Thursday, 18 April 2013

Preview: Forest v Barnsley

After two defeats in quick succession, Forest welcome relegation threatened Barnsley to the City ground in a humongous game for both clubs.

The Garibaldi unquestionably needed at least one win this week; taking the league table into account you could be forgiven for assuming Saturday's game was the easier of the two. However The Tykes will be no pushover: they are a different proposition than the team so easily outmanoeuvred by Forest earlier in the season, and after studying them, we at Forest Boffin believe they will be, if anything, more difficult to get a result against than Middlesbrough.

By now we all know what a strange and exciting league The Championship is. There are no easy games, and the worst team one month can transform into "invincibles" the next - who would have thought Ipswich and Peterborough would top the form guide as they do today? Barnsley under David Flitcroft are another anomaly in that they have an eerie ability to cause an upset.

To say they're merely able to cause an upset is understating the Barnsley conundrum. They upset the odds consistently, and since Flitcroft's arrival, they have avoided defeat every time they have played a promotion contender. They have a 71% win ratio against teams in the top 8.

Analysis of their results reflect the difference in their performance the further up the table their opponents are. They have lost half of their games against teams in the bottom half of the league (see pie charts, left), and won just a quarter. This changes abruptly as soon as they're up against so called 'better teams', indeed up until last Saturday they were unbeaten against teams in the top half of the table, picking up an average of 2.1 points per game. This isn't promotion form: it is Championship winning form.

Statistically, the more places in the table Flitcroft's Barnsley are behind a team, the more likely they are to do well (see clickable chart, right). The teams they have beaten have on average been over 13 places above them in the table - a statistic that only becomes meaningful when you look at the 5 teams that have beaten The Tykes - they have on average been less than two places above them.
It seems obvious that our opponents get better results against teams doing better in the league (see their list of results under Flitcroft, right, which also shows their opponent's league position at the time) - but why? It all comes down to defending. Barnsley are more cautious against the better teams, but we don't think this should account for the huge swing in results. Against teams in the top eight, Barnsley concede a paltry average of 0.57 goals per game (see chart, left) - against everyone from 9th down they suddenly concede almost 4 times as many goals! After watching Barnsley, we at Forest Boffin think this may be due to their approach to defending. Obviously there will be an element of The Tykes being more cautious against the big teams, however we believe a factor in better teams doing worse against Barnsley is the pressing game they employ when they don't have the ball, which is more suited to stifling the confident, passing play employed by the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford & Brighton. The Barnsley players, particularly their midfield, put in alot of effort, this has been catching the passing teams in possession.

Teams who are more direct, have less confidence on the ball or who just don't try to play as much possession football such as Charlton, Peterborough and Sheffield Wednesday tend to have more success against Barnsley because they're just banging it up the pitch instead of trying to keep the ball.

With this in mind, the key battle will possibly be how Forest cope with Barnsley's style of aggressive, pressing defending. Forest Boffin thinks this will rely on Adlene Guedioura and his ball skills with the Barnsley players snapping at his heels. Barnsley's 'ball-orientated', and traditionally British, defending style leads to them pressing the ball, particularly the midfielders. If a Forest player beats his man, another Barnsley player will close the gap to deny their opponent time or space. One thing Forest Boffin has observed in recent Barnsley matches, is that their ball-orientated defending tends to drag them out of position. The ball acts similar to  magnet, creating space where that player would otherwise be defending - this is especially obvious on their flanks. If Guedioura can beat a man or two, it will lead to others running out of position, creating space for Cohen and Jara to run into.
 Barnsley's defensive style is different to that of Blackpool, who Forest recently failed to break down (see diagram, above). The Tangerines employed, in a bastardised way, a continental style of defending where they focused on not allowing any space to appear (especially in the area in front of their penalty box) rather than pressing the ball. It allowed alot of time to play in crosses and balls from deep areas, but worked because the danger zones were full of orange shirts. However Barnsley will press the ball more vigorously, trying to stop the threat 'at source'. Forest will have less space further towards the half-way line, and will need to be a little quicker at moving the ball.

