reasons for caution; the injury to Matthew Clarke forced Krystian Bielik back into defence. Bielik, in my opinion, is the star of Derby’s midfield and would have been much better suited to take on the Forest press when receiving the ball.
And despite Forest’s performing well off the ball, the result was far from certain – Derby had good chances to equalise. The Reds need to continue to improve and put teams away before the closing stages of games, where teams will be less cautions and anything can happen.
But it is early days and Lamouchi has created a really interesting style of play. There are issues which will see Forest come unstuck, but I don’t think I’ve seen any teams play quite like this in The Championship. If they continue to improve off the ball, goals will follow.
Thanks for reading.