Thursday, 26 September 2013

Forest v Derby preview

It has been a week of anticipation, hope, excitement, glee, worry, trepidation - even dread... yes it's the Derby game! Forest welcome their rivals in what is probably the most important home game of the season. After a great start The Reds have faded somewhat since losing Guedioura - this is the ideal chance to reverse that - but Derby never make things easy, in fact this is sure to be another difficult challenge since The Rams system could prove ideal against Forest's positive ethos.

Nigel Clough has been experimenting with his formation, but appears to have settled on a 4-3-3 system for away matches, which has been proving very successful. Their game-plan is based around winning the ball before their opponents can develop an attack, and exploiting the space left by positive opponents. Bryson, Hughes and the front three hunt down the ball with great energy and determination, forcing opposition players to hoof it long or risk losing the ball. At home, Derby have struggled because away teams have been getting men behind the ball and have thus ran out of ideas, but away from Pride Park they have been winning the ball as home teams have come forward, running into the space in front of a defence and shooting from range.

Nobody can accuse Nigel Clough of not being intelligent, and he has proven himself capable of coming up with solutions to his teams problems. Last season Derby were poor away from home, he has worked on this during the summer, playing to their strengths by dragging home teams into Derby's kind of game. They forced Brighton and Millwall in particular into playing long balls, which their defenders prefer to play against. Derby struggle when the ball is on the ground in their penalty area - they will attempt to force Forest to play direct, and then exploit space left in front of our defence as they win the ball when we press forward.

This is Derby's speciality, and it should worry Billy Davies because it has also been Forest's weakness since the departure of Adlene Guedioura. This is the most positive Forest team I have seen for many years - it's great to see The Garibaldi getting men in their opponent's half of the pitch, and pushing forward the full-backs, but at the moment there is no balance to this and we are being punished for our all-out-attack ethos. Forest got the balance perfect in the Watford game, but without Guedioura they have been sent back to the drawing board, and are struggling to reassign defensive duties to their midfielders - who have not been as diligent defensively. The Doncaster game is full of examples of Forest's defenders becoming over-run because the midfield were not helping them out.

The manner of the goals conceded against Donny will give Nigel Clough a lot of hope. In both instances, as well as on other occasions (see the above precursor - all images on Forest Boffin are expandable when clicked), Forest lose the ball when most of their players are in attacking positions - exactly what Derby look to do. This is not fatal alone, however if the midfield don't track back to at least put pressure on the ball, it becomes a bigger problem, and this has been the case with Forest recently. Doncaster's first goal is a case in point, as Forest lose the ball on the half way line, and fail to track Macheda's run (see left).

Doncaster's second goal is even worse defensively, because there were more players involved. Forest had pushed forward Lichaj and Cohen - but when we lose the ball there are midfielders in a position to cover their duties, and who should have been switched on enough to realise there were big gaps either side of our defence. Initially Theo Robinson gets the ball and runs at Hobbs and Halford, who do their job in holding him up. However they are pinned in position and become overrun because Macheda and Wellens make runs to either side.

With no cover where the full-backs should be, the Donny players are able to run into this space and have plenty of time to punish Forest. The particularly disappointing part of this goal is the role of Richie Wellens. Never known for his pace, he is now 33 but was able to comfortably outsprint Forest's midfielders - the closest of which was Nathan Chalobah, 15 years Wellens' junior. When Wellens gets the ball, he is able to play a totally unharried, almost lazy ball to Macheda who had made another untracked run on the other side of the Forest defence. The Manchester United loanee could not miss.

This is relevant for the Derby game, because of our opponents. They have been shown to struggle when confronted with an entrenched defence. At home teams have frustrated them - being less positive causes Derby to run out of ideas. However if Forest continue in their positive style, pushing forward their full-backs as they do, and if the midfield fail to fill in for them, the Derby players are geared up to exploit the space they will inevitably find as Forest lose the ball.

Craig Bryson and Will Hughes are Derby's most threatening players - Hughes in particular is a very promising player. Last season we saw how to deal with the youngster, as Simon Gillett expertly denied him space causing Hughes to struggle to get in the game. At just 18 Hughes is still learning the game, and is still reliant on finding a little room in which to operate - he deliberately avoids busy areas of the pitch, instead using his intelligence to find the space he needs. If Forest are too open, he will have no problems finding space and he is good enough to punish us. However if Forest keep it tight in their own half of the pitch Hughes will go further and further away from dangerous areas in search of space.