If Forest are on form, with skillful players such as Reid, Guedioura and Majewski in the team, this could leave Barnsley weak at the back - The Garibaldi can use their skill on the ball to evade these pressing midfielders. When this happens The Tykes make a fantastic effort to get back in position, but a decisive pass may find Forest's attackers in alot of space.

It will be interesting to watch how Forest cope with this different style of defending in comparison to the Blackpool game - if only this were not such an important game! We're about to discover just how good Adlene Guedioura is, as if the Algerian has success against the terrier-like opposition midfield then Forest should be fine. Alot will depend on Gueddy. He is the ideal kind of player you would want in this position - with all due respect, Simon Gillett might have struggled this game, his consolidatory passes would eventually have been picked off, and he would have been in danger of being caught in possession.

Can Forest find success where Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Watford, Brighton & Middlesbrough could not (none could beat this new-style Barnsley side)? Flitcroft has made them into a difficult proposition for the top sides, and if we are one of the top sides in this league, as we all hope we are, then we should beware of Barnsley, because it seems they specialise in messing up promotion pushes.

Thanks for reading, and really, REALLY, COYR!

Monday, 15 April 2013

Preview: Middlesbrough v Forest

As the pressure in Forest’s promotion push builds, The Garibaldi travel to play against a Middlesbrough side who’ve perhaps already buckled under the strain, falling away from the top of the table with just two wins in 17 games. It would be with the gravest of trepidation for Forest Boffin to suggest this to be the ideal game to climb back into the playoff places – so I will not. This is The Championship and anything can happen.

The Teesiders’ drop in form has been as dramatic as Forest’s recovery. Going into January they were battling for automatic promotion while playing surprisingly good football, utilising their strong forwards to bring other players into the game. However in 2013 they have won just two league games, picking up only 8 points (see clickable form-guide, below).

Forest Boffin believes this turnaround to be at least partly due to a catastrophic change in tactics. Even in December, Tony Mowbray was making worrying statements underestimating the usefulness of drawing games – nailing his colours to the mast he made it clear on several occasions that The Smoggies needed wins, not draws, and altered their tactics accordingly.
Boro became inpatient as they chased victories, gambling in games they could have drawn. It has led to Mowbray’s team drawing less than any club in the football league (only 4). While brave, this tactic has led to cagier teams picking them off as they rampage forward trying to force the issue.
This has been exacerbated when Boro concede the first goal – as they advance even more urgently leaving themselves vulnerable. Where more patient teams might have steadied the ship, knowing they have ample time to equalise, Middlesbrough have tended to come forward aggressively in the knowledge that their manager craves more than one goal, this is reflected in their results (see pie charts, left).
While falling behind obviously requires you to chase the game, it must be done in a sensible manner or you will be punished again, as Middlesbrough have proven. They have fallen behind on 30 occasions this season (usefully for us, the exact same amount of times as Forest), yet their gun-ho approach to chasing the game has not worked. Mowbray’s frankly alarming solution, in his own words, to “empty the midfield(!)” when conceding against Watford in January (with a whole half of football left to play) seems like desperation at best.

The gambling even infringes on points picked up when they score first (see pie charts, right) – although they win around the same amount of games in these circumstances as Forest, their unwillingness to settle for a draw has led to them taking greater risks having conceded an equaliser – losing on every occasion this has happened.

Taking such risks seems even odder when considering the detrimental effect on morale of losing so many games (13 this year). Where you would think they would be trying to steady the ship and just not get beaten every week, to build a little confidence, they have instead gone for broke. Their luck in front of goal has dried up almost completely – failing to score in 5 out of their last 6 games – despite more often than not having the most efforts on goal. They have looked a beaten team lacking the belief needed to score goals.

