Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Forest v Brighton Preview

The first Scene of the season's final Act sees Brighton travel to Nottingham for what's sure to be a great game. Who could have predicted how important this match would be for Forest a couple of months ago? Billy has ignited Forest's fire, and six wins in a row has seen the Garibaldi rocket above their opponents. Such form is bound to engender optimism, but The Seagulls will be no pushover.
Brighton have been pushing for promotion all season and possess some truly special players at this level, but worst of all for Forest they play a system perfect for exploiting Billy's diamond formation. They pass the ball better than the average side, enjoying a lot of possession utilising the width of the pitch. Wide-men Will Buckley and Andrea Orlandi have 16 assists between them this season, with full-backs Bruno Saltor & Inigo Calderon getting forward to contribute another 9 assists - should Brighton find space in front of Cohen or Jara they will exploit it - see Key Battle section below.

Brighton's passing style is one which punishes space & positional weakness, which is reflected in their stats for games this season in which they have scored first (see left). Of the 18 times this has happened, Albion are unbeaten, winning on 15 occasions - even more impressive than Forest in this regard. This is because of how good they are at exploiting space generated by teams chasing the game - lethal. Forest are excellent at recovering from a losing position, however this is one game to avoid this situation.
Analysis of games in which Brighton have conceded first make for better reading: they are particularly poor at turning a losing position into a winning one - not managing it at all this season, in fact the last time they did this in league football was the 6th of August 2011. This not only suggests that a team playing cagey to protect a lead will frustrate them, but also that their confidence is easily knocked - that they do not react well to adversity. That, while fantastic when things are going their way, when things start to get difficult they falter.
Brighton's away form is very respectable - they are the fifth best away side in the league. I have heard a jingoistic suggestion that their Spanish-speaking contingent would not relish a wet & cold Tuesday-night in Barnsley - an assertion I would have disputed. Their passing style is ideally suited for playing away against less technical sides - sides which would "park the bus" at The Amex Stadium (thus denying the Seagulls the space they crave) will be more likely to come forward when playing at home, leaving themselves vulnerable as described above. However on closer inspection there does appear to be a correlation between Brighton's possible discomfort and their results. To put the 'Cold Tuesday-night in Barnsley' theory to the test, we compared the outcome of their away games with distance travelled from Brighton, finding surprising (to me) results (see left). The further away they travel for away games, statistically, decreases the probability of them winning. Last season's statistics were similar. Just out of interest, The City Ground is 189 miles away from Brighton.
As independent data, I would dismiss the 'distance travelled' stats as a fluke, however the strange stats do not end there. Comparing Brighton's away results with the temperature they encountered at those away grounds adds further credence to the Cold Tuesday-night in Barnsley theory - over the last two seasons Brighton have been less likely to win the colder it has been (see chart, right). When the temperature drops under 16 degrees Celsius, there is a drastic fall in their results. As vexed as I have been at our extended winter (Forest Boffin has carrots to plant!), these statistics leave me praying for more snow! Having checked the weather forecast I'm delighted to learn that the temperature in Nottingham on Saturday shouldn't rise higher than 4 degrees.
While it may be clutching at straws hoping for Jack Frost's assistance, we at Forest Boffin believe the above does tell us something about Brighton - it suggests that they play very well when they have things all their own way, but when their confidence is knocked, or teams make it awkward for them by not obligingly presenting them with space to play in, or if they have made an uncomfortable trip, or even if they're feeling a bit chilly, it suggests they might not always pull their sleeves up and fight through it.
 Brighton's past record also suggests that when the going gets tough they may drop away - when we played them this time last season they were 4th, imploding under the strain of a promotion hunt and plumetting to 10th. We realise this is a different season, but comparison of this season's form (see clickable chart, right) shows Brighton to have spookily copied last year almost exactly. This may be a freakish coincidence, or it may betray something about Gus Poyet's training methods, the player's mental states at various times through the season, fitness, ability to handle pressure - who knows? The only thing for sure is that if Brighton's form continues to mimic last season's, they will fall back into mid-table.
Both teams have selection problems for this game - Brighton have only one striker currently available (but a very impressive one in Leonardo Ulloa), although I'm aware they may have a loan lined up. Forest themselves will give a fitness test to Henri Lansbury, who has been excellent for the past few games, with Lewis McGugan looking to step in. For this particular game, Forest Boffin concludes this would be of huge detriment to Forest, as McGugan does not track back as much as Landbury - this may increase the space in which Brighton's wingers thrive.
The area in front of Forest's fullbacks will be the key battle-ground in this match. As mentionned above, Brighton are fantastic at finding space in this area of the pitch, they have tricky wingers such as Orlandi and Buckley, their passing style enables their team-mates to find them regularly, and they are supported by attacking full-backs - probably Inigo Calderon and Wayne Bridge on Saturday. Shutting Brighton down in this area will be where the game is won or lost - although Forest are at home and will be looking to rampage forward, we have already seen how Brighton benefit from teams leaving space as they advance. It will be essential for Forest's wide midfielders to assist Cohen and Jara (see diagram below).
Brighton usually look to find space on the flanks and push their full-backs forward to help. The key-battle in this match will be Will Buckley vs Chris Cohen. Buckley will be trying to supply ammo to the head of Leonardo Ulloa, and may find space in front of Cohen to put in crosses - Forest's diamond formation is especially vulnerable to this (see our article Diamonds are a goal's best friend). Our left sided midfielder must come to Cohen's aid, otherwise we may see Guedioura abandoning his proper position in front of the box to help his full back - leaving empty space in an even more dangerous position, for Brighton's other midfielders to exploit.
This is sure to be an entertaining match for the neutral, and yet to avoid what will seem like disappointment Forest need to extend their winning streak to what would be an amazing 7 matches! Brighton are an excellent side, peppered with brilliance, led by a clever manager in Gus Poyet and, in the opinion of Forest Boffin, ideally suited to dismantle Forest's defence. And yet, The Seagulls do have a weakness, they are - for whatever reason - inconsistent away from home, either a whirlwind or damp squib - dependant on the weather it seems... arguably they don't perform when uncomfortable, but more obvious is the fact that they are a different team when allowed to build confidence. Forest must not allow them to do that, they must congest the areas infront of our full backs - and I'd even go as far as to suggest turning off the hot water to their dressing room!
Thanks for reading and COYR!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Forest's undervalued strike force.