The key battle of this game will indeed be in Forest's half of the pitch - but when The Reds have the ball. I think it's inevitable that Forest will leave gaps at the back - they are just too positive not to and to be fair they have been at their best as Lichaj, and Cohen in particular, have pushed forward. Forest are not a direct team, instead building up their possession through the midfield - it will be essential for them to be able to keep the ball in their own half as the Derby players close them down. Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Doncaster all had success in hunting down Forest players with the ball, the other midfielders need to make themselves more available than they have been doing. If Forest can keep the ball and build their attack without having to resort to long balls, they will cut Derby to pieces when they get into the Derby half.

With the ability for Forest's midfield to keep the ball under pressure key, I would like to see Raddy Majewski keep his place, with Lansbury moving back to his usual position. It is a fact that Forest keep the ball significantly better with the little Pole in the side, Derby will be hunting down the ball and we need our players to be able to move it efficiently under pressure - Majewski specialises in this. Also, with Lansbury further back, Forest would be better without the ball. The midfielders will nee to track back better than they have been doing - Djamel Abdoun is perhaps a better option when this isn't as much of a worry, or even when we're chasing the game.

Having Darius Henderson on the pitch would help too - every time he comes on he causes defenders problems through sheer presence, he deserves a chance in my opinion. We will be stronger in defence if Kelvin Wilson has recovered, however Forest rate him only to have a 40% chance of returning - Greg Halford will be more than adequate as long as the defence gets help from the midfield.

You can throw out the form-book for local derbys - but it would not help you choose a winner in this case in any event - Forest are strong at home, Derby are strong away. In my opinion Forest have the better quality throughout their squad, however I see the loss of Adlene Guedioura as key - he has been replaced adequately, but the problem has been that this change in personnel has sent Billy Davies back to the drawing board, as Forest have been forced to re-learn their roles in midfield. They have not been defending as well in this area since the Algerian's departure and seem unsure of their defensive responsibilities. When on top Forest have looked several levels above all of Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Doncaster - but in my opinion they haven't been on top for long enough.

Derby have had time to perfect their system away from home - not only does it work, but it is ideal for exposing Forest's positive endeavour and defensive uncertainty - I would not want Forest to play any other way, they look fantastic when coming forward, but when they lose the ball Derby will cause us problems - I predict a busy day for Karl Darlow as Derby exploit space and shoot from range - they prefer to do this rather than threading balls through a defence.

The deciding factor will be whether Forest's midfielders can operate and pass their way under pressure, and get back when they give the ball away. They are good enough, but will they play to their potential under pressure from an energetic and motivated Derby team?
Thanks for reading, if you want to discuss you can here on City Ground Faithful forum - would be great to hear your views, and COYR!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Preview: Forest v Barnsley

On their return from the international break, Forest welcome Barnsley. Just as I warned before our last encounter, this is not an automatic three points. Speak to Barnsley fans and you will find them refreshingly upbeat – none I have spoken to, either online or in person, expect another relegation fight, and upon close inspection I can see why. Their record under David Flitcroft is very impressive; under him their form has been that of play-off contenders (see stats, below).

This form has been based on an excellent home record, however they have proven themselves capable of getting results away against the very best this league has to offer – their shutout at The City Ground last season was preceded by two other points at Crystal Palace and Cardiff. That being said, The Tykes are clearly at their weakest away from Oakwell, and a team with the home record of Forest, especially under Billy Davies, should be hot favourites, especially since Barnsley have not won in any of their last 9 away league games.

Flitcroft has been employing variants of a very positive 3-5-2. Barnsley’s wing-backs act more as midfielders than is usual, both in defence and attack. Coming forward they remind me a little of Forest in that they build their attack gradually, rather than immediately striking at goal, using Chris O’Grady as the fulcrum of their efforts. O’Grady operates in a deep position in front of the opposition defence in the first phase of attack, holding up the ball until the midfield can flood forward in support, laying the ball off out wide or slipping it through to overlapping runners.

Attack is clearly their strength – which is probably why they’re so effective at home, when teams are more inclined to let them take the initiative. If given the chance they are very good on the ball and try to play the game in an entertaining, positive manner; I don’t see them coming to the City Ground to ‘park the bus’, indeed they will relish the possession if they can get it, and are capable of using it.

Defensively Barnsley have a very clear game-plan, unchanged from our last encounter; they use an energetic, determined tactic of pressing which is ball-orientated rather than space orientated, in order to deprive the man on the ball time to do anything useful with it. This proved successful for Barnsley last season especially in their games against teams (like Forest) with a patient passing approach – the ball-playing teams. In fact under Flitcroft, Barnsley’s record against the leagues top teams was nothing short of sensational. These teams were simply swamped when on the ball.

