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.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Blackburn 0 Forest 1

Chris Hughton began his Nottingham Forest career with a win against in-form Blackburn Rovers. Both teams will look very different in the coming weeks; less than ideal preparations on both sides led to a drab, scrappy encounter from which Forest barely scraped a welcome victory.

Hughton named a familiar looking side in a 4-2-3-1 system using a soft press, setting up to sit back and get the basics right with the emphasis on defence. Ryan Yates earned a deserved recall.

Tony Mowbray deployed Blackburn in his 4-3-3 system, complaining that the team was ‘thrown together’; they were without three or four of this season’s top performers as well as any of their recent loan additions. With Bradly Dack still recovering from a cruciate ligament injury, on paper this was as poor a Rovers side as any team will face this season.

The match was dictated by the two team’s different pressing games. As Forest concentrated on defence, they were very conservative in this regard, ceding possession and often allowing the opposition well into their half of the pitch before making efforts to repel them.

Blackburn pressed more aggressively, harrying the Forest defenders with their three forwards, and pushing up confidently as a team, in order to force The Reds to play direct passes instead of playing through the middle.

A Twitter user, unsympathetic to Forest’s plight, commented to me during the game that any team at this level should be able to deal with pressing. This is harsh, as there is another team at the same level instigating the press in the first place. If it was simple or easy for any competent team to routinely break a well organised press, teams would not press, as it would leave them vulnerable.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) watching what happens when a team playing a 4-3-3 uses an aggressive press. The shape of the system appears ideal if the players work hard and are organised, especially against a 4-2-3-1 like Forest were playing.

The three attackers are naturally in a good position to swarm forward and pressure defenders, causing passing around the defence to be dangerous. Behind them, the midfield trio lurk, ready to harass any central midfielder showing for the ball.

Further down the pitch the 4-2-3-1’s lone striker, Lewis Grabban, is being handled by two defenders – this gives the full-backs more confidence to join the press and make life difficult for the Forest wingers if they receive possession.

As an aside, the type of player Grabban is does not help in this situation. A target man would be better suited to the kind of system Hughton employed, as Grabban is more suited to moving around in search of the ball – with Forest sitting deep this was not what was called for, as a presence was required up the pitch.

This all looked very neat and tidy for Blackburn – off the ball everything fit together nicely, and as depleted as they were, Mowbray had drilled them well enough to be able to stifle and choke Forest of any real creativity, succeeding in forcing them to play longer balls rather than pass through midfield.

Even the introduction of Arter failed to create an outlet in front of the Forest defence – not a man to hide from the ball, he nevertheless touched it only 4 times in his first 2o minutes on the pitch.

The Forest attackers were actually winning their fair share of those direct passes, but the situation still favoured Rovers; Grabban and Freeman, as well as Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi when they came forward, tended to be isolated and easily neutralised.

This was because Blackburn’s hard press, coupled with Forest’s conservative system, was effecting The Reds ability to get up the pitch and support the attackers when they received the ball. The cavalry simply could not get up the pitch in time to help consolidate possession.

The Reds were concentrating on keeping things tight at the back and were therefore sitting quite deep. The full-backs were not pushed up far enough to help as much as they might have been, especially in the first half, declining to risk leaving space for Blackburn’s front three should the ball be turned over.

Forest therefore struggled to maintain possession in the Blackburn half, and were often forced to pass forward in a direct manner rather than show any patience or guile on the ball, leading to having only 39% of possession.

The Garibaldi did manage to break through few times and looked dangerous when they did, especially when Freeman was on the ball, or later in the game when the full-backs were probably given license to take more risks by venturing forward, but Blackburn’s hard work in their seemingly tailor made system made these forays few and far between.

However, the 4-3-3 has actually become vulnerable in modern football when high pressing is employed – teams have evolved to beat these types of press, as Forest demonstrated just last season when they came up against similar systems.

Under Sabri Lamouchi Forest tried to strike on the counter attack by using fluid movement off the ball, as I have discussed in this previous article. The Fulham game last season is a great example; Forest dismantled a much better team’s aggressive press in a 4-3-3 system. Ben Watson dropped back to split the Forest defence in possession, which pushed up the full-backs making them closer to the action when the midfield’s well practiced movement created an outlet for direct, but intelligent forward passing. Once this is happening, the fact that the pressing team has three forwards actually works against them, as they do not have enough players in the middle of the pitch to cope with the opposition’s running off the ball.

