Monday, 29 December 2014

Forest 1 Birmingham City 3

Stuart Pearce's luck continued to dwindle on Sunday as Forest crashed to a disappointing 3-1 defeat at home to a one-dimensional Birmingham City side, seemingly leaving their promotion hopes hanging by a thread.

The team and system looked a little better; Robert Tesche and Henri Lansbury occupied the pivotal central-midfield roles, and while this would give rise to it's own problems, it at least allowed Michael Mancienne to escape back into the back-four, alongside Jamaal Lascelles. Full-backs Danny Fox and Eric Lichaj appeared under orders to get forward as often as possible.

Matty Fryatt and Britt Assombalonga played up front for Forest, ahead of wingers Michael Antonio and Jamie Paterson, who should have been ideally placed to attack Birmingham's full-backs due to the system our opponents use.

The Blues utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation that we are familiar with having watched Forest's own versions under Pearce and previous manager Billy Davies. This is a fluid way of playing which has come to dominate world football, because it is essentially a 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 at the same time, but Birmingham play it with more emphasis on counter-attacking and are inclined to rely on defending the central areas rather than pulling back the wide midfielders as cautiously as you sometimes see.

The weakness in this system is the area around the full-backs, and with City's style of play, which their emphasis on defending the centre in order to be able to counter-attack with their wide-men, Forest should have been able to hurt them here.

However, it was Birmingham exploiting weaknesses down the channels, not Forest. The Reds started brightly and looked better on the ball than of late, and were determined to attack, but they repeatedly over-stretched leaving themselves wide-open for a counter attack.

Pearce spoke of this threat beforehand, so he obviously warned the players of this, making the neglect in this aspect of their play baffling - it was a total lack of organisation and teamwork.

Both full-backs were pushing up simultaneously, while the wingers did not appear to be under orders to cover their full-backs when advanced - I assume Pearce would have instructed Lansbury and Tesche to provide cover should their full-back need it, something they failed to do.

The (rough) diagram of the players' average positions for the game illustrates what was happening (see left, all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked), as Demarai Grey and David Cotterill were repeatedly able to run beyond Fox and Lichaj and cause problems.

This was exacerbated by what the Forest wingers were doing; instead of making runs out wide into the areas where Birmingham's system is vulnerable, they often drifted into the centre of the pitch, which was crowded with blue shirts.

By doing so, not only did they forfeit their chance to get on the ball and hurt our opponents, but they also freed up Grey and Cotterill to go on the rampage themselves, since their own full-backs did not need help as regularly.

It must be pointed out that Forest were playing some good football in the Birmingham half. I hesitate to say they were dominating, since their position was made so precarious by how open they were at the back, but the extra men in the middle were carving out chances, particularly when Lansbury got involved.

It was all down to who would concede first, and it was Forest - after some poor defending from a free-kick (given away when caught  on the counter-attack). This stunned The Reds, and without anybody on the pitch geeing them up, they crumbled, conceded two more quick goals before half-time.

Once again the lack of leadership had ruined what was looking like a good performance. Forest continued to try and play the better football and carved out multiple chances, but when Birmingham sprang forward they created the better opportunities.

The defenders got a lot of stick, particularly Danny Fox. In defence of the left-back, he was Forest's 'go-to' man when coming forward, seemingly expected to create openings from deep. But he was often left with no options. Lansbury - supposedly one of the top midfielders in the league -  was point-blank refusing to take the responsibility to get Forest moving forward himself, and spent most of the second half pointing at other, less gifted players. He simply does not want the ball at times, which is frustrating because he was excellent when on the attack.

Paterson was also disappointing; I would have thought a player presented with a rare opportunity would have been desperately trying to find space to get on the ball, but he offered little in the way of an outlet down the wing for Fox. The left-back was forced to play long, hopeful balls, only four of which found their target, or try more tricky threaded-through passes which were often intercepted.

The more experienced Forest midfielders were shown up when Ben Osborn came on; the youngster wanted the ball and was positive, getting Forest moving forward without as much reliance on direct-play from defenders. He made a big difference.

This was a game in which Forest created the more chances, and looked dominant for long periods, but they were at constant risk of being caught on the counter-attack.