However this defensive strength can be, turned into their greatest weakness. The ball acts as a magnet for their midfielders, who press the ball in numbers rather than in ones or twos. This leaves space in the areas that these midfielders would ordinarily be defending in a normal system. In my opinion Barnsley’s pressing game, though very effective at times, is outdated and can be exploited by technically good players who are unafraid of using the ball under pressure. I think they got away with it slightly last season because teams were unprepared for just how determined they are to press the ball.

I alluded to this vulnerability in my preview of out last game, but if anything Barnsley have become even more vigorous in their pressing, and even more vulnerable. I’ve picked out an example from this season (against Blackpool, right. All diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked) showing three stages of Barnsley’s pressing game in action. Immediately the first stage shows the problem; four Barnsley players (in blue) have become magnetised towards the ball leaving a huge swathe of empty space in a dangerous area in front of their penalty area. Blackpool players are circling like vultures, and have drifted lackadaisically into this space by stage 2. Because the Barnsley players are so ball orientated, they mark neither the empty space, nor the free players, which allows Blackpool’s midfielders to wander into dangerous positions and wait for the ball. By stage 3 this has happened and the free midfielder is able to gang up on Barnsley’s left-sided centre-back with Michael Chopra, resulting in a good chance for Blackpool.

The above is no isolated incident – wherever the ball isn’t, Barnsley leave a lot of space. Just about every manager to have come up against them under Flitcroft has praised their pressing, and commented that they had no space on the ball, but it does lead to problems and will present opportunities for the skillful, prepared teams.

The pressing game also presents problems to Barnsley’s three central defenders. When playing with three men, you really need the support of wing-backs, but because they’re always busy pressing the ball, Barnsley’s outer centre-backs tend to become isolated (we can see this in stage 1 of the Blackpool example, and this example against Blackburn, left). Once past the midfield, opposition attackers can gang up against, or merely only have the one defender to beat because he’s been dragged out wide away from his partners. The defence does not work as a team; it is beaten as individuals.

An unconventional attacking team like Forest have the potential to rip Barnsley apart by virtue of their movement. Forest’s attackers tend to run into areas on the flank where space can be found; this is troublesome for a back four, but an unsupported three man defence will have really uncomfortable decisions to make – if they follow the runs of the likes of Cox and Mackie, they will leave space for Forest’s second wave of attack, which is always the real threat.

Forest’s attacking midfielders might also cause Barnsley’s pressing game problems. Andy Reid and Raddy Majewski especially are very good at working with the ball under pressure; they have the ability to swashbuckler their way past players and will be able to pick out men in the space Barnsley leave. Teams like Blackpool and Huddersfield have proven that the best form of defence against Reid & Co. is to be very disciplined in your positioning so that, while still putting pressure on them, they have no targets to pass to, and so are forced to play more difficult passes. Barnsley have the exact opposite philosophy.

If Forest had played against Barnsley a few weeks ago, I would be predicting certain carnage. The Tykes have been playing Scott Wiseman and Tom Kennedy as centre-backs, yet they are really full-backs and allow themselves to be dragged out of position, out to the flanks where they’re more comfortable. However, they have more defensive options now, with Martin Cranie and Lewin Nyatanga possibly returning from injury, and new recruit Peter Ramage. It is not their inclusion that worries Forest Boffin, but the possibility that Flitcroft will simply move the more defensive-minded Wiseman and Kennedy into the wing-back positions. Even if the team are instructed to continue in their aggressive pressing of the ball, these two will surely protect Barnsley’s defenders more than their more attacking midfielders have been.

If Barnsley’s line-up and shape is difficult to predict because of these possible additions, Forest’s own is impossible due to the departure of Adlene Guedioura. The player that steps into his shoes will likely have a profound effect on not only that position, but our entire style of play, since Davies was using Guedioura as a launch-pad for Forest’s attacks. Against a pressing team like Barnsley, the abilities on the ball of our midfielders will be important – against Wigan Billy Davies moved Lansbury back, with Cohen playing on the right, but I would like to see a more technical midfielder playing further up the pitch on the right, since he will be under siege when going forward with the ball. I would much rather see Cohen bursting forward into any space left by Barnsley’s midfielders. For that reason, I’d like to see Jamie Paterson given a start.

Whoever plays behind him, I think it essential that Raddy Majewski plays at the tip of the diamond; he is exactly the kind of player that will be able to pick his way through an oppressive midfield, but also should the three-man defence become overstretched as it has been already this season (i.e. if they get too far apart from each other) he will be able to find the gaps and be a threat on goal. I see the little Pole and Andy Reid as our danger men against Barnsley, with Majewski running into gaps and isolating defenders, and Reid lurking in the space in front of them ready to shoot long range.