So in a way, tactically, Forest’s system on Saturday represented a backwards step – which is why the understrength Blackburn side managed to, the lucky deflection aside, stifle an arguably more talented side.

This is not a criticism of Hughton; Mowbray has been drilling his players and tinkering since February 2017, the Forest man has been implementing his system for two weeks. It will take time to get his side playing in a way which will give them that creative edge that so many teams struggle to find.

Instead of the movement and endeavor required to break Blackburn's press, Hughton’s main focus was on defence, and Forest looked refreshingly solid.

It was much easier for the players to drop back into a defensive shape, precisely because of all the reasons touched upon earlier when talking about why Forest struggled creatively; the midfielders were not allowed the freedom they were for much of Lamouchi’s tenure, nor were the full-backs given licence to play as much cat-and-mouse, therefore on giving away the ball these players were well positioned to slip back into their defensive shape.

Obviously Forest’s soft press and cautious defensive line was always likley to result in defensive stability; Hughton bolstered this by giving the wingers instructions to drop back and support the full-backs, almost creating a 4-5-1 at times when out of possession. This helped the defensive midfielders focus more on defending the middle of the pitch, instead of being dragged out wide - a common trait of this formation which caused Forest a few problems last season.

It was a good away performance; solid at the back with less emphasis on creativity, stealing a goal when the opportunity came along. For all that Blackburn saw of the ball, even for long periods in Forest’s half, they created few chances, and that is sometimes all an away team can ask.

It will be interesting to see how Hughton bridges the gap between attack and defence. The acquisitions of Anthony Knockaert and (probably) Kamil Grosicki should be enough to ensure more creativity whatever strategy he goes for.

Knockaert's record at this level is unquestionable, yet Grosicki is arguably the better player of the two and should his transfer be ratified, they would complement Lolley and Ameobi well.

Hughton will certainly have the weapons at his disposal to score goals – if he can wield them while maintaining Forest’s new found defensive solidity, we will be in for a good season.

Thanks to www.whoscored.comSofaScore and .

Most of all thanks for reading, but I would also like to put on record my thanks to Sabri Lamouchi for leading the club with such grace, and making it fun for a while. I'm sure he reads this...

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Tactical talk: More target man woes for Forest

Forest are yet to register a point this season after a 2-0 defeat to Cardiff City at the weekend. In a classic game of two halves The Reds once again struggled against a big target man. Sabri Lamouchi changed his system to successfully deal with the problem, but it was not enough to change the result.

Both teams lined up in a 4-2-3-1. It is impossible to say what Forest’s game-plan was, because within four minutes Cardiff had implemented theirs and were a goal up.

The Bluebirds were spearheaded by 6 foot 4 target-man Kieffer Moore, who would shortly do the damage during two poorly defended set-plays. As well as his goalscoring prowess, his presence – and how Forest dealt with him – was the main tactical issue during open play.

Cardiff were completely geared towards playing long balls to Moore. Passing around the defence and midfield occurred mainly as a prelude to frequent, direct passes to their striker – the long pass which led to their successful corner in the second minute was already the third such in the game.

Moore is an excellent target-man, equipped to fight for direct passes with the strongest defender, but he tips the balance even further in his favour by cleverly dropping into midfield and full-back areas to receive the ball, seeking a physical mismatch. When receiving long balls he generally avoided the bigger Forest defenders, Joe Worrall and Tobias Figueriedo.

That aerial duel in the second minute in particular, between Moore and Ryan Yates, is a good example of how this tactic works. The target man is well placed to win such battles in the air, because he is so tall and strong. He can flick the ball on to other players, chest it down, and generally make the ball stick in the opposition half, providing a base for their possession or breathing space for defenders.

However, Moore did not win the ball on this occasion, yet Cardiff still profited. Why?

There is a tactical principle that an opponent that has just gained possession is vulnerable; Cardiff’s use of the long balls to Moore adheres to this idea. When passing to their striker, they push their three midfielders up close to him, not only to be available if he wins the ball, but mainly to put the theoretically vulnerable opposition players under pressure (see right. All pictures will expand when clicked).

