Thursday, 21 November 2013

End of term assessment: The defenders

Forest have assembled one of the strongest squads since their relegation from The Premiership. There have been mixed fortunes during various changing systems employed, but how have the players done through the first third of the season, starting with the defenders?
1. Karl Darlow - 1433 minutes played, 1.73 points per game*

Darlow continues to impress. The 23 year old has consolidated his position this season, clinging onto the goalkeeper’s jersey with a string of excellent performances. I’ve been waiting for the first real blunder from the academy graduate – I’m still waiting after 35 games and 3343 minutes of his Forest career. With a particular habit of making saves when all seems lost, Darlow seemingly has no weaknesses – if he keeps this up he’ll be in the running for Player of the Season.

This season, his minutes between goals conceded is the best of any Forest ‘keeper since the 2009/10 season (see left – all graphs and diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked) – although this is primarily indicative of a team improvement, it implies that Darlow has not hampered this progress.

2. Eric Lichaj - 1261 minutes played, 1.69 points per game*

The American has made a successful start to his Forest career at right-back, forcing the talented Gonzalo Jara to look elsewhere in the team for opportunities. Although steady when defending, it is probably his all-action attributes when coming forward that has gotten him so much game-time.
A feature of Forest’s tactics this season has been the attacking nature of the full-backs, with Cohen and Lichaj getting forward to support the midfield, providing much of our width and helping to outnumber the opposing defenders by making advanced runs. This is important for Forest for a couple of reasons – firstly the midfield is often very narrow, meaning the full-backs have been providing much of the width, and secondly Forest tend to try to keep the ball when attacking, passing and probing rather than playing risky balls. This is nice to watch, but it does allow opposition teams to get men back into entrenched positions – when Forest’s full-backs burst forward it gives defenders an extra man to worry about; Lichaj and Cohen have caused a lot of problems already this season by doing this.
The downside to the full-backs getting forward so often is that it leaves massive gaps in their position, which need to be filled by covering midfielders – this hasn’t always happened, as anybody watching the Doncaster and Middlesbrough games in particular will know, where we were punished for this. Generally Forest have been very attacking so far this season – nowhere else on the pitch does this manifest itself more. As fans we want to see attacking football; we may just have to accept that we’ll leak goals as Cohen and Lichaj push forward.

8. Chris Cohen - 1433 minutes played, 1.73 points per game*

As stated above, a feature of Cohen’s play this season has been the more attacking role given to him (and Lichaj). Naturally – in my opinion – more of a midfielder, Cohen has proven very dangerous when making these forward runs, providing a further complication for defenders when they have taken up entrenched positions (the Huddersfield goal is a good example of this, see above).
But we have also seen Cohen’s continued defensive improvement. The left-back position has been a worry for years – it’s no longer a weakness, with Cohen becoming more and more tenacious. He has improved the most with his defensive decision-making – at times last season he was caught out not knowing whether to go tight or drop off, this season I’ve not seen him have this problem at all.

One thing that has helped the full-backs this season is the better cover they have been receiving, especially from Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury. Forest’s weakness last season – especially under Billy – was their vulnerability to crosses. This was caused by a poor relationship between the wide-midfielders and fullbacks, and was such a problem that other teams were targeting The Reds in this area (see the beautiful job Cardiff did on us for an example of this). Over the summer, Billy seems to have stamped out this aspect of Forest’s defending; it is no longer a major issue.

3. Dan Harding - 220 minutes played, 1 point per game*

Harding’s chances have been limited by automatic choice Chris Cohen, only getting on the pitch when the captain has been moved elsewhere as an emergency measure, but when he has played he hasn’t let Forest down. He’s good to have as back-up because of his ability to get forward into the opposition half, which Billy has been telling his full-backs to do. His presence proves Forest’s strength in depth – he’d get in most Championship sides.

25. Jack Hobbs - 1433 minutes played, 1.73 points per game*

It has been difficult to fault any of Forest’s centre-backs so far – in my opinion they have done as well as they could under sometimes difficult circumstances, Hobbs has arguably been the most solid of them. He’s a big, strong unit – the kind of player Billy Davies seems to like to partner up with a slighter, more ball-playing defender. Hobbs usually forms the last line of defence, allowing his quicker partner to venture out of line if needed, and he’s done a good job. The thing I like about him is that he keeps things simple – he’s a defender, nothing more, nothing less. You can see why he was a big part of a team promoted last season – like Wes Morgan, the only question is, is he mobile enough to make the step up into The Premier League? From his showing so far, there are far worse defenders in the top flight.

