Monday, 28 July 2014

Player under the microscope: Matty Fryatt

Clinical finishing – two words that haunted Nottingham Forest last season. Two words that, we were told, were all that was missing. Have The Garibaldi finally addressed this deficiency by signing Matty Fryatt?

Forest have certainly signed a striker. For large periods recently The Reds have played without this type of player; the goal-scoring pedigree of the forwards at The City Ground has been much debated, but I would argue that the only true strikers the club have employed lately have been Matt Derbyshire and Billy Sharp – two players starved of time on the pitch because they did not fit into the team’s tactics.
A look at Fryatt's movement when advanced of the ball illustrates what he does differently to the forwards we have observed last season at Forest. It is his movement off the ball that makes him a striker rather than a forward.
Forest have tended to play their way forward patiently through maintaining possession. For the forwards this has entailed making runs away from dangerous areas to get the ball (see diagram, left, which can be enlarged if clicked). They would come deep to help in the build up, or drift out wide, to help create a foothold high up the pitch, and bring others into play.

Simon Cox is particularly good at this kind of football – for all the criticism he has received, there are few better at this level (if any) at moving into space and establishing possession in opposition territory. He is difficult to get off the ball and good at picking out arriving midfielders, who find themselves in good positions to hurt the opposition because Cox is drawing the heat.

But where Cox plays typically between and around the centre-back and full-back (as well as dropping back into midfield – or even defence – for the ball), Fryatt specialises in playing more centrally, in amongst the centre-backs. He looks for space in behind them, and is ready to capitalise if they get dragged out of position (see diagram, right. Click to enlarge).

Instead of moving away from this congested area in search of the ball, Fryatt’s game is based around finding the smaller gaps in these more dangerous areas. He has reasonably good technique, and when receiving the ball his only thought is to score, meaning his second touch is often a shot on goal, leaving the defender very little time to make a challenge.
He is especially threatening when other players are lurking in wide areas, as this can stretch out the defensive line. This creates a dilemma for the player marking Fryatt; as the striker moves into space which appears in a stretched line of defenders, how close should the defender be? If he follows he will possibly leave a greater gap which can be exploited by another attacker, but if he’s not touch-tight to Fryatt, the striker is good enough to turn and shoot quickly when receiving the ball; this is his main asset (see below for an example).

It is all about the end product with this kind of player, in contrast to Cox, who will always contribute something to a game through his ability to help keep possession. Fryatt will not contribute as much to the build up and general game-play, he is there to score goals.
Those impatient with the likes of Cox will insist that the man up front is there to score goals and nothing more – but if he’s well handled by the defenders and not making another contribution, you’re effectively playing with ten men – so there is a use for players like Cox. With an all-out striker on the pitch such as Fryatt, it will be more important for Forest to win the strategic battle elsewhere, or he just won’t get a kick.

But when involved, Fryatt can do real damage. If he gets a sight at goal he is certainly that clinical finisher that we have all been waiting for. Last season he scored a Championship goal every 153 minutes, which was one of the best strike-rates in the league, all despite playing for struggling Sheffield Wednesday (although it must be noted this was over a relatively short period).
He also has good ability on the ball; if allowed to turn he excels in taking on an isolated defender – he scored some lovely goals in this fashion last season.
Forest fans have been crying out for that elusive 20 goal a season striker – Fryatt has not delivered this kind of form so far, but the 28 year old appears to be maturing into the finished article.
It is testament to his skills that the Hull City fans are split in their opinion of whether they should have retained his services. He was widely acknowledged as the best finisher at the club, even by those happy to lose him, and was in Steve Bruce’s plans for this season, who intended to use him as a back-up and cup player. He was equally well thought of in Sheffield.
The only criticisms I could find concerning this highly respected professional, was that he is sometimes caught off-side too often (in my opinion a trait of the kind of player he is, as he'll make a lot of runs looking for a through-ball) and that he wasn’t quite quick or powerful enough for Premiership football.

I have seen some Forest fans show concern about his injury record – have we signed another sick-note? It is true that Fryatt has missed large parts of his career through injury – most recently in the 2012/13 season, but over the past five years he has averaged over 30 appearances per season, so these fears seem unfounded.

While not the most exotic of Forest’s new signings, he is, perhaps, the one to be the most excited about so far. He has proven he can score goals at this level, and fits in nicely with what I expect will be Stuart Pearce’s preferred tactics. When compared with Lars Veldwijk, he seems to me a much safer bet and I believe will be in front of the Dutchman in the pecking order, as the younger man has yet to prove himself at anything close to this level.

