Thursday, 7 November 2013

Why Billy changed the system vs Blackpool

As Forest have hit a bit of a rough patch, much has been made of manager Billy Davies’ tinkering with the side in their latest game, against Blackpool – where his tactical alterations did not work. I’ve been critical of Forest’s tactics myself over the past few weeks, but the manager’s tinkering has illustrated one thing which should give Forest fans hope; that he has isolated, and is tackling, the team’s biggest weakness – the defensive midfield situation.

What has been the problem? Simply stated; the sale of Adlene Guedioura.

In the five games Guedioura played this season, Forest unveiled a new, more fluid midfield which gave each player licence to move around the pitch as they deemed fit. The midfield system against Huddersfield was so interchangeable I dubbed it the washing machine, as Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura cycled through each other’s positions. Guedioura is good at driving forward, but is also prone to abandoning the area in front of the defence to go out wide to press the ball – it's clear to me that the midfield had put in a lot of work over the summer to form an appreciation of this, working on their organisation and defensive awareness – they learned to cover each other’s positions in the defensive phase, especially Guedioura's.

This new level of understanding and organisation was best demonstrated against Watford – positionally the midfield were perfect, working hard in a great defensive effort (see right – all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked).

Billy Davies has since said that no one player was assigned these defensive midfield duties – that they were all expected to pick up this role, and this ethos gave Forest a flexibility that helped their free-flowing style, however if the midfielders are not highly organised, especially while employing a diamond formation, attempting this tactic is bound to leave gaps in dangerous areas of the pitch.

Yet none of the goals we conceded up until Guedioura was sold were caused by the appearance of these gaps. Immediately afterwards though, we looked, and have been continuously, porous in the area just in front of our centre-backs, with opposition teams able to run into this area almost at will. The Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Doncaster games were particularly alarming in this respect.

The understanding developed over the summer, the knowledge of when to cover the roaming Guedioura as he battled elsewhere on the pitch, the organisation, has not been there since his departure.

This has now resulted in a lot of space appearing in front of the defence – obviously making it very easy at times for opposition players to drive towards our goal, and find room to shoot at range. But as we'll all have noticed this, I want to focus on another problem this causes which has hurt us even more.

It is the extra strain on our defence I want to highlight. Our back four have done an outstanding job so far this season, but have at times been let down by the amount of space appearing in front of them, sometimes forcing them to abandon their own positions to come to the rescue. Often they have been able to save us, but we’ve conceded goals because of them having to do more than their fair share as the midfield allowed gaps to appear.

The first hint of this was the passage of play leading to Barnsley’s penalty (see diagram, left). Some good movement by Barnsley players leaves Andy Reid isolated for a moment on the left wing. Cohen sees this and steps out of the defence to prevent Reid being double-teamed, leaving space in the left-back position, which David Perkins runs into and draws the foul as Guy Moussi – too far away to make a safe tackle. This was the start of a worrying trend for Forest – the defender (Cohen) was out of position because he was covering the space in midfield.

This was not poor defending from Cohen. When problems appear on the edge of the box, the right thing to do is to act, to stop the threat before it gets into range – opponents must not be able to have things so simply that they can appear with the ball unchallenged on the edge of the box. Even if the defender leaves space behind him, it is still more complicated for attackers to find someone in this space to pass to than simply having a shot themselves.
Perhaps the clearest example of this was against Bournemouth, in an incident which should have been a warning to Forest – because The Cherries later score from this exact scenario. Here, Danny Collins does well to challenge Tokelo Rantie, who has run through the our empty midfield with the ball (see right). The gap left in our defensive line was immediately filled, with Hobbs and Jara redeploying themselves slightly, effectively acting as the centre-backs for a few moments. This left Forest with no player covering Jara’s right-back position, and there was a man over; if Rantie had been able to find him there is a problem.

Tactically, Marc Pugh’s goal was conceded in identical circumstances – Wilson this time rushing out to challenge Rantie (see left). This time the ball does find it’s way to the spare attacker, Pugh, who has time and space to hit the equaliser. The diagram to the left shows the moment Wilson comes out, before the defenders behind him have closed up - notice the player next to Forest's right back - that is Pugh, the goal-scorer.

