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).
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.
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!