Fryatt will play a role that Forest have been lacking. Technique, reasonable pace and strength, the ability to use restricted space, clinical finishing; he has all the attributes needed to score goals in Stuart Pearce’s new-look Forest.

Maybe we’ve got that 20 goal a season striker at last.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to for statistical help.
Further reading:
Soccerbase page on Fryatt: Stats
Nottingham Post stories: Fryatt signs & Fryatt interview
Hull fans react to Fryatt leaving: Fryatt gone
Fryatt's goals for Hull: Goals

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Psycho - The tactics

Stuart Pearce claims he is undecided on tactics and systems, but in the recent past he has been a steadfast advocate of the 4-2-3-1 formation. Influenced by Fabio Capello and Rafa Benitez, Pearce used this modern system with both the Under-21’s and Olympic team.

Forest’s acquisitions this summer tend to suggest they want to use this formation. The three defenders purchased have one common feature: their ability to use the ball. The 4-2-3-1 is not geared towards direct play; it requires that the defenders pass the ball out patiently, often to a deep lying play-maker masquerading as a defensive midfielder.

The new strikers are also well suited to playing this system. We’ve all seen Billy Davies’ version of the 4-2-3-1, with the forward drifting deep or wide effectively acting as a support player – Pearce has used a more aggressive variant of this system and likes the front man to be a striker, not a forward. Matty Fryatt and Lars Veldwijk are well suited to this role.

Recent tactical changes the youth teams implemented towards the end of last season would seem to be another clue that Pearce wants Forest to play this way – soon after Pearce's confirmation as manager they reportedly began using this system more often.

As a defender, the 4-2-3-1 might appeal to Pearce because, although not absolutely defensive, it provides flexibility and stability in that respect. Various video-clips are available of Pearce enthusing on it’s virtues in providing defensive cover through having two holding midfielders, and the opportunity to transition easily into a 4-5-1, but it can also become a 4-3-3, so has an attacking edge too (see, right. All diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked).

Forest fans will be encouraged when looking at how Pearce’s Under-21’s tried to attack. As hinted above, the striker was in the team to score goals rather than create, something Trickies have been crying out for.

The Garibaldi’s perceived lack of width may also disappear. Pearce’s teams – especially during the last Under-21 campaign – were at their most rampant when attacking from wide positions – 44.2% of England Under-21’s goals involved crosses.

 We saw last season how well David Vaughan, Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury could play in a 4-2-3-1 – all capable of the fluid interchanging and intelligent thought needed for this formation, Pearce may well capitalise on this.

Another attacking quality we may see is an increased threat from set-plays. This was one of the more striking characteristics that stood out from watching England Under-21s, they were organised and dangerous from dead-ball situations, particularly high crosses.

I predict a glut of goals for a certain Forest player this season. Lars Veldwijk is will have opposition defences worried during corners and free-kicks, but after observation I can’t recall him being particularly deadly in the air. With defenders distracted by Mount Veldwijk, I can see Jamaal Lascelles scoring a lot of goals from set-plays (assuming he is still a Forest player of course).

I’ve talked a lot about Forest going forward, but it’s the defensive nature of Pearce’s tactics that have drawn the most attention during his career so far – how will our new manager balance the two phases of play?

Pearce has been criticised for being too cautious; this has been an over-simplification, especially for the period in charge of the Under-21s, where his teams scored an average of 1.84 goals per game. The amount scored does not necessarily indicate adventurousness, but it is fair to say that, especially during qualification periods, they were not playing to defend.

The problems came against teams, for example, like Italy, where the opposition’s superior technical ability allowed them to use the ball more effectively. This forced England to employ a more cautious, conditional pressing game, and retreat the wingers back into midfield. Using this formation, it's (in my opinion) the style of pressing that goes a long way to determining how attacking/defensive a team will be.

Automatically England were on the back foot, and struggled to come forward as the striker became isolated, and once struggling and becoming desperate, Pearce resorted to playing direct at times, leading to him being labelled as unimaginative, old fashioned and tactically naïve (that old chestnut! Sigh!).

Jonjo Shelvey blamed Pearce for not allowing the team to press more aggressively, but the Italians would have tore England apart if they went chasing the ball, and it must be remembered it took a set piece to beat England 1-0.

In The Championship Forest will not come up against such technical superiority, I therefore cannot envisage Pearce employing such a deep lying conditional pressing game very often.

In fact, the modern 4-2-3-1 is all about winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible (this was it’s initial function when pioneered by Juanma Lillo in the early 90’s) something Pearce prefers his teams to do, restricting his opponent’s options deep in their half of the pitch.