The statistics tell a story too - only 2 of Forest's 26 attempts were on target as they tried again and again to force their way through the packed middle of the pitch, while Birmingham sat back, content to pick them off on the break and create meaningful openings. Because of the type of chances the two teams were creating, you would have to say the right team won.

It was an improvement however, from the last home game - despite the worse result. Pearce's men were having the better of things for long periods, missed some good chances and were only - as it happened - undone by the sloppy defending of two set-pieces, and a freak ricochet from a Karl Darlow save. Again the question is, can Pearce sort things out in time for a promotion push?
Thanks for reading, and keep the faith - Psycho deserves his current support.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Forest 1 Leeds 1

Forest suffered another frustrating afternoon as they were held to a 1-1 draw at The City Ground against an organised and plucky, but ultimately limited Leeds United side on Saturday.

The main talking point beforehand was Stuart Pearce's decision to play Dexter Blackstock instead of top scorer Britt Assombalonga, but the rest of the team was equally confusing; Pearce named a side containing three full-backs in what turned out to be an unconventional 3-5-2. Michail Antonio and Jack Hunt played as wing backs, while Michael Mancienne was preferred in a defensive midfield role.

Leeds boss Neil Redfearn deployed his men in a diamond system, using the extra length this system provides to enforce a high pressing game, before switching to a more traditional 4-4-2 later in the game, as Forest improved.

But it was Leeds who started the brighter, handed the initiative by The Reds' who were struggling in midfield. Pearce's system was designed to overlap the narrow Leeds diamond, with Antonio and Hunt instructed to stay wide and get forward as often as possible.
With an extra man in midfield, Forest should have been swarming and dominating in this area, but with Antonio and/or Hunt staying out wide, Leeds often had the numerical advantage.

The Reds also found it difficult to find an effective midfield outlet, because the man most often available was Mancienne who, as I have argued before, is not comfortable enough on the ball to use it in close proximity to pressing midfielders, and his distribution is relatively poor.
The lack of a viable outlet forced the defenders to play the ball forward themselves more often than they would have liked. We saw a lot of diagonal balls to opposite wing-backs, but because Leeds knew they were stopping Forest come through the middle, this direct play was predictable.

The back four Forest players (Darlow, Wilson, Lichaj and Fox) played 59 long balls between them during the game; only 9 found a Forest shirt, meaning they gave the ball away fifty times through direct play alone.

Obviously if you're giving the ball away that often it's going to be coming straight back, and Leeds were finding holes in the Forest defence – chiefly in behind the wing-backs.

Hunt and Antonio were often left isolated and outnumbered as Leeds targeted these areas, and were not being helped at times as the defenders stayed in central areas at first, though to be fair as the game progressed they improved.
This vulnerability was worsened by the attacking instructions given to the wing-backs; they were told to push up as much as possible – this often left nobody defending the wide areas at all and Leeds almost capitalised on this on more than one occasion.

These problems led to a difficult afternoon for Forest; they looked shaky at the back as the three defenders and Mancienne became more and more stretched, and going forward they were made to play long rather than getting the ball into midfield before finding their danger-men out wide.

I am at risk, however, of being hyper-critical. The Garibaldi were the better side overall, improving after an ugly first twenty minutes and looking dangerous when able to keep the ball on the ground, while creating plenty of chances and bringing the best out of Leeds goalkeeper Marco Silvestri.
Indeed, into the second half they were able to play much more freely through the midfield; Henri Lansbury and Robert Tesche were coming back to help Mancienne, and the extra options made Forest's play more unpredictable, making it easier to get the ball out to the wings, and in particular to Antonio.
Tesche got stuck in and had a good game; he was the busiest player on the pitch in my opinion and made an effective contribution both in and out of possession. He might turn out to be a ready made replacement for Chris Cohen - it will be interesting to see how he performs alongside Andy Reid.
Fryatt was unfortunate not to have a hat-trick. He was effective on the ball, but more so when lurking, which is how he scored the goals – two of which were wrongly disallowed as off sides.

It is, perhaps, mainly Pearce's unusual selection decisions that leave him vulnerable to criticism. Playing Mancienne in central midfield totally undermined Forest's system; if they had someone collecting the ball in midfield able to distribute the ball, the tactic of playing with attacking wing-backs would have been a success – instead, Mancienne was a liability in this role.
Forest have one of the finest deep midfielders in the league, David Vaughan. It is worrying that a central defender gets selected above him (or even Ben Osborn) for this position.