We’ve another example of Forest getting into trouble because of this against Charlton – this time Eric Lichaj feeling the need to come out of the defence to press the ball (see right). Forest’s defence appear to have adjusted smoothly, with Hobbs replacing Lichaj at right-back, and Chalobah dropping back into the defence next to Danny Collins – all very well positionally. However, Chalobah then goes on to make a very slight defensive error allowing his opposing forward to get away from him and get in an effort on goal, which eventually leads to Charlton scoring. I propose that if the midfield were defending the area in front of Lichaj properly, the American would not have felt the need to leave the defensive live, then Hobbs would not have moved out to the right-back position, then Chalobah wouldn’t have been playing as a temporary centre-back – and I further propose that Hobbs wouldn’t have let Sordell get away from him. All very theoretical, but I believe it to be realistic, and I see it as another goal contributed to by defenders trying to do the midfield’s job.

It is this weakness in front of our defence that prompted Billy to change his system against Blackpool. The hoo-ha revolving around our strikers has been disproportionate – our real problems, since the Wigan game, have come from the defensive midfield area. The amount of goals this problem area was contributing to will have forced Billy Davies' hand – I can point to 6 out of the 12 goals conceded in this unsettled period leading up to the Blackpool game that were caused by positional failures in this area of the pitch. The Garibaldi were desperately weak in this respect.

To combat this, we changed to a 4-2-3-1 system, in an effort to stamp out the space appearing here. I’ve already described how this system contributed to our downfall against Blackpool in my last article, however if we only focus on the system’s dominating purpose, which was to solve our problems in the defensive midfield area, we have to say it achieved this aim.

The inability of Forest to keep possession, especially in the Blackpool half, put a lot of pressure on the defence – yet I understand where Billy was coming from when he said that he couldn’t see Blackpool scoring. From a defensive point of view you could argue the system was a success, limiting our opponents to few clear-cut chances and a goal which was clearly offside so should not have stood.

I think I’ve shown conclusively – and I think we all knew anyway – that Forest have been experiencing major organisational and positional problems in defending the area in front of their defence, since the sale of Guedioura. Not only have our opponents been able to run a will through this area with the ball, it has also been putting too much strain on our defenders, pulling them out of position too.

Billy Davies was right to try to address this weakness. Desperate to keep his relatively successful diamond system, he’s tried Moussi, Lansbury, Cohen, Chalobah and Jara at it’s base, but none have been able to fit in to Guedioura’s old role. It’s been a major issue, it was understandable that he switched formations to provide this area with more cover.

The diamond of Majewski, Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura, had an entire summer to work on their understanding with one-another. Their fluid transitioning of positions was not a normal, or accidental, thing at this level of football. Because of it's shape, the system is prone to weakness in front of the defence (see right) – the midfield need to be as organised as they were at the start of the season for it to work from a defensive point of view – the advanced wide midfielders are generally further away from the full-backs meaning the defensive midfielder can often be dragged away from his own area – he needs help, as the Forest players were doing so well against Watford.

Given time, Forest may be able to once again create that understanding with their defensive midfielder - Vaughan is an intelligent footballer, hopefully he'll be able to take on the Guedioura role, but it was a big ask for him to step straight into this against Blackpool. The diamond formation requires a lot of teamwork - Billy Davies was probably justified in going for a tighter system in light of the problems we have been seeing, which I've shown effect more than this area of the pitch. We were simply giving our opponents too much room here, and we were conceding too many goals, as the stats above illustrate.

I talked about the sale of Guedioura in a previous article, where I discussed the effect it would have on Forest going forward; I totally missed the real damage this would do, and I think Billy did too. Sometimes the right personnel come together for a system and click, form that understanding and it works - the games leading up to his departure were solid from a defensive point of view - even the goals conceded because of the Algerian's failure to deal with problems were not positional, he was just beaten for skill - it this league that will happen. The Classy Bull was a better defensive midfielder than I for one recognised, and suited to Forest's style of play.

I hope The Reds are able to return to their free-flowing diamond system when Vaughan settles in - it's a good, entertaining little formation and the benefits going forward make the organisational effort worthwhile. I see them playing the 4-2-3-1 against Leicester, but afterwards we may revert, and if they get it right there won't be as much strain on our defenders. 

Hopefully I've not been to hard on the Forest management - I do think they were justified in their 'tinkering'. Thanks for reading, you can comment on City Ground faithful forum here.. COYR!

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