We have seen first hand how effective this system can be last season at Forest – the QPR match at home is a good example of a team pressing selectively but effectively using the 4-2-3-1. This is exactly what Pearce will try to achieve, rather than having his players stand off as they did against Italy in Israel 2013.

Despite some claims, Pearce favours a modern approach to tactics with fluid positional play – both in and out of possession – rather than the old-fashioned, rigid tactics he has been accused of using.

This is all very well when you have the players to do it, but when injuries bite it will be left to Forest’s second string to step in and fill the void. A possible pitfall of employing a fluid system, as Billy Davies found last season, is that it is too complicated for some players, especially when forced to play out of position.

Listening to Pearce give tactical talks, his knowledge is unquestionable, but he expects the players to be able to take in detailed instructions, and expects clockwork transitions – especially when defending; is there a possibility some of the (vastly inferior when compared to himself) Forest players might not be capable of carrying out his directions when the going gets tough? This was the impression I got at times when watching the Under-21s at Israel. They struggled executing his tactics when under pressure.

Of course, this is mostly (educated) guesswork – made even more precarious by Pearce’s claim that he is yet to decide on a system, and the fact he has used a 4-4-2 in pre-season so far – but to summarise, I expect Forest to end up using a possession-based, often attractive 4-2-3-1.

I expect the midfielders to provide more cover for the defence than we saw at times last season. We may see some relaxed, conditional pressing, where Forest hold a disciplined shape rather than chasing the ball, but on the whole The Reds will aim to gain possession in the opposition half.

Coming forward we’ll see fewer long, aimless balls from the back; the likes of Reid and Vaughan will want to dictate play from the centre, feeding the ball out wide. We will also see the forward take up much more central positions, playing off defenders’ shoulders and making more runs in-between the centre-backs.

I can’t wait.

Thanks for reading and look out for Psycho: part 3; the players.

Further viewing - Pearce seems to do a lot of  conferences and talks discussing tactics, which are often recorded. They are quite interesting in that they show how passionate he is about defending, give inside information on the more technical aspects of what he expects, and do suggest what kind of tactics he likes to use. Here is an interesting selection:

How to defend from the front:
Pearce on Full-backs:
Pearce on the 3-5-2:
How to defend against a 4-3-3:
How to nullify the full-back:
Motivating players:

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Psycho - his managerial record & criticisms

Arguably the best regarded player ever to wear Garibaldi red, Stuart Pearce will always be a Forest legend – but what do we know of his managerial career so far?

Leaving aside the short period in charge of The Reds in 1996/97, his first real managerial job was taking over a Manchester City side drifting in mid-table. Pearce made a promising start, revitalising their 2005/06 season, but the club levelled off in mid table, subsequently finishing 15th and 14th.

Not the powerhouse they are today, this was no disastrous tenure at City, however a large proportion of their fans are surprisingly hostile towards Pearce. Aside from suggesting that he isn’t a very nice person and questioning his intelligence, complaints centred on negative tactics and boring football.

It is certainly true that City struggled to score goals under Pearce – they earned the record for the least home goals scored in The Premier League, concentrating on defending but lacking creativity.

It was perhaps a case of 'needs must.' One fan told me “he had the bottle to play negative football to keep us up.” Pearce himself has stated his only remit was to keep them in the division, and points out he made a £13,000,000 profit in the transfer market during that period.

This argument does not mollify the City fans however, who look back upon Pearce’s football with dread. I see him as Manchester City’s Steve Cotterill. Like Cotterill at Forest, he did a mostly unappreciated job which achieved it’s aim of keeping them in the division – ensuring the club remained attractive to the foreign investors. Where would either club be now if they had failed?

Pearce’s next job was as coach of the England Under-21 side, and generally his record during this period was good, averaging the equivalent of 2 points per game and losing only five times.

However, the failure to win a trophy proved significant, and his tenure was brought to an end after a disappointing tournament in Israel 2013, although dissatisfaction with Pearce’s tactics had been rumbled about long before his eventual demise.

In a trend that continues to this day, both the on-line and print press appear to have stereotyped Pearce, flavouring their criticism on a caricature influenced by his “unforgiving style of play”. He is ‘Psycho’ – an “uncompromising”, “tough-tackling” defender, determined and “combative”, and while useful in his day, his critics hint that he is the kind of character that has been holding English football back.

Pearce, the player, was “the epitome of all that was wrong with our national players - the prioritisation of physical attributes over technique, of power over intelligence.” This outrageous comment – the author has obviously never seen him play – sums up how critics like to paint Pearce, he was just a physical force with no finesse or brains – so if he was like that as a player (he wasn’t) he’s probably still a bit simple as a manager.