Forest's recent good form has created plenty of talking points, one of which has been a continuation of a debate held all season long: are our strikers doing enough? The acquisition of Billy Sharp and Simon Cox served to assure Forest fans that the goalscoring puzzle was solved - they are, after all, proven strikers. Yet even during our last five games, where Forest have knocked in thirteen goals, our only complaint has been that Cox et al have (if you're only reading the score sheet) been firing blanks. Is scoring goals the be all and end all for a forward?
During our run of 5 victories, only one goal has been scored by a striker (see right), leading to some fans questioning their input, and pundits in the media are now starting to pick up on this. Forest Boffin proposes that this is far too a simplistic view on the goal contribution from our strike force. The fact is: they have played a significant role in all but two of our goals during our run of victories.
Delving only slightly deeper, we begin to see a tangible contribution emerge in the assist statistics from our run of victories (see left). Cox and Blackstock lay claim to five assists between them - this is not counting key contributions which I will come onto next. The likes of Reid, Majewski & Guedioura are counted by fans as our creative players, yet our strikers are creating as much as any of them.
However, this is only half the story: an even closer look at the goals our midfielders are scoring reveals the real area Cox and Blackstock are hurting the opposition - they are cleverly creating space for the second wave of attackers (usually Majewski & Lansbury) to exploit.
Majewski's goal against Charlton is a great example of this. If you remember, Reid passes the ball out to the left, where Raddy collects it, beats the right back, and scores. However, this goal could not have happened without the contribution of Simon Cox. As Reid is looking for an attacking pass, Cox makes a diversionary run in between the left back and left-hand central defender, forcing Charlton's other centre-back to track his run (see diagram, right). This creates a dangerous amount of space betwixt that defender (Leon Cort) and Charlton's right back - when Raddy beats his man, Cort has no time to recover and help - because Cox's run pulled him out of position. Cort had to follow Cox, because the other central defender was being threatened by Henderson. Forest caused a threat in one side of the penalty area to create space in the other, which is exploited by Forest's second wave of attack.
Another interesting goal in this respect is Majewski's goal against Sheffield Wednesday (see diagram below). Reid is battling with opposition midfielders, and upon eventually beating them them, feeds the ball to Cox. Picking the ball up on the edge of the area, Wednesday's defence should be ok - there are plenty of defenders back, Blackstock is being marked tightly - what could go wrong? This time, while Cox is causing havoc in the penalty area, tying up three defenders, Blackstock unselfishly bends his run away from space, dragging his markers with him & leaving an area devoid of defenders on the right hand side. The second wave of the attack, Majewski, exploits this space, receiving the pass for an easy tap-in. The little Pole got the plaudits, but this goal also belongs to the clever movement of Blackstock & Cox.
Forest's strikers were particularly creative during the 6-1 thrashing of Hudersfield, having a hand in every goal from open play. Forest's equaliser was flicked on by Dexter Blackstock to late arriving Lansbury, whose initial effort was blocked only for even later arriving Majewski to score. Forest's third and fifth were assists from Blackstock, Henderson scored the last goal, while Majewski's third goal, the long ranger, was only possible because the strikers were making dangerous runs towards the area, dragging the defenders away from the midfield and creating space for Majewski to exploit in explosive style.
Dragging defenders back towards their own goal has been a common theme recently, especially at home, as Forest have found themselves camped outside the opposition penalty area, stretching and probing for weakness, patiently trying to create space.
Saturday's first goal against Wolves highlights this perfectly. Forest's patient passing approach had forced Wolves to camp inside their own area, with all but one man behind the ball (see diagram, left). When Forest do this there are sometimes shouts from the crowd to stop messing around with it, but Forest are going for the patient approach. They pass and pass, from left to right & back again looking for a weakness - that weakness being space. Eventually space appeared in front of Lansbury - by the time slick Forest got the ball to him it was too late to fill the gap despite the frantic efforts of three defenders. The goal was a great finish by Lansbury, but it was a team goal. This is what Forest are trying to do when attacking: they are aiming to create space. The Lewis McGugan goal against Ipswich was a similar kind of goal. As for the attacker's contribution to these two goals, not only were they a part on the patient build up, but they were the player furthest forward causing the pressure that pinned down the opposition back lines, keeping them deep and creating space in-front of the penalty area which was exploited by long-range strikes on goal.
While Forest Boffin is not trying to detract from the contribution of our goalscoring midfielders - Majewski, Lansbury and McGugan have been instrumental in our revival - however we do feel as though the forwards are in danger of being overlooked in their hard work and creative movement, which has created most of Forest's goals during our run of victories. Time after time the forwards create space for the midfield to exploit. Only McGugan's last against Wolves, and Ward's header against Huddersfield, have not featured a big helping hand from our strike force.
Forest are playing a relatively narrow tactic, which depends on patiently keeping the ball and moving up-field, pushing the opposition back, rather than a counter attacking, wide style of play that will result in alot of through-balls for strikers to run onto, or lots of crosses for strikers to head in. In the opinion of Forest Boffin, Forest are not playing a style of football conducive for the strikers to be scoring loads and loads of goals - out game is more about not losing the ball and patiently waiting until space appears.
This has led to our strike-force perhaps being slightly overlooked, especially Blackstock (whose loss against Wolves obviously hurt the team's performance, Forest took a long time to recover from his absence), but we at Forest Boffin would like to take this opportunity to praise the guys up front, without whom Forest certainly would not have won their last five games.
Thanks for reading, and COYR! 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Preview: Forest v Wolves

