Sunday, 28 July 2013

Player under the microscope: Chris Cohen

“He’s got one hell of an engine”. “A real box-to-box midfielder.” “Energetic and hard working.” “Mr Versatile.” In football, such praise is often a double-edged sword – these are all fantastic attributes for the modern footballer to have, but once these labels stick, players real skills often get overlooked, and their versatility sometimes leads to them not carving out their own niche in a team. Chris Cohen has been another player to suffer from this.

Cohen has spent well over 200 hours in a Forest shirt, in a wide variety of positions – successive managers have always found room for him in their team somewhere, possibly because of the attributes mentioned above. There is more to his game, but effort and dedication are not to be ignored – every time Cohen pulls on the Garibaldi he put in a passionate 100% and has been deployed right across the midfield.

It is at left back, however, that he ended last season. This position has been a constant niggle for Forest as a succession of loanees and candidates for this position have come and gone. Cohen has filled in between players and has played more than anyone else here – 37 times in the last four seasons. While this is not his best position he has not let anybody down; statistics imply that having him playing this position has not been detrimental (see enlargeable chart, right).

The left back has possibly been the last piece of the jigsaw at times for Forest; the addition of real quality here in Nicky Shorey transformed the club’s fortunes to the extent that they were suddenly picking up an average of 2.56 points per game. Yet compared to all the other left backs, the inclusion of Cohen at left back has been favourable in that we haven’t leaked excessive goals, and have picked up a reasonable amount of points. Billy Davies in particular has only ousted Cohen in favour of top notch quality – he has proven an adequate plan B.

Cohen’s lack of experience in this position has shown at times. He can defend reasonably one-on-one, but when faced with more complex decision making he has traditionally been subject to making errors, and although he has improved with experience this still occurs. For example, although aware of problems caused by attackers running in behind him, he sometimes makes the wrong decision – commonly he’s too cautious and can end up marking empty space (see left – all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged by clicking).

In the past he has also made wrong decisions in being too advanced when Forest have lost the ball, leaving us vulnerable on the counter attack, but this has not been particularly evident in his most recent spell as a full-back. More evidence of Cohen’s improvement is suggested when analysing the manner of the goals Forest have conceded. Having a player out of position, in an especially vulnerable position for Forest (who leave a lot of space in front of their full-backs) could have proven calamitous, however the majority of goals conceded resulted from problems developing away from Cohen's area of the pitch (see right). Only 20% of goals came from Cohen's area, compared to over 66% from the other side. We must take into account that 4 of the goals attributed to the right hand side were corners, but even excluding them we still see twice the amount of problems leading to goals coming from this area. Thus, statistically we were stronger down our left during this period. Cohen has clearly improved his defending and will hopefully be trying to stake a claim for this position.

Having a midfielder playing as full-back has advantages when attacking. All full-backs should ideally have the ability to go on overlapping runs into space to provide another offensive option, particularly when counter-attacking. They need the technical ability to accept and move forward with the ball, and ideally do something with it – the craft of a midfielder, more used to handling the ball in close proximity to opposition players pays dividends here as they tend to be more robust with the ball under control.

However, this has proven even more advantageous for Forest when we make the distinction of attacking a team who has taken an entrenched defensive position – a tactic Forest often have to face. With Cohen playing at left back, he can sometimes effectively slot back into a midfield position – and be more comfortable doing so because he is a midfielder (see right).
When Cohen occupies this position (as shown above) he is more confident to go looking and probing for tighter space – having a full back willing and able to do this helps outnumber an entrenched defence, a great example of this, which Cohen was involved in, was our first goal at home against Wolves (see left).

Overall, whether in midfield or defence, Cohen has been almost ever present when available. Despite being out injured for most of 2011/12, he has the third most game-time at the club, behind only Lee Camp and Chris Gunter. During this period, no outfield player has picked up more league points while playing.*

His contribution is therefore beyond doubt, but has it been positive? As far as results are concerned, we pick up more points with Cohen in the team (he has been present for 73% of all points gained in the last four seasons – considering he has been injured for almost one full season during this period, this is impressive). Deeper analysis of these statistics tend to show this effect is generally due to Forest being more difficult to beat, as although there is a small increase in the percentage of victories, the effect is generally a reduction in defeats (see charts, left). Could this be due to the midfielder’s hard work, energy and resilience?

