Sunday, 16 June 2013

Getting defensive part 1: Full backs and square pegs.

Perhaps the most lamented tactical issue since Forest’s return to The Championship has been the left-back problem. During the last four seasons we have seen an excessive amount of players tackle this position – 12 in fact, with the slot currently occupied by Chris Cohen. Can he hold onto his place here next season? And is the shuffling between left backs clouding over a more serious defensive issue which leaves Forest especially frail down our flanks?

The hunt for a permanent left-back has been an ongoing source of frustration for the fans over the past few years, various managers have swapped between various players – some being played out of position – we will adopt Billy Davies terminology and call them square pegs – and some being 'proper' full-backs (round pegs).

For all his ruminations about "square pegs in round holes", Davies seems to use them more than the average manager – for example, he has played a non-full-back as left back in 53.3% of his matches at Forest, compared to the combined total of 24.7% of the times the other managers have done so. It would appear Billy is not prepared to weaken the team merely for the sake of having a proper player in that position (as further proof of this, see how he’s played Adlene Guedioura last season – in a holding role not best suited to him).

Billy plays the best players rather than the player who is best in that position – this has benefited Cohen who has now played 37 times at left back for The Garibaldi. Although this method is generally considered not to be ideal, it is difficult to argue with Davies' method here, as his record as manager is far superior to the other managers we’ve had in recent years.

Indeed, comparing results by left back sees Cohen comparing well – Forest have collected 1.57 points with him playing in this position, the fourth best total of all the twelve contenders. Although it’s important to remember that we are only talking about one position – not even the most important position and there is a lot more going on than what’s occurring in Cohen’s area of the pitch, however these statistics show that having Cohen, a square peg, playing at left back, does not automatically have a detrimental effect on results.

The counter argument to this is the spectacular effect it appeared to have when Davies added Nickey Shorey to the side. Although only over a short period, the difference was obvious as Forest played some of their best football in The Championship – is a quality left back the missing piece of Forest’s jigsaw?

Under Davies, there has been a significant improvement in results when he has used a round peg for a left back (see stats of Billy's games at Forest, right, click to enlarge). Forest have collected 1.8 points per game when he has used a proper full back here, as opposed to 1.58 points when he hasn’t – this would equate to a ten point difference over a theoretical season.

However, we must remember that the left backs Davies has been able to bring in have been of a much higher quality than those of his contemporaries. He brought in the likes of Shorey, Bertrand and Konchesky – other managers were only able to manage Harding, Cunningham and Elokobi. With all due respect to these last three players – Forest Boffin especially respects Dan Harding and recognises that he is a good player at this level – there is no comparison. The left backs Davies brought in are far superior and were bound to have a positive effect on the team.

Despite what he says in the press about square pegs in round holes, Davies won't, and hasn't, imported any old left back to fill a position, he ensured they were better than those already at the club. It’s something he talks about often, about bringing in faces that can improve things. Are the round pegs of Harding and Cunningham, for example, significantly better than square pegs Chris Cohen and Joel Lynch? We would suggest not.

Indeed, statistically it hasn’t been the case that you need a proper full back in this position – playing with square pegs has only left Forest fractionally worse off. In the last four seasons, Forest have averaged 1.49 points per game with a proper full-back, compared to 1.44 points per game with an out of position player - the difference negligible.

Cohen has performed admirably in defence, once again our player of the season. His work rate and understanding of the game ensure he is able to do a job – as he probably could in any position – and he hasn’t looked out of place performing in difficult circumstances. There has been a distinct lack of midfield cover for this position, which will be covered in our next article, ensuring this position to be a bit of a poison-chalice. Tactics and a lack of defensive commitment from Forest’s creative midfield have made this a difficult job which has sorted the men from the boys. At times we at Forest Boffin have felt sorry for the likes of Dan Harding and Greg Cunningham as they have been tore apart, outnumbered such as they have often been – Cohen has not let us down here and done better than most - Forest's defence have arguably performed better with him as left back than with the round pegs of Konchesky, Cunningham, Elokobi, Harding and Gunter, for example (see goals conceded chart, left).

It’s reassuring to have Davies at the helm as his tendency not to fill a position without improving on what he has will stand Forest in good stead from the left back point of view – there are other more important factors in this area of the pitch to consider than personnel, as will be explored in our next article. A top class full back like past loanees Nickey Shorey or Alan Wright will be good enough to paper over the cracks, but unless Forest bring in someone of top quality, Forest Boffin is more than happy for Cohen to be given the chance to make this position his own. If other issues are dealt with, we do not believe he needs replacing.

Thanks for reading, and look out for our follow on article, Getting defensive part 2: Partners in crime, which is a companion to this post and looks at the shaky relationships between Forest’s full backs, and the wide midfielders. COYR!

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