Friday, 15 October 2021

Forest unshackled: September reviewed

Looking back through September is a good opportunity to review the array of tactics deployed by Chris Hughton, Steven Reid and new head coach Steve Cooper – I’ve included the early game in October for convenience.

Hughton ended his Forest career with two demoralising losses at home, against Cardiff and Middlesbrough. It’s been reported elsewhere that Hughton changed system for these games to a 4-4-1-1, however in reality he stuck with his trusted 4-2-3-1 with striker Lewis Grabban in midfield.

The Irishman may look back at his end ruefully – his season was thwarted by poor recruitment leading to the lack of capable players, particularly in the full-back positions. However, against Cardiff new signings Max Lowe and Djed Spence were available.

This led to a noticeable change as Forest started to play how Hughton wanted; Lowe and Spence had an inclination to get forward to create the overloads necessary for the system to threaten, the physicality to cope with the high workload, and were more comfortable defensively. The stopgap full-backs had been Forest’s Achilles Heel but with this solved they looked competitive, with Lowe in particular pressing forward well.

However, another familiar problem derailed Hughton’s revival in the shape of man-mountain Kiefer Moore.

The Reds have long struggled against physical forwards; youngster Rubin Colwill received the plaudits, but it was the presence of substitute Moore that punctured Forest’s confidence. The Reds slipped to a 2-1 defeat.

The decision was possibly already made, however a lacklustre display against Middlesbrough in the next game saw Hughton’s departure, with Steven Reid coming in as interim head coach for the game against Huddersfield, for which he changed the system to a 3-4-2-1.

Revitalised, Forest won 2-1. We’ve heard all about them taking the shackles off in this game, referring to the perceived defensive ethos of the previous manager, but this was inaccurate – at least how it was meant.

Rather than being defensive, I felt Hughton was actually too aggressive – he liked to stretch teams by leaving players up the pitch, wanting numbers ahead of play ready for the turnover, in pre-defined, almost micro-managed positions. This wasn’t working for Forest.

The attacking midfielders’ instructions to stay high were causing issues defensively, especially for the makeshift full-backs, which in turn was over stretching the defensive midfielders as they needed to help the defenders over a wider area.

But worse, the lack of freedom afforded to the attackers made them easier to neutralise.

It is not that this constrained aspect of Hughton’s system doesn’t work – it has in the past, and it does for other teams today. The problem was that it didn’t suit the players. They were badly missing a focal point up front able to tussle with defenders – a target man like Andy Carroll or Nikola Zigic (available during Hughton’s Newcastle and Birmingham days respectively).

Forest were also missing wingers with enough about them to hold off touch-tight defenders – Anthony Knockaert was brought in with this in mind but his contribution was just not enough.

The recent transformation proves that Forest’s players were not suited to Hughton’s rigid instructions. These were the shackles that really came off during the Huddersfield game, not defensive restraints, but instructional.

It was greater freedom to move off the ball that resulted in September’s goal glut, not a less defensive ethos. We’ve already seen that the likes of Lolley and Grabban thrive under movement based systems under Sabri Lamouchi. Brennan Johnson appears suited to this style too.

We all know Grabban likes to move for the ball. He escapes the physicality of defenders, drifting away to get involved in build-up play. Making those secondary runs, appearing in dangerous positions. He is a Rolls Royce of a player when moving around the pitch, but cannot cope when fighting for direct balls against big central defenders.

The attacking midfielders have enjoyed more freedom too.

If an attacker has rigid instructions to stay high and wide, he is stretching the opposition through his presence. A full-back sees the likes of Lolley staying high and wide and now has a problem – he generally wants to get touch tight by the time Lolley receives the ball, because he is the type of player that needs stopping before he’s got his head up, running with the ball.

Unless Lolley is able to deal with the defender’s close presence he is often forced to play the ball immediately backwards. This was happening a lot with Forest under Hughton.

However if allowed to move into awkward areas Lolley can give the defender decisions to make. Should he follow Lolley? Will he be leaving space? Will somebody else pick him up?

It was noticeable how much Lolley, Johnson and Grabban in particular enjoyed having greater freedom of movement under Reid, this has continued under Cooper.

The new head coach maintained this system for the game against Millwall. The Lions were organised enough to cope better with Forest’s movement than Huddersfield – they matched Forest’s formation quite closely and defended space well.

They also possessed another six-foot-plus lump of kryptonite in the form of Matt Smith up front, whose goal restricted Cooper to a point in his first game.

The reds fared better against Barnsley and Birmingham, winning 3-1 and 3-0. They maintained the freedom of movement in these games but Cooper did tweak the system in a few ways.

The central defenders, as predicted in my article here, have seen a greater share of the ball under Cooper – their touches increasing by almost 50% - while the central midfielders have seen less possession.

This is due to Cooper’s strategy of playing the ball around between the back three and defensive midfield playmaker until an opportunity presents itself on one of the wings.

The idea is that the pace and adventurousness of the wing-backs, in conjunction with the uncertainty and overloads created by the movement of the front three, create these opportunities down either flank when Forest have the ball.

This tactic was particularly successful against Barnsley, often uncovering space either side of their back three, especially when Barnsley pushed up the pitch either to press high, or have possession in the Forest half.