The key battle may be in stripping Barnsley of the ball as they come forward. To their credit they will look to attack, and are very good at consolidating possession in an opponent’s half. The main culprit of this is O’Grady – because of the Barnsley fans praise, I’ve watched a lot of him in the past few days and he is very good at bringing his teammates into the game. He is problematic to mark because he drifts deep in the first phase on an attack, helping Barnsley to move into a threatening position before moving towards goal himself. The problem Forest will have is that, if we assign a defender to mark him, they will be dragged away from the back line leaving space for one of the five midfielders to run into. However Forest stop him, I believe everything else will fall into place once they do this, as Barnsley will not be able to keep the ball as effectively in our half, and this is their strength. Flitcroft has worked very hard to increase their possession (especially away from home, where they increased it from 47.8% on average to 49.8%) because he knows this - Forest need to keep the ball and pick Barnsley off when they come looking for it.

This is sure to be an entertaining game, purely because of our opponents’ positive attitude and ability coming forward. They are no pushover, despite my knit picking at their defensive style, and under this manager they will get better and better. I have not mentioned that O’Grady and Pederson are very tidy finishers if given a sniff at goal; they are. However if Forest are able to break up Barnsley’s play and starve them of possession, the aggressive pressing game of The Tykes might become their undoing, their three man defence will be especially vulnerable as Forest’s second wave of attack arrive to support the strikers. An important game for both teams, it’s going to be a cracker.

Thanks for reading, thanks to the Barnsley fans at Talk of the Tarn that I’ve probably upset by being ultra-critical of their defence, but I do think they're a good team - hopefully I'm right in my suspicions that Forest are a bad match for them. COYR!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Heroes & Villains: Goals conceded so far

This season I wanted to keep a closer eye on how and why Forest's goals (for and against) were being scored, as it can tell us a lot about a team tactically - for example, Forest under Billy Davies last season began conceding a lot of goals from crosses, coming mainly from the area in front of our right full-back; it highlighted a weakness in preventing and dealing with high balls under Billy. I intend examining every goal scored and conceded, and over the season will try to build up a larger picture.

I must point out at this point that some of this is going to be a little subjective; this blog isn't merely about my opinions, I want to get to the bottom of things so if you find flaws in my reasoning, help me out and let me know - if there's something in what your saying, or I've missed something, or there is an error lurking, I'll happily upgrade, in fact the more people who stick their oar in, the better picture we'll have of why and how Forest are scoring & conceding.

1. Watford (1-1) - Lewis McGugan

We all knew this would happen... McGugan scores with a good free-kick beating Karl Darlow at his near post.. Watford, being a technically good, passing side, were trying to break forest down by attacking this area. They did go wider at times, but mostly they were playing through the middle, as they do here drawing a free-kick from Guedioura. The tackle looked clumsy, but there are two things we should consider in the Algerian's favour; firstly we must ask if he was doing his job - was he in position? Evidently he was in a good position, tracking the run of the Watford player, Fabbrini. Secondly, did Guedioura make the correct decision in the execution of his tackle? In hindsight; clearly no. There was no problem if he had stayed on his feet. In being so rough Guedioura gave the Watford player the opportunity to go down, and gave the referee a decision to make. However, we must also consider team orders. It is clear that Billy Davies has instructed Forest, when defending, to be 'robust'. Statistically Forest are the dirtiest team in the league, and have been since Billy's return last season. Speak to any opposition fan this season, they have all tended to remark on how dirty Forest are. We've all noticed how many more tackles the midfield are making. With this considered, we must ask whether Guedioura was really to blame for clattering into Fabbrini, or whether Billy's instructions to get stuck in were to blame?

McGugan's free-kick is good, but we should look at whether it ought to have resulted in a goal. It was struck well, but wasn't exactly in the top corner, however I would absolve Darlow of any blame because that is the side of the goal meant to be protected by the wall. Billy Davies has criticised the wall since the game, and looking closely there does seem to be differences in some of the players stances when the ball is struck. I'm not an expert in 'walls', but it appears Reid is the only one really trying to get in the way (see left), the others appear to be merely stood there hoping not to be hit - perhaps this is why Billy was disappointed in the wall?

I'm reasonably happy with Forest's defending for this one; I think any team could have conceded this goal. Perhaps is was a symptom of Forest's tougher defensive ethos? We'll have to keep an eye on how many free-kicks we give away in this area in the future.

Players not doing their job*: None - I'm happy with everyone in this regard. I don't know enough to be able to denounce the players in the wall with any certainty, so I won't.
Players beaten by skill: Guedioura.
Goalkeeping error? No.