The decision most talked about beforehand, was the omission of Assombalonga. Every occasion the youngster is not selected the manager is setting himself up for a fall. He simply has to play.

But we shouldn't be too critical of Pearce; he is still moulding the club to his own design and is only six months into his Championship career. I get the feeling he is doing a lot of experimenting, and the encouraging thing is that when he makes inevitable adjustments during games, they usually improve the situation, leading to The Reds finishing games stronger than they begin.

Despite their problems Forest were unlucky not to win this game comfortably – denied by a good goalkeeper and a couple of poor decisions. They will surely get better as Pearce finds his feet – whether this happens in time for a promotion push is the big question.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Friday, 19 December 2014

What chance promotion?

"The only way to come out of the embargo is to get promotion to The Premier League – so it gives us a fantastic target going forward.”

…so said Stuart Pearce in his usual honest and (perhaps too) revealing style.

After a fantastic start, Pearce’s men have run into problems. Be it injuries to key players, a confidence crisis – or even the possibility that they were overachieving in the first place, a huge dip in form has led to the first murmurings of discontent since Psycho’s return.

Pearce's minority of detractors have been saying he's not the man to lead Forest back to The Premier League for a while to be fair, and already claim promotion this season has slipped away – despite only being 21 games into the season.

Even when speaking to many believers, there is a sentiment that The Reds probably won't go up first time, that this was always going to be a rebuilding season and Pearce, club legend that he is, needs – no, deserves – time.

Pearce himself, however, was never going to think like that, and the embargo has given him even more motivation than ever to gain promotion straight away.

2014/15 is probably Forest's best chance to win promotion while under their transfer embargo; can they do it?

There is an argument to say they are already too far behind - even at this relatively early stage of the season.

Statistics back this up; they show that it is very difficult to launch a promotion bid from mid table. Since the inception of The Championship ten years ago, of all the teams eventually promoted, only four were not occupying a top six spot at this point of the season (after 21 games).

It has even been rare for such clubs to go up via the play-offs; eight out of the ten winners were in the top six at this stage. Simply put, the successful teams in The Championship tend to be successful all season long.

The Anti-Statistic Brigade will grumble that every season is different and the past has no bearing on the future; while this is true, statistics such as those above indicate a trend, and trends exist for a reason: the reason for this trend is that if a team is not good enough to have muscled it's way into the top six of the league by now, they are probably not promotion material, and are unlikely to improve enough to change this.

However, the trend has been beaten – spectacularly. On two occasions teams have even been able to rise from 14th position and win promotion – due to the exceptionally open nature of the league that year.

And there has only been one season as open as those two years; this one (see graph, right. Click to enlarge).

This season, there are twice them amount of teams you would statistically predict to be within 10 points of leaders Bournemouth at this stage, based on past performance1. The league is wide open.

The conditions are in place for someone to rise from mid-table and win promotion, but an important factor in such a revival would be the fans.

Forest are a big club for this level and are well overdue some success; of their Championship rivals, only the likes of Bournemouth, Brentford, Huddersfield, Millwall, Rotherham and Brighton have been absent from the top tier longer.

Impatience under such circumstances is understandable, but in Stuart Pearce we have a manager uniquely capable of keeping the fans onside. I recently undertook a small survey of fans; 75% of respondents thought Psycho was the right man for the job.

Were any other manager in charge, you could envisage the fans getting on players backs, but so far their loyalty to Pearce has not only prolonged patience, but driven the team on. The atmosphere both home and away this season has been as good as anything I can remember personally.

Such support will be essential considering the existing team must improve without significant reinforcements. The Financial Fair Play embargo will make strengthening difficult, as they will struggle to bring in any player wanted by other clubs.

Pearce himself is doing a good job of downplaying the significance of the embargo, but even if Forest cannot bring in players of sufficient quality to improve the team, they still have Jack Hobbs and Andy Reid returning from injury.

Jack Hobbs has been sorely missed from the back four, but it was the loss of Andy Reid which turned Forest from table-toppers to also-rans. The longer he stays fit, the more inexorable Forest's rise in fortunes will be.

There seems an almost resignation that Forest will not be promoted this season - perhaps I've misread that and it is merely a willingness to give the manager time, which is no bad thing, but it's my belief that we've got a lot to look forward to in the next few months.

