Friday, 22 November 2019

Lamouchi impresses

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.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Lamouchi's 4-1-4-1

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.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Forest 1-2 West Brom: a tactical report

Sabri Lamouchi's fledgling reign got off to a poor start on Saturday as Forest were tactically outmanoeuvred in a 2-1 loss against promotion contenders West Bromwich Albion.

Lamouchi used a 4-1-4-1 formation with Ben Watson patrolling behind an experimental looking bank of four midfielders. Lewis Grabban was tasked with playing alone up front, also notable was Matty Cash slotting in at right-back.

Like Forest, Albion also had the look of a team in transition, with new manager Slavan Bilic deploying a 4-2-3-1 system. They have made some good acquisitions during the summer, notably Kenneth Zohore - fresh from a toughening season in The Premier League - and the classy Romaine Sawyers.

The Reds started brilliantly with a high tempo first fifteen minutes. Their movement in possession was excellent and simply gave Albion too many problems to cope with.

The midfield four proved to be accomplished on the ball and were brave in and out of possession, constantly available as outlets and unhesitant in making risky attacking plays - Forest were able to get the ball forward with some very positive football.
Adding to the assault were full-backs Cash and Jack Robinson, who made overlapping runs past the wide midfielders, creating overloads. This resulted in the opening goal of the match, as Cash combined with Albert Adomah and smashed the ball in from just outside the penalty area (see right, click to expand).

This was a good example of how teams, even with a clear tactical advantage (as we will see below), can struggle to cope with positive play. Forest had players making themselves available for the ball and making positive runs into areas of the pitch that created overloads and caused their opponents to make constant adjustments, which often left space.

The effectiveness of this, albeit only for a short period of the game, was increased by the back three being willing and able to play positive balls into the midfield. Michael Dawson and Joe Worrall advanced play well, however young goalkeeper Aro Muric was also outstanding in this regard.

However, once the goal had been scored Forest became vulnerable due to the tactics employed by both teams.

In setting up in a 4-1-4-1, Lamouchi would have been aware that pockets of space can appear to either side of the defensive midfielder (see diagram, left. Click to expand).

Alone this is not disastrous, but it does require energy and conscientiousness from the midfielders in particular - if they are aware of opponents looking to get on the ball in this space it is possible to neutralise this threat.

Forest's midfield bank of four raised my interest in this regard before the game; Adomah and Joe Lolley are not known for their defensive positioning, but I was also aware of the step up in quality that Thiago Silva and Alfa Semedo were making in their debuts in English football.

It was therefore foreseeable that if the midfielders were not covering this space, the West Brom players would attack it when they got the chance, and this is exactly what happened after Cash's goal.

Forest's pressing system made the situation worse. It seemed odd at the time that after the goal Forest stopped pressing in West Brom's half. Listening to Lamouchi after the game, it's possible that he instructed his team to do this in order to draw West Brom onto Forest - I may have misinterpreted him, however watching the match back on tv he does appear to be telling Ben Watson to do this.
From this point on The Reds pressed conditionally and relatively conservatively compared to before their goal. This allowed Albion to have the ball under little pressure until they crossed the half-way line. They now had time to play precision passes into the pockets of space behind Forest's bank of four midfielders.

The Baggies were able to hit back with two quick goals - as it transpired both of came from goalkeeping errors, however they were able to threaten the Forest goal because of possession established in front of our full-backs in these pockets of space.
The problem was exacerbated by the tactics employed by Bilic; the 4-2-3-1 is ideal for exploiting this space - the shape and flexible nature of the system allows the wide attacking midfielders to naturally find these areas of the pitch.

Forest had a defensive midfielder in place, mopping up in front of the defenders, however he had far too much to do.

Watson had a decent game. The golden oldie covered the whole pitch and rescued Forest on several occasions, but he was spread far too thin, covering the space that the other midfielders were leaving.

A look at his heat map illustrates how much work he had to get through - I have superimposed his defensive actions onto it too.

Although there was no lack of effort, the other midfielders simply did not have the defensive knowledge to consistently see where the space was appearing, or the flexibility to act, leaving Watson to cover as best he could, aided by some shrewd interventions by the two central defenders.