2. Wigan (1-1) Shaun Maloney (pen.)

Wigan make some of their Premier League quality shine with some good work by Jean Beausejour, who picked up the ball on the edge of Forest's box and waltzed through two challenges, being brought down by Hobbs. Forest are set up quite well - I can't see anybody out of position contributing to this penalty. Adlene Guedioura has taken some stick for not making his tackle, but it was a great piece of skill that beat him, and did for Jack Hobbs too. The interesting thing of note here is Guedioura's position before the Wigan player gets the ball; I can't fault it. In the past he might have been with Beausejour already, or neglected to see the danger at all, but here Guedioura has made sure he is in a position to intercept, while also looking after his main responsibility, which is the area just in front of the box. To have already be marking Beausejour would leave a hole in a more dangerous position. Guedioura's defensive-midfielder positioning here is sound, he is just beaten by ultra-quick feet. We can't really moan at him for that.

Hobbs brings Beausejour down - he missed his tackle and we should perhaps expect him to make it more than Guedioura, but he's positioned well, closes the gap well, but again he's beaten by skill - it will happen when up against skilful players.

Darlow gets a hand to the penalty; should he have done better? I would say it was a firmly stuck penalty, reasonably well placed - I think he did well to get that close. This goal was all about good skills by our opponents.

Players not doing their job: None.
Players beaten by skill: Guedioura, Hobbs.
Goalkeeping error? No.

3. Wigan (1-2) Jordi Gomez

Again Guedioura is beaten by skill after being in the right place. I struggle to blame players for this when they are doing their job and making the effort - it's not deliberate. The Algerian was where he was meant to be and was simply beaten with the ball. Marc-Antoine Fortune received a long ball and held it up well, turning into the dangerous area in front of Forest's penalty area. Guedioura is positioned well, but cannot make the tackle. The Wigan player shoots and produces a brilliant save from Karl Darlow, unfortunately the ball comes off the woodwork and falls to Gomez, who slots it into an empty net.

Eric Lichaj is marking Fortune and I don't think he does anything wrong, he hassles and pressures him into a busier area of the pitch, where Lansbury and Guedioura are waiting, an area where he will have to get rid of the ball or dodge a tackle. Between them the Forest players can't get the ball and Wigan create their goal.

Darlow does brilliantly. There is no fault here.

Gomez is able to pounce on the ball before any Forest player; should this have been allowed? If there was another Wigan striker up there, I would have a criticism in that the left-midfielder should have been further back (even then he might not have been able to get the ball first - it was kind of a lottery where it bounced). However, because Cohen was already there, and he didn't have anybody else to pick up, there was no need for the midfielder to come back and defend deeper - Cohen had Gomez. Is Cohen at fault? I would argue this would be a harsh stance. As mentioned above, it was a lottery where the ball rebouned to, and since Cohen didn't switch off, I can't really blame him. Disagree?

Players not doing their job: None.
Players beaten by skill: Guedioura.
Goalkeeping error? No.
So far I can't find too much to complain about with our goals conceded - in my judgement we've not let any in because of players dozing off, or neglecting their duties, they have merely been beaten by skill - it has taken something special to score against Forest so far. I've been impresses by the work rate and defending, particularly from the midfielders, and at the more robust approach taken to defending (last season all of the softer, fairer teams, the ones that gave away the least free-kicks, finished towards the bottom of the table. You have to be nasty in The Championship by last year's evidence, see here.).

The loss of our defensive midfielder may change this, but many fans thought he wasn't playing very well anyway. Guedioura was, in my opinion, improving defensively, but still giving the ball away like all players playing outside their comfort zone do - it will be interesting to see how we shape up defensively against Barnsley.

Cheers for reading, any thoughts on the above would be welcome; have I got anything wrong? COYR!

Previously: the goals scored.

* In asking whether a player is 'doing his job', I mean is he doing it to his capabilities? Has he maintained the defensive position asked of him, and has he tried his best to make that position count. This will be a debatable issue at times.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Heroes & Villains part 1: Goals scored so far

This season I wanted to keep a closer eye on how and why Forest's goals (for and against) were being scored, as it can tell us a lot about a team tactically - for example, Forest under Billy Davies last season began conceding a lot of goals from crosses, coming mainly from the area in front of our right full-back; it highlighted a weakness in preventing and dealing with high balls under Billy. I intend examining every goal scored and conceded, and over the season will try to build up a larger picture.

I must point out at this point that some of this is going to be a little subjective; this blog isn't merely about my opinions, I want to get to the bottom of things so if you find flaws in my reasoning, help me out and let me know - if there's something in what your saying, or I've missed something, or there is an error lurking, I'll happily upgrade, in fact the more people who stick their oar in, the better picture we'll have of why and how Forest are scoring & conceding.

