Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Geting offensive: The Raddy Factor

Forest’s first two home games have seen two victories; a comfortable but patchy 1-0 against Huddersfield, and a superb and dominant 3-0 dismantling of fellow promotion contenders Bolton. I had a theory that the return of Kelvin Wilson would transform Forest, giving us stability from the base upwards – but my eye was caught by another, a player dramatically influential further up the pitch, one who made the difference between hesitance and decisiveness; Raddy Majewski.

Both games were very interesting tactically, the Huddersfield game in particular turning into a battle of wills between the two managers. Billy Davies tweaked his diamond formation slightly, playing a system I afterwards dubbed The Washing Machine (because, I tell myself, of the fluidity of the movement, and how it looked when scrawled on my notes, but I was possibly influenced by the state of my clothes after walking home in the post-match torrential rain). Huddersfield played a variant on the 4-4-2, with their second striker playing slightly withdrawn (see diagram, below. All graphics on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked).

Forest took the game to Huddersfield, attempting to play the ball on the floor through a narrow midfield, any width was provided by the full-backs. Forest’s front 6 were given freedom to rove in search of space to receive the ball, but our opponents were superbly organised, denying Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura in particular any space in their half whatsoever. Forest cranked up the pressure by pushing forward Cohen and Lichaj, in an attempt to stretch Huddersfield out and create room. We saw a lot of long sidewards passes as Forest switched play to the only available space, but The Terriers quickly adjusted in a disciplined defensive effort.

To Forest’s credit, they were determined, treating this as a must win game – almost to a point of impatience as the first half ticked away. It was refreshing to see a team throw caution to the wind so early, trying everything. The three men up front shuffled endlessly and the midfield drifted further and further away from their starting positions in search of the ball – Andy Reid spent a lot of time retreating into an almost defensive position to pick up the ball unharassed. At one stage Lansbury was playing up front, reminding me of when Forest are chasing a game in the last few minutes- only this was in the first half!

Forest resorted to playing direct balls, unable to retain the ball in our impressive opponent’s half of the pitch. This tactic proved only slightly more fruitful, creating a couple of half-chances, but without a target man on the pitch it was playing into Mark Robins’ hands and he must have been pleased at half time.

Indeed, for all of Forest’s endeavour, it was Huddersfield creating the best chances, as they held us at arms length and found space on the counter attack – this looked set to continue into the second half as James Vaughan forced a good save from Karl Darlow.

Even after our goal - created by left-back Chris Cohen’s exceptional run, Forest struggled to break down Huddersfield. Although it was a comfortable win, The Reds were unconvincing going forward.
The difference in our second home game against Bolton was that Forest won the midfield battle. Huddersfield were able to close down our creative players before they could do anything with the ball; Bolton, even with an extra man in midfield, and much better players, never got close.

Forest were able to retain possession in Bolton’s half and used the ball more efficiently, thanks largely due to the inclusion of Raddy Majewski. Reverting to last season’s successful diamond formation, Forest were clinical and confident on the ball, unafraid to play in close proximity to the Bolton players. It was good to see the calm figure of Wilson shrugging off challenges again, prepared and able to play his way out of trouble rather than hoofing the ball up front.

But it was Majewski who proved so disastrous for Dougie Freedman’s men. He lurked and roamed in the opponent’s half, effective at this because of his efficiency on the ball. His technical ability means he needs less space – he is able to receive in advanced positions and pass accurately before the tackle arrives. The longer Forest retain possession their opponent’s half, the more red shirts can move up into dangerous positions – this is Majewski’s main benefit to the team. Against Huddersfield, Forest had to play longer, direct balls up to the forwards for them to flick down, or struggle to control and hold up. With Raddy playing in “the hole“, they could pass that bit shorter in the knowledge he would be able to control, move and retain possession more efficiently (see diagram).
Majewski was so effective at keeping the ball against Bolton that at times he was acting as a magnet for their players, drawing them close as they tried to either mark or get the ball off of him. This automatically created space for other players. At one stage he had a gaggle of players chasing him around the pitch - the five defenders eventually managing to get the ball off of him (see right).

But as effective as he was at helping Forest keep the ball, it was his use of it that was most damaging. Raddy is perhaps most celebrated for being able to spot a pass, this creativity was evident almost immediately against Bolton. Accompanied with his efficiency – his ability to work quickly with the ball – this vision is exceptionally dangerous for this level of football, illustrated perfectly in our first goal (see left), as he threaded a pass through the defence for Jamie Mackie. Bolton defender Zat Knight had strayed out of position for a second – too long as Raddy found the ball and almost instantly made an instinctive pass. 1-0.

