League-Champions-elect Leicester will probably play a 4-4-2 against Forest, pushing forward either full-back to support their two creative midfielders, winger Lloyd Dyer and Anthony Knockaert, who plays on the right but tends to drift inside. They have a solid core which protects the centre of the pitch effectively, and a plethora of dangerous forwards who between them provide a variety of threats for every occasion.
While scouting them for this preview, I have been extremely impressed with Jamie Vardy. He is not the most high-profile player on their team – perhaps that honour goes to Knockaert or Nugent – but in my opinion he’s the most dangerous. When on song he has superb technique and lightning pace, and an aggressive determination to get in an effort on goal. He also has a good work-ethic.
Forest must not play too high a line, as Leicester are more direct away from home (they average 48.9% of possession, compared to 56.5% at The King Power Stadium) – they will look to play balls betwixt our full-backs and central defenders for Vardy to run onto. We must also avoid any defenders becoming isolated against Vardy, who has the acceleration and skill to explode past them.
Home or away, Leicester conjure most of their attacks down either wing with the aim of crossing the ball; in their last match against Watford, they made an impressive 44 crosses. Similar to Forest, their full-backs are quite adventurous, and when on the attack they will cross the half-way line and join the midfield.
Commendably, Leicester seem to go for the throat rather than playing cautiously, but this leaves them vulnerable as Konchesky, and to a lesser extent de Laet, get caught out of position (see an example, left. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked). In my opinion Billy Davies targeted this trait earlier in the season as a weakness. This will be a key area of the pitch again, and whenever The Blues have come unstuck this season, this is where their problems developed.
This may also be exacerbated by the attacking nature of Dyer and Knockaert – I’ve not seen much evidence of either having formed a defensive relationship with their full-back, so even when in line, there have been occasions where the defenders have been unable to prevent crosses (see an example, right).
The adventurousness of Leicester's full-backs could be influenced by the system Billy Davies plays, i.e. the number of strikers employed. We saw against Reading what sometimes happens when Forest play one up front – it can free up opposition full-backs to get forward more offensively, and press into our midfield when defending. An extra striker will automatically help pin back Konchesky and de Laet.
However, their absence when forward has, in my opinion, been Leicester's Achilles' Heel – if Billy opts to play two up front, making them more reluctant to press forward, he may actually make our opponent’s defence stronger in a game we need to win (see diagrams below). As funny as it sounds, one up front may, in this instance, be more adventurous than two!
Just as I suggested prior to the Watford game, this is another opportunity for Simon Cox to use his intelligence and drift into the space behind positive full-backs. We saw the havoc he caused almost immediately in that game when introduced at half time – he needs to start this game, up front on his own.
Also, if Cox is played up on his own, it will allow Billy to use two wingers to support him, exploiting
this space themselves when Cox doesn’t. If Forest play two up front, the midfield will probably be narrower, and these players will play in the more congested centre – where Leicester are strong. As mentioned above, in my opinion Knockaert and Dyer aren’t as defensively minded as they could be – another reason not to play a narrow midfield.
The Reds have massive injury problems which will be tempting Billy to bring back his diamond system (with two strikers, the one kind of player we have plenty of), but because of the above reasons I think he should proceed with a 4-2-3-1, withdrawing Andy Reid to a more defensive position. It is a shame, because with Vaughan and Lansbury in the side, this would be a much easier game. Forest could really do with Reid in the attacking midfield position, whatever system we play – it will be interesting to see how Billy juggles his midfielders as I can see this becoming a problem area.
A key battleground defensively, apart from stopping Jamie Vardy, will be how Hobbs or Lascelles handle David Nugent. The ex-England international had the better of things against Lascelles earlier in the season, particularly in the air and should have found himself on the score-sheet. Leicester crossed the ball 26 times in that game. They will probably play a few more through-balls this time – as Forest won't be defending as deep – but Nugent et al will still be a threat from crosses. He will also be a threat from the penalty spot – he alone has taken 10 so far this season, scoring 8.
The Garibaldi will have to get everything right, because Leicester are full of confidence – as befits a team on route to the title. And with that confidence and winning habit comes the rub of the green – they been fortunate in a lot of the games I’ve seen, particularly away from home against teams like Bournemouth, Leeds and Millwall, and have benefited from a lot of marginal refereeing decisions. Winning teams give birth to luck, and Leicester are earning theirs aplenty. I have the feeling if Forest are going to get anything out of this game, they will have to earn it conclusively, because things are falling nicely for City.
A key aspect of earning that result will be scoring first, because Nigel Pearson’s team have the highest win-ratio in The Championship when they draw first blood – a whopping 90%. This is down to their ability to protect a lead, their opponents have been able to equalise on average only 19.2% of the time, but away from home, where they are more cautious, this drops to 16.7%.
But Forest are one of the two Championship teams who are outstanding at forcing their way back into games (Burnley are the other - no other Championship team comes close at fighting back). We know they have superb character, and they equalise on average 69.2% of the time they fall behind. And should The Reds’ score first, they also know how to finish teams off, especially at home where they win 88.9% of the games in which they do so. Overall, this drops to 63.2% - Forest struggle more to hold onto a lead away, but at The City Ground they are lethal. The first goal may be crucial.
This week is likely to define the remainder of the season for Forest. Do well, and they will have proven that even without Cohen, Lichaj, Wilson, Lansbury and Vaughan (half of our first team) we are one of the best sides in The Championship, and will be in a strong position; do poorly and we will at best be playing catch-up until May – at worst fighting to cling onto a play-off position. Lose against both Leicester and Burnley, and we will be nine points behind second place, Derby and QPR will be pulling away, Reading, Brighton, Ipswich and Wigan will be hunting us down, and the fans confidence will be tested. This is a massive week for The Garibaldi, and considering our opposition and injury situation, it’s as difficult as possible.
But this is a winnable game for Forest, especially at The City Ground. Billy Davies has gotten one over on our rivals already this season, in a game where Forest rode their luck but defended well in an ideal away performance. This week is the acid test for Forest; their injury situation is what it is – there is no realistic prospect of replacing players like Vaughan and Lansbury adequately, it will merely be a case of muddling through with the players we have; this time next week we'll know where battered and bruised Forest stand. To continue the Lord of the Rings analogy with which I began, beating Leicester, and afterwards Burnley, is not quite as epic a task as casting The One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom - but the odds are against us, and our automatic promotion hopes are in the greatest of peril.
Thanks for reading, thanks to www.whoscored.com for statistical help (fantastic site), and COYR!