Offensively, with Cohen on the pitch, during the last four seasons we have scored on average 5.3 minutes quicker – in our experience, although an improvement, it is negligible when compared to other players. The real statistical difference made is a defensive one. Over the same period as above, we conceded on average every 88.2 minutes when Cohen has been on the pitch, compared to every 72 minutes without him. It therefore takes us just over 16 minutes longer statistically to concede a goal when Cohen is playing. Again, not surprising due to his grit and work-rate.
Chris Cohen is a real all round player – he doesn’t specialise in any one area, he can tackle & defend as well as drive forward. He has bundles of energy, and also the intelligence to play multiple roles – this is why there has always been a place for him when available. Not particularly spectacular (usually – remember his goal against Blackpool), he has a positive effect on our results, win ratio, goals scored and goals conceded – one of only 7 players to be able to say this of in the last four seasons (see left). Billy Davies has used him in wider positions in the past (on either flank at times), it is possible he will move him back into midfield after bringing in two permanent full-backs this summer. Whether this is the case, or Cohen makes the left back position his – a position he has improved in – one thing is certain; Chris Cohen will play an important role in the coming season.
Thanks for reading, and COYR!
*In games where the player has played for over 45 minutes.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Player under the microscope: Andy Reid

I must immediately confess that Andy Reid is probably my second favourite Forest player that I’ve seen in person. Everybody loves a home-grown talent, but Reid’s affection for the club, passion, and his style give him a lot of credit with me personally, and added to that he's a real creative talent.

The player's return excited me more than the signing of any other player since I started supporting Forest over 20 years ago. As far as I was concerned, we had just signed what would be the best player in the league, and having missed the first game of the season I bought my ticket to the Notts County Carling Cup game, in part, specifically to watch Reidy. I couldn’t have been more disappointed.

I'm a big fan of defensive play, and Reid’s performance highlighted, in 30 foot square neon letters, that it is impossible to function as a team if the midfield aren’t bothered about defending. One innocuous league cup win sent me from enthusiasm and hope for the new season into fear and (ultimately correctly) low expectation. He wasn’t the only offender, but my expectations were high - far from the player I remembered, this Andy Reid was a liability when Forest didn't have the ball. Is Reidy a Forest legend, or an expensive luxury?

Reid’s job is to be Forest’s main creative catalyst– to make things happen in front of him by supplying others with easy chances; he does it as well as any player at this level. Although sometimes thought of as a wide man, his movement and decision making are not those of a winger (see diagram, right, which can be enlarged if clicked); unadorned with lightning pace, he uses his technique and brain instead, both of which are good enough to allow him to play more centrally – he does not need to run past people into space, he can create his own.

Even if he finds himself on the wing, Reid prefers to cut inside and bend in dangerous diagonal crosses – dangerous because they will often reach the danger zone while there is still space between the defence and goalkeeper (see left). He very rarely makes runs into the corners of the pitch to cut crosses back, which is what defenders are more used to midfielders trying to do, and his method is very successful, yielding many good crosses in every game.
By not running into this extra space himself, Reid (& Forest) are effectively making thing more complicated for their opponents. Forest often send up the full-backs to run into the empty space (see right) to drag attention away from the real threat – this is a deliberate tactic when Reid is present in the hope he will be able to put in a good cross. It is a clever ploy aimed at utilising Forest’s best crosser of the ball.
Reid is a true creative talent and when receiving the ball will get his head up and assess the situation faster than most at this level, either passing to advance Forest’s position or swashbuckling his way forward himself. He has the ability to beat a man at close quarters and is at his ultimate best when he’s just done so, as he then has time and space to decide what to do.

If he gets any time or space, any whatsoever, he is a very special player at this level. He simply has the vision and quick thinking to almost instantly spot the most dangerous passes, but he is not averse to shooting himself if it is the best option.
In the final third of the pitch, Reid will play the more high risk balls rather than the safer and patient passes that, for example, Raddy Majewski plays. This inevitably results in him giving the ball away on occasion, and he appeared to struggle towards the end of 2012/13 because of this. It is Reid’s job to create, not to pass the buck and retain possession in the final third – under Billy Davies when teams began defending deep against Forest in response to their success, and denying us space (for e.g. Barnsley, Blackpool and Burnley) it became more difficult for Reidy, but it must be pointed out that far from being ineffective during this period he personally made key contributions to 12 goals – 63.2% of all goals scored when he was on the pitch.