1. Huddersfield (1-0) - Henri Lansbury
Huddersfield were defending well, maintaining a disciplined two banks of four with their attackers also becoming a nuisance. Forest tried to tempt our opponents out of position by pushing forward the full-backs, but Huddersfield held firm, defending professionally and hitting us on the counter attack. In the end it required something extra, provided by Chris Cohen, who played a 1-2 with Simon Cox, making a run through our opponents defence. It was a simple move, effective because it merely added a new attacker to an area in which Huddersfield were not prepared for. The defence had been rigid the entire game, ironically Cohen's run used this against them; they were all concentrating on doing their usual job and refusing to be dragged out of position, when Cohen ran through none of them were allocate to pick him up. Their inflexibility cost Huddersfield a goal. Cohen ran through and crossed for Lansbury to tap in - this goal was all about Cohen's endeavour.

As an aside, notice where Forest's strikers, Mackie & Derbyshire, are for this goal. They are not the farthest men forward, Forest's attack were very fluid and once again Billy was not using traditional 'strikers', instead using his front men, much of the time, to keep the opposition defenders busy while the real threat came from the second wave.

Goal: Lansbury. Assist: Cohen. Key Contributions: Cox

2. Blackburn (1-0) - Darius Henderson

A direct ball over the top by Henri Lansbury, played into an area which can cause confusion for the defence - which it did as the Blackburn goalkeeper came shambling out, clattering into Jamie Mackie. Quick thinking from Mackie to set up Henderson, who still had a bit to do in firing into the almost empty net from outside the area. A gift in reality.

Goal: Henderson. Assist: Mackie. Key Contributions: Lansbury.

3. Bolton (1-0) - Jamie Mackie

Again Forest exploit an error in their opponent's defence, but this one so much more subtle. Majewski collects a loose ball, and almost instantly plays a through-ball in-between Bolton's right back and centre-back. He has quickly noticed that Zat Knight has strayed out of position, and plays a perfect pass for Mackie to run onto and score (see left. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked). There are not many players at this level with the ability to pick out this pass, since the window of opportunity was so small. Mackie does well, but this one's all about the vision and execution of the little Polish wizard.

Goal: Mackie. Assist: Majewski.

4. Bolton (2-0) - Andy Reid

Majewski is again involved, making a run past the strikers and behind the opposition full-back. Once in this space he has plenty of time to settle himself, look up, and threads a very accurate low cross through the Reid, who improvises well to knock it in on the half-volley. The Bolton defence is highly culpable, and if this were Forest I would be fuming; I don't mind if a player gets beaten for skill, but there is no excuse for not trying, and here the Bolton players made no attempt to firstly track Majewski, or stop the cross coming in (or even make him hurry up), and secondly their defensive midfielder Jay Spearing completely switched off and didn't track the run by Reid. It's not as if Reid was in an inconspicuous position - he was stood right in the middle of the Bolton penalty area in a bright red shirt, yet no defender was near him. Woeful.

From a Forest POV, Raddy made a great run into space, and found himself up against Medo, who was filling in at centre-back (or would have if Medo had made the effort, instead he seems happy to allow the cross and is just concentrating on keeping his hands out of the way). Majewski is good at finding these pockets of space off to either side of the goal, and his cross was good. Reid's finish was expert, his run was pretty standard but still wasn't picked up.

The striker (Mackie) is also doing a job for forest here. I expect to mention how Billy uses the 'strikers' to occupy the defenders a lot, rather than as a direct threat themselves. One of the main dangers with Forest of late is the second wave of attack, rather than the frontmen.

Goal: Reid. Assist: Majewski. Key contribution: Halford. Minor contribution: Mackie (movement).

5. Bolton (3-0) Henri Lansbury

Again Bolton switch off in several areas. Forest have them defending deep, and Guedioura plays a good ball out to our right wing. Greg Halford had drifted out into space (able to do so because he was being marked by Medo...) and controlled the ball, then driving in another low cross, which found Lansbury unmarked at the back post. The impressive thing about this goal is Halford's technique in controlling and fizzing in the cross. He does it quickly and stylishly, not looking like a defender at all. The cross is perfect.