Forest seem much more able to play these through-balls on the ground with Majewski in the team, this has been demonstrated already this season; against Huddersfield Forest were playing balls mostly to the strikers for them to hold up, but against Blackburn and Bolton they were making more runs goal-side of the defenders (see right), often it was Raddy smuggling the ball through for them to race onto.
I have long been impressed with Majewski, and aware of his statistical effect on the team, but since Billy’s return he has shone particularly brightly, because the team complements his style of play so well. Whether it is the case of Davies building his team around him (I would speculate, from listening to Billy talk about Raddy, and the way in which he was pushed forward into the media spotlight last season by the club, that the little Pole is indeed rated that highly by Davies), or he’s just using his players cleverly, the conditions have been ideal for him to flourish. The role of the strikers has been helping – they have been used not as goalscorers but more to occupy and pin down the opposition defence – this leaves space in which Majewski can operate. It also helps having a player like Guedioura playing in defensive midfield, robust enough to keep the ball and ping the passes for him to get onto.

This ability to retain the ball in this area was missing against Huddersfield and decisive against Bolton. It would be going too far to say this improvement was solely down to Majewski; Greg Halford did a fantastic battling job up front, wrestling with and getting the better of David Wheater he played a major role in our ball retention. Jamie Mackie was tidy and tenacious, using the ball well. The introduction of Kelvin Wilson was also favourable in that there were no more hopeful punts up the pitch – Forest were better at keeping the ball in their own half, and so automatically were able to pick and choose their passes going forward, making it easier for the attackers.

However Majewski was the key link in the chain, and although not his most spectacular game in the garibaldi, for me this was perhaps his best ever performance, it was also one of Forests best for many years, totally outplaying one of the better teams in the league with hundreds of games worth of Premier League experience.

As Majewski matures he will grow even more influential; once identified as a threat he was targeted by Bolton for some rough treatment. In the past this might have put him off his game, but perhaps stronger physically, he stood up to this challenge well. His one touch football, the instant moving along of the ball and the quick thinking, was instrumental in Forest’s offensive possession. It is a long time since I’ve been so impressed by a player’s performance.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Preview: Forest v Bolton

Finally dry after the post-Huddersfield monsoon, I look forward to a fascinating encounter as Forest welcome a Bolton side unrecognisable to the team we drew with early last season.

I’ve enjoyed researching this preview more than any other because it’s given me the opportunity to study the alterations Dougie Freedman has made to The Trotters, in particular when they have the ball. He has clearly been working hard with his midfielders to develop their attacking movement – under Owen Coyle they bombarded Forest with crosses and bullied our defence, but under Freedman they have changed their philosophy and instead focus on creating and exploiting space with a pass-and-move style of play. Defending in The Championship has improved sharply in the last few years as teams have gotten particularly adept at denying space and maintaining defensive shape – Freedman has evolved his tactics to combat this, and even use an opponent’s defensive discipline against them.

An initial, simple tactic employed is to utilise the space between an opponents defence and midfield. This is particularly troublesome for teams playing a 4-4-2 (see left), and at a higher level has been one of the main reasons for the formation’s decline as clever attacking midfielders sneak into the gap between the lines of defence. Darren Pratley is the main culprit of this at Bolton; his manager has him occupy this space regularly. See below for an example of Bolton targeting this space.

It may seem a simple matter for teams to counter this by changing to a formation with a defensive midfielder sitting in front of the defence – but this takes a player from elsewhere on the pitch, usually narrowing the formation (as Forest fans will be familiar with), and is playing into Bolton’s hands because their other two clever midfielders (Eagles & Lee) drift to the flanks and exploit the extra space.

But Bolton are also able to create their own space through manipulating their opponents. The goal against Burnley has a lot going off (see left – all diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked). It has Pratley finding the space he craves in between a rigid midfield and a defence which is being cleverly occupied and dragged off to one side, to make room for Chris Eagles. In the ensuing panic Eagles and Pratley know exactly when space is going to appear around the penalty spot, and ultimately the goal was inevitable. This is a beautiful move for this level of football; evidence that the game at this level is evolving.

The Burnley goal illustrated that Bolton are clever enough to work as a team to create space even when their opponents have plenty of defenders back, and they showed this against Reading too. The Royals sat deep in an effort to park the bus, however this allowed Bolton too much space in less deep positions and they were doggedly working their way through and around to the extent that Nigel Adkins was forced to abandon this tactic and take a more pro-active approach, one which proved more successful.

Away from home Freedman may employ a 4-5-1 formation, sucking their opponents in and looking to counter attack, hoping to find space behind their opponent’s midfield.