The Reds demonstrated flexibility in the second half of this game; Cooper noticed how exposed The Tykes were – he switched to a 4-2-3-1 system to exacerbate Barnsley’s problem, still continuing to push forward Lowe and Spence, but allowing an extra attacking midfielder in order to exploit the gaps.

The Birmingham game was again won through the movement of the attacking players, however in a different manner as Forest sprang forward on the turnover.

They were actually fortunate not to have conceded at least a couple of goals, once again shaken by a more physical team. The Blues spent a lot of time pushed up in the Forest half, smothering, crossing the ball, bullying.

The Reds answered with counter-attacks, which proved more potent than the Birmingham pressure. Grabban was instrumental here; he was coming deep, collecting the ball and spearheading the charge.

The two attacking midfielders were making runs ahead of him, forcing the defenders to back off which allowed Grabban space to advance. Forest’s wing-backs were also overlapping – in contrast to Hughton’s style of attack Birmingham were being stretched by dangerous, flexible runs rather than being pinned down.

Forest have proven during September that they can be dangerous in different ways. Cooper likes to control the game with deep possession until you can flood forward down one flanks and exploit opportunities, however against Barnsley in the second half and Birmingham they were springing forward from being on the back-foot, defending well then punishing ruthlessly.

Another good sign is their fortitude. In the past they would have crumbled under the pressure exerted by Birmingham. They have also recovered after going behind twice in this period.

A change was needed. The shackles are off. It will be interesting to see how Cooper changes things further after the international break, and whether Forest can maintain their new attacking potency against better teams.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Steve Cooper: the tactics

This week ex-Swansea boss Steve Cooper became Forest’s 21st full time manager/head coach since their relegation from The Premier League – how might he change things tactically and what might it mean for the current squad?

Initially at Swansea, Cooper favoured a 4-2-3-1, switching at times to a 4-3-3 system. A feature of these sides was patient play out from the back and a focus on attacking down the flanks. He changed to a 3-4-1-2 for the 2020/21 season, but retained this patient, wing-based approach.

The 3-4-1-2 system is interesting because of the way it’s developed in The Championship, and this is worth bearing in mind when thinking about the way Cooper’s teams play – where at elite level you would not call it a defensive system, Championship teams have taken to it in larger numbers because of the efficiency with which it’s shape covers the pitch defensively.

So at this level the 3-4-1-2, or other 3-4-3 derivatives, have quite a defensive ethos, and considering how Forest lined up against Huddersfield (likely they knew he was going to be appointed) it would be a reasonable guess that Cooper plans to use it again.

Forest did line up slightly different up front to the Swansea model, playing in a 3-4-2-1 as opposed to Swansea’s 3-4-1-2, but these type of systems are interchangeable.

The dominant facet of Cooper’s Swansea sides was their patience in possession. The back three spread and the defensive midfielder sits behind the opposition’s first line of press, making himself available as a deep lying playmaker - this was usually Matt Grimes for Swansea.

Grimes was the key man for Cooper – he took a large part of the responsibility to play the ball out of defence, and was responsible for this zone defensively during some passages of play.

Cooper likes the other players to push up the pitch to theoretically pin the opposition back, giving the defenders and midfield playmaker room to pass and probe from side to side. Often the wing-backs become involved, moving opponents around until space appears or an overload can be created down one of the flanks.

Width is used to stretch the defending team and create threat – as Cooper’s team develop possession on one side of the pitch, the opposite wing-back stays wide and high, threatening a switch in play and even being ready to capitalise deep in the opposition penalty area.

The wing-backs are used very aggressively, expected to run past the attackers to make up the attacking numbers, as otherwise the system is quite defender heavy.

Swansea’s style of play under Cooper attracted criticism - they were not quick to get the ball forward in the games I have reviewed, but they didn’t have a huge amount of possession either – probably due to the nature of the Swansea press rather than a tendency for direct play.

A more patient style of football should be welcome at Forest; the forward players here are no better suited to direct play than Swansea’s were under Cooper. The Welsh side relied on their attackers moving and getting involved with the wing-backs, drifting out wide to help establish possession. Most of the longer passing Cooper asks for appears to be switches in play often aimed at the wing-backs.

Out of possession, as I’ve already touched on, the 3-4-2-1 systems are very efficient at filling the pitch, although Swansea appeared to change their shape situationally, rather than sitting in a rigid formation – watching them I didn’t see the bank of four midfielders as often as I have for teams playing a similar shape such as Coventry or Barnsley. Swansea were more fluid out of possession – the box-to-box midfielder generally sits higher to press any passes through the middle leaving the playmaker to screen the defenders, and the wing backs react to what the opposition are doing.

Swansea didn’t press particularly high in the games I’ve watched, allowing their opponents to keep the ball more than many teams - as mentioned above, the reason for their average amount of possession.

When deeper under pressure Swansea often formed a back five, with the remaining players encouraging their opponents out into wide positions. They were competent at defending crosses, which was made so much easier because there were five players in their consequently more compact back line.

Are Forest suited to playing a similar system? This will depend on whether it suits their players.