Goal: Lansbury. Assist: Halford. Key Contribution: Guedioura

6. Watford (1-0) Andy Reid

The catalyst for this goal was Forest's defensive ethos mentioned in my last article. Billy has worked hard with the players, particularly in midfield, in improving their defending. The result is a harder working, combative, energetic group of players working and defending as a unit. In practice this has resulted in more tackling - especially from players who didn't do this traditionally like Andy Reid ad Raddy Majewski - and a lot of pressure on the ball when Forest don't have it. A side-effect to this, which I'm sure Billy will be secretly pleased with, is that Forest have been the dirtiest side in the league since Billy has returned. The goal at Watford is a direct result of this new hard-working defensive ethos.

Forest harry Watford back into their own half, and keep nibbling at whoever has the ball until a Watford defender (Cassetti) is half-forced to play a poor ball across his own half. Reid picks it up and immediately the two strikers Halford and Mackie have pulled off to the sides of Watford's defence, both finding space and stretching Watford out. You may expect a traditional striker to make a run through on goal, to  occupy a dangerous area, but as mentioned above, Forest's front men don't do this, they occupy the defenders and make space for the second wave of attack.

Reid & Mackie juggle the ball between themselves as Forest get closer to goal, finally the move finishes when Mackie lays it off to Reid who smashes it past the superb Almunia in Watford's goal. Forest's success here came from firstly their willingness to defend with purpose, and then their awkward movement, as rather than make runs directly at goal, the strikers peel off to either side, giving the defence decisions to make while all the time Reid is getting close enough. He is the main threat here, and he finishes the move beautifully.

Goal: Reid. Assist: Mackie. Minor contribution: Halford (pressing created an error).

7. Wigan (1-0) - Andy Reid

Forest scored against the run of play with a great free-kick from Andy Reid, won by Raddy Majewski. There's not too much to say about this tactically, it was virtually unstoppable, going in high off the post. Majewski did well to win the free kick, strong enough to win the ball, but weak enough to fall over at an opportune moment.

It's worth noting that Forest have scored first in every league game this season. So often in the past we have given the momentum to our opponents and been left struggling to get back into games, under Billy Forest have been starting brightly.

Goal: Reid. Key contribution: Majewski.

Thanks for reading. This is a work in progress hopefully over time we'll be able to spot trends and patterns in how we're scoring (and conceding - coming soon), how I record, choose between and display this information will no doubt change as I feel my way into it. Any suggestions would be welcome, please point out any errors too. COYR!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Life after Guedioura

After an interesting end to the transfer window from Forest's point of view, there has been much discussion concerning the gap left by the departure of Adlene Guedioura. With no replacement already secured, we have all been asking who will play in the defensive midfield role; I've been analysing Forest's options.

Firstly I thought it important to examine how Billy Davies has set up our midfield when on the defensive. Ever since his return, Billy has employed a midfield diamond, which has been successful because it has played to the strengths of our players. Guedioura has sat at the base of the diamond; he is not a 'holding' midfielder, he was played in this position because of his ability on the ball. He is a typical swashbuckling midfielder, with lots of vision and the ability to play decisive passes. The downside to this was when Forest did not have the ball, because although Gueddy is reasonably good at winning it back, often he allowed himself the be dragged out of position (see our article on Guedioura for a more detailed examination, here).

It proved useful to have a ball-playing midfielder in this withdrawn position, and Guedioura was able to supply the more attacking midfielders - with Raddy Majewski especially useful at the zenith of the diamond in retaining possession. Billy Davies had a mere 15 games to rescue Forest's promotion bid, and was adventurous in his tactics, throwing caution to the wind with this defensively vulnerable system. It was the correct thing to do and Forest very nearly made the playoffs, however the frailties were all too obvious; with no proper defensive midfielder we left too much space in front of our defence, and also we conceded a disproportionate amount of goals from crosses (as illustrated in a previous article, read this) because of space left in front of our full-backs, as the midfield sometimes failed to help out defensively.

Personally I expected to see a true defensive midfielder arrive this summer, someone who knew how to gobble up the space when Forest were defending, someone to organise. However, I have been impressed at how Billy Davies has been able to transform Forest's midfield in the absence of such a player. The manager and coaching staff have clearly spent a lot of time over the summer training the midfielders to work better as a group when defending. The Reds may have lost Guedioura, but it does not mean we've lost our defensive midfielder, because the others now automatically fill this role when the player originally starting here goes elsewhere (see an example, left. All pictures and diagrams on Forest Boffin will enlarge when clicked).

The fact is, the entire midfield have been playing that role all season. As well as being more disciplined and combative without the ball in general, Forest have been noticeably fluid both with, and without the ball. The midfield in particular have been changing positions constantly, to the extent that we have seen Andy Reid sat in front of the back four at times, coming deep to pick up the ball, and we've seen Henri Lansbury playing as a third striker for a short spell against Huddersfield. Without the ball, it is almost as if Forest play with three defensive midfielders at times (see screenshot, right).