It is difficult to overstate Reid’s attacking importance – he has been involved in a disproportionate amount of Forest’s attacking success, heavily involved in 25 goals last season - which is 48.1% of all goals we scored with him on the pitch. With Reid, Forest scored on average every 66.2 minutes, but without him it took us 84.5 minutes – that is over 18 minutes longer we had to wait for a goal. This proves that, despite not really playing as well as he can, Reid had a significant effect on Forest’s goals scored column.
But just to hammer home the point, it is when we take a look at his overall stats since his return that the most startling facts emerge. With Reid on the pitch, Forest have scored on average every 65.1 minutes – not impressed? After all - with Raddy Majewski on the pitch we have scored slightly more regularly (every 63.3 minutes). However, remove Reid from the team and our goals dry up to one every 130.8 minutes, meaning it has taken Forest over an hour longer to score, on average, when Andy Reid has been absent! We at Forest Boffin see this as unassailable proof of just how important Reid has been to Nottingham Forest.
However there is another side to the coin. In the opinion of Forest Boffin, there has been a culture of defensive neglect over the past few seasons infecting the attackers. An excess of creative central midfielders can go some way to explaining this, but the refusal of certain players to work when Forest don’t have the ball, has been perhaps our biggest problem – Reidy has been part of this. As mentioned above, the Irishman was woeful defensively against Notts County (see illustration, left), which came as quite a shock.
Some have suggested Reid has been overweight, but this is perhaps unfair, and does not account for some of the non-defending he has been guilty of. On many occasions, even early in games, he has been one of the players choosing not to close down opposing wingers as they prepared to make crosses (see right).

To be fair he has improved – not only does he look fitter but his effort in the defensive phase of play is much better, however even when trying he still fails to build a relationship with his full back, often defending as a separate entity rather than as part of a team. The goal conceded against Derby at home is a good example of Reid not knowing what’s going on behind him because he’s not working with the full back (see below).
Whether the problem is that he does not know how to defend (unlikely), does not think it’s his job, is lazy (he is not), not fit enough, or the system leads to him being too far away to help defend, over the last few seasons Forest have been carrying passengers when our opponents have the ball, at times this has included Reid. The question is, in such a competitive league, can any team afford luxury players like Reid, or more extremely McGugan, who are fantastic when their team have the ball but don’t necessarily pull their weight defensively. Forest averaged 52% possession last season – that means if players have been ineffective when we didn’t have the ball, their presence was detrimental for 48% of the time – surely too long not to hurt us. Can we afford luxury players like Reid?
For balance I must point out again that he has improved defensively. Indeed statistically, since his return playing Reid made it less likely that Forest would concede (see left). This is probably because Forest see more of the ball with Reid in the team – last season for example, in the games Reid played we averaged 52% possession, whereas when he didn’t play our possession dropped to 47%. He indirectly benefits the team defensively, because our opponents don’t have the ball as much, and if they don’t have the ball they cannot score.
But as seen above, Reid is so beneficial to our attack that we ought to probably overlook his defensive shortcomings. A lot of it depends on the system, but a manager should make it a priority to find a balance between attack and defence while fitting in players like Reid, because for all the instances of him failing to close down opponents or otherwise neglect his defensive duties, we have averaged 1.4 points per game with him in the team – not fantastic, but without him this falls to only 1.04 points per game. Over a theoretical season this difference would be worth 17 points (and incidentally, we would be 34 goals worse off – see right). Since his arrival, Forest have done so very much worse when Reid hasn’t played, that I have to question whether we would have been relegated long ago without him.
Whatever system Billy chooses for Forest this season, there simply must be a regular place for Andy Reid. Forest through and through, he offers leadership and passion – he would be one of my favourite players if he was rubbish – but he’s not. For sheer talent and mental dexterity he is at a higher level, and it shows in the facts; we score far more goals with him in the side (see charts, left), and he is directly involved in a disproportionate amount of those goals. Forest simply perform much better with him in the side, and from watching him it is clear this is more than a statistical anomaly - he is clearly a very influential player. Andy Reid is by far our main creative force, this considerably outweighs his defensive limitations. Forest Boffin is looking forward to seeing how much he can create in 2013/14.
Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Getting defensive Part 3: The central issue.