Off the ball central defenders will enjoy playing three at the back if only because it will help them defend against crosses, which has been one of Forest’s vulnerabilities for years. They will also be able to step out of defence with more confidence to help in midfield, which has caused problems in the past. Defensively therefore, I think three at the back will be a hit.

However, it is essential that the group are comfortable in possession.

Forest have Joe Worrall, Tobias Figueiredo, Loic Mbe Soh, Scott McKenna and Rodrigo Ely for this position. The Brazilian Ely is an unknown quantity, but I think this style of play bodes well for the other players.

Swansea generally used the two wider defenders to play or even carry the ball forward – I can see Worrall and Soh sat either side of McKenna coping with this well. Riley Harbottle may also have a chance to break into the squad over the next year or so, as this style may suit him.

Forest’s wing-backs also look suited to this system. Max Lowe has played successfully as a wing back before and has already done a lot of damage for Forest going forward. Jordi Osei-Tutu has a good reputation for this facet of his game. Djed Spence and Mohamed Drager also appear better suited to attacking than defending – it’s almost as if Forest brought these players in suspecting a system like this was a possibility.

James Garner will play the midfield playmaker role – we all know the quality he has on the ball, and he is improving defensively. Although his ceiling is higher, I think at the moment he isn’t as well rounded a player as Grimes, who was Swansea’s standout player in this system, but in possession Garner will shine, particularly if Forest can pin teams back to give him room, like Swansea did at times.

Using this system would put pressure on Ryan Yates. With four players across the middle, Swansea did not employ a defensive destroyer, instead using Jay Fulton as the box-to-box midfielder.

Off the ball Yates can do this job easily, but the question will be whether he can make enough of a contribution with the ball, as he is not as well rounded a midfielder as Fulton - Cafu and Jack Colback will certainly see this as an opportunity to oust him from the team.


However, my admiration of Yates is no secret and I’m looking forward to seeing how he applies himself to this challenge.

What I would also say is that Swansea’s biggest vulnerability under Cooper was when their wing-backs were caught out of position on the turnover – Grimes and Fulton were sometimes unable to protect the defenders. Cooper may be inclined to utilise a more specialised defensively minded midfielder to compensate for this, now that he has one.

As mentioned above, Swansea often played with two strikers, and just one attacking midfielder. Forest look better suited to having this the other way around.

During the Huddersfield game Joe Lolley and Brennan Johnson thrived in this system, and the new head coach has worked successfully with Alex Mighten in the past, so that bodes well.

Cooper will not necessarily just go with two midfielders though – at Swansea he converted an attacking midfielder, Jamal Lowe, into a striker in order to fit his 3-4-1-2 system. We could see Mighten played here where his pace and trickery would be an asset.

The nature of Cooper’s patient ethos in build up play will suit all of Forest’s attacking players, as they should no longer have to battle for endless longer balls, instead they will be asked to combine with the wing-backs to establish possession on the ground.

This will suit Lewis Grabban in particular, he is excellent at dropping off, letting midfielders and hopefully wing-backs overlap him, only to arrive late in dangerous positions. He may benefit from this system more than anybody.

On the whole I would say Forest are much better suited to play Cooper’s 3-4-1-2 system, or something similar, than they were Hughton’s 4-2-3-1, although we may be disappointed if we are hoping for an all-out-attack style of play. The shackles might not come off as much as some hope.

There will be winners and losers in the current playing staff – we might see more youth given a chance as this is the Welshman’s forte. I’d love to see more of Finley Back, Tyrese Fornah and Ateef Konate in particular.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Forest go to Swansea in January for Grimes, who is out of contract next summer, or even Fulton if the players here prove unable to fill the box-to-box role.

Hopefully it will be 21st time lucky and Steve Cooper will be the one to take Forest back to The Premier League.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Tactical review: August

Forest had a nightmare first month of the season, finding themselves bottom of The Championship after earning just one point from their first five league games.

It has been well documented that Forest’s preparations for the season have been poor, for both avoidable and unavoidable reasons.

Cancelled friendlies and interrupted training due to Covid-19 appear to have directly effected the first loss of the season, against Coventry City – you can read my match report here. The Reds faded badly from a good start, fatigue helping The Sky Blues to immediately crank up the pressure on Hughton by coming from behind to win 2-1.

During this game we also noticed the first signs of the inadequacy of the Forest squad in key areas undermining the manager’s tactics, and his failure to discover a solution – this has been the dominant feature of the first month of the season.

11 players left the City Ground during the summer, either released or returning to their parent clubs – these players made up 42% of Forest’s league starts last season – an unusually high amount of gaps in the team-sheet that needed filling.

Despite the clear need for players, the only new arrivals available in the league before the Derby game were Ethan Horvath, Philip Zinckernagel and Jordi Osei-Tutu, leaving the shortfall to be filled by youth players, and others previously decided to be not good enough for the first team.

The full-back positions have been most compromised by this policy. Against Coventry Forest started with Gaetan Bong (previously told to find a new club) and Jordan Gabriel (transfer to Blackpool only delayed due to Forest lacking right-backs).

These two areas of the pitch were exactly where Forest were the most vulnerable due to their system. It is no coincidence that this is where tactical problems have come from.

