Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Why does Billy play Halford up front?

When a manager unnecessarily plays a player out of position, he puts himself in the firing line. Such is the case with Billy Davies playing Greg Halford up front.

This fancy has been causing discussion all season, with Halford being preferred in the position on several occasions. The 29 year old utility man led the line against Watford in January, despite there being 5 (five) natural forward players on the bench, causing widespread confusion in the stands. Again, on the way out following our recent draw against Doncaster, it seemed to be the main topic of conversation.

Davies himself has a self-professed aversion to “round pegs in square holes” – so why play Halford out of position?

The simple answer to this is that Halford doesn’t have a position. He has always, wherever he has played, been branded with the dreaded utility-man label, but is this a reason for him to play up front? No, but Davies has stated that he feels Halford “has got a lot of threats.” What are these threats?

In my opinion, the pre-requisite as to why Halford is being picked – the thing that qualifies him for consideration – is his perceived ability in the air, more specifically in scoring goals with his head.

Going back to the decision to play him against Watford; I had watched a lot of The Hornets in researching a preview of the game, and one thing I noticed, although I underestimated it’s importance, is that Watford had been struggling to defend crosses. Billy perhaps attached more weight to this weakness, which explains Halford's inclusion, and to be fair to Davies he was right to single out this - Forest scored two headed goals in this game.
 
In hindsight, Halford should have been ideal to exploit Watford's weakness in the air - he has proven his ability to score in this fashion against Leeds, QPR and Reading. Playing him as a forward was not questioned after these games, because he scored in each of them, giving Forest vital leads.

So we begin to see the logic of why Billy played Halford up front against Watford – it was because Greg had already proven he was good at something that Billy knew would give them problems, the fact that he failed to score is academic; Davies cannot see into the future, all he knows is that the player is capable of doing the job needed.

There is similar logic to the decision to play him up front against Doncaster. In recent weeks Forest have been missing an unusual amount of headed chances. The Reds have been crossing the ball at will, they have been creating opportunities but the chances were being spurned.

The game against Barnsley was one Forest could easily have won – if The Garibaldi managed to take the lead, bottom of the table Barnsley would probably have crumbled, and Jamie Mackie missed a particularly easy header in the first half. The opportunity went begging, Barnsley punished the error and gained the confidence to protect their lead.
Even more obvious was the lack of head-power in the game against Middlesbrough – several chances to take the lead were spurned (see above, click to enlarge), notably by the forward players. If a more accomplished header of the ball were amongst them in the first half, Forest would surely have taken the lead.

The missed chances must have galled Davies, and when Halford trotted out against Doncaster the reasoning should have been obvious; it was Billy's attempt to take advantage of the crosses Forest get into the box. Alas, football is football and it did not work out as the manager hoped – but we can see his reasoning.

So we see Halford’s ability in the air, and strength,  are key considerations which Davies values, but others have this ability too – Darius Henderson for one, and earlier in the season Billy could have chosen Dexter Blackstock – two ‘proper’ strikers. Why pick Halford over them?

It could be Halford’s versatility that gives him the advantage over the more traditional target-men. He has played a variety of positions, and has a broader range of skills because of this.
 
For example, much of Halford’s career has been spent as a defender. It's my contention that he is able to look at the game through a defender's eye, and see where opportunities might present themselves - this is why a disproportionate amount of chances keep 'falling' to Halford, he knows where to run, often before the space has even appeared (see right for an example of what I mean).
 
In my opinion, this gives him an advantage over traditional target-men in the eyes of the manager, because, while a proper striker in the mould of Robbie Earnshaw or Billy Sharp can find this space with ease, the traditional target-man cannot regularly do this. Henderson, for example, isn't the kind of player to run into space, his physique and style of play are more suited to tussling with defenders rather than evading them.

Halford has the strength of a 'target-man', but also the knowledge and mobility to run into appearing space - he does this whenever he plays up front (I've noted another example below) - the problem is that he is poor at shooting, but this might not count too much against him because Forest's other strikers don't exactly have the accuracy of Gabriel Batistuta either.
 