Pearce himself is certainly readying himself for a real crack at promotion, and has been at pains to reassure supporters - particularly in light of the FFP embargo. Forest's prized assets will not be sold - in fact the manager is looking to strengthen.

This is probably the best Forest squad since their relegation from the top flight, a squad who’ve already demonstrated they can win games, led by a born winner, supported by one of the most positive Forest crowds in living memory, in an unusually open Championship season.

What chance promotion? Don’t count them out.

Thanks for reading, and COYR.

1 There are 11 other teams within ten points of Bournemouth, who occupy 1st position. The median amount of teams we would expect - based on the previous ten seasons - is 4.5, less than half as many teams are there are currently.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Playing away: Midfield dilemma

My latest article looks at how big a blow the injuries to Andy Reid and Chris Cohen have been. Not only are they good players, more importantly they were working as a partnership; their replacements have struggled to work as a unit to the same extent, and it's severely damaged subsequent performance levels.

You can read it here, on top Forest site Seat Pitch:

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pearce's sucker-punch victory

Last week I laid the blame for the Brentford defeat squarely at the feet of Stuart Pearce – but Forest’s memorable comeback victory against Norwich was largely due to the manager’s tactical philosophy, which he used to hit their opponents with a strategic sucker-punch.

Pearce is having trouble shaking the tag that he is "no tactician"- even among the Forest fans who see him as a legend - and he has been outmanoeuvred on occasion, but the win against Norwich was not only a success of tactics, but of his self belief and conviction.

It was clear from the first moments that Pearce wanted to draw Norwich onto Forest and exploit any space that appeared. This strategy was influenced by The Canaries narrow midfield: the theory being that any width our opponents had would arise from their full-backs coming forward.

Forest played a traditional 4-4-2 with Michail Antonio and Tom Ince on the wings, players who are not as defensively minded as Chris Burke for example - this was to exploit space which Pearce expected to appear behind the Norwich full-backs.

The Reds were further instructed to draw their opponents onto them through a conditional pressing game. This caused some murmurs of protest in the crowd which is fair enough - nobody wants to see away teams come to The City Ground and have lots of possession while the Forest midfield stands off, but not pressuring the ball high up the pitch allowed the Norwich players - particularly the full-backs on the overlap - to come into the Forest half more, which was the desired effect.

The only question was whether this strategy was wise. Pearce was showing a lot of faith in Ben Osborn and Robert Tesche, who were playing well, but it was apparent they were becoming heavily outnumbered. I was convinced Forest would revert to a 4-2-3-1 in order to bolster their position in the middle of the pitch.

But even after going a goal down while having little success, the manager stuck with his belief that the gaps would appear, not changing things until the 66th minute. However, this readjustment did not see Pearce back-tracking; instead he took his strategy to extreme levels, reverting to an unconventional 3-3-4 formation (see right, click to enlarge).

Forest now had two banks of three in the middle, with the midfield dropping extremely deep at times - almost onto the defenders' toes, and while the forwards were providing only fluctuating cover out wide, this change of formation was an invitation for Norwich to flood forward and finish The Reds off.

It was an invitation Norwich could not resist, but as they pushed men forward, Forest played long balls into wide areas trying to catch their full-backs out of position. This was the trade off; Forest were deliberately short at the back, in order to have the men in a position to hurt their opponents.

Again Pearce was showing a lot of faith in his midfielders; shorthanded, the three defenders were having to venture out of line to deal with problems, but the deep midfield trio of Tesche, Osborn and Henri Lansbury were working with the defenders and covering them.

This was the reason Pearce's gamble worked: he knew his players were well enough drilled to cover defensively - how did Norwich cope when their defenders were similarly dragged out of position?

As Forest concentrated on pumping direct balls into the flanks, there were always players in red shirts there to fight for the ball. When the Norwich full-backs were caught up the pitch - and even on occasions when they were in position, their central defenders were having to go out and deal with the threat (see right).

But unlike Pearce's men, the Norwich midfielders were poorly drilled at helping the defenders. They repeatedly left gaping holes in the dangerous area in front of goalkeeper John Ruddy, and because Forest had so many players up front, there were always men waiting for an easy tap-in (see examples, below).

Pearce made a gamble - he basically created a situation where Forest were almost guaranteed to score. He knew that Norwich would push their full-backs forward, and all through the match tried to use this against them.