Can The Garibaldi take advantage of their opponent’s suicidal tendencies? They surely would have if Middlesbrough had anything left to play for. However, during Mowbray’s last throw of the dice on Saturday they were picked off by Brighton, despite throwing the kitchen sink at The Seasiders – with matters less urgent they may try something new.

But we still believe the key battle will be in midfield; more specifically how often the two side’s creative players can find and use space when attacking. For our opponents, Faris Haroun and Emmanuel Ledesma are a threat when allowed too much of the ball. Boro tend to get a little wider than Forest and will create chances if given space on the flanks. With the pressure now off we shouldn’t rely on their goal drought continuing – the likes of Guedioura, Lansbury and Reid will need to deny these two players space otherwise they will create chances for Scott McDonald in particular, who is capable of hurting us.
It was pleasing to see Billy Davies shrewdly rest influential players against Cardiff – Andy Reid in particular needed a break and will hopefully return to the side recharged and able to get on the ball more. If able to find space in the opponent’s half (he surely will if Boro press forward as much as they have been doing) the onus will be on Reidy to play those killer passes that have hurt so many teams on Forest’s travels. Simon Cox was also rested and will be looking to make his usual clever runs off the ball. Look out for Raddy Majewski capitalising on this in the first half, and Lewis McGugan in the second.

Our opponents are clearly a good team under certain circumstances – in our opinion they have made the same mistake Brighton did last year by subscribing to the two points dropped approach to drawing games. By chasing games too much, by blinking first, they have given their opponents an advantage as this tactic only tends to work if you’re one of the division’s stand-out teams. Middlesbrough are a good example to fans who criticise caution – statistically their approach isn’t successful: of the 20 teams in the Football League who have drawn 9 or less games this season, their average league position is 11th.

Hopefully our northern opponents will still be taking this approach because Forest under Davies have the nous to pick them off. Statistically Forest should have no problem whatever happens because of their resilience, and Middlesbrough’s gun-ho attitude. The Reds are excellent at recovering from a goal down and this should be even more evident against Middlesbrough who won’t bother to defend a lead – and once Forest equalise, which they usually do, statistics suggest they will go on to win. On the other hand, when Forest score first they have not lost at all this season; this ought to be compounded by the fact that, after conceding first, our opponents have lost oneach of the last 14 occasions!

Considering Middlesbrough’s form, if Forest deserve to reach the playoffs, they should be winning this game. The Smoggies will prove a good gauge of playoff potential as they will shortly have played Brighton, Forest and Bolton in quick succession. Brighton have just beaten them – now it’s our turn to take the test.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Why Forest's strikers are not striking.

Since his return to Forest, Billy Davies has rescued a faltering campaign, and with an unbeaten run of 10 games has raised hopes of promotion. However, with those hopes come the customary nerves, doubts and questions – much of which has been aimed at our strike-force. Why aren’t they scoring? More importantly, is their goal drought harming our promotion chances?

Match-line, Internet forums and conversations in public houses are repeatedly throwing up the same accusation: that Simon Cox et al aren’t scoring enough goals. Forest have played 17 games in 2013, during which our strikers have scored just 2 goals. Billy Sharp has been our most lethal striker this season, scoring every 261 minutes he’s been on the pitch  – perhaps a disappointing return considering his record, even taking into account the unsettling managerial and tactical changes at Forest. Simon Cox has managed a goal every 652 minutes. Crystal Palace's Glenn Murray has scored, on average this season, every 117 minutes.

Even during our resurgence the strikers have struggled to score – Forest have played 961 minutes under Billy’s guidance, with the strikers only scoring twice (see chart, left), that’s roughly 1 goal every 480 minutes! This is a remarkable statistic considering that through this period Forest have been The Championship’s form team. For comparison, under the management of Sean O'Driscol a striker scored on average every 126 minutes.

Despite this, under Davies Forest have risen from 13th place to 5th, winning an impressive 22 points out of 30. Respected and knowledgeable pundits and commentators have been calling for Cox in particular to be dropped even though we’re doing so well. Is it possible the strikers are merely out of form - are Forest doing so well in spite of the front-men? To the casual observer Forest are only doing so well because our midfielders are making up for others failing to score.