This is exactly what happened in the lead up to the first goal; neither Yates nor Moore win the ball, it eludes them both. But under the subsequent pressure the Forest player gaining possession, Yuri Ribeiro, gave away a corner and Moore scores.

Of the 14 long passes to Moore in the first half (excluding set plays), he only actually won the ball 5 times, and one of these was a foul by Figueredo.

Yet despite Moore’s mixed results in his duels, Cardiff were still able to use them to obtain the upper hand, gaining a foothold up the pitch. As Forest turned over possession following these direct balls, in the chaos they found themselves under pressure. Cardiff moved up the pitch; they snapped, they pressed, they won the ball and disrupted Forest's counter attacks.

This appeared to effect Forest’s full-backs, Ribeiro and Carl Jenkinson; it is vital for Lamouchi's system that these players get forward, however perhaps due to the uncertainty or fear of being caught out by Cardiff’s direct play, they were failing to get forward with any confidence.

And under pressure, Forest were struggling to turn winning the ball in front of their defence into a coherent attack. Too often the ball was being played direct out of the Forest defence, rather than play through the bear-pit that was the middle of the pitch.

So despite Moore only winning the ball 35.7% of the time in the first half, his presence was disrupting Forest to the extent that they just could not get going, vulnerable as they were to the long balls, and with their own possession disrupted. They were able to break through once or twice, but after missing a great chance, it always looked like Cardiff would get the next goal, which came from another set play.

The defending for the goals has been examined elsewhere and is not the focus of this discussion, however I will say that it left a lot to be desired, and put Forest in a very difficult position. It simply must improve.

Just before the second catastrophe, Lamouchi made the change which would result in a substantial improvement for the second half. Joe Lolley was withdrawn and replaced with striker Lyle Taylor, and The Reds reverted to a twist on the 4-4-2.

A lot of fans have been calling for Forest to play two strikers. They may be eager that the Garibaldi  continue with this system in the next games, however I feel this is unlikely due to why and how the improvement came about.

During commentary it was noted that Taylor gave Forest more presence up front, and we were able to therefore gain a foothold further up the pitch. While true, this was not the factor that changed the game.

Often an extra striker does disrupt direct passing out of a defence, however this was not the case with Cardiff. In fact, the frequency and success of their passing to Moore improved dramatically with Forest playing a 4-4-2, with the target man now winning 55% of long balls played to him.

However, although being beaten more frequently by the big striker, Forest were able to cope much better in the aftermath, winning more second balls and out battling the Cardiff midfielders, And once they had won the ball, Forest were much more composed in their own possession. At last they were winning the midfield battle, and were able to take the game to Cardiff.

Rather than the extra striker as suggested, the change in the shape of Forest’s midfield was responsible for this reversal.

The 4-2-3-1 is ideally geared towards creating overloads in midfield, however when out of possession it’s main drawback is the space in front of the full-backs. This is the area that Moore was targeting when making himself available for the intelligent, accurate Cardiff long balls. Particularly in front of Ribeiro.

During the first half Sammy Ameobi was not generally involved in the battles after Cardiff’s direct play – he was usually too far up the pitch, either because he had been involved in an attack, or that he was making himself available. This meant that when attacking this area, the players supporting Moore were overloading Forest’s defensive midfielders fighting for the ball.

However, now deployed in a 4-4-2, the Forest wingers were naturally closer to their full-backs, and getting involved in these scraps. This relieved the pressure enough for the defensive midfielders Jack Colback, and in particular Ryan Yates, to turn the game.

The midfield must also have had instruction from the Forest coaching staff as a group, as there were several instances where they created a ring around the aerial duel, hunting in packs for the second ball.

As this was Cardiff’s main route out of their own half, Forest were now the dominant team in the game – unfortunately their opponents defended much better than Forest had under much less pressure.

Does this change in fortunes have any implications going forward tactically? On the face of it, you may think that the addition of an extra striker changed the game, and therefore logic may lead to Forest starting with both Taylor and Lewis Grabban against Huddersfield.

However, the formation change was probably designed to prevent Moore controlling the game in Forest’s defensive midfield area – this may not come into Lamouchi’s thinking against Huddersfield. I do not see Forest starting with two up front due to the improvement in the Cardiff game, as the change was due to a specific situation, not a change of tactical direction.