And when this did not immediately work, it would have been easy for him to take a different approach. Forest were in danger of being totally overrun in midfield - the obvious solution would have been to sacrifice an attacker, but Pearce deliberately made Forest weaker defensively to lure Norwich even further forward.

This was a resounding tactical victory for Pearce - the only surprise, as things turned out, was that the equaliser took so long to arrive. Forest were not at their best, but were still pulling the Norwich defence to pieces, while defending well at the other end of the pitch.

And once Assombalonga equalised - a sucker-punch in the exact manner Pearce had been attempting all game - Forest continued to hit Norwich on the break. The Garibaldi were confident now and looking truly dangerous, catching their opponents out every time they came forward.

The Forest manager is still finding his feet at this level - errors are inevitable, but this game proves that he has a flair for tactics, the strength of character to stick with a game-plan, and is not afraid to make unconventional decisions. He deserves a lot of credit for this extremely important victory.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Forest 1 Brentford 3

Forest got their dates wrong on Wednesday: over 21,000 spectators turned up expecting fireworks on Bonfire Night, but were instead treated to a horror show reminiscent of Halloween, as Stuart Pearce’s men were terrified by Brentford.

Mark Warburton changed Brentford’s system to a 4-2-3-1 in a successful attempt to apply pressure to the area in front of Forest’s central defenders. They flooded this zone with midfielders when they had the ball, and man-marked Michael Mancienne when out of possession, to deny the Forest defenders an easy outlet for the ball.

The Bees passed and moved well, exploiting the space in behind Forest’s main line of four midfielders, and tried to get the ball to striker Andre Gray who ran the channels, isolating either centre-back.

Stuart Pearce responded to his side’s poor form by making drastic changes, adopting a gruesome 4-1-4-1 system and dropping Britt Assombalonga. Michail Antonio played up front instead - presumably to offer a bigger target for direct passes. This decision was not welcomed by the Forest crowd, who felt that not playing a recognised striker at home against Brentford was negative.

The bigger issue however, which hampered Forest’s chances far more than the absence of Assombalonga, was the lack of a capable defensive midfielder.

Pearce decided to play Mancienne in front of the defence – presumably to add bite to this area – behind a bank of four midfielders who were instructed to press conditionally rather than aggressively. This system did not work, due to the players involved not being comfortable or confident enough to know when to make a challenge.

Brentford capitalised on this by filling Mancienne’s area with players. Ben Osborn and Henri Lansbury were stationed just in front of Mancienne, but did not know when to drop back and help.

Outnumbered and playing in an unfamiliar position (I’m aware he has played defensive midfield in Germany, but he is no midfielder), Mancienne began making poor decisions – he abandoned his defensive area too readily to deal with less serious threats, and when he did need to go across to make a challenge, he stayed put.

The first Brentford goal is a good example of how porous Forest’s midfield was (see right, click to enlarge). The Bees right-back Moses Odubajo was able to run straight through, unchallenged until he reached the defenders. Burke, Fox and Osborn all left it to the defensive midfielder to confront him, but Mancienne continued to mark Jon Toral (not very well though – Toral scored).

However, low confidence will have played a role here too – a recurring theme among the Forest players recently has been the tendency to leave it to others to make a challenge – a refusal to take responsibility oneself.

There should have been players queuing up to challenge any opponent running into this crucial area of the pitch, but it was poorly defended throughout. This would probably not have been the case were David Vaughan or Robert Tesche playing.

Brentford targeted this weakness and it paid off for their third goal (see left). Striker Gray is looking for a lay-off, and has a choice of three players in front of Forest’s defence. After exchanging passes he gets a penalty.

At the time I blamed Kelvin Wilson for this goal, but at least he was trying. Where were the midfielders protecting the back four? Where was Danny Fox as Gray rampaged forward? It looks to me like he’s actually trying to get out of the way, leaving it to Wilson rather than taking responsibility himself.

This eschewing of responsibility, this blatant scrimshanking, is all down to low confidence, and while several Forest players – Wilson included – were playing badly, at least they were trying.

While it’s true that we’ve seen an increase in the amount of errors the Forest players have been making – such Eric Lichaj’s awful back-pass for Brentford’s second goal -the bigger problem, the more disastrous effect of Forest’s confidence crisis in my opinion, is this avoidance of responsibility.