England under Pearce – especially towards the end – were concentrating heavily on defending and being difficult to beat, leading to accusations of Pearce being “a throwback to the dark ages,” with “old fashioned tactics” and “prehistoric philosophies” – all clever, vogue ways of saying he is too conservative without having to look into it under any great detail.

There is certainly room for criticism in this regard – so long as it has substance. When struggling, it was apparent Pearce's Under 21's failed to maintain possession in the opposition half and found it difficult to create against cautious teams.

But this was not down to old-fashioned tactics – Pearce tended to favour a modern 4-2-3-1 system (see right, all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked) reminiscent of that used by such tactical thinkers as Rafael Benitez and Fabio Capello, both of whom appear to have influenced Pearce's thinking.

The problem Pearce sometimes faced in using this system, is that the players at his disposal were arguably not up to implementing it against sides inclined to keep the ball. The forwards became isolated as the midfield struggled to advance the ball, making the team appear short creativity.

Pearce's last tournament – Israel 2013 – was won by a Spanish side crammed with imaginative and technical players, who were also much further along in their development than the English team. They brushed aside opponents while England were just another average team.

But a closer look at the two team's playing staff betrays the gulf in class. The Spanish side that started the final had already made well over 500 top flight appearances between them (see left, the players' top flight appearances is stated in yellow, the English team are the starters for their last game, against Israel), where their English counterparts were comparatively inexperienced.

I would also suggest that if Pearce had the likes of Isco, Morata and Tello playing up front, all of whom have since established themselves in the first teams of either Real Madrid or Barcelona, he could have afforded to be a little more adventurous in going forward.

It is disappointing to be going out of tournaments to the likes of Israel and Czech Republic, but these failures were largely down to the inexperience and inconsistency of the players available, rather than outdated tactics.

If anything, Pearce was at fault for trying to play too much like our more technical rivals rather than sticking to what we're good at. English players often do not get enough top-level experience to be comfortable with this kind of football, and those that do soon become unavailable to the Under 21 side, or do not want to play. Unfamiliar players, not quite good enough for the system - yes. Outdated, thoughtless tactics? No.

But we should also note that using his methods, the Under 21's qualified for every tournament under Pearce’s tenure (something none of Spain, Germany or Holland could do) and had a win-ratio of 56.1%.

I think a lot of this idea about Pearce – the assumption that he is quite simple and therefore, as Henry Winter puts it, “is no great tactician,” comes from his image. He is seen as the embodiment of patriotism, of blood and sweat, of passion. This is what critics know of him, and they base their stereotype upon this. It’s just not trendy to be patriotic in modern, sophisticated Britain. Patriotism is old-fashioned, outdated: for the simple-minded.

The press did a real hatchet job on Pearce when looking after the national team on a caretaker basis in 2012.

When not making insinuations of racism, they often focused on their stereotyped caricature of ‘Psycho’ – they were shocked when he gave a press conference and could actually string a few words together and portrayed him as if the F.A. had shaved their favourite pet monkey, dressed it in a suit and coached it on what to say.

He is not called Psycho for nothing,” one journalist cried. He was dismissed as “resembling a relic of the past” – it was written that Pearce’s patriotism and enthusiasm was admirable, but football had moved on. Sophisticated managers like Arsene Wenger had evolved the game, it was more professional now. Things were much simpler in Pearce’s day.
There have certainly been low points – the Olympics team should have done much better in reality, despite the absence of key players. Again, the accusation was that Team GB lacked creativity.

This accusation of negativity is too consistent to be without cause – Manchester City, England Under-21's and Team GB were all conservative under Pearce. He is clearly knowledgeable and passionate about defending, and builds his teams from the back, but older readers will remember another Forest team based on a solid defence which didn’t do too badly.
Talk of him being stuck in the past is certainly wide of the mark. I'll look in considerable detail at the kind of tactics Pearce has been employing in my next article, but his preferred style of play is based on modern tactical thinking, and the defending in particular is more continental than traditional British.

Psycho has had his share of critics wherever he's managed; before researching this article I assumed his appointment purely a move to appease the fans – but Pearce's record tends to point to him being a good candidate at this level in his own right; he has lost only 6 out of his last 47 games as manager, with a win ratio of 53%.

They say never go back, and he's had a bumpy ride so far in his young managerial career, but Pearce may just be the man to bring the big time back to The City Ground.

Thanks for reading. COYR!

COMING SOON - Psycho - the tactics and system he will use.