The game has thrown up an interesting selection issue however; new signing Harry Arter should slip straight into the side - I might have thought Colback would partner him. However, Yates is significantly outperforming his more experienced teammate at the moment. He claimed responsibility on and off the ball in the second half against Cardiff, and was the driving force in Forest’s revival. Will Lamouchi make the brave choice and go with the form man?

It is difficult to predict how Forest will line up on Friday. It’s a massive game for the manager’s future – I am all for stability and would give Lamouchi well into the season to get things right, but the pressure is undoubtedly on. The two losses have been down to poor finishing and players not doing their jobs defensively, but the Frenchman needs a couple of results, fast.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to:,, Getty images,

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Five substitutions available in The Championship?

Football has been overshadowed this year by the tragedy of Covid-19. As we try to regain
some normality and finish the 2019-20 season, I'll be looking at a series of factors which may influence the conclusion of the Championship season. Next is the possibility of extra substitutions being available.

In order to protect player welfare, FIFA have made a temporary amendment in the laws covering substitutions:

  • A team can now make a maximum of five substitutions per game, instead of three.

  • If a game enters extra time (not time added on), a sixth substitution may be made.

  • Each team will have a maximum of three opportunities to make their five changes - in addition to half-time.

These changes are discretionary and must be ratified by the individual competition organisers, in the case of The Championship the EFL – unsurprisingly the EFL have not made a statement regards whether this change has been implemented (unless I’ve missed it – I’ve looked hard). A decision on this was due to be made on June the 8th.

However I think we can assume that this is happening; not only is it common sense, but I've found that the EFL’s Match day Operating Guide references an expanded match-day squad, which in other competitions has accompanied the rule change.

How might extra substitutions change things competitively? It would obviously benefit teams with bigger and better squads. I’ll touch on this more in a subsequent article, but for what it’s worth I think Forest are in a good position in this regards.

But extra substitutions might also have tactical implications.

I’ve read an excellent article by Guto Llewelyn writing for Wales Online. He points out that this rule is already in use in the Bundesliga, and that although German coaches were slow to adapt, they soon began using the extra substitutions tactically, making them earlier and influencing the way the games have been played.

Championship teams who are able to use these extra substitutions strategically will also have an advantage over rivals who cannot.

You would imagine that managers who like to tinker will adapt the quickest (see table, right, for who makes the most substitutions, click to enlarge). West Brom's Slaven Bilic has made the most changes this season. He is also very experienced – I would expect him to enjoy the opportunity to further influence games.

I can also see Marcelo Bielsa, who has been managing for longer than the ten most inexperienced Championship coaches combined, being more influential. He makes relatively few substitutions but the opportunity to change personnel will surely benefit the more knowledgeable managers like him, especially against the widespread inexperience in charge of many Championship clubs.

Forest’s substitutions this season give cause for optimism.

Sabri Lamouchi usually makes all three changes – were it not for the Sheffield Wednesday debacle, where he deliberately left the same team on the pitch, he would be one of the most trigger happy in the league.

Not only does the Frenchman like to tinker, his changes appear sound. Just from a personal point of view, I think Lamouchi usually gets the changes during games right - any grumbles I remember have been directed at starting line-ups rather than substitutions or tactical adjustments during games.

The Forest coach tends to make adjustments in key areas based on how the game is going, and a deep analysis of his substitutions highlights his formula. 

If unhappy with the game Lamouchi makes a change in personnel in the middle of the pitch - either a straight switch with a different type of central midfielder, or he brings a different kind of player in in order to move somebody else into the middle. Ben Watson appears immune to this change, which occurs around the hour mark. If happy Lamouchi still makes a change at this time, but it is generally a like-for-like switch out on the wing.

This micro-managing without actually changing the team's strategy, the knowledge of how to tweak his system without disrupting what the team are good at, appears to me to work, and the statistics back this up.

There are different ways of analysing success of substitutions on paper, but if measured on match situation following an individual substitution, Forest’s situation improved after 21.5% of Lamouchi’s changes, and worsened after just 3.7%.

Basically however you crunch the numbers – if you look at goals scored or conceded, or measure it by individual matches, or in any other way – the statistics show Forest’s situation improving, for whatever reason, after Lamouchi makes substitutions. This doesn’t prove he is a tactical maestro waving a magic wand to change games as there will obviously be multiple factors in play, but it does indicate how the situation has been changing after Lamouchi starts tinkering.