To put the whole recipe together, Forest were playing a system which left them vulnerable to leaving space in front of the full-backs, employing a pressing system which allowed their opponents time on the ball to pick out that space, against opponents who were using a system geared towards exploiting the situation.

This was a big part of Albion being able win the midfield battle for the majority of this game - they were able to get on the ball in these pockets of space in front of the Forest defenders almost at will.

The Reds looked slightly better in possession, but this aspect of their play was also beset with tactical problems. After going behind, they were never as threatening coming forward, despite some dangerous running from Lolley, Adomah and Semedo in particular.

Part of this would have been due to the knowledge that upon losing possession they were vulnerable, however once again it was the teams competing systems making it difficult for Forest to play the ball through midfield.

The 4-2-3-1 is naturally narrower making it easier for the wider midfielders to help crowd out the opposition central midfielders. There are also two defensive midfielders - this made it difficult for the Forest midfield to get on the ball as often once Albion had weathered the initial, adrenaline fuelled, storm.

This meant that Forest were forced to play the ball long at times, however when they did so they had little success, due to the lack of presence offered by Lewis Grabban. When our opponents played direct balls, sometimes the ball stuck as their attacker, Zohore, is well suited to playing on his own, however Grabban does not flourish when isolated.

Ultimately this game was lost due to two goalkeeping errors, however that does not tell the full story - Albion were clearly the better team and deserved their victory. They won the midfield battle because they were able to play through midfield and establish possession in Forest's half more easily.

There were positives for Forest; the defence held up excellently. Despite dominating possession and finding themselves in some very threatening positions, West Brom did not create many clear cut chances, due to a disciplined performance in particular from Dawson, Worrall and Watson.
The full-backs also played their part - I note a few grumbles about Cash's defending, however he was no liability during this game. The youngster was beaten for West Brom's equaliser, but he was heavily overloaded with three players to contend with (see picture, right). The problem was not Cash's defending, Forest had already been picked apart before the ball arrived in his position, to such extent that an attempt on goal was highly likely.

Muric in goal did not let his two calamities affect him. Later in the game he made an excellent save to keep Forest alive, and looked confident in dealing with crosses. And the midfielders, although out of their depth off the ball, look exciting when in possession.

There were some naïve tactical decisions made during this game - Lamouchi clearly did not know what his players were capable of, and the way he set the team up (4-1-4-1 against a 4-2-3-1) was detrimental to their performance. Inviting West Brom to attack after Forest's first goal, if this is what he did, also backfired. However as the new manager learns what the Championship is all about, it looks like we'll start to see Forest develop an attractive style of football.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to:

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Defensive analysis: Ipswich 0 Forest 2

Last week's surprise 2-0 victory at Ipswich was the first time Philippe Montanier's Forest side have shown a true defensive mentality. If replicated, The Reds' attacking flair should ensure a drastic rise up the table.

Ipswich's main strategy was to bombard the penalty area with crosses. They had clearly done their homework as Forest generally concede a lot of goals in this manner due to their poor man-marking and tendency to leave lots of space in dangerous areas.

Forest's defenders are noticeably poor in the air, and statistics bear this out; Armand Traore has been our best header of the ball this season – but he's only won 63% of aerial duels. This is poor – 47 Championship defenders have won a greater share of headers.
The centre-backs have fared even worse – Matt Mills and Damien Perquis have won a mere 56% and 55% of headers. They are the joint 77th and joint 84th best defenders in the league in the air.

Also, at times the Forest goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, while excelling at deflective shot-stopping, has looked far from convincing when coming for driven crosses.

So we can see why our opponents put a lot of crosses in (they managed a massive 49) and spent so much time trying to work openings on Forest's flanks – why didn't it work?

Montanier has recently changed Forest's system, employing a 5-3-1-1 formation designed to reduce space in the Forest penalty area. But what worked so well against The Tractor Boys was not only the system, but the personnel.

Daniel Pinillos and Eric Lichaj were used as the full-backs, which made Forest look much more balanced on the team-sheet, but the other players – so poor when out of possession in recent weeks – redoubled their efforts.

It must be noted that circumstances were in their favour. The Reds offensive flair has not been doubted this season, and they struck almost immediately, when Ben Osborn set up the clinical Britt Assombalonga to score after just 17 seconds.

This enabled Forest to sit back a little more, and for certain players to pick and choose which times to venture forward – something they did unerringly well.