Analysis of Forest’s goalscoring shows a huge contrast as to the source of our goals (see pie charts, right). Under Sean O’ Driscol & Alex McLeish, more than half of our goals came from strikers, yet under Billy Davies this statistic changed dramatically – 85% of our goals coming from midfielders. These are the same players producing different (and spectacularly better) results on the pitch; an abrupt loss of form from the two up front seems unlikely unless we're suggesting the midfielders have improved so much as to make up for the dead weight up front. We at Forest Boffin believe the strikers aren't scoring as many goals not because of a drop in form, or because they're not good at scoring, but because of key tactical changes.
Under Sean O’Driscol we saw a stylish, passing brand of football. Forest would play the ball out from the back as the manager tried to replicate his relative success at Doncaster, moving the ball up the pitch with possession football. The aim was consolidation - to keep the ball, and with Simon Gillett as the lynch-pin in midfield we saw a lot of simple and safe passing. As we progressed up the pitch our lack of wingers forced us to mainly attack in a concise, narrow manner, attempting to pass the ball through the opposition’s defence. When this came off it was beautiful football, however the nature of this way of playing meant this was a difficult accomplishment. Also, as Forest started the season well, teams developed their tactics to combat our possession football; they attempted to stop us playing out from the back by pressing their attackers and midfield forward, moving up the pitch to deny our defence and midfield space. Our lack of muscle was also exploited as we were repeatedly hustled and bullied out of games, however when allowed to play The Garibaldi proved they could dissect teams with their passing football.
The problem with O'Driscol's team was that they were not decisive enough. By it's very nature, possession football means not taking as many risks - losing the ball defeats the whole purpose. Also, the midfield sometimes had to drop deeper to get the ball, since the one thing you couldn't accuse O'Driscol of was hoofball. Gillett is good at what he does but is not going to produce defence-splitting passes or fight his way through the midfield to attack.
Forest under Billy Davies play in a diamond formation, which has proven to be well suited to Forest’s players (Billy has not brought in any new faces- he’s worked with the same tools as his predecessors). Pushing Raddy Majewski up at the zenith of the midfield in support of the forwards has helped us keep the ball in the opposition’s half – there are not many with the Pole’s technique at this level, he is able to move the ball efficiently and to either set up chances or keep the ball until Forest move up the pitch. At the base of the diamond Davies has swapped Gillett with Guedioura. This masterstroke has meant that, as well as being able to play passing football, Forest have the ability to be more direct. Guedioura is a much more decisive, ball playing midfielder, his ability to keep the ball under pressure and to play penetrative passes forward has affected the way in which teams play against Forest, especially at the City Ground.
Under O’Driscol, opposing managers knew they needed to shut down Forest’s passing game – they instructed their forwards and midfield to close us down when we had the ball in our third of the pitch, in the hope of winning the ball in this area, or at least forcing Forest to knock hurried long balls instead of being caught in possession. This played into the opposition’s hands and nullified The Reds’ passing, possession football. However, by changing Gillett for Guedioura, Davies has a more robust and skillful (with the ball) player in a position to be able to play the ball forward with positivity. Also, by pushing Majewski further up the pitch, the forwards have help in keeping the ball when they receive it from the deeper midfield.
This change by Forest has led to the opposition sitting deeper – if they moved as high up the pitch as they did against SOD’s team, we would go more direct and find it easy to exploit the space just behind their midfield. The goals against Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and the third goal against Wolves are good examples of what can happens when teams are too far up the pitch and Forest are able to create space.They are also good examples of how our strikers have been helping their team-mates get goals by creating this space (see diagram, right).
As teams are sitting deeper against Forest, there is obviously a lot less space in their half – which has in turn effected how Forest have gone about attacking teams and has led to increased goals for midfielders and less goals for attackers. Forest under Davies have approached the problem of congestion in the opposition half differently than under SOD – rather then trying to pass prettily through the defence they are creating space through clever runs and movement – it’s often the forwards doing this. Starved of the space, through-balls and crosses they crave, Forest’s strikers are unselfishly making the space for the second wave of attack – Raddy, Lansbury & McGugan – to score.
This change of ethos - a move towards creating space to play rather than playing intricate enough football to thread the ball through - has inevitably pushed the forwards into less dangerous areas. More isolated, the strikers under SOD had to stay closer to each other meaning they played narrower - lurking in more dangerous areas than the strikers under Billy Davies, who peel off into wide areas to receive more decisive passes, able to better do this because they have the support of the attacking midfielder.

