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!


  1. As always, an excellent preview! Will be interesting to see tomorrow's line up and whether BD goes with the two workmanlike forwards in Mackie and Cox.

    I'd like to see Paterson start too, although if we played Jara at the base of the diamond and Lansbury on the right, we might get more reward bringing Paterson on for 25 minutes to really run and stretch tired defenders?

  2. Great read as always

  3. Barnsley didn't play 3 at the back. It was 4-5-1 and then 4-4-2...

    Barnsley deserved a point just on Cywkas goal alone but that would have been harsh on forest given the amount of times they hit the post.

  4. Yeah they changed their formation very well, were much better under the 442. I'm torn as to whether they deserved a point - I would have said yes unquestionably but as you mention we hit the woodwork on multiple occasions.

    Thanks for the comments guys