Players have been hesitating for a moment in the hope that someone else would deal with problems, they have not been making themselves available for the ball, and when they have the ball they have all too often not had the nerve to try something positive – they have wanted rid of the ball when under pressure.

Under these conditions, goals like the one resulting from Lichaj’s back-pass are inevitable. It was a pass poorly executed while nervous, under pressure and with nobody offering help.

The weakness in central midfield and the lack of confidence are probably parts of the same problem, caused by the loss of Andy Reid and Chris Cohen. Forest have lacked organisation and courage on the ball in this area ever since their injuries, and the team’s confidence has gradually faded from then on.

The Reds woke up after Brentford had knocked three goals in – just as they did against Huddersfield. They played some decent football and vaguely threatened to get back into the game, but in truth The Bees were taking things easy and had dropped ten yards or so deeper.

I was impressed with Brentford. They kept the ball well and played some gutsy, slick football, while manager Mark Warburton identified Forest’s weakness very quickly, and came up with a plan to exploit it. They were unfortunate not to have scored more goals.

Perhaps the only positive from a Forest point of view was the crowd; I feared what the reaction would be if Forest went a goal down, but they stuck by the team, and even at 3-0 down chants of “Psycho! Psycho! Psycho!” could still be heard.

Pearce will be grateful; this was not his finest hour. His decision to drop top scorer Assombalonga backfired, but more crucially he made a howling mistake in choice of central midfield.

The Forest legend will have to do better tactically when Norwich visit on Saturday - but the players must make a braver show of it too. In the past I have criticised The City Ground crowd for making the players nervous, but this was not the case against Brentford. Hopefully they will be just as supportive when watching The Garibaldi break their poor run against The Canaries.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The importance of Andy Reid

Unbeaten Forest are second in the Championship table - any criticism should bear that in mind, however there has been a noticeable drop in creativity since the injury of Andy Reid, and this week we've discovered he might not play again this year. Losing their main creative force is a hammer blow for Forest and asks serious questions of their promotion credentials.

Some may take issue with my labelling of Reidy as the main creative force; he has scored no goals this season, and contributed only one assist. Other players have taken up the role of putting teams to the sword in the attacking third, but while the likes of Michael Antonio and  Britt Assombalonga are the cutting edge, when on the pitch Reid has been the creative hand wielding the blade.

Under Pearce, Forest have been playing a more direct style, hitting teams fast rather than hogging possession. This is a shrewd move, as direct, high energy football is a proven route to victory at this level.

Pearce's two deep-lying central midfielders have been important in this. When Forest are looking to advance, their job is provide an easy outlet for the defender in possession and play clever, accurate balls forward - that's the theory anyway.

The crux of the whole tactic has been whether one of the central midfielders, or ideally both, can drop deep and get on the ball often enough. This is paramount to Forest's direct style as it means the defenders don't have to play the ball forward, and also it creates space in the opposition half (see diagram, above-right, click to enlarge).

Opposition managers - from the Reading game onwards -  have recognised that the key to stopping Forest has been to prevent the central midfielders getting on the ball. In our recent 2-2 draw against Ipswich, Mick McCarthy left his defence a man short to achieve this, going 4 on 4 at the back and pushing his defensive midfielder forward to unsettle Lansbury and Tesche  (see diagram, below).

This clever move by McCarthy forced Forest to play more long balls out of their defence, playing to Ipswich's strengths rather than Forest's, because Lansbury and Tesche did not want the ball under pressure from Ipswich midfielders. Were it not for two excellent corners (credit where it's due - involving Tesche and Lansbury) The Reds would have suffered their first defeat of the season.

With Reid in the team McCarthy's gamble would probably have backfired, as the Irishman makes himself available for the ball irrespective of whether he's being marked, and is good enough to swashbuckle his way through problems. At some stage he would have broken through the pressing players and found someone in the space behind them.

Since his injury, the replacement players have struggled to provide the vital outlet, forcing the defenders to make the direct passes forward themselves. Forest's defenders have played 17.8% more long balls in the Championship games where Reid has not featured this season.

In my opinion, it is not lack of skill that is preventing the likes of Lansbury and Tesche providing this outlet - it is the confidence associated with that skill - the willingness to lose the ball while trying something positive.