Reading’s change in fortunes against Bolton is telling; Bolton are particularly strong when trying to conjure something on the attack, but when on the back-foot they struggle. This is reflected in their relatively awful away record from last season, when they picked up on average 0.9 points per game – only four teams were worse. For a promotion hunting team this return was disastrous, and the problem lay in defending as they conceded on average 1.8 goals per game, more than all of the relegated teams (in fact only Middlesbrough and Huddersfield let in more). Almost automatically I suspect part of this problem may be to do with The Wanderers’ creative midfield not being very good defensively, however Bolton fans seem to place the blame on their defenders and goalkeeper.

The wealth of attacking talent Billy Davies has at his disposal makes it difficult to predict how Forest will shape up, however after examining Bolton’s defence we can theorise. The Trotters have a particularly big and strong central defence in Zat Knight and David Wheater. Forest were able to bully Huddersfield by bringing on Darius Henderson and Ishmael Miller in our last home match – this will not happen against Bolton. The sheer size of these two players would also make them less susceptible to crosses – so we may have to wait a little longer to see Forest play with wingers.

I suspect Billy will stick with his narrow formations. Against Huddersfield he tweaked his diamond formation, playing a highly fluid and narrow system I have dubbed The Washing Machine (see left), using the full-backs to create any width. All of the front six players interchanged frequently as they searched for space against an impressively organised and disciplined Huddersfield side. The Terriers defended as a team and were reasonably successful at keeping Forest at bay – it required our left-back to commit himself forward in order to provide the extra man to unlock their defence. Will Bolton’s more creative, attack-minded midfielders be as disciplined?

With smaller, more manoeuvrable forwards keeping Bolton’s big, strong defenders busy, and their midfield not tracking back in sufficient numbers, Forest could find success as their second wave of attack arrive, as was the case so often last season. One touch, quick build up play that doesn’t give the bigger players time to over-power them, may give Forest time to get numbers forward and pull Bolton out of position – this may be an ideal game for Raddy Majewski to shine. Freedman has been pushing his full-backs forward a lot this season and involving them in the attack – the threat of mobile forwards such as Cox and Mackie lurking in the gaps they leave, supported by Majewski, would make this practice suicidal.

Another tactical quandary facing Davies is how to defend against Bolton, and in particular their midfielders. I have highlighted above their tactic of finding space; Forest have been playing with a defensive midfielder, which could make things more complicated for them, however the player Davies uses here is Adlene Guedioura. A big factor in this game will be whether he can be disciplined enough to prevent space appearing in front of our central defence. In a previous article I have shown that this isn't necessarily his strong suit.

Forest’s new found fluidity may come into play here. As well as swapping around in attack, Forest’s midfielders were also interchanging defensively against Huddersfield (at one stage Andy Reid was defending as a right back). If Forest play with this fluidity against Bolton, it may go one of two ways; either a) the increased flexibility, in not having players holding positions, will disrupt the space Bolton’s midfielders are trying to create, or b) our less organised midfield, whose talents lie not in defending, will leave more space.

Forest’s formation would be ideal if we had a McKenna figure occupying the base of our diamond, someone capable of spotting problems and organising his troops accordingly – the risk is, even if space doesn’t appear in front of Wilson and Hobbs, the likes of Eagles, Pratley and Lee will create it in front of our full backs. Forest’s narrow, fluid formation could then be pulled apart as Burnley’s was, as they struggle to get back in position, leaving space in even more dangerous positions to be exploited in the second phase of an attack (see right).

This means there will be a lot of pressure on our full-backs. It is likely that Bolton will play five in midfield, two of these being attacking wide men, with Forest’s narrow system it will be up to Cohen and Lichaj to look after them, which will effectively reduce their attacking threat. If they rove forward as they did against Huddersfield, Forest will be exposed to the counter attack (see left).

This could lead to a fascinating tactical battle between Davies and Freedman, as when either team attacks they will be leaving themselves in danger. Bolton may leave the onus on Forest, indeed they appear to have been ceding possession so far this season, averaging just 43.5% in their previous two games. With things so evenly balanced, and both teams able to do damage when the other commits men forward, the first goal will be crucial.

This game is finely poised and could hinge on a piece of magic or a refereeing decision. It is difficult to tell what systems will be employed so early in the season – Forest in particular have plenty of options going forward and could choose to play a wider formation, however I feel we will stay narrow – mobile, technical players like Majewski, Cox and Mackie should trouble, pinning them back in their own half long enough for Reid and friends to unlock their defence. But Forest must beware as Bolton have the players to punish any errors, and exploit any positional oversight. Expect fireworks after the first goal in this one as the injured party rallies, leaving themselves even more vulnerable.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Preview: Forest v Huddersfield

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for – no, Charlie Austin hasn’t just pulled into The City Ground car park, straight into Darren Pratley's parking space, far more importantly it’s the opening game of the season as Forest gleefully welcome Huddersfield Town back to Nottingham.