Coventry created their goals in these areas. Central midfielders Jack Colback and Ryan Yates had been working hard during this game, but were spread too thin – Forest were instructed to employ a high midfield press in Coventry’s half, but also the central midfielders had to get back and help Bong and Gabriel. Overstretched and fatigued, Yates and Colback made errors contributing to Forest’s downfall, but it was the full-back area that had become the problem..

The Forest full-back positions continued to be very much makeshift for the rest of August’s league games – at left back we’ve seen Osei-Tutu and Gabriel deputise for Bong during his ridiculous suspension, both looking uncomfortable on that side of the pitch, and at right back Gabriel has done reasonably well, helped out by the fabulous, but not quite ready, youth player Finley Back.

Forest play in a 4-2-3-1 system – the traditional weakness of this formation in the areas just in front of the full-backs, where space naturally appears unless the wingers drop back when out of possession. But Forest’s wingers have had instructions to stay high up the pitch when possible, often allowing easy routes to the edge of the Forest defence out wide.

Opposition sides have been targeting these areas, forcing the uncomfortable full-backs into awkward decisions with good movement and overloads.

The David Brooks goal for Bournemouth is a great example of Forest being cut apart in this area, but Stoke and Derby were clearly focusing on this too, while Blackburn had a lot of success with their players directly running through Forest’s full-back areas with the ball.

Lack of confidence in the full-backs has also effected Forest going forward – it appears to me that the full-backs have been told to be more conservative than you would ideally like, in order to maintain some defensive solidity.

We’ve seen over the past year that Hughton’s Forest sides suffer from a lack of creative movement. A great way to solve this is by having the full-backs make forward runs to create overloads, something not happening enough this season.

Indeed, whenever a full-back has found himself in the opposition half Forest have looked dangerous. I believe Hughton wants them to get forward – the acquisition of Osei-Tutu was a clear indication of that, as he is a very attacking player. This has only been reinforced by the (late) additions of Djed Spence, Mohamed Drager and Max Lowe, all of whom have played in midfield or at least fit the theory.

Another issue when in possession has been the lack of regular outlets in central midfield. This area of the pitch has been lambasted in some sections of the support for being too defensive, and there is some truth to this gripe.

Again, the club was late in bringing in a satisfactory partner for Ryan Yates. Yates, despite the grumbles of some, will continue in the Forest midfield due to the defensive quality he produces. However he is not the type of player to control the game in possession.

James Garner has been brought in to do this, but he missed the first four games and the lack of a ball-playing midfielder in this area made it difficult to play short through the middle. The club can perhaps be forgiven for waiting for the Manchester United man instead of getting somebody else, but it has contributed to the poor start.

How the 4-2-3-1 system has interacted with opposition tactics has also made it hard to play through midfield. Most of our opponents have pushed up players onto Forest’s defensive midfielders in an effort to force direct balls, but Coventry and Stoke found flooding the midfield particularly easy because their formations out of possession crowd this area.

This has been forcing Forest to play longer balls, something that they are not well suited to do. Time after time we have seen the likes of Lyle Taylor, Lewis Grabban and Alex Mighten compete with two or three defenders, they almost always lose out because this isn’t their game.

This brings us back to recruitment. I am amazed that Hughton (or the club, whichever are responsible for bringing players in) has not brought in a target man. The manager clearly does not want to rely on long ball football, however the fact that Forest can’t do it makes it more likely. Opponents are deliberately forcing this.

Looking back at the teams Hughton has been successful with in the past, a target man has always been a key weapon – at Newcastle he had Andy Carroll. At Birmingham it was the Serbian skyscraper Nikola Zigic. His Norwich team contained former Forest man and now professional wrestler Grant Holt, and at Brighton he had several forwards who specialised at receiving direct play, such as Tomer Hemed, Bobby Zamora and Glenn Murray.

Unlike the previous manager Sabri Lamouchi, Hughton teams in possession have never relied on choreographed movement, instead they like to stretch teams with presence ahead of the ball, and have the wide men hug the by-line. He just doesn’t have the players at Forest, that flexibility. That is why they have struggled to score goals.

Off the field matters is not the forte of this blog, I focus on the football, however the recruitment strategy has clearly affected the football. The club appear to have gambled on muddling through August without filling the gaps, weakening an already inadequate squad. The gamble has not paid off – Forest have given the current play-off teams a 9-10 point head start.

Results should pick up – options in the full-back positions, and the type of players they are, will help Forest come forward with the ball, as will the addition of Garner.

We could even see The Reds switch to a three man defence – the 3-4-2-1 type of system is currently being used very successfully in The Championship because it covers the defensive territory very efficiently, but it is a less aggressive strategy and Forest fans seem to want attacking football.

Either way it seems that the extenuating circumstances have given Hughton an extra chance that he might not have expected. He’ll have to find a way to make this work in the next few games or Forest will once again be starting from scratch with a new manager.

You can read my players of the month here.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Player of the month: August

 As we exit the international break I've been looking at which players escaped the nightmare month of August with any credit. This is my shortlist for, and finally my player of the month.

=5. Riley Harbottle & Tyrese Fornah

Were it not for the cup exploits of some of the younger players, I would be struggling to point to half a dozen who have done reasonably well this season. None of the under 23’s let themselves down against Bradford and Wolves but Riley Harbottle and Tyrese Fornah in particular stood out.