I was concerned before the game about the deployment of Thomas Lam in midfield, mainly because I knew he would need support; I didn't see him as able to dominate this vital area of the pitch alone in the same manner as someone like David Vaughan.

Against my expectations, Henri Lansbury and Pajtim Kasami were extremely diligent in their defensive duties against Ipswich. We have raved about the goals, and the defending, but these two created the platform for both through their hard work and good decision making, and made things easy for Lam by protecting either side of him. The youngster generally only had to worry about a thin strip of the pitch – this enabled him to be clear in his duties, and help the defence in central areas rather than worrying about having to move out to help in wide positions (which was my main concern).

Lansbury and Kasami's continual presence was key as Ipswich created their attacks in the area just in front of Forest's full-backs (see the heat-map for Ipswich's attackers, right). With Ipswich focussed on getting crosses into the box, it was important that Lichaj, Pinillos, and later Michael Mancienne (after coming on at right-back) were in position.

Mick McCarthy is a clever tactician, and he was trying all sorts of methods and tricks to pull Forest players out of position and create overloads in areas of the pitch, but generally Forest resisted – this could not have happened if Lansbury and Kasami were negligent in covering the areas in front of the full-backs, where Ipswich were trying to make things happen.

This meant the wide defenders could stay in their defensive line, which effected the quality of crosses coming into the Forest box; they were usually in position to harry the opposition players making those crosses, and also limiting their opportunities to reach the by-line.

But even more importantly, the full-backs being in position ensured that the central defenders were also in position. In other games we have seen the centre-backs having to go out wide to deal with problems.

The effect of this is twofold; more obviously, it stretches the defensive line which creates more space for opposition players in the central danger-zone. But the effect of dragging players out of position gives attackers the initiative; they have chance to run into a perceived weak spot and the defenders usually cannot react in time.

One thing clever strikers do is run in just behind a defender who has been sucked forward (and this is no criticism of the defender moving out of position – it is the correct thing to do). If the ball is delivered to this sweet spot an attempt on goal is almost inevitable because the next defender in line cannot reasonably expect to get there in time. A good example of this was Brighton's first goal against Forest.

But against Ipswich the Forest defensive line remained compact all night. This combined with the midfielders tucking in when play was not in their half of the pitch, meant the Ipswich crosses were going into an area crowded with red shirts, who all knew their job.

This alone made Forest a much more solid outfit, but the players also appeared more determined. It was easier work due to the system working well, but in my opinion this was the best individual performances I've seen from Joe Worrall and Damien Perquis.

Matt Mills is one of the few players I've had sympathy for this season – he has been overstretching to cover for the lapses of other players – against Ipswich he was outstanding, organising his besieged comrades and encouraging them continuously, he also played well individually.

It was a really good away performance – Forest hit the home side when they could and defended in an organised, determined manner. I've been asked the question whether it was in part due to Ipswich being poor, but in my opinion this is slightly unfair. The Tractor Boys camped in the Forest half and put 49 crosses into the box.

On past performances this should have been more than enough, but Forest defended very well. The amount of defensive actions Forest were needing to make illustrates how much pressure they were put under – they made significantly more than the average away team (see table, right). Only 8 out of 49 crosses found an Ipswich player.

It is pleasing how Forest stood up to this pressure – there was no petulance, no silly free-kicks around the penalty area, no needless bookings, no free-headers or neglectful marking, no lazy pressing or shirking of duties. This game represents a major improvement in attitude and professionalism from the Forest players.

It will be interesting to see how the absence through injury of Lichaj and Pinillos effects this on Friday night away to Barnsley – but if their replacements are supported as diligently by Lansbury and Kasami they will have a simple job.

But more importantly, it is yet to be seen whether this was just a spurt of determination you sometimes see in lazy teams, or whether the players have taken to this new system – which the cynic in me has to say reeks of Montanier spoon-feeding his players instead of making them defend properly – you don't need a back 5 to eliminate space in your penalty area, 4 players are enough if everybody is doing their job.

The next few games will be very interesting from a defensive standpoint; the players have the tools to defend well and have shown they know how to use them – can they continue these standards? We're about to find out.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to and for statistical assistance.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Attitude adjustment

Much has been said of the problems which have seen Nottingham Forest become entangled in, on the face of it, a relegation scrap this season. Owner Fawaz Al Hasawi's mismanagement of the club and Philippe Montanier's unfamiliarity with Championship football have been key contributors.