As a defender, he also knows what defenders struggle against - which comes in handy. Halford has several tricks to put defenders off - the headed goal against QPR was a good example of this, he created space in between the two defenders by making a false run (see first diagram, above).
 
Defenders are the masters of competing for these high balls, so it stands to reason he knows their strategies. Another dirty trick that defenders often use is backing-in, you will see Halford do this in every game. This is where he chooses not to compete for the high ball at all, instead making contact with the opponent while bending over slightly to put them off, or trick the referee into giving him a free-kick. Other defenders aren't used to being fouled in this manner by attackers, who are usually climbing for the ball. It's a good example of Halford using his experience as a defender while attacking.
 
Halford is an experienced, canny professional and not averse to bending the rules – but because of his experience all around the pitch, in my opinion he’s better at disguising it that, for example, Henderson (who, as we saw in the bear-hug incident against Blackburn, isn’t quite as subtle).

We also see Halford using his skills as a midfielder, doing things that (since we’ve already picked him out) Henderson can’t do. He is more creative with the ball at his feet – can anybody see Henderson putting in the kind of cross that Halford did against Bolton at home (for Henri Lansbury’s goal, see right). He used to play on the right-wing for Colchester, and I've read an old forum where one of their fans calls him 'their David Beckham' - this was an excessive, possibly alcohol induced compliment, but it hints at the kind of role he played there; albeit at a far lower level, it’s another string to his bow, another thing his rivals for the position cannot do.

For balance, I’m not suggesting Halford is a viable, regular first-choice starter as a striker for a team aiming for promotion. But we can see that he has the skills which have enticed Davies to pick him – he can score with his head, he is strong enough to act as a makeshift target-man, but and his mobility and versatility has given him a broader range of skills and knowledge, allowing Forest more options in coming forward.

We’ve looked at why Davies has used him up front, but does it work?

He’s only scored three goals for Forest this season, so he’s not necessarily there for his goal-threat – (although his strike rate when playing up front is a goal every 226 minutes, above The Championship's average for strikers by far) but we must remember that Billy isn’t playing him as a regular starter up-front, more as someone for certain situations; how have Forest done when Billy has deemed it suitable to play Halford up front?
 
The stats (see right) suggest that playing Halford up front have not had a detrimental effect – in fact Forest have scored slightly faster while employing him as a striker, as opposed to when he’s not been.

In analysing this information we must take into consideration the relatively low amount of minutes Halford has been played as a striker, but they certainly suggest that Davies’ use of the player up front has tended to work more than not, justifying the selection.
 
You will also note that, in the games where Halford has played 45 minutes or more as a forward, Forest have won 4, drawn 4 and lost none - this is a much higher return (2 points per game) than Forest's average over the season (1.58 points per game).

Of course, it will be easy for people to say it’s all “lies, damned lies and statistics” - it seems so clear that Halford isn't a striker, doesn't it? I’m not arguing that Greg Halford is a great striker, and I don't think Billy is either. But nor is he the "useless" "liability" that has been claimed.

But the fact remains that Forest have scored more goals with this player up front, than when he has not been up front, have not lost in eight games where he has featured in this role, and actually the player has performed well on several occasions. He was man of the match against Bolton. He has scored absolutely vital goals, getting us off to good starts against QPR, Leeds and Reading, games where we had excellent results.

In fact, it is only in the last two games with him up front that you could claim that using him in this manner did not work. Has he been a passenger feeding off of his more skilful team-mates? Or is this another case of short, selective memories from the doubters?

Should Greg Halford be played up front? I don’t know – to be honest I thought it odd, even after slowly coming to understand Billy’s reasoning. After looking at what limited (but important – what could be more important to this question than how many goals the team is scoring, and their results?) statistics I have, they would suggest Billy knows what he’s doing in this matter.
 
One thing I'm certain of however, is that he has made a good contribution at times this season - and that includes when he's been playing up front.  He's been a huge part of enjoyable victories against Bolton, Leeds and QPR, and led the line as Forest earned good draws away at Watford, Reading and Bolton. I think, when things don't go to plan, some Forest fans are guilty of getting carried away and exaggerating the team's woes, and how badly a player has done.