Fornah had an outstanding game against The Bantams, wowing The City Ground in a midfield general role. Available and confident on the ball, he looks a crowd pleasing type of defensive midfielder.

However he will also have pleased the purists like myself for his defending – he made a defensive contribution every 9.55 minutes over the two games. The amount of attacking our opponents did in those games lent itself to favourable statistics like this, but he was defending well even more regularly than Ryan Yates has managed this season which is a good indication of how effective Fornah was off the ball.

Harbottle, for the first hour of both games, was almost faultless defensively. The young back four faced a tough couple of games – everybody can appreciate the quality and movement Wolves brought and to hold out for 58 minutes was an achievement, but I found it just as impressive how they did against Bradford. It’s often overlooked how difficult younger players find it against crafty, more experienced lower league teams; Harbottle led the defence well.

He looks like a ball-playing central defender, willing to make brave passes and eager to carry the ball into midfield. If he can do this at a higher level he will adapt well to modern football.

Both players made a few errors against Wolves, perhaps trying to do too much on the ball when a less progressive, more pragmatic option was the answer, but this does not take away from the quality of their contributions.

 4. Ryan Yates

Ryan Yates does what Ryan Yates does, no matter how the team are doing, this player can be relied upon to do his job - to effect the game and make things difficult for opponents, and he’s been doing it during this poor first month of the season.

Yates has made easily the most defensive contributions this season (40), one every 11.4 minutes. This may have been boosted by the wider reaching role he has taken on defensively; Chris Hughton has allowed the wingers more licence to lurk forward of play leaving the makeshift full-back areas in need of protection, this has come from the two central midfielders, who have needed to put in a lot of work.

Things haven’t gone perfectly – in particular he’s made a couple of fouls that have contributed to opposition goals and has looked ragged at times, but Yates has certainly not been the problem and if we take away his defensive contributions Forest would have conceded more goals.

 3. Brennan Johnson

Perhaps the best business of the summer transfer window was holding onto our young talent, with Brennan Johnson foremost in this consideration.

Johnson has found it difficult to be involved at times during August, due to problems with Forest’s overall play, but whenever he has found the ball in space he has demonstrated game-changing ability. Especially effective on the turnover, he has a lot of pace and looks very dangerous running with the ball into space and at times has terrified defenders.

His end product has been excellent; Johnson has been involved in a goal during league games on average every 136 minutes. It’s a very small data sample, but this is an excellent return – Forest have had seasons recently where no player came close to contributing this regularly.

 2. Philip Zinckernagel

Watford loanee Philip Zinckernagel has been the main source of attacking class in a Forest team struggling for creativity.

Players of this type sometimes tend to slip in and out of games – we saw that a lot last season with Anthony Knockaert, but when he’s involved Zinckernagel has already looked much more potent.

Statistically he is already contributing well to the Forest attack; he has been involved in a goal every 114 minutes. This drops to every 203 minutes when only league games are counted, but this is still a good amount for a player in such an uncreative team.

But the most impressive aspect of Zinckernagel’s play for me has been his contribution off the ball. He is a good communicator, taking the opportunity to offer advice to other, particularly younger, players, and his defensive contributions were excellent during August – he completed 16 defensive actions during the league games, which is good for a winger. Only Ryan Yates has made more tackles this season for Forest.

 1. Finley Back

The brightest spark of the disappointing first month of the season has perhaps been the surprise emergence of of Finley Back. The 18 year old right back starred in the League Cup, but also played against Blackburn and Stoke in The Championship.

The full-backs appear to have been told to play quite conservatively so far, and that probably helped Back – he also seemed to get as lot of support from Zinckernagel when playing together. This has created the conditions for him to do well, but he still needed to do the business himself, and has looked remarkably unperturbed.

Back’s defensive awareness and positioning have been superb, and this is confirmed statistically as he made on average more successful defensive actions per minute than any Forest player during August.

He also contributed to two goals against Bradford – in the cup we were able to see him venture forward a little more and he seems to have an eye for a pass into the inside forward positions.

His attitude immediately won over the fans, in fact he was the one player showing leadership and encouragement as the goals began to fly in against Wolves, something the senior team has perhaps been short of over the past few years.

Very much one for the future, Finley Back is my player of the month for August.

You can read my tactical review of August here.

Thanks to: whoscored.com, sofascore.com, footballleagueworld.com & bbc sport.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Coventry City 2 Forest 1

Forest opened the 2021-22 season on Sunday, victims of a fairytale homecoming for The Sky Blues, playing in Coventry for the first time in two years.

Chris Hughton had a number of selection problems, with players missing from his threadbare senior squad due to injury and coronavirus isolation. Lyle Taylor spearheaded a 4-2-3-1 system, with Alex Mighten and Brennan Johnson starting in attack along with Joe Lolley. Jack Colback and Ryan Yates played disciplined roles in front of an unfamiliar looking defence.

Mark Robins used the 3-4-1-2 trend that featured heavily in The Championship last season – Martyn Waghorn is a notable summer arrival at Coventry, but the danger-man in this side is attacking midfielder Callum O’Hare.