But if the way Forest are playing is making it more difficult for our strikers to score goals - why would they do it? Does it make sense to have the strikers scoring the goals? Are Forest scoring enough goals?

This division is getting very tight, with every team fighting for something – this has affected the amount of goals being scored as managers become more and more desperate not to concede. The fact is, Forest have coped better with this than any of their promotion rivals (see table, right). Miserly defences have restricted once free-scoring teams such as Watford and Crystal Palace to more respectable scorelines – Leicester have only scored 3 times in the past 6 games! The 10 goals Forest have scored in this period represent a very good return and suggests that we do not have a goalscoring problem. In fact, Forest have scored in each of their last 10 games, never yet failing to do so under Billy Davies.

Under Billy’s system (where, don’t forget, our strikers have struggled for goals), we have scored on average 1 goal every 48 minutes. This system has been the most prolific goalscoring tactic since our return to the second tier by some distance (see clickable chart, right) – in the unlikely event Forest were able to maintain this form they would score around 90 goals over a season.

It is easy to come to the conclusion that Forest’s strikers are not performing when you look at their goals scored stats, especially the likes of Simon Cox who is getting a lot of game time. Kenny Burns states that “Cox is a good, hard-working playerand cost a lot of money, but he is not getting enough goals. So I would like to see Billy Sharp, who is a proven scorer inside the six-yard box, given a run alongside Henderson.” Yet we at Forest Boffin don’t believe this takes into account what Cox is doing for the team. He has 10 assists - the fifth most of any player in the league. He creates space for others with his runs with and without the ball - Majewski’s goal against Charlton is a good example of this. Cox is more than a grafter - he is a team player and as responsible for our good form as any player.

Davies has clearly come into Forest looked at the players here and cleverly built a system around them - it just so happens that this way of playing isn’t conducive to strikers scoring a lot of goals because it tends to force the opposition, especially at home, to sit deeper and congest their half of the pitch. Forest’s strikers don't have as much space as before and don’t get all that many chances - in all of the games under Davies, the forwards have only had more efforts on goal than the midfield on one occasion - it’s revealing that this was away against high flying Hull, a team not scared into parking the bus by Forest’s good form.
If the strikers were missing chance after chance and not creating space and opportunities for the midfield, we could understand the doubters. But since Forest have been doing so well and are scoring more goals than any of their promotion rivals, and in fact more goals than we have seen them score since our return to this division in 2009, we consider much of the criticism undeserved.
Thanks for reading and COYR!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Preview: Forest v Blackpool

As the season comes to a climax, Forest entertain a side that often seems to have the last laugh on them - Blackpool. This is an equally important game for both sides, as Forest try to maintain their good form while The Pool struggle to turn around their seagulls swoop towards the murky depths of the relegation zone. After talking with a few Blackpool fans on the net, and watching them in action, Forest Boffin feels this is (as usual) another potential banana-skin - but when is it any different in The Championship?

Blackpool come into this game after beating Crystal Palace - not an insignificant achievement. New Manager Paul Ince struggled to get his first win, but has only lost twice in his 8 games in charge, after tightening up Blackpool's defence - they have conceded only 6 under his leadership, compared to the previous 8 games when they let in 13. This is despite The Seasiders coming under fire from more attempts at their goal, especially away from home, where they allow more than 13 attempts per game (compared to 7 under Michael Appleton, and just over 10 per game under Ian Holloway). This is due to Ince getting more men behind the ball when under attack. They sit a bit deep for my liking, but to be fair it's worked so far. More on this in the key battles section, below.