Expectations are often inflated at this time of year, and with exciting new signings completed and memories of their last visit still fresh, fans of The Garibaldi could be forgiven for looking forward to seeing their team get stuck into The Terriers again. Huddersfield fans for their part seem apprehensive on the whole, but as usual this should not be seen as an automatic three points.

Lest any Forest fan look down on our first opponents – unwise in The Championship– we should remember that even considering our flirt with promotion, Forest finished only 9 points above them. Indeed, Huddersfield finished the season strongly under new manager Mark Robins, losing only one of their last six games.

Town's strength lies in going forward – they have good attacking options and have strengthened this over the summer, making permanent signings of Adam Hammill and James Vaughan – both proven performers at this level. They have also brought in old boy Jon Stead among others.
It is difficult to say what Robins’ game plan will be, but we at Forest Boffin expect Huddersfield to play to their strengths – and what would last season have been our weaknesses. Under Billy Davies, Forest were woeful at preventing and defending crosses (see charts, left. All diagrams & graphics are enlargeable when clicked). The space left in front of our full-backs due to Billy’s diamond formation, poor midfield effort and a lack of organisation in our penalty area, led to a 35% increase in goals conceded because of high balls into the box.

A side with tricky wingers, and strikers who are renowned aerial danger-men, might look to capitalise on this – we have already seen proof of what James Vaughan can do if allowed to reach crosses, scoring one and hitting the inside of our post the last time he played in front of the Trent End (see right). Stead is, if anything, a better header of the ball. Although Forest have focused on improving this vulnerability, our greatest threat will surely be from the air and without diligent defending we will be punished.

Another consideration should be the fact that Huddersfield, despite not appearing against us, were the third best side in the league last season at defending a lead when away from home. Their opponents equalised on only 33% of occasions, and The Terriers won on a very impressive 78% of occasions. If we let them edge ahead again, we may be less fortunate than in our last encounter.

Indeed, the 6-1 thrashing was only Mark Robins’ first league game managing Huddersfield. Usefully for us, he led them into fifteen Championship games – the same as Billy Davies. Comparing their records leaves Billy on top, but where he exploded onto the scene with a ten match unbeaten run, Robins worked his way into his new job and actually outpointed Davies in the last ten games of the season.

This improvement was due to Huddersfield tightening up their defence, but this remains their weakness. They conceded a large amount of goals – only Peterborough and Bristol City let in more – and had an alarming tendency to capitulate entirely, letting in four or more goals on six occasions, which is more than any other team in the league.

Where Forest have gone to the transfer market to improve their weaknesses, Huddersfield appear to have taken a different approach and ignored it – preferring to bring in strikers (four at the last count). Their fans seem to think this will be their downfall and expect “another hefty goals against column” this season. I’m told they will also be without their regular left back for the opener – which should weaken them further.

Joel Lynch will probably slot into this position, also his bane at Forest. We saw glimmers of quality from him at centre-back – indeed he was part of the meanest central defensive pairing since Forest’s return to The Championship – but a full-back he is not, and I’m told he’s struggled at Huddersfield when playing here, and seemed unsettled. It will be interesting to see how he does against one of our shiny new wingers.

Another point worth noting is Huddersfield’s dire record against the better teams in the league last season (see left). Overall, they were far from the worst team in the league, however whenever they came up against quality they floundered, their poor defence letting in more than two goals per game. This continued even under Robins, who lost four out of four games against opponents who finished in the top 8. Perhaps his record would have looked different had they not already played most of the big guns.

It is difficult to foresee how Forest will shape up. We have a whole team of attacking options, surely the envy of the division (see right). Encouragingly they are all different kinds of players and with the addition of three wide men (proven threat Jamie Mackie, Olympiakos import Djamel Abdoun, and exciting prospect Jamie Paterson), The Reds should be able to come up with various tactics going forward. Last season, Billy’s system brought immediate success, but teams soon learnt how to deny space to Forest’s narrow attack, which proved fatal for our playoff push. He now has options galore.

With Forest’s quality, and considering our opponents’ poor record last season against the better teams, and their neglected defence, Saturday should see a positive start. Huddersfield were able to scrap with the mid-table teams and their relegation rivals with some success – this is where they picked up their points – but again they will struggle to keep out the goals against the best. Billy Davies has a plethora of attacking talent at his disposal – whichever team he picks should be capable of scoring goals, and although their strikers pose a threat and will need to be marked tightly, Huddersfield may still have a few crumbly defensive performances in them yet.

Looking at various forums, many Huddersfield fans fear a thrashing, Forest fans generally expect a goal feast – this should be simple, right? In any other league perhaps, but this is The Championship. Anything can happen, it will happen, and we at Forest Boffin can’t wait for kick off!

Thanks to the Huddersfield fans at Down at the Mac forum for their knowledgeable and kind help, thanks for reading, and COYR!