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!


  1. Impressive stuff — as usual. The next three games (Bolton, Watford and Wigan) will give a good idea of how urgent new additions to the squad are.

  2. Cheers buddy! Yes you're right - & no matter how good we are, these are three eminently losable games. Not that I think we'll lose all three, but those two early 1-0 victories may prove more useful than we first thought, if we have a wobble.

    We'll know where we are very shortly.

  3. Cox is injured!