Would love to hear what people think, this has been a difficult one to write and research - go easy I've done my best, and thanks for reading. COYR!
 
*A note on my research for this one; This has been a difficult subject to look into. There is the possibility that the statistics on where he has played, and for exactly how long, are not 100% solid (by my usual standards). For example, I know he played the majority of the game against Bolton as a forward, but I can't remember if he was switched to another position as Davies made his subs - I don't think he was, but this applies to all of the games - and it's impossible to quantify where a player is playing for every exact minute of a game - so the stats should only be used as general pointers for this article - I feel it necessary to point this out for integrities' sake, and I still stand by their validity, any inaccuracies will be relatively insignificant.
 
If any errors are spotted please let me know and I'll look into them. Cheers!

6 comments:

  1. If we play with 1 upfront then Halford is the only striker we have (with the exception of Blackstock) who can play this role. Henderson isn't mobile enough and Cox and Derbyshire aren't big or strong enough, so I can see Billy's logic. But if we play with two up top it should always be Henderson alongside someone more mobile.

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  2. I think I'm with you Mark. For my sins, I'm personally a fan of how Billy uses his forwards, and also Simon Cox (the two things go hand in hand IMO), I would play Cox in every game, I know that may be unpopular, and someone who will stay in the middle should partner him. I thing GH is properly a defender, but I've noticed, during this article (the research) that he makes quite intelligent runs - I honestly don't think he's out of his depth at this level as a striker. My opinion though (after watching him, and re-watching him).

    Whatever out opinion, we all need to get behind whoever plays for Forest.

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  3. Excellent & thought provoking article Boff that does justify using Halford as a target man for the right games. Thanks to your analysis, I can see why Billy played Greg against Donny. What I do find hard to fathom though, is why Abdoun (who probably was the main cross provider against Barnsley & Boro) didn't play against Donny?

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    1. Cheers Tim.

      I don't understand this either! To be honest, since I've started looking deeper at the tactics to write this blog (roughly a year now), I think I'm coming to the realisation that I don't know as much about what's going on as I thought I did. Our midfield was back to the narrow version - but we were getting the ball in wide positions. The full backs were out there, as was Coxy, and at times the midfielders DID drift out there aswell - but you're correct, if you want to put crosses in for Halford, Abdoun is your man. Assuming Billy realises this as well, it's a hole in my theory.

      Perhaps they wanted a narrow midfield to draw Donny's attention, then the full-backs and Cox would have more room in which to cross? But I'm clutching at straws now - in truth I don't know. Could be as simple as Abdoun having a bad week in training??

      It's a good point you make. Thanks for taking the time again.

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  4. I always enjoy reading your blogs; thoughtful, balanced and well researched. A couple of thoughts: few of us know what issues players may face, either in training or regarding injuries, in the days before a game. Abdoun's omission could be tactical or otherwise. Is it also possible that Billy was looking for a combination of good movement to provide space for a narrow midfield as well as an aerial threat? I agree, however, that, Reid aside, Abdoun is our most useful crosser of the ball.

    Also, might it be argued that, as the majority of Halford's striking appearances have occurred as part of a healthier squad, other factors may also have influenced those results? This is not to detract from his efforts, just an observation.

    Thanks again for the blog. Your efforts are much appreciated!

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    1. Yeah, all good points really. Regarding what Billy's looking for tactically, as I say above I try my best, but after looking at games - trying to fathom tactics in more detail - I'm coming to the conclusion that I only skim the surface as a layman. To me, if you want to put crosses on Halford's head, play Abdoun. Is it that simple? No, as you say, they have probably been trying to do both. I probably simplify things too much - not sure. This was a difficult article to research, I muddled through - I wasn't trying to say something so much as get my own head around the reasons as far as I could find.

      As you say - it has to be more complicated than Halford plays up front; we don't lose - other factors will influence, it's a good observation. It does imply that playing him up front isn't the bizarre, catastrophic decision some imply.

      Sorry if this is a bit of a ramble; hungover after yesterday's horrible result. Keep the faith Reds.

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