Blackpool have suffered from a disastrous set of circumstances this season. They were amid the promotion favourites but have been hit by several problems. Fans of The Tangerines are scathing about their chairman Karl Oysten, blaming him for a lack of progressive thinking and hinting he doesn't release funding. They also lost a very good manager in Ian Holloway, have shuffled blindly through several sucessors, and seem to have encountered problems with want-away players. All this combined with a passing team that have to play on a pitch resembling Forest Boffin's vegetable patch (those carrots still aren't in by the way) have led to a disappointing season.
Ince likes to play with two defensive midfielders and two wide players (see the expected teams and formations, left. Click to enlarge). After studying their latest games, we at Forest Boffin expect them to stick nine players behind the ball and defend, hoping to utilise the abundant pace in their side to catch Forest on the counter attack. Tom Ince will be a constant threat, peeling off to the wing and carrying the ball towards the penalty box. I've been assured that "Ince can produce something out of nothing but if Forest double up on him, he can be ineffectual" - Seasider, from the Back Henry Street forum - however this is slightly concerning as our formation makes it difficult to double up on a winger - especially so if we're being his on the counter attack - Blackpool will look to do this constantly.
All of Blackpool's managers this season have attempted to utilise the pace of Ince, Delfounso and Phillips which is no surprise. This has tended to lead to a less patient approach to attacking, interesting to compare with what Forest have been doing. At times this season, especially under Sean O'Driscol, some fans have been frustrated at Forest "fannying around with it" - yet analysis of both team's attempts on goal for the season show the patient approach has worked better (see right). Blackpool have made far more efforts to score, with more accuracy. Their lightning attack has struck before their opposition can prepare a defence. However, the evidence, as well as a glance at the league table, suggests that Forest's patient, consolidatory approach is more effective, as The Garibaldi have needed less attempts to score, and indeed scored more goals. Thankfully Billy Davies has continued this patient approach, which leads us onto the key battles section.
Key Battle: Darlow v Gilks. We believe this game will be won and lost during the duel between the two goalkeepers and their opposite midfielders shooting from range. Both sides have totally different approaches to attacking, but ultimately will aim to do the same thing - get the ball to the edge of the area and test the keeper (see diagram, below).
As illustrated above, at home especially, Forest like to push their opponents back into their own penalty area, stretch and squeeze them, and patiently wait until space appears in front of the box, where someone will be waiting to have a shot. As soon as that space appears, the race is on to quickly pass to this player, who is able to shoot before defenders can close the gap (see the goals vs Ipswich, Brighton & Wolves, and also our article on Forest's attacking tactics.).
Blackpool take a counter attacking approach, where they put most players behind the ball (where Forest want them) and use the pace of their forward players to counter attack. Often Tom Ince finds himself roving forward, attracting the attention of the panicking defenders and either shooting or passing to other players in space (such as Matt Phillips). Whichever goalkeeper copes best with these long range shots will probably win the game for their team.
Both Forest and Blackpool will play in a way that suits their opponents - The Tangerines will love the space that sometimes appears in front of our full-backs, and the way we set up camp in our opponents half, our pitch will also help their game. However Forest are the team in form, and the amount of players a team puts behind the ball does not seem to have hindered them - the gaps always appear. As much as Forest will struggle to contain Tom Ince, Matt Gilks (who has hurt The Trickies before) will once again be busy. This game will show where both teams are and possibly be indicative of where they'll finish the season - Blackpool fans, players and staff are constantly using their pitch as a reason for their disappointing position: here is the ideal opportunity to prove that one way or the other. And if Forest can get another win, well, they will surely be playoff bound.
Thanks to the Blackpool fans from the forum and thanks or reading. Most of all, COYR!