But one problem – just as important – has gone relatively unheralded so far; the attitude of the players.
Aside from a few exceptions – the likes of Ben Osborn and the rest of our younger players in particular – Forest's playing staff have demonstrated a severe lack of commitment, professionalism and discipline this season.
When I talk about discipline, I don’t only mean they pick up a lot of bookings (they do, by the way) – I’m talking about the commitment to do their job properly without cutting corners, I’m talking about them taking the easy way out, avoiding responsibility. Scrimshanking their way through games.

Cheating the fans.
This is a team, I suggest, that is not struggling due to a lack of skill or confidence. The expansive, assured way they are playing their football when in possession betrays this. They have proven in spells that, playing the attractive, attacking brand of football preferred by Montanier, they have the ability to succeed at this level.
Under the Frenchman, Forest often start well and  manage to get themselves in front. But this is a competitive league, and you cannot afford to rest on your laurels.
Whether, after starting well, they think the job is done and get complacent we can only speculate, but one thing is certain – when opponents come back at them they fold. This season, after going behind, our opponents have equalised on 73.3% of occasions.
And worryingly, once behind, Forest hardly ever get back into a game, only equalising on 27.3% of occasions.
The Reds have thrown away 17 points from winning positions, and rescued just 4 points from being behind.
Other teams are reacting to the ebb and flow of the game better than Forest – they have demonstrated the commitment and discipline to keep doing the right things when things are not going to plan. Forest, on the other hand, fall apart because they lack this attitude, and stop doing the basics needed to compete at this level.

They start sitting deeper and deeper. Even against QPR's ten men this was evident, as they invited Rangers forward. This is common when teams lack discipline. They naturally drift back towards their goalkeeper to make life easier, as they then have, in theory, less space to defend. It’s not what the manager would want, but it feels safer.
Against QPR this allowed our opponents more time on the ball in our half and to get a lot of crosses into the box – which was a recipe for disaster considering Forest aren’t very good at defending crosses. To compound the danger, Forest also gave away a lot of set-pieces around their penalty area.

Almost ironically considering the above point, Forest's lack of commitment has also manifested itself into an over-use of the offside trap. I don’t think I can remember as many hands up signalling the linesmen as this season.
For this to happen so regularly, for me, shows a lack of commitment. It seems almost automatic; why bother running back if that nice man with the flag will do my job for me? It's the easy way out.

We've also seen a habit of not tracking runners - even in the penalty area. It could be argued that Montanier is playing an attacking brand of football, and in some cases - especially in midfield - he might not want his attackers tracking back, but there has to be some balance to this. Players still have the responsibility to make decisions on the pitch when, to not do so, leaves gaping holes in your defence. This bad habit has been rife this season.
Marking appears to be viewed as optional. The Cardiff goals are both good, if different, examples of Forest not having the discipline or commitment to mark opponents in goal-scoring positions.
Aron Gunnarsson scored Cardiff’s first; unmarked on the edge of Forest’s six yard box. His marker was Thomas Lam – this was a complete physical mismatch, and the Icelander brushed Lam aside. However, this area of the pitch should have been vigorously defended regardless of Lam. There has to be somebody attacking the ball, when it comes into that area.
Cardiff’s second was a comedy of errors. Armand Traore received the brunt of the criticism for giving the ball away near the corner flag, but the more worrying aspect was the lack of positional discipline shown by the other Forest defenders.
When defending, you should have an overload, or at least even numbers – but on this occasion (see diagram) there are two Cardiff players being marked by Eric Lichaj – his Forest colleagues don't have the discipline or commitment to be in position. They were assuming, and hoping, Traore would clear his lines so that they wouldn't have to work to get into position.
Note the difference in attitude of the Cardiff players; it appears a lost cause, but they are chasing it anyway. They are showing commitment, discipline, desire – all those words you have a right to expect as a bare minimum from professional footballers.

