Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Forest's defenders: Hung out to dry

After a mini-revival, Forest's play-off hopes were crushed ruthlessly by Bournemouth on Saturday. If you want to know why Forest have been conceding so many goals recently, you need only look at how The Cherries tore Forest apart.

I've been intrigued - and at times appalled - by what has been occurring in Forest's midfield since Davies' departure. The stark contrast for Gary Brazil's first game in charge was that the front four players were operating as a separate entity to the back six; there was a big gap between the two groups, possibly caused by, or contributing to, The Reds' more direct approach to going forward (see my match report for a more detailed discussion on this). I believe this mentality has continued with some players - the midfielders have, at times, been leaving the defenders to face the music alone, culminating in the game at Bournemouth.

The issue is less obvious for Bournemouth's first goal - the main error was in central defence - but there nonetheless. Danny Collins had to come out of the defence to deal with a problem, and the Bournemouth winger got to the second ball before any Forest player. With Collins out of the back four, Harding had gone momentarily to centre-back, leaving the gap for the winger to run into and cross unmolested (see diagram, right, which can be enlarged if clicked).

Why question the midfield for this? Because almost every time a Forest defender needs to come out of defence - the midfielders are not winning the second ball, or even making life difficult for opposition attackers, who are often free to run at the defence - which is now a man light. The frequency of it happening is very worrying.

For example, in the run up to Bournemouth's second goal... Danny Collins has to come out of the defence to deal with a high ball. He doesn't get there this time, but is able to get back into position. The problem is that once again the midfield are not in a position to help defensively - the Bournemouth midfield flood forward but their Forest counterparts do not follow them (see diagram, right).

When a defender has to come out of the defensive line (never ideal, but it has to happen occasionally), the midfielders he is, in effect, covering for, must be prepared to make an effort to mitigate the weaker position the team find themselves in. There will be a gap at the back somewhere - if allowed space the opposition will exploit it!

The QPR game was a prime example of Forest not defending as a team. While we're still on the subject of the defenders having to come out of their line, and not being supported, let's have a look at The Hoops first goal (see right). Here, Jamaal Lascelles has needed to come out, but our opponents midfielders were again first to the ball. With Lascelles out of line, Grag Halford cannot challenge Junior Hoilett; if he gets it wrong, the tricky winger could be through on goal. Halford's role is to slow Hoilett down enough for the midfielders to get a challenge in, or until Lascelles gets back in position. He actually does a good job, but the midfielders are not urgent enough in getting back - Lee Peltier in particular is not prepared to take the responsibility of getting a challenge in, nor does he mark the space in which the goal comes from, he basically goes and stands next to Halford, doing the same job.  Halford was criticised for this goal, but he was the only Forest player actively defending.

Millwall's first goal is also caused by the same fault (see left). The central defender, this time Halford, has to come out of line to deal with a problem, which pins the right back (Jara) into position. The Millwall left back, who scores a deflected goal, has run past Forest's midfield, and is able to get as close to Jara as he likes before shooting. So we see that this problem has been regularly costing Forest goals.

In fact the Millwall game is especially damning for the Forest midfielders, particularly Peltier (who, being a defender himself, you would think knows how to defend).  They were taking advantage of space on the right of our midfield all game long, as illustrated by Forest's average position diagram for this game (see right), according to

We can see that there was, on average, little cover in front of the right-back - Forest instead bunching up in the middle of the pitch. The two right sided players, Mackie and Peltier, spent far too much time in central positions, which allowed too much space in front of Forest's right-sided defenders. Notice how Scott Malone, their left-back, feels he has the freedom to push up more often, and that Ian Holloway pushed a whole host of players up into this area.

It is no surprise when their second goal comes from this area again (see left). Millwall were such a poor side, in my opinion the only way they were going to score would have been from a severe tactical problem - and Forest had one in that Millwall were able to consistently out-number the Forest right-back.