Forest certainly finish games strong – their scoring pattern this season clearly indicates they do better from the second half onwards.

A close look at the figures imply that Lamouchi is able to consolidate winning positions with his changes – only failing to do so on one occasion this season. He has also done well when recovering a losing position into a draw. 

On the negative side, losing positions have only been turned into victory once, so if the Frenchman is actually making the difference, it is not so profound that he is regularly turning games completely on their head. But he nevertheless appears ahead of the curve.

The tactics Forest employ could benefit from the extra substitutions available.

It is well established that Forest have been at their best this season when the opposition sees more of the ball. They use the counter attack with clever movement to strike at over-exposed opponents. But playing this way is taxing physically. Not only do possession oriented teams make opponents work harder by moving the ball around, but also the way Forest play means that a higher proportion of their attacks originate from further down the pitch – an explosion of energy which takes it’s toll.

With fitness being an issue for the remainder of the season the extra substitutions will provide respite for teams like Forest, who don’t see as much of the ball and like to play on the counter-attack.

So considering the size and quality of Forest’s squad, Lamouchi’s apparent proficiency at making substitutions, and that it may be beneficial tactically, if there are an extra two substitutions available it should help Forest more than most teams.

You can read the first of my series of shorter articles on the resumption of the Championship season, looking at the possible effects of no fans at games, here.

Thanks to:

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Football without fans - will the home advantage be lost?

Football has been overshadowed this year by the tragedy of Covid-19. As we try to regain some normality and finish the 2019-20 season, I'll be looking at a series of factors which may influence the conclusion of the Championship season. First, a theory on the home team advantage.

It is well established that home teams in football have a clear advantage. This season for example, home teams in The Championship have won on 42.6% of occasions.

However much of this boost is due to fan encouragement – as we all know by now, the resumption of football will be behind closed doors which should logically go a long way towards neutralising this advantage.

Football has already resumed in parts of Europe, and my analysis of the results so far has been surprising. Not only does the home advantage appear to have faded after the re-start, but in fact we have the first indications that away teams may in fact have a significant advantage.

Albeit the sample data is relatively small - 127 games - away teams when playing behind closed doors so far have won on 45.7% of occasions, with the home team’s success shrinking to just 27.5%. If replicated in The Championship that would represent a massive turnaround from the home teams previous advantage.

The German Bundesliga have played the most games since resuming their season – in their games up until 13/06/2020 away teams have won on 50.9% of occasions, with home teams lagging behind on 20.8%.

It is important to note the corresponding figures from before the cessation of football for comparison. In the period between January and March inclusive, home teams won on 39.5% of occasions, with away teams prevailing 38% of the time. So although during that period it was a little more even than here in England, there has been a definitive flip from home to away – in fact home teams were almost twice as likely to win with their fans support.

The pattern of a home-away reversal is generally being hinted at in the major leagues across the continent; The Danish Superliga and Greek Superleague appear to be bucking the trend, although with fewer games played. Overall figures have the away sides winning a hefty 45.7% of games.

How might this affect The Championship? Looking at the table below (click to enlarge) from we can see that some teams do much better at home than they do away, teams like Derby, Preston, Luton and Charlton in particular, with Fulham and Stoke also doing much better at home. If these teams are reliant on home support, we can expect to see their form drop.

West Brom, Forest, Bristol and Reading all appear less in need of the encouragement of their home fans, doing better away from home.

However, it is difficult to say how Forest would fare if there is a home-away flip. I have often observed The Reds struggle under the scrutiny of The City Ground crowd. With less pressure they might in fact find it easier to get home results.

And a close look at the tactical issue that has dominated their season could be revealing – the correlation between high possession and poor results.

Forest have seen more of the ball at home and been less inclined to sit back and play on the counter-attack – a tactic that has been fruitful all season. With no fans Sabri Lamouchi may be more inclined to play in a more conservative manner instead of taking the game to opponents.

However this may also work to their disadvantage away from home, as teams may do the same. Without supporters goading them on, home teams may be reluctant to make themselves vulnerable to Forest’s efficient counter attacking play, thus diminishing The Reds effectiveness on the road.