These are not isolated examples - Forest have been leaving attackers unmarked all season - look back at the goals we've conceded.
The next problem is the routinely lazy implementation of Montanier's conditional pressing system. Forest have spent periods of several games standing off and allowing opposition players to receive the ball and turn in dangerous areas – and even get their head up and pick out passes into the penalty area.
The first Reading goal was a good example. Many fans have picked up on the goalkeeping error, Vladimir Stojkovic should have done better, but the initial effort was allowed to be made by Pajtim Kasami, who failed to close down the shooter with any vigour or effort. He was resting on his laurels - in position but doing the bare minimum.

The amount of cards Forest pick up, silly free kicks given away and petulance displayed, especially towards the end of games, is another symptom of their poor attitude.

It is self evident that bookings and sendings off damage your chances whenever they are in a match, but the majority of Forest's come late. 64.4% of the cards picked up by Forest have come in the last third of the game - this is revealing as it indicates their reaction when the going gets tough.

This last third of the game is the period when Forest also let in a disproportionate amount of goals - 58.6%. When our opponents are giving it a final push to get back into or seal the game, throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at us, Forest are losing their heads.
It’s clear The Reds are bereft of leadership on the pitch. Chris Cohen is the club captain – he’s a nice lad, but is he nasty enough to knock a few heads together?
Vice-captain Henri Lansbury has a lot of influence – he is a forceful character, but not the man, I would argue, to inspire discipline, commitment or professionalism in the players around him, since at times he lacks all three of these qualities himself.
It’s not as if we’ve been watching a team of school-kids – although, as Colin Fray so brilliantly said after the Cardiff game, they are doing the kind of things you see 12-13 year-olds doing. This is an experienced team – the players that started against QPR on Saturday had made 2123 appearances between them.
If it takes more than 2000 games worth of experience before somebody thinks ‘we can’t allow free headers in the six-yard box’ or ‘I can’t let him have the ball there unchallenged’ then there is something wrong, and it’s not the manager’s tactics.
Head coach Philippe Montanier has been widely criticised for his tactical shortcomings this season, and I don’t totally absolve him of responsibility for the current mess either. But there is a big difference between the manager not having the knowledge or experience to do manage in The Championship, and the players deliberately not doing their job.
Is the manager instructing his players to get sent off, or argue over penalty-taking responsibilities, or give free kicks away in stupid positions, or delay kick-off in stoppage time when your team is 2-1 down by ambling petulantly back to your own half?
Are we to believe Montainer wants the players to not bother with such basics as marking? Is he a fan of letting the ball bounce rather than heading it away, or not tracking back, or dropping off rather than maintaining your defensive line, or appealing for offside because you can’t be bothered to chase your man?
Is he telling them to take their foot off the gas when Forest are winning? To only do the bare minimum and hope for the best? Somehow I don’t think he is.
In a few weeks a new manager will come in, and we’ll see at least a brief upturn in performances and results. But it will still be largely the same players, and they will still have this unprofessionalism in them, this lack of discipline lurking under the surface, waiting to reappear.
Don’t forget, we’ve still got certain players at the club who were not putting 100% in for Stuart Pearce. It’s in their arsenal; you cannot rely on these players.
You cannot teach heart. Dedication. Professionalism. The willingness to take responsibility. Discipline.
But if these players don't find some of the above from somewhere, we'll be playing in League 1 next season, whoever the next manager is.
Thanks for reading, and extra special thanks to everybody who has sent messages asking for the return of this blog. I don't know how often I'll be posting, but I intend to back up the above criticism in more detail, as I don't feel I've had the space or time to elaborate as much as I wanted.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Forest 2 Rotherham 1

Fans at The City Ground saw Forest win their first three points of the season on Saturday against an awkward Rotherham United side. It was a much better style of football, however the performance posed more questions than answers - chiefly whether they will be able to sustain it in the coming weeks.

The Millers team was peppered with familiar faces and set up in a 4-4-2 variant, their wingers playing quite narrow in an attempt to play through the middle.

Aggressive and well organised by their manager Steve Evans, they did a good job of bullying the Forest forward players and pressing high in an attempt to force direct football.

There was also a lot of gamesmanship going on at times (and when I say at times, I mean at all times). Evans himself contended every decision – in a constant state of outrage, he prowled the sidelines with arms spread wide in exasperation. His antics were calculated to pressure the officials and it may have worked: his players got away with continual and blatant fouling.

Dougie Freedman opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Tyler Walker up front and Henri Lansbury pulled back into defensive midfield, displacing Michael Mancienne who slotted in at left-back.