I cannot imagine Gary Brazil wanted his right-sided midfielders to leave so much space on this side of the pitch - I would suggest this tactical weakness came not from a managerial misjudgement, but from player apathy.

On the subject of player apathy, we will get back to the Bournemouth game. Anyone watching would have noticed how much more determination, passion and urgency our opponents showed, particularly in midfield, where they consistently stole the ball and broke with pace and intent. It looked like they were the team in with a chance of the play-offs, not Forest.

Their third goal (see right) illustrates this perfectly, as their young midfielder Eunan O'Kane picked up the ball in their half and ran dangerously through Forest's midfield. McLaughlin tried to stay with him, but is already stumbling and at a disadvantage. My main compliant is with Lee Peltier, who makes no effort to chase O'Kane. We have seen on-loan players seemingly not put the effort in when chasing back in the past (Chalobah - in particular against Doncaster) - this is another example.

The fourth goal (see left) is exactly the same - our opponents get the ball high up the pitch and easily out-pace their opposite players. It is interesting to watch the difference in attitude between the midfielders when Forest lose the ball, and Danny Collins - who is also caught behind play but makes the effort to get his body back in-between the ball and Forest's goal. But none of the midfield have followed him back, and Bournemouth find it easy to pass the ball around the beleaguered Forest defenders at leisure, eventually finding an opening to score.

Regular readers will possibly note how forgiving I am of Forest players for their faults. I can sympathise with Simon Cox and Jamie Mackie missing when through on goal, I can forgive big Darius when the ball bounces off him as though he has his own personal force-field, I can forget lapses of concentration, or giving the ball away with poor passes; what I cannot abide is a lack of effort, and some of our midfielders, particularly down Forest's right-side, have been demonstrating this under Gary Brazil.

See another example of this, against QPR. The midfielders, Mackie and Peltier, fail to follow Ravel Morrison, as he helps their left-back gang up on Greg Halford. The Forest defence don't stand a chance in the face of such little cover from their team-mates, and only a wonderful save from Karl Darlow prevents a goal.

What about Charlton's goal at The City Ground? Similar to at Bournemouth, Forest lose the ball in midfield, and the Charlton players show more urgency. The Addicks hit the post, but it's not luck that the rebound falls to one of their players, because they outnumber the defenders, having made more effort to be there than the Forest players.

The frustrating thing is that Forest's midfielders have defended well at times - but it has taken the introduction of David Vaughan. He has put in several McKennaesque performances in the middle for The Reds, organising and encouraging the other midfielders to defend properly.

With Vaughan in there, Forest have been hunting down the ball with urgency, and it has given them the platform to build on - Gary Brazil's whole tactic seems to have been to win the ball and break forward with pace. This direct style of play is very difficult though if the midfielders are not close to the defence, because it makes it harder to win the ball, and also it makes it more obvious that Forest will play direct if there are not players close enough to play it short. This was the problem against Charlton; the wide midfielders were not committed defensively, and also as they were pushed so far forward our opponents knew we had to play direct, and were prepared.

Defending is a team effort. I have heard people slating the defenders, particularly Greg Halford for the QPR goals, but this has been unjust - the defenders have not been the problem. Halford was left cruelly exposed against QPR. just as Jara was against Millwall. When a player is 'backing off' they are often doing so because it is too dangerous to make the challenge - this was certainly the case at times in these games, due to the lack of midfield cover.

I've highlighted situations where this problem has cost Forest a goal, or at least a chance, but this problem has been consistently there, Forest have been vulnerable due to this on far more occasions than those I've depicted.

Forest have let in 2 goals on average, per game under Gary Brazil, compared to 1.24 per game under Davies - this has not been due to failings from the goalkeeper or defenders, there has been a deficiency in the organisation and effort of the midfielders. Vaughan's contribution would tend too indicate that this is not down to the manager though - perhaps some of the players might want to ask themselves whether they could have done more.
Thanks for reading and thanks to for help during my research.

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