The previous two articles in our series looking at defensive issues (here and here) underlined a vulnerability down Forest’s flanks, touching upon the defensive weaknesses of our midfield. Unwillingness from our wide men to form an understanding with their full-backs, and a general lack of knowledge and organisation throughout, resulted in extra pressure being imposed upon the centre-backs – how did they fare?

Different styles of play under different managers brought various challenges for the centre-backs. Under Sean O’Driscoll Forest sat quite deep which suited Danny Collins as he started the season reasonably well. Partnering either Daniel Ayala or Greg Halford, he enjoyed the possession football thanks to his reasonable (for a centre-back) technical ability - although later, when the going got tougher, he did begin to make costly errors on the ball. Collins appears poorly admired by the fans (see below), who claim he does not have the physical attributes for a first choice central defender, not being especially fast or strong. This may be an accurate assessment as he struggled later in the season, when Forest sat further up the pitch and later came under more consistent aerial bombardment. But, as one fan pointed out when questioned, you can see that he has been a good defender in his day, and there are signs of an intelligent footballing brain – for instance, how he deals with different kinds of striker. At this level most defenders treat all their opponents in a similar way; Collins adapts his game, for example when faced with a larger opponent he will often drop off, deliberately giving him space, yet against smaller, faster opponents he will go tight.

We canvassed Forest fans, it would appear they rate Greg Halford highly (see right). This versatile player has an assurance verging on arrogance at times, but it serves him well as he has a calming effect on the defence and can often be seen organising his teammates. He is good in the air, excellent with the ball at his feet, but most impressive is his defensive vision – you can tell he has played at a higher level. When Danny Collins was being dragged out of position for Derby’s goal at Pride Park, it was Halford screaming an unheeded warning of the danger. Halford had the best effect on goals conceded of any defender last season (see above).

Elliott Ward was made to look worse than he is when he first arrived, as he was not suited to the possession football Sean O’Driscol attempted, however he provided muscle which Forest were lacking as they were being bullied out of games, and improved as the season went on. Ward is excellent in the air, and also good at man marking (see the brilliant job he did against Kevin Davies for proof). However we at Forest Boffin believe he is less effective when defending areas and this cost us goals later in the season through high balls not being dealt with, which will be explored below.

The above trio were our main three centre-backs. Ward and Halford proved the best partnership statistically (see right). Reasonably well organised, the duo were also the best two players in the air – defenders at Forest needed to be last season as The Trickies struggled to deal with high balls into the box all season. This proved to be our ‘Achilles heel’. We saw some shambolic defending of crosses from very early on, especially unconvincing in the early games against Huddersfield, Bolton and Crystal Palace as Forest left too much space due to a lack of organisation. Forest somehow escaped relatively unscathed considering the amount of free headers our opponents had.

Under Billy Davies we saw a radical increase in the amount of goals conceded resulting from high balls into the box not being dealt with (see left). This was due to the continued organisational difficulties being exacerbated by Billy’s system – the diamond formation (which allowed, as we predicted here, more space to appear in front of our full-backs). Teams were able to get more crosses in and Forest were punished frequently.

The partnership of Collins and Ward appeared to be by far the worst at dealing with high balls (see above). It was surprising that they coped so drastically worse than Collins and Ayala, or Collins and Halford – Ward was probably the best header of a ball at the club, yet adding him appeared to have a detrimental effect on our aerial defences.

However, delving deeper we come to the truth of the matter. Collins’ partnerships with Halford and Ayala were mostly playing a different system. Billy’s diamond formation made high balls much more of a threat – under Davies the best partnership at defending crosses was Halford and Ward. This vindicates the fans’ assessment that Collins isn’t good enough in the air, and also heralds the organisational skills of Greg Halford, which are beneficial in defending crosses and marking men in the box.

This should not be read as a damning critique of Danny Collins: every player has his good and bad points. He is more agile than the average central defender, experienced and tactically astute, but he was always going to struggle at the heart of a defence that received so many high balls into the box. Just as O’Driscoll’s requirement that the defenders be good on the ball made Ward look dodgy, the excessive amount of incoming crosses made Collins look worse than he is.

