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It proved useful to have a ball-playing midfielder in this withdrawn position, and Guedioura was able to supply the more attacking midfielders - with Raddy Majewski especially useful at the zenith of the diamond in retaining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!!!


  1. Great, insightful stuff, as usual, FB (I hope no opposing managers stumble across your blog!).

    Like many others I'm disappointed to lose Guedioura, if only because we'll now never see how good that midfield combination might have become.

    I think, ignoring loans, that Lansbury starting at the base of midfield makes sense. I do wonder whether Cohen might even remain at left back and one of either Paterson, Abdoun or even Mackie/Cox might start on the right.

    I don't mean this as a criticism of Harding; more of a concern with retaining a settled back four.

    Thanks for the blog.

  2. For some reason I didn't think of leaving COhen @ LB and bringing in another midfielder on the right - I think I like the idea of this for the short term. I've read several people saying Lansbury did really well at DM against Wigan - I wasn't as convinced but there opinion is just as valid as mine. I picked up on the things he was doing wrong, which I have touched upon briefly above, I may have missed what he brought to the position apart from the fact we looked better on the whole than the first half. Really looking forward to the next game to see what happens tactically!

    Thanks for your kind words mate.