As Forest continue to string results together, clawing their way back into contention for the playoffs, they entertain a Wolves side on Saturday experiencing a season to forget. Expectations were high at Molineux: an immediate return to The Premier League should, on paper, have been on the cards, however The Championship is no place for predictions - which is why Forest should treat this game with caution. Since Billy Davies waltzed back into The City Ground there has been nothing but positivity surrounding the reds, Dean Saunders has conjured the opposite effect at Wolves - can Forest prove that the table doesn't lie, or will the Wanderers leave us wondering where it possibly went wrong?
After consulting with Wolves fans online, there seemed, to me, two main themes of complaint, the first being that they have the players not to be in this position. Inspection of their squad reveals a menagerie of players from all corners of the world such as Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Roger Johnson, George Elokobi, Jamie O'Hara, Stephan Ward, the list goes on, many of whom have proven themselves at this level already, as well as less familiar talent such as Bakary Sako & Bjorn Sigardson. They have good players - but do they have a good team?
Long term observers of The Championship will be aware of the huge improvement in the league over the past few seasons - teams are making massive efforts to join the gravy train that is the Premier League - Forest Boffin doesn't believe good players are enough any more. Low motivation and team spirit will relegate you quicker than sub-standard players - some of the surviving teams of recent years such as recent Barnsley sides, Scunthorpe in 09/10, or even the Plymouth side of 08/09 - none of these teams had anything like the talent in this Wolves side, yet they performed at around the same level. Forest Boffin suggests they had more spirit and were better motivated.