Coventry started the game playing patient football, looking after the ball in their defence and midfield – they dominated possession throughout the match, seeing 67% of the ball. This might be expected for a home team losing for much of the game, but even before conceding Robins’ team had 61% of the ball.

Both this high possession, and where it was (in Coventry’s half of the pitch) was certainly affected by Forest’s system. The Reds were instructed to squeeze high to force the game to be played in Coventry’s half as much as possible.

Forest generally employed a midfield press, with players committing aggressively when the conditions were triggered. With the exception of when the keeper had the ball, Coventry were generally allowed possession in their third, with Taylor often dropping off allowing Mighten or Johnson to encourage a pass.

Coventry were playing with four defensive midfielders, which is great for having short outlets; passes into this area were the trigger for the Garibaldi press.

Led by Yates and Colback, Forest’s aim was to win the ball in this area of the pitch, or at least stop Coventry’s easiest route out of defence. This was a big problem for Coventry, because with Forest playing high up the pitch, when they won the ball here they were naturally in a good position to threaten. Therefore, The Sky Blues could not commit their wing-backs as far forward as they would have liked.

The precarious nature of Forest’s strategy was that when Coventry broke the press, they had lots of space to run into. However on the few occasions this happened Forest worked very hard to snuff out the danger.

This is how Forest won the midfield battle in he first half, however they did not have things all their own way.

Coventry’s strategy off the ball was to not allow Forest to play through the middle by crowding out this area of the pitch – O’Hare was dropping in to help their two central midfielders, and Coventry’s bank of four were able to narrow. This choked Forest’s passing options in central midfield, forcing more direct play. Taylor did get loose on two occasions from long balls, but Forest’s main success was direct from the turnover.

Although Forest did well winning the ball in midfield, the breakthrough came with Coventry more committed after breaking Forest’s press. The strategy of leaving men forward paid off as Johnson burst forward on the counter attack. Pace, guile and a precision pass from the youngster  handed Taylor an easy chance.

There has been a lot of criticism that once ahead Hughton changed things to protect the lead. Forest certainly stopped winning the ball in Coventry’s half as much – in the first half they did this once every 8.2 minutes, however after the break this dropped to once every 27 minutes, indicating a massive change in the flow of the game.

I had the impression myself on first viewing that Forest had switched to a 4-4-2 at some stage early in the second half in order to be more conservative. This made sense; the flow of the game indicated that another goal was likely one way or another – as Forest were leading, they didn’t want this. Dropping the wingers back into a block of four would have made them more solid.

Shrewder analysis shows that I was wrong. Forest were certainly still using a 4-2-3-1 up until the introduction of Cafu in the 88th minute, and it appears instructions were still to play in the Coventry half, as midfielders continued to stay up the pitch, and the trigger point for the midfield press remained  in the Coventry half – none of which is indicative of unambitious play.

Nevertheless, Coventry gradually took over the game, and Forest’s success in their half became less and less frequent. After the game Hughton blamed this on the players running out of energy. We can certainly see signs of this.

There was a period in the first half when Forest were scrapping hard for the ball, making things very difficult for Coventry, but over the course of the game their opponents, visibly and statistically, outperformed them in almost every area.

The defensive contribution of the front four raises concerns that could be explained by tiredness. In the first half especially attackers were making a big effort to help defensively, but they were much less effective later on. They were either not in position to help (it’s feasible they were told to stay available), not making challenges or losing their duels.

Statistics support this. Defensive statistics are not the ultimate guide on how a player is doing off the ball – you can defend well without making a tackle or block for example. However, just two defensive contributions (according to whoscored.com and backed up by Sofascore.com) spread over four players (plus their subs) is certainly a red flag – especially for a team seeing little of the ball, and (according to some) told to focus on defending.

The whole team had expended a lot of energy. Playing high up the pitch and recovering on the turnover takes a big effort, but also they had played a lot of the game without the ball, and this is more tiring than playing possession based football.

So although when leading away from home players will naturally tend to be more conservative, I think we can explain the drop off in threat, and the increase in mistakes, with tiredness more than conservatism. In fact I don’t see evidence of a tactical switch until the 88th minute, when Forest reverted to a 4-1-4-1.

As Coventry’s attacks became more frequent, they had two major breakthroughs in Forest’s full-back positions. In the 80th minute O’Hare brushed aside Gaetan Bong, as well as Colback – the latter poorly allowing himself to be nut-megged. The attacker’s shot created a game of Pinball in the Forest penalty area from which Coventry equalised.

Later the same player was loose in the right-back position – Scott McKenna had to come out to deal with him, followed by Yates who hacked down O’Hare. Chaos ensued from the free kick, and Coventry got their deserved winner.

Both of these goals were sloppy, with the defensive midfielders going into areas to help, but instead making errors that contributed to the goals. I find it difficult to be too critical, as these two players had toiled restlessly - there is an argument to say that over 90 ninety minutes they were just spread too thin.

There was no time, and even less energy to go for an equaliser, meaning The Reds opened their campaign with a concerning defeat to a team probably aiming for mid table.

Forest clearly aren’t the finished article – a disrupted pre-season and slow transfer window have ensured that. 