Reid and Cohen are both players willing to take the responsibility of collecting the ball in the area in front of their defenders, while under pressure. This is nicely illustrated in their heat-maps (see an example, from the game against Sheffield Wednesday, right, courtesy of Squawka). The green and yellow areas show how often they are touching the ball in this area.

Contrast this with the heat-maps for the central midfield partnership during the Ipswich game (see left, again courtesy of Squawka). Lansbury and Tesche, although they got around the pitch well, did not try especially hard to get on the ball in the holding midfield zone; we can see they aren't involved here any more than any other area of the pitch.

This is because they are not prepared to be positive when under pressure in their own half. I am not advocating taking unnecessary risks in dangerous areas, but sometimes you need to play your way out of trouble rather than passing backwards and playing long -  the fact that Forest are not set up to take advantage of the long ball out of defence exacerbates this requirement.

Lansbury is much more effective further up the pitch, where he has the confidence to take risks with the ball. He is good at exploding into life after quiet periods, running at defenders and is a goal-threat when arriving late in the box. When employed in a more withdrawn role I feel he looks tentative, plays more cautiously in an effort not to lose the ball, and fails to make himself as available. In my opinion, Lansbury needs to be played further up the pitch, where he has more freedom to express himself.

Tesche appears even more uncomfortable with receiving the ball under pressure. He is a neat and tidy, typical defensive midfielder, has excellent positioning, and is difficult to get past, but of all Forest's midfielders he appears the least confident on the ball, and often he simply does not want possession (see left for an example, during the Fulham match).

Pearce has a massive decision to make on whether to dip into the loan market, and bring in a player who is capable of getting the midfield more involved in play. From the above discussion, I've made it sound like this loan is almost obligatory, however we do have other players who can step into these midfield positions.

David Vaughan is one of the best players in the league, and if fit would probably be an automatic choice - but it is increasingly apparent Forest cannot rely on his availability.

I have been increasingly impressed with Ben Osborn, and believe he is exactly the kind of player we need in Reid's absence. Not only does he have the energy and desire to want to be involved constantly - he is certainly a player who will  offer an outlet for defenders - but he is almost always positive with the ball.

In fact, Osborn is perhaps too positive; it may be too early for him to be stepping into Reid's shoes - especially considering the rocketing expectations of The City Ground crowd. He gave the ball away a few times in dangerous areas against Brighton (see right), but I was impressed at how he gave the ball away - striving to make things happen from that holding midfield area. Osborn was trying to replicate what Reid does.

But doing the job as good as Andy Reid is going to be unlikely at this level. I've heard people suggest Reidy has not been as influential this season; I couldn't disagree more. You only have to look at the dip in creativity since he left the field during the Derby game.

And although he only has the one assist, he has played a vital role in several goals this season, by collecting the ball from the defenders and playing that initial penetrative pass through the opposition midfield.

When on the pitch, Reid has been planting the seeds that have grown into goals; his injury has left a massive hole in the most important part of Forest's team; their current tactics are flawed if nobody can effectively take the ball off of the defenders. What Pearce does about this problem may define his first season in charge - it is certainly his first major decision.
Thanks for reading, thanks to and for statistical and graphical help.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Forest Boffin: Playing away..

I'm sometimes lucky enough to be allowed to write on other sites; as promised to one reader, here is a link to my latest such away day, a look at our recent game against Derby, on my favourite Forest related site, Seat Pitch.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Preview: Forest v Derby

When Forest welcome Derby on Sunday, they are perhaps fighting to restore pride rather than for bragging rights. Stuart Pearce is the ideal man to accomplish this, but it is difficult to predict exactly how he’ll go about it.

Steve McClaren likes The Rams to play a patient 4-3-3 system which will be similar to the one that destroyed Forest so efficiently in March. Most of their expected starting 11 were involved in that game, although we are fortunate that Jeff Hendrick and George Thorne are both out injured. Even if a little weaker, we know they will be motivated and nearly always put on a good performance in this fixture.