Which brings us to the second vein of dissatisfaction amid Wolves fans: the manager. Dean Saunders start at Molineux has been woeful, collecting just 8 points in 10 games. When quizzed on the former Forest man, one fan stated: "I absolutely loathe the man. He is the worst manager in the country." While this view may be polarised by the fear of relegation, the stats certainly don't make easy viewing. Saunders is performing worse than his predecessor Stale Solbakken, and even worse than Alex McLeish was at Forest. Both clubs should serve as a warning to chairmen everywhere that the grass isn't necessarily greener, as both clubs sacked managers only for their replacements to do much worse! The fans accuse Saunders of being a poor tactician, making numerous errors and making baffling team selections, one fan referring to "Deano's magic ball team selector." A comparison has to be drawn between Saunders & Davies - their effects on morale & results have been stark opposites.
Forest have now won the last 4 games under Davies, including a game so poor against Ipswich on Tuesday that the Gods showed pity and obscured much of it in fog. The reds didn't play well, narrowly beating 9-man Ipswich 1-0 in a game lacking the creativity of recent times, however it's a fantastic sign that we won having played so poorly - Forest won't be as bad against Wolves.
On the face of it, a resurgent Forest side, who have just proven they can win ugly, motivated by the new messiah, having won their last four games, playing at home against a relegation threatened side full of un-motivated players who don't want to play for the club, who have won only 1 in their last 13 games and are led by a poor, unwanted manager - on the face of it there is only one winner this Saturday. Wolves don't have the upturn in results that Ipswich or Sheffield Wednesday possessed, they should be there for the taking. Looking at the fixtures of Forest's rivals shows how important this game is: there is bound to be a few points dropped - this is the time for Forest to really crank up the pressure. 

It is difficult to see anything other than a Forest victory, but this is football - Forest have just beaten
three teams from the lower reaches of the league - three games that have gone the way of the form book - at some stage there has to be a hic-cup and Wolves undoubtedly have the players to upset us - we all know about Ebanks-Blake, opposition fans have warned Forest Boffin of Sako & Siguardson. The opposition are clearly a goal threat, and watching them don't appear likely to be as defensive as Sheffield Wednesday or Ipswich were - there may be a few goals scored on Saturday, hopefully Forest can come out on top again.
Thanks to the Wolves fans at www.wolvesforum.co.uk for their kind help, and thanks for reading. COYR!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Preview: Forest v Ipswich Town

After another fantastic win at in-form Sheffield Wednesday, Forest welcome The Tractor Boys to the city ground as expectation is rising faster than blood-pressure in the playoffs.

Unlucky Forest are once again up against a resurgent team - another relegation scrapping side who happen to have improved in time for their game against the Garibaldi. There are similarities to be drawn between Billy Davies and Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy, as both have rescued struggling clubs and made them unrecognisable, despite retaining mostly the same players. Like the last fixture, on paper Forest should be beating Ipswich easily, however Forest Boffin suspects it won't be that easy.