I liked the midfield press, and the young attackers look ready to terrorise teams – Mighten and Johnson drew four yellow cards as Coventry struggled to contain them – with a few good signings, and the retention of our existing talent, we’ve reason to be optimistic this campaign.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to:

Whoscored.com

Sofascore 

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Friday, 15 January 2021

Ryan Yates Myths

Ryan Yates is another of those players who splits opinion, attracting a wide variety of criticism. Which grumbles are justified? Which are myths? And can he fit into a successful midfield?

1. Forest’s results are poorer when Ryan Yates plays.

Forest are struggling, however the alleged drop in performance with Yates in the side simply has not happened this season.

Yates has played for 45 minutes or more in 18 league games, yielding 19 points - an average of 1.06 points per game. He has failed to feature for 45 minutes in 5 games, which returned 3 points – an average of 0.6 points per game.

I would not say the improved tally is due to Yates – in fact this statistic is kind to him; Forest lost a game which he started but was sent off, contributing to that defeat. However, even if we artificially alter the statistics to take this game into account, Forest still earned more points with him in the side and therefore this claim is clearly a myth.

2. Ryan Yates cannot tackle/cannot defend.

Yates’ defensive statistics look good. This season he has made above the average amount of successful tackles, clearances and blocked shots when compared to other Championship defensive midfielders, and has been dribbled past below the average amount of times.

Forest enjoy around the average amount of possession at 49.9%, so it is difficult to argue that Yates’s defensive statistics are skewed by the team spending more time defending.

Forest tend to concede less goals when Yates is involved. Forest have allowed one goal every 95.3 minutes Yates played of Championship football. In his absence Forest conceded every 60 minutes – on average it has taken teams over 35 minutes longer to score against Forest with Yates on the pitch.

3. Ryan Yates cannot head a ball.

Yates wins far more headers than the average first team defensive midfielder in The Championship.

It is useful to have a player in this position so strong in the air, due to the evolving movement of attackers at this level. Strikers are deliberately drifting away from the central defenders on the turnover, to create mis-matches when competing for high, direct passing.

Having a player like Yates in midfield is a tactical advantage when dealing with this – we’ve seen an example of why in the game against Cardiff, where Yates was tasked with neutralising Kieffer Moore in the second half (I’ve written about it here).

4. Ryan Yates’s positioning is poor.

Positioning and reading the game is one of this player’s strong points – Yates can be relied upon to be in the correct area whether the team is out of possession or on the attack.

As well as screening the defence effectively, Yates’s awareness often sees him helping the defence. For example, Forest have a problem this season space appearing between Tobias Figueiredo and Cyrus Christie. This was capitalised on repeatedly by Norwich as the Forest midfield failed to react, and contributed to their first goal. Yates almost always recognises this danger; he is like poly-filler when gaps appear in the defence.

The amount of duels Yates wins is exceptional – he is averaging 8 per game, almost double the average for a defensive midfielder. His percentage of won/lost duels is high, but not high enough to justify this figure – good positioning is responsible for this amount of duels won.

5. Energy and commitment aren’t enough.

Undeniable facets to Yates’s game are his fitness, attitude, effort and passion for the club.

It is claimed that these should be the bare minimum, and not lead to a player being picked for first team football. Unfortunately we’ve seen that these traits are not universal – they are not even common. So while energy and commitment aren’t enough – they should be valued highly.

6. Ryan Yates gives the ball away too much.

Yates gives the ball away slightly less than average for a first team Championship defensive midfielder. He has lost possession an average of 10.8 times per game; the average for defensive midfielders playing 10 games or more is 11.04 times per game.

This is even harsher an allegation when considering the forward passing myth...

7. Ryan Yates does not pass the ball forwards.

Possibly the most common, and easily disproven Yates myth is that he does not pass the ball forwards, and therefore stifles the teams creativity.

I regularly pull up the relevant statistics on Twitter when this is unfairly claimed, but for example in the last game 72.7% of Yates’s passes were forward ones. This high amount is typical for the Forest man.

It is often alleged that other teams defensive midfielders play the ball forwards more than Yates – usually Norwich are cited. But their players in this position do not play the ball forward as much as is claimed, because it is not their role. In the last game Alexander Tettey played 48.8% forward passes, and in the game before that Oliver Skipp played 49% forward passes, and Kenny McLean played 65.2%.

8. Ryan Yates is poor at passing.

Yates’ passing accuracy is currently 76.7%. There are players in his position in The Championship who average into the 80-90% area – Norwich’s Skipp averages 88.5%. Bristol’s Adam Nagy has the highest in the league, an impressive 89.5%.

The average passing accuracy for defensive midfielders in The Championship is 78%, therefore Yates is below average in this regard.

This is mitigated somewhat by the low amount of those passes being backwards; the likes of Skipp and Nagy play safer passes in general, however this is certainly an area which Yates can improve.

9. Ryan Yates runs away from the ball when Forest are in possession.

This is another imaginary claim; Yates does a good job of making himself available for the ball, and gets involved in possession.

We can see this in the amount Yates is on the ball – he regularly accrues over 60 touches in games, and is generally more involved than his defensive partner, which is not typical of a player shy of the ball.

10. Forest are less creative when Ryan Yates plays.

On average with Yates on the pitch this season it has taken Forest 142.9 minutes to score a goal, Without him it has taken 120 minutes to score – a difference of 22.9 minutes, therefore statistically this is not a myth.