This frailty in defending high balls will not have gone unnoticed by Davies, and he will bear it in mind as he rebuilds here. Halford and Ward were best at defending the high balls – indeed they were our best partnership overall. An intelligent centre-back comfortable with the ball coupled with a towering enforcer, they were the fourth most successful central defensive partnership since Forest’s return to The Championship (see right) and their attributes mirrored the reasonably successful alliance between Kelvin Wilson and Wes Morgan.

Billy seems to like Halford – he usually played him when available and as we have shown he was statistically our best defender, Forest Boffin believes he will intend retaining him as his ‘ball playing’ centre-back. Davies will likely be looking for a physically imposing partner for him, someone to fill the Wes Morgan role.

So much will depend on the system Billy has decided upon, but it is essential that he solve the problem of high balls, which will mean both reducing the ease in which they are made, and the organisation in the penalty area when defending them. The Cardiff away game should be used as a prime example as The Bluebirds quickly identified and exploited our weakness in this area. Davies will probably change the system, but his choice of personnel will be decisive. It is essential that he injects some organisation and leadership into the team, which has been lacking since the departure of Paul McKenna. Forest need to be more co-ordinated in their marking in the box, they also need to be better at putting pressure on those making the crosses.

But while we have highlighted the areas in which Forest were poor, it is important to illustrate the improvements made under Davies. Despite the vulnerability of the diamond formation suggested above, Billy actually reduced the amount of goals Forest were conceding (see left). It is difficult to overestimate the effect of morale on a team, the players were visibly more confident during Billy’s first game against Bolton which led to an increase in possession – and if you have the ball, your opponents can’t score. Forest averaged 54% possession under Davies, compared to 50.6% for the preceding 31 matches.

He also injected a bit of nastiness into our game – Forest’s opponents were awarded almost 2 more free-kicks on average per game as he turned us into one of the dirtiest sides in the division. This not only made us more robust, but had the side effect of winding up our opponents, who tended to get men sent off against us. It is important to note that clean teams did not do well in The Championship last season – there was a direct correlation showing that those managers whose teams committed the least fouls, did the worst (as discussed in our manager awards). Davies deliberately made Forest into a nasty side, it helped defensively.

And while the diamond formation allowed more space on our flanks, it conversely made us more solid down the spine of the pitch – which is where the ball spends much of the time. Davies noticed our lack of width and embraced it, focusing on our strengths rather than using his limited time to improve where we couldn’t. We conceded relatively few goals from problems that developed through the centre. When the ball was on the ground, our central defenders did a reasonable job in organising themselves to defend and track the strikers. This was where they were comfortable.

Forest have had their problems defensively but we have the right man to sort them out, judging from the improvements Davies coaxed from his limited squad during the last fifteen games. It would also appear he has funds to do so. The lack of width and defensive nous of Forest’s midfield has led to extra pressure being placed upon the defenders – the signing of Jamie Paterson might indicate an intention to change this; Walsall fans assure me the youngster is very hard working and committed defensively. Proper wingers will improve the cover for our full backs – an area that Billy has also reinforced this summer by signing Eric Lichaj and Gonzalo Jara. It would seem the Scot is making an effort to stop all those crosses coming in.

Which still leaves the issue of bringing in a strong centre-back to partner Greg Halford – we have seen Jack Hobbs arrive this week but Davies will still be looking for another defender. There needs to be more organisation in this area, a problem which may well be helped by the addition of a more experienced goalkeeper in Dorian de Vries. Karl Darlow has been highly impressive, but it may be more than a coincidence that since the youngster replaced Lee Camp we have seen a huge rise in the amount of goals resulting from high balls. As suggested above, we believe this stat is mainly due to the system employed causing an increase in accurate crosses, however the lack of a dominating goalkeeper cannot have helped.

Last season was a tumultuous one for our defenders – they received much criticism, some of it deserved, yet they were not helped by circumstances and were made to look worse than they were at times – in our judgement anyway. The defence encountered huge difficulties in defending high balls which was not helped by the frequency of them, or their accuracy. You must defend as a team; I think we've seen in this and the previous two articles that Forest did not in 2012/13. Perhaps the criticism Collins & Ward received (as well as Dan Harding) was slightly harsh.

Extra thanks for sticking with and reading this rather long winded post, thanks to those who kindly contributed their opinions on our central defenders on LTLF & Vital Forest forums. Personally I think Billy is solving our defensive problems - both the system and personnel, Forest are sure to be a more solid outfit come August. COYR!