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!

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