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.
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.
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.
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.
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.