Taking advantage of the elongated formation, The Reds pressed high and were able to win the ball back much earlier than has been typical under Freedman's more conservative approach.

There was a real battle for dominance early in the game, as both sides fought successfully to establish their own area of superiority. Rotherham’s pressing was initially panicking the Forest back four, forcing them to play direct balls, which the Forest attackers were poorly equipped to fight for.

The Rotherham defence – with over 38 years combined experience at this level or above, found it easy to anticipate Forest’s long high and hopeful passes, outmuscling the smaller forwards and dominating in the air (see diagram, below-left. Click to enlarge).

They were also able to overload Forest in a key area of the pitch: The Michail Antonio Zone. When Forest were being successfully harried into playing the direct balls, most of them were aimed roughly at the winger. Antonio had caused minor chaos in the opening minutes of the game after getting loose in the Rotherham half, they now took steps to neutralise him.

Antonio found himself surrounded by black shirts; The Millers could double or even treble-mark him in the knowledge that the other Forest attackers were being easily outmuscled (for example, Walker was no match for Danny Collins, who roughed him up mercilessly). Antonio was also subject to a lot of shirt-pulling and manhandling, which went unseen by the referee.

This made it very difficult for Forest go get moving forward, and for much of the first half they had few creative ideas other than kick it towards The Antonio Zone. Rotherham, thus prepared for the direct tactics, sent the ball straight back at the Forest defence. Collins scored from an unmarked header and The Millers were threatening to add to this, winning the tactical battle.

That was only the case, however, until David Vaughan and Henri Lansbury managed to work themselves into the game. Sitting deep and screening the defence, they had been doing a reasonable job when out of possession, but by the end of the first half they had started getting on the ball, providing an outlet when Forest were in possession.

This bravery on the ball was key; Lansbury and Vaughan were staying calm, turning and able to pass to the attackers more accurately than the hopeful punts of defenders under pressure.

All four of the Forest attackers were now playing well, but Jamie Ward was particularly important in turning the game around; he was finding the space left by our opponents as they pressed, making himself available and advancing the possession positively.

Determined to make a comeback, Forest deserved their equaliser at the end of the first half - Matt Mills heading in unmarked to make up for being part of the defence that had let the same thing happen for Rotherham's goal.

But it was Lansbury and Vaughan who impressed me the most. The each touched the ball more than any opposition player, but Lansbury in particular was much improved, making a visible effort to force his way into the game. I get the feeling his performance has been overlooked because his influence was not in the attacking third, where he is best known, but for me this was one of his best performances in garibaldi red.

Which may be ironic; Lansbury looks certain to join our Championship rivals Burnley, just when he has started to do the things required to be a top midfielder. He combined well with David Vaughan both in and out of possession. They were exactly what Forest have needed since the injuries to Chris Cohen and Andy Reid - the search for a midfield solution continues it would appear.

Another concern is whether Freedman will stick with the more aggressive high-pressing system, which made Forest look so much better against Rotherham. It is possible that he will be more cautious against so called better teams.

This has been an ideal chance to get comfortable with high pressing however - two home games against average Championship sides in a row. The only issue is that if we do lose Lansbury, the defensive midfield partnership will be gone, and teamwork in this area of the pitch is fundamental in the organisation of high-pressing.

There are also question marks regarding personnel - a lot of the star performers on Saturday will probably not play in that position all season. As well as Lansbury (and possibly Vaughan, considering his injury record), Michael Mancienne will realistically not play at left-back.

The Machine had an excellent game - it was probably the best full-back performance defensively I've seen for years, but Freedman is likely to want somebody more suited to getting forward on the overlap.

Then there is Tyler Walker, playing on his own up front. He had a good game when involved, but was overpowered by the defenders and is clearly not a lone-striker. That being said, he stuck well to his task and did not appear intimidated  - and even played a key role in Antonio's winning goal.

This wasn't a vintage performance in terms of quality, but the type of performance was better - high-pressing, possession football with a central midfield that worked well together, however I'm not convinced Forest will maintain this style and I think this line-up will look quite different in a few months.

Therefore I'm not sure this game was a sign of revival in itself - I guess we'll have to wait and see starting with Tuesday's home game against Charlton. Thanks for reading, and thanks to for statistical help.