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: http://performance.fourfourtwo.com/tactics/stuart-pearce-how-to-defend-from-the-front
Pearce on Full-backs: http://www.uefa.com/trainingground/coaches/video/videoid=941251.html?autoplay=true
Pearce on the 3-5-2: http://www.uefa.com/trainingground/coaches/video/videoid=1605297.html
How to defend against a 4-3-3: http://performance.fourfourtwo.com/tactics/full-backs-how-to-defend-against-a-4-3-3
How to nullify the full-back: http://performance.fourfourtwo.com/tactics/nullify-the-threat-of-an-attacking-full-back
Motivating players: http://performance.fourfourtwo.com/health/psychology/the-psycho-team-talk

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