In the past I have criticised Andy Reid for sometimes forgetting his defensive responsibilities, however this season he epitomises the new combative Forest midfield. They have been defending as a team, switching and swapping in their own version of "total football", to such an extent that I would argue that none, and all, of our three base midfielders have the defensive role. I speculate that Guedioura  only started games as the more withdrawn midfielder because of his abilities when Forest have the ball in their own half - his ability to pick out longer passes and keep the ball under close attention of the opponents has been crucial in Forest's tactics. I also speculate that this is why he has been allowed to venture forward so regularly - because his defensive duties were not the be all and end all. With a little fine-tuning, others could fill in and do just as good a job. Billy did this fine-tuning over the summer and now the whole midfield are defending tirelessly, and as a unit.
So if Guedioura has never really been considered a defensive midfielder by Davies, if he's been there more for his skills on the ball, what does this entail for the future? Clearly Billy has been looking to bring someone in to play here (the player we've been most linked with, Grant Leadbitter, only convinces me more that Billy doesn't want an out-and-out defensive midfielder - because he isn't one), but what options does he have in the current squad?
Losing Guedioura will have implications for Forest's style of play depending on what type of player you replace him with. Strictly defensively speaking, we have players at the club who could step into his shoes and improve on what he was doing. We have midfielders much more able at defending - Guedioura isn't the best at tackling, he is a little naïve in his positioning and allows himself to be dragged into poor areas. Simon Gillett would be first in line of the true defensive midfielders to replace him, superior in both of the aforementioned skills, but this would radically change Forest's system as Gillett is not capable of working with the ball under the close scrutiny of opposition players, and is much more conservative with his passing. Forest under Davies do not sit back and draw their opponent out - they specialise in getting the ball forward decisively and working in their opponent's half. Gillett would struggle in this system.
Guy Moussi does not have the ball-skills to play this role either. He's a better at defending than the departed Algerian, but is prone to giving the ball away even at the best of times - the midfield could not rely on him as a route forward with the ball. Forest would have to either change their system completely and bring someone back to play next to him, or go direct more often.  
Davies will be loathe to change his system, so may look to go with another non-traditional holding midfielder instead. Against Wigan Cohen moved onto the right side of the midfield, and Lansbury replaced Guedioura. The midfield seemed a little more constrained positionally, however Cohen and Reid were still covering Lansbury defensively when he did move forward. He has plenty of energy, but on the basis of the Wigan game (only one game I know), I don't think Lansbury has the discipline to protect the back four for long periods - even less so than Guedioura. At one stage he was beaten by Gomez and just stopped completely, and I noticed he was dropping back amongst the back four, too deep and leaving a lot of space around the D. This option would however allow Forest to continue with their current system, and since the midfield have been defending as a team, and also rotating, they may be able to make this work. It would also see the return of Dan Harding at left-back - last season Harding and Reid totally failed to form a partnership (see my previous article, here) - I see Reid as a completely reformed character in this regard and think Harding, who isn't fancied by many Forest fans, would benefit from Reid's assistance and prove himself a good defender at this level (again).
Will Cohen play here instead? Against Wigan Billy had the opportunity to do this but chose to put Cohen on the right. I think this was due to what I proposed earlier - that he though Lansbury would be better at gathering the ball from the back four and starting our attacks decisively. Cohen would bring more discipline to this area of the pitch, but he isn't as good with he ball.
Greg Halford anyone? He can seemingly play anywhere, and I suspect he would be a better option with the ball than Cohen, but I'm not convinced he would be quite good enough, but am open to being proven wrong. Delving into even more uncertain areas, some have mentioned that Gonzalo Jara has played in this position for West Brom - is he good enough with the ball to slot into Billy's system? What about Jonathon Greening? Too neat and tidy? Too conservative?
Whoever comes into Forest's midfield, they will have to be good on the ball. The most effective defensive midfielder we've had in the past few years (by a country mile) has been Paul McKenna, but I think Billy has evolved his tactics to a place where he wants this type of player to be obsolete. I think he would use him if Forest desperately needed not to concede, but I don't think McKenna would fit into Billy's system today. Guedioura will be difficult to replace, for what he offered to the team offensively, and he was improving defensively, but Forest have plenty of options in their squad already. This entire discussion may well prove to be a bit of a boondoggle if Forest act decisively in the loan market, however I think we have the players here currently to make progress. Hopefully The Garibaldi will continue in their fluid style because they have already demonstrated that they are a real attacking threat, and that by defending as a team, you don't necessarily need a proper defensive midfielder.
Thanks for reading, and COYR!!!