This may add credence to the argument that Forest should not play with two defensive midfielders. Under Hughton The Reds have struggled to find a balance between attack and defence, and even during the current improved form – featuring Sow and Yates in midfield – Forest are only averaging a goal a game.

A balancing consideration should be that we have already seen Forest conceding goals 35.3 minutes faster without Yates in the side – statistically the creativity brought by not having the youngster in the side is outweighed by the extra goals we have been conceding.

If indeed you can call it creativity – a goal every 120 minutes, which has been the improved figure without Yates, hardly screams creativity.

This is more debatable than many Ryan Yates myths, however I would expect, as for the top teams in the division, creativity to come from players with attacking roles.

11. The attackers are having to come deep to get the ball because Ryan Yates cannot progress it.

It is necessary for attackers to come deep for the ball in modern football – every team creates space with such movement.

You can read here about how Sabri Lamouchi had his best results with his Forest team moving all around the pitch. I’ve watched Harry Kane this week – he is always dropping into midfield, as can be seen from his heat-map. It is no reflection on Yates that this happens at Forest – it is simply good movement by the attacking players.

12. Teams cannot be successful with two defensive midfielders, and since Samba Sow is better than Ryan Yates, Yates should not play.

It is self evident that teams can be successful with two defensive midfielders – it would be nice to have an Andy Reid character able to create from deep, however they are hard to come by at this level and not absolutely necessary.

However I’ve sympathy with this sentiment – there is nothing wrong with the preference for Forest to have a (theoretically) more attack minded, ball playing midfielder in the team, rather than Yates.

The question is, is it right for this Forest team?

Forest are starting to show how it is possible to play without this deep play-maker, with the developing relationship of Yates and Sow. The Forest midfield has been settled for the last 5 league games, and we have seen an improvement in how the team looks after the ball.

The duo seem to have built an understanding based on knowing their jobs and what position the other player will occupy, in and out of possession. They tend to take up space that appears due to their partner’s movement.

There is an agenda between them to keep it simple and retain possession – we can see that if one player has the ball, while he is looking up, often the other player is moving into space and showing himself as a second choice, meaning that the player in possession does not have to play riskier passes.

This works for Forest, because aside from Sammy Ameobi the attackers are not suited to direct play. Yates and Sow have been recycling the ball more, and the team’s average possession in the last five games has jumped to 51.6%, up from 43.3% the previous five games.

Considering the attacking players’ suitability to possession football, it is no surprise that results have improved.

There is a danger of us becoming sucked in by fashionable phrases and metrics such as “progressive passing” but this isn’t necessarily how football works – every system works differently in different situations, and progression isn’t just those attractive, defence-splitting passes. The simpler, possession-building approach may be more suitable, and is an example of how you can play with two defensively minded midfielders.

That is not to say the defensive midfield should not play passes that “break the lines” (another vogue phrase). It is situational.

Moreover, we’ve already seen that Yates in particular plays a high percentage of forward passes. The Preston game was a good example; Yates played the ball up to the forwards on several occasions, and started the move for the Forest goal.

13. You think Ryan Yates is the next Lionel Messi/this is propaganda.

Ryan Yates is not the messiah – but nor is he a very naughty boy. The criticism he has received has ranged from abuse, to the patently untrue, to the reasonable.

He is not the most creative player, however he is better in this regard than he is credited with, especially for a player who can do the defensive side of the game so well.

Forest could definitely benefit from more technical ability in midfield – whether that has to be at the expense of Yates, one of out most reliable players, is debatable. For the first time this season the current midfield seems to be building an understanding which seems to play to Forest’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

We have a player in Yates who would run through brick walls for the club. It is rare – he deserves any criticism to be well reasoned and accurate. He deserves our support.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

The search for balance: Hughton's first seven games

Chris Hughton’s first seven games at Forest have seen an impressive turnaround in results – the new manager has accrued 12 points, compared with 1 point gained in the club's previous seven games. However, we can see that he is still evolving his system, which suggests even more improvement could be imminent.

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.

Hughton’s initial tactics, although more nuanced, have been based on the same principles of simplicity and conservatism.

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.

Modern tactics evolved several years ago to capitalise on the space left between the lines of the popular 4-4-2 formation; this was exactly what happened in the first half. Whenever the Forest central midfielders strayed too far from the defence, they were vulnerable on the turnover, as the Derby players, particularly Tom Lawrence, found space in the hole.

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.

This space has not been limited to those vulnerable wide areas. The defensive midfielders – especially the more experienced trio of Samba Sow, Jack Colback and Harry Arter – have been leaving a lot of space in central areas as they have been going over to help the full-backs, sometimes in a disorganised manner, sometimes in the natural, ambitious risk-taking of attacking play.

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.

We cannot be too critical of this; the new manager has only been in the job a few weeks. Traditionally Hughton's teams at this level are very tough to break down, commonly in two banks of four when out of possession - we're starting to see signs of this developing at Forest, and also we're seeing a tactician at work capable of making game winning alterations. For all the understandable problems, Hughton was still able to eak out victories against Coventry and Wycombe to end the sequence of games, which will have lifted spirits going into the international break.

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.