The Tractor boys have have been deservedly accused of brittleness over the past few years, their old manager Paul Jewell labelling them "mentally weak". They have thrown away leads consistently, crumbling 13 times over the past two seasons after scoring first (compared with Forest's 3 times). They have let in a disproportionate amount of goals in the last 10 minutes, 21% of goals conceded last season (Forest: 11%) and 24% this team (Forest 15%). They clearly have encountered problems standing up to pressure, with Ex-Forest Luke Chambers admitting there had been a "fear factor" at Portman Road. McCarthy has changed all that, transforming their timid defence into one of the league's sturdiest. Whether the Suffolk Jitters are lurking just around the corner we don't know - yet.
Analysis of Ipswich's results this season betrays their defensive problems but indicates an overwhelming improvement under McCarthy. They are conceding far less goals, 1.27 per game, which is still slightly high, but much better than the 2 goals per game managed under Jewell. Their mental weakness is highlighted in their reactions to going a goal down (and even their reaction to scoring themselves), see pie charts left. After going a goal up, on average they have held onto the lead 59% of the time, not too far behind Forest, but upon their opponents fighting back they have utterly capitulated a worrying 29% of the time! See the difference since McCarthy has been at Ipswich.
The stats also show that, once they concede first, they are unlikely to mount a recovery, losing in over two thirds of these games - this is a problem their new manager has been unable to solve, The City Ground does not appear to be the place to turn this around either, as the statistics show that once Forest have scored first, they have not lost on a single occasion this season. All things considered, it would seem likely that whoever scored the first goal on Tuesday night will win the game, as both teams are currently very good at protecting a lead, proven by the above illustration.
Ipswich fans are confident in their new-found defensive strength, but bemoan their lack of creativity. It appears they will prove a tough nut to crack but offer little threat coming forward save for the occasional punt towards Michael Chopra, who will be doing his best to draw fouls. I've been told by Ipswich fans that their best chance of scoring is through a set piece. 
They seem to rate young defender Tommy Smith as their brightest talent, who will be a threat from corners. He will play in a defence containing Luke Chambers, who is receiving mixed reviews, varying from the complimentary ("Chambers is solid, he's flourished a bit under the coaching of MM") to the more realistic ("Chambers has been erratic, sometimes very good, at others abysmal"). Forest loanee David McGoldrick has been playing deeper than during his prolific spell at Coventry, but is not available.
Ipswich's last game was an impressive win against Leicester, the only goal of the game gifted to them by Wes Morgan during a very rare lapse of talent. The impeccably honest McCarthy later admitted The Foxes deserved to win that game, but this proves the danger of teams like Ipswich - they are capable of beating teams dropping their standards even slightly.

As for Forest's impressive win against Sheffield Wednesday, as predicted in the last Forest Boffin preview, The Owls surrendered possession, giving Forest 58% of the ball, and proved as difficult to break down as expected - only a fantastic piece of play from the mercurial Andy Reid, the superb Simon Cox and a calm finish from Raddy Majewski breached their stubborn defences. Forest were clearly the better team, however it was one of those games we would have lost during more desperate times. The most impressive thing was the way Forest defended as Wednesday pressed for an equaliser. It was a hard working, disciplined performance, one which Davies will be looking to replicate on Tuesday.
The Reds do have some defensive problems to cope with however - Greg Halford is serving the final game of his ban, and with Daniel Ayala and Sam Hutchinson not yet fit enough, the Trickies are short of centre backs. Danny Collins was being fed energy tablets during the Sheffield Wednesday game and was visibly exhausted, so Forest Boffin is expecting Jamal Lasclles to play at least some part - maybe he'll even start?
A steely glare at our promotion rival's fixtures shows Brighton and Middlesbrough playing away to teams at the foot of the table, with Burnley hosting lowly Barnsley - we should expect these three teams to win, although there is always a surprise as Blackburn proved against Peterborough on Saturday, disastrously losing 3-2. It is therefor important we don't slip up, however we won't just be playing to keep up as four more of our rivals play each other, with Leicester facing Leeds, and Bolton hosting Blackburn.
Ultimately, there are no easy games in The Championship, but if we want to get into the playoffs, we must win games like Ipswich at home. This is, however, exactly the kind of match you end up losing - bang in form, having just won two away from home, playing some beautiful stuff, confident... just starting to believe... BANG! BRICK WALL! It's football, it happens regularly. The first goal will be vital as both teams have demonstrated their ability to defend a lead. Ipswich's recent form advises caution, but we at Forest Boffin can't help wondering, since Forest are playing so well, we can't help suspecting Chambers et al have one last disaster to get out of the way before they become a truly reliable defensive outfit. Another Raddy hat-trick? It would be nice.
Thanks for reading, thanks to the Ipswich fans from www.twtd.co.uk for their thoughts, and COYR!