Derby are a possession hording team. They like to probe for space from their own half, patiently holding onto the ball until they spot an opportunity rather than taking risks going forward – this is in contrast to Forest, who have been more direct under Pearce.
Their defenders see a lot of possession. Derby’s centre-backs have touched the ball, on average, 23 times more in each game than their Forest counterparts so far this season, which reflects their patient, deliberate ethos; they are loath to pump hopeful balls forward.
That is not to say Forest play hopeful long balls - just that The Garibaldi get forward quicker than Derby - you could say more efficiently if putting the best possible spin on it. To illustrate the difference between the two sides further, Derby have touched the ball 747 times more than Forest this season (a massive difference - it's almost as if they have played an extra game) and played 162 more short passes. This could turn out to be a real clash of styles.

As Derby probe and pass, moving the ball and switching play, they like to push forward their full-backs into any space that appears down the flank. They attack quickly with pass and move football aimed at getting to the by-line, from where they make a lot of low crosses trying to catch out retreating defenders.
The wide areas are probably where this game will be won, and the attacking nature of full-backs Craig Forsyth and Cyrus Christie is key to Derby’s strength in this part of the pitch.

Christie in particular looks an exciting player – Forest will have to play close attention to his runs. He particularly likes to drift inside of the right-forward and make a nuisance of himself down the edge of the penalty area.

However, Pearce will have Forest well prepared, and has given presentations in the past on how he likes to nullify this kind of player, and also how to defend against the exact system Derby use. I won’t examine the tactics I therefore know Forest will use in this regard here, as I’m aware that Steve McClaren is an avid reader of Forest Boffin, but it will be interesting to pick apart how successful Pearce’s methods turn out to be in a future article.
It will be a game of cat and mouse between the Derby full-backs, who will be trying to get forward to link up with the wide forwards, and Forest’s wingers, who will be looking to continue putting in the crosses that have created the majority of Forest’s goals.

This battle in wide areas will be effected by whichever system Pearce decides upon: 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. Speculation has centred on whether Forest should play two up front rather than one, but I think the most important effect of the system will be out wide, and whether it stops Derby’s wing-backs effecting the game.
One option would be to pin them back; Charlton did this effectively by playing a rigid 4-4-2 – an option Pearce will be considering. The positioning of Charlton’s wingers, plus having two men up front rather than one, gave Forsyth and Christie less space to run into, and made them anxious about getting forward – limiting Derby's choices while trying to play their way out of their own half.

Derby were, however, unfortunate to lose this game as they possess far more quality than The Addicks. But Charlton’s system restricted their options, and I'd suggest that Forest would do a much better job of penning Derby in given the same tactics.
However, in doing so Pearce would be eschewing the type of football that has propelled Forest to the top of the league. The Reds have focussed on attacking quickly and urgently, abandoning possession football in favour of creating a direct threat by cutting through teams as they leave space at the back (see charts, left; the difference in possession has been stark, Derby even have over 10% more away possession than Forest have enjoyed at home).
A question on the manager’s lips may be whether he wants to deny Derby possession and hem them in, or have a more open game and hit them on the break? By playing a 4-4-2 he will probably make Steve McClaren more cautious, and Forest might see more of the ball.
A 4-2-3-1 however, would give the Derby full-backs more licence to come forward, because the two central defenders will feel they can handle the lone striker without much assistance. And if the full-backs are bombing up the pitch, Forest's wingers will find it easier to cross the ball on the counter-attack, and will catch Derby out at some stage.
Another reason Pearce may be considering playing a 4-2-3-1, is the glut of talent he has at his disposal in central midfield. Henri Lansbury will be difficult to ignore when writing the team-sheet – but Reid and Cohen are virtually undroppable. Add David Vaughan and Robert Tesche into the equation and it equals a selection headache which would be so much easier to solve were there three places in the middle rather than two.

So the 2 up front vs 1 up front argument is never as simple as that – as the above considerations illustrate. But whichever system Forest use I would like to see Matty Fryatt take on the Derby defenders at some stage. I'm of the opinion that Keogh and Buxton sometimes fail to get tight enough to their man, Fryatt would thrive under these conditions.
For all the guessing and postulating about tactics, we must remember that this is a blood and thunder local derby – not a game of chess. Pride, passion and guts will play a massive part, and one battling run, inspired pass or defensive blunder, could make all the ruminations about 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 a mute point. The only thing for certain is that Pearce will have the Forest players fired up for this one.

As someone close to both clubs once said: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes!

I’m sure he was closer to the mark than I am!

Thanks for reading, thanks to for statistical help, and special thanks to Charlie from for helping me once more. If you want to read my match report on this game, it will appear on