22. Kelvin Wilson - 531 minutes played, 1.83 points per game*

We’ve not squeezed as many minutes out of Wilson as we’d have liked so far – due to injury he’s only played 55 minutes in the last 9 matches. However when he has played, he’s looked his old reliable self, and it’s no surprise that Forest have done better when he's played. We’ve not had much to complain about concerning his replacements, but the sooner we have his composed influence and distribution back in the side, the better.

One thing we have seen is the defenders having to come out of the back four to cover space left in midfield. Opposition players running into this area has been our biggest issue defensively, the positive action in tackling this has left us short at the back, contributing to several goals (Bournemouth and Charlton for example). But even on these occasions, the remaining defenders have done well to re-organise themselves, filling the gaps left and covering the most dangerous areas smoothly. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Forest’s defending so far this season – the Cohen, Wilson, Hobbs, Lichaj defence looks particularly well organised and adept at communicating.

5. Danny Collins - 435 minutes played, 2.2 points per game*

Collins has performed capably, filling in for Wilson until he too was injured. From a defensive point of view, the games in which he has featured has been The Garibaldi’s most successful – with Collins on the pitch it has taken our opponents 217.5 minutes to score a goal on average – this is up with the best defensive records in the division (see right), and far better than any other Forest player. Perhaps underappreciated by Forest fans (when asked last season, only 28.6% of fans thought Collins was good enough to be in the team), he’s given absolutely no cause for complaint in 2013/14.

16. Jamaal Lascelles - 236 minutes played, 1.33 points per game*

It’s still too early to judge Lascelles, but since breaking into the side he’s not done too much wrong, and I did note that he did a good job in keeping Blackpool’s Ricardo Fuller quiet – a good sign for such an inexperienced centre-back. The youngster looks quite good coming forward too. With Forest’s injury problems in this area, now is his big chance to prove himself.

15. Greg Halford - 525 minutes played, 1.5 points per game*

One of my favourite players, you have to fear for Greg Halford in his fight for a permanent first team place. He has stated at the start of the season he “needed to nail down [a] position” – yet he’s been played up front as much as in defence, where he is more suited. To be fair he’s done well when he’s played, but he looks destined to be a utility player, which is perhaps unfair because he’s good at this level. It will be interesting how the rest of the season pans out for Greg – it’s great for Forest to have someone like him ready to step in, but not ideal for him as he’ll be desperate for the game-time which he would get elsewhere.

18. Gonzalo Jara - 287 minutes played, 1 point per game*

More proof of The Reds’ strength in depth, Jara’s appearances this season have been dominated by tactics. As alluded to above, he has struggled to displace Eric Lichaj this season, partly because of how well the American has been doing, but more significantly Lichaj’s propensity to get forward has suited Forest’s tactics. Jara’s return to the side has also been influenced by what system Billy has employed, as the switch from his diamond formation to a 4-2-3-1 has allowed Jara an opportunity in defensive midfield. He’s not had that much game-time, but the Chilean has looked very tidy, and he’s began to look as if he can even be a creative force from this deep position. He is quite technically gifted for a defender, and has looked to have an eye for a pass too. If Davies opts to continue playing this system, expect to see a lot more of Jara in midfield.

There are some really mean defences in The Championship this season – it’s debatable whether Forest have shown themselves to be one of them yet. Individually our defensive players have performed very well, however weaknesses in our system have perhaps made it too easy for our opponents to have chances in certain games. We have been leaving too much space in defensive midfield areas, inviting disaster.
The stats back this up. We have conceded 16 goals so far – the seventh least in the league. Comparing this with past seasons would seem to suggest we’re not too leaky for a playoff space – as mentioned above, on average we’re doing better so far than our last three seasons – including the 2010/11 playoff year. Yet Billy will want to tighten up a little more – and he appears focused on this. He was clearly loathe to change from the diamond system (I base this assumption on the sheer number of players he tried to replace Guedioura with) yet he has done so, in an effort to stop space appearing in the midfield. This will effect us going forward, but cannot fail to improve our defensive record. Hopefully this will not make us too defensively balanced for the rest of the season – it will be interesting to see how Billy adapts Forest’s tactics with this in mind, and how the different personnel cope with their adjusted duties.
On the whole I think the defenders we have are more than good enough to get us promoted - I even suspect the majority would do ok at the top level. The problems Forest have encountered defensively have largely been due to space appearing in our midfield, and the (albeit rare) inability to hold onto the ball further up the pitch. The defence have played very well so far.

Thanks for reading – this is part one, I’ll look at how our attacking players have been doing very soon. You can discuss this article on City Ground Faithful forum - a direct link to the topic is here. COYR!
* Points per game only includes games where that player has played for 45 minutes or over.

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