I can see Forest being an exception, perhaps immune to the expected home-away flip which may become a trend in The Championship, because of the style of play Lamouchi has installed. I expect to see a deterioration in their away form balanced by improvement at home.

So although a possible home-away flip might not affect Forest as much as other teams, it is something to bear in mind as it will create unpredictable results, not to mention that if you like a bet, take note because as of the time of writing the bookies have not reflected this possibility in their odds.

Thanks to

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the new rules on 5 substitutions.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Forest 0 Millwall 3

As there is currently no football we have time to reflect on the recent 0-3 defeat to Millwall and ask how The Lions were able to maul Sabir Lamouchi's men so convincingly - and what might it mean for both clubs for the rest of the season?

Lamouchi has settled on a 4-2-3-1, popular with modern coaches because it usually brings a flexibility which The Reds are struggling to recreate at the moment (see right - all pictures expand when clicked).

Forest’s problems at home, in particular being effective when enjoying possession, are well documented – the inclusion of Joao Carvalho in behind Lewis Grabban made me optimistic that The Reds might be a little more creative this time out.

Gary Rowett changed Millwall’s shape to a 4-2-3-1 for this game, spearheaded by Matt Smith – this turned out to be just one of a series of astute decisions made by the former Derby manager.

You will hear people say things like ‘you know what to expect with Millwall’ and that they are a ‘tough, physical side who put the effort in’ and ‘they will be good at set pieces and bully you’ – these statements skim over the fact that there is a lot of skill in what they do, and there is nothing wrong with having an identity – particularly one admirable enough to celebrate organisation and application above all else.

And it was clear from kick-off that even this Forest side – which does not have the soft underbelly of recent seasons – had their hands full. Millwall played direct football towards Smith and the striker was immediately able to establish an edge in the air – coupled with the support he had from the three attacking midfielders this laid out a marker which unsettled the Forest defenders.

Carvalho, along with Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi showed a lot of endeavour, attempting to force their way into the game with the unpredictable movement which has been synonymous of Forest at their best under Lamouchi. However the conditions of Millwall’s press coupled with the individual instructions given to their full-backs made them difficult to break down and dangerous on the counter-attack.

Rowett set his team up to defend narrowly, crowding the most dangerous area of the pitch with yellow shirts. This left space in the channels, and when the ball entered this area a reasonably soft press was triggered – Forest players could make themselves available for the ball here, and recieve possession, but they were usually under pressure as the press shuffled over.

This should have been an opportunity for Lolley and Ameobi, but it looks to me like Mahlon Romeo and Murray Wallace were told to man-mark them independently of the press. Throughout the first half (and beyond, but less so) the Forest wingers trekked across the pitch to get on the ball away from their full-backs, even into their own half, but there was no handing off – within reason Romeo and Wallace just followed them.

This was not as bold a move as it appears when you remember that Millwall had switched to a 4-2-3-1; this is just the kind of flexibility that this system offers, as in an organised team there is both a winger and a defensive midfielder to fill the gap.

Lolley and Ameobi were making a good fist of getting on the ball but were usually drifting into their own half or central areas congested with Millwall players, and usually harried by Romeo and Wallace.

This was not necessarily a problem, as we have seen all season that Lamouchi likes his attackers to vacate their space for others to attack – this is the rehearsed movement that has seen Forest look sharp when attacking this season. 

This space vacated, as well as the initially narrow defensive position of their opponents, created opportunities for Matty Cash and Yuri Ribeiro to attack. 

The Forest full-backs like to get forward anyway; Millwall had clearly prepared for this. Their attacking midfielders were instructed to drift into space appearing behind them. Although more evident behind Cash, I did not observe any player fault - it appeared to be a tactical risk taken on by the team.

This created cat-and-mouse situations on both flanks as the game became an entertaining counter-attacking battle, which Forest ultimately lost.

Millwall’s first two goals came from them exploiting space left by Cash being further down the pitch. Forest are not disorganised, and their own defensive midfielders had covered the right-back on both occasions, however once Millwall had the initiative they executed these goals well.

The first goal played to Millwall’s plan perfectly; with Cash out of the picture, Alfa Semedo found himself isolated against Mason Bennett, who had drifted into the area as per Rowett’s instructions. He could not stop the cross, and the Forest defenders could not stop Millwall striker Smith getting to the ball first. Tactically and individually it was a good goal.
The second goal came from a similar situation; Millwall exposed the space in behind Cash, however this time Smith was not the danger – it was the space vacated by the Forest midfileders who had come across to cover. In a common problem when teams are hit on the break, Watson and Semedo were absent leaving space for Jacob Molumby to attack in a very dangerous area in front of the Forest goal. 2-0.

Analysis of this problem on the night with Forest’s full-backs should be cautious. The space exploited by Millwall was a big part of their victory, however things could easily have been different – Millwall were clearly vulnerable to incursions from Cash and Ribeiro as they invited Forest down their flanks. A goal was coming but it was an even game - if Forest scored first there would have been less need to push forward.

Rowett's plan was a risk as it should in theory have let Forest get a lot of crosses into the Millwall box, however he will have known that, although still capable of scoring from this situation, Forest are relatively poorly suited to exploit this.

Forest only average 19 aerial duels won per game (21st in the league) compared to Millwall’s 31.5 per game (2nd). Style of play will affect these figures a little, however with the second most won per game in The Championship, it is something The Lions are clearly more comfortable with.

The crossing accuracy figures also point to Forest struggling in this regard – they put in 17.3 inaccurate crosses per game on average (the 2nd most in the league, only behind Leeds). Millwall put in more accurate crosses per game than any other team.

Millwall do not have more accurate crossers of the ball at their club than Forest or Leeds – it is the people on the end of the crosses responsible for the discrepancy.

Forest’s striker Lewis Grabban can score with his head, but it is not his forte – we put in 38 crosses (only 4 of which were along the ground) resulting in only 1 header on goal, while Millwall had 4 headers on goal from their 13 crosses, due to the presence of Smith.

Having an effective target man was a major advantage for Millwall – Smith gave Joe Worrall and Toby Figueiredo a torrid evening. He scored three goals but he contributed much more than this.

Millwall were playing direct balls up to Smith. These passes were well worked balls into areas where he had a slight advantage due to his positioning, and he was laying the ball off to the three attacking midfielders, establishing possession in the Forest half which gave their defence time to reorganise.

He also helped pin the two central defenders which helped during their build up play when The Lions sent the ball into the space behind Forest's full-backs.

His effectiveness was mitigated slightly when Forest went with two up front during the second half. Grabban had been having a tough time pressing their defenders, who were finding time to play quite measured passes into good areas for him - were we to play them again, perhaps in the play-offs, I would expect Ameobi to be pushed up into a front two for the home game.

Once in front Millwall were comfortable, even as Forest put them under a lot of pressure. They look to me to have switched to a 4-4-2 – putting the extra man up front was actually a defensive move; the extra man in attack usually helps pin back an opponent's full-backs, however by that stage Forest were in no mood to hold back and they continued to rove forward regardless.

To be fair to The Reds, perhaps having written off the game they continued to play short passing football, trying to play through the Millwall press. Their opponents were too tenacious however and restricted them to pressured shots from outside the penalty area. They continued to defend the central area of the pitch and put a lot of effort in to ensure when Forest entered this danger area they had little time to do anything creative.

Millwall held Forest off for the rest of the game and won three well deserved points - what does this indicate for the remainder of the season, assuming it will be played?

I'm not too concerned in the short term about a Forest slump; any risk that other teams will look at what Millwall did to us will be mitigated by a couple of factors. Firstly, few other teams have a striker quite like Smith - he was instrumental in their victory, not only in scoring but in creating uncomfortable situations that Forest tend to struggle with.

Secondly, Forest looked quite lively throughout this game - the first goal was instrumental in the result, and it could have gone their way. I've a gut feeling that playing like they were, Forest would have caused most other teams damage, especially teams close to the top of the league. This was an exceptional all round performance by Millwall.

I expect Forest to get into the play-offs and their record against the other top teams is sound.

However, should Millwall climb into the play-offs they will be extremely dangerous. They have an excellent record against the highest placed teams in The Championship - rivalling Forest's own. They are more than a typical hard working Millwall team on a good run and have a real shout at doing something special this season.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes to everybody in these troubling times - look after yourselves and your families.

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Image 7 courtesy of Millwall FC with thanks.

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.