Monday, 25 August 2014

Forest 4 Reading 0

Forest strolled to an easy victory against Reading on Saturday, holding onto their early lead at the top of The Championship. It was another game where Stuart Pearce tinkered with his tactics at half-time; again this brought a favourable result.

Forest began with a 4-4-2 and continued with a settled side. The front men and wingers were instructed to press the ball high up the pitch, but on the whole the team did this slightly more conservatively than they did against Bournemouth, and got the balance about right.

Chris Cohen and Andy Reid were doing the donkey work in the middle, as The Reds looked to build here, and then pass the ball into wide areas, where the wingers and full-backs would find space to cross the ball; this has been the focus of Forest's attacking play so far this season, a fact ignored by Reading.

Reading's system was a little more difficult to define; I've heard it described as a 4-4-2, Pearce himself called it a 4-1-4-1; personally it looked like a misshapen five man midfield to me, with Simon Cox on his own up front.

This game was won - and lost - in midfield, an area where Reading had an extra man but struggled due to the quality of the men wearing garibaldi red, and a severe tactical problem.

As usual Forest were trying to involve the central midfielders as much as possible, particularly Andy Reid, but in the first half it was a reasonably even contest in this area of the pitch.

To achieve this parity Reading were having to contract their formation to outnumber the Forest midfielders through sheer density of players. We see this quite often at The City Ground; visitors focus on defending the vital central areas - but I didn't expect it of Nigel Adkins as his teams usually have a lot of width.

Reading's priority of defending the central areas left a lot of room on their flanks, and this was their undoing. I was delighted with the Reading manager; his scouts would have warned him that Forest look to do damage from this area, but he ignored this threat, meaning whenever Forest were able to get the ball out wide they could do as they pleased.

The best example of this was during the build up to the first goal (see left, click to enlarge). Chris Burke was allowed to run nonchalantly for around 50 yards, unchallenged, until very close to the Reading penalty box - at no stage did any Reading player seem bothered.

Forest scored from the ensuing pressure: even when Burke received the ball again in a dangerous position, the Reading players still gave him all the space he needed to make an unpressured cross, Michail Antonio headed in for 1-0.

The attitude of the two managers was key; Adkins had watched his team struggling to cope with the Forest midfield, especially out wide. His front six players were lackadaisical in tracking back, and being nullified for the most part coming forward; yet he thought that Reading were "maybe the better team in the first half."

After the game he laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the men beaten in the air when defending crosses at the far post, and didn't seem aware of (or won't admit to) the tactical problem his side had in leaving too much space for these crosses to be created in the first place. Other than errors in defending the far post, Adkins stated: "tactically we were fine."

Conversely, Pearce's team were shading things. 1-0 up, they were working hard, playing well and had a distinct advantage in wide areas, yet the Forest manager was unhappy with the first half and changed things, reverting to a 4-2-3-1 to give Forest equality of numbers in midfield.

The effect this had was to give The Reds more grit in midfield, but this did not diminish their advantage on the flanks, in fact it exacerbated Reading's problems as they tried harder to win the ball in the middle, neglecting wide areas further and further.

Their midfielders were reminding me of the Forest midfield away at Bournemouth last season, in that they were prepared - seemingly with the blessing of their manager who just blamed the full-backs so he didn't have to take any responsibility - to leave defending to the defensive players (see the second goal, above, and the third goal, right). Reading were always doomed with this attitude.

For the hard-working Forest players, this was ultimately an easy victory - far simpler than beating a Blackpool side in total disarray. Pearce's men concentrated on attacking the cruelly exposed Reading full-backs, and did so efficiently, never having to get out of second gear.

The pleasing aspect of this game was that, unlike our opponents, it was a team performance. There were many occasions where the likes of Antonio, Reid, Assombalonga and Fryatt proved willing to track back deep into their own half and support the Forest full-backs. Pearce has got his players working very hard to nullify their opponents with sheer hard work.

The manager's tactical acumen has been ridiculed in the past, but this is another example of him making a shrewd adjustment to outmanoeuvre the man in the other dugout.

Forest are top of the league, and while it's good to be there, in my opinion this does not necessarily reflect where the team are in terms of ability - yet. They have earned a slightly fortunate victory (but one they deserved because of their effort nonetheless) against Bournemouth, and two wins against sides incapable of putting up much of a fight. Like Blackpool on the opening day, I don't see it as much of an achievement beating this Reading side who had such glaring problems. I think 90% of teams at this level, and a good few below, would have beaten The Royals.

That's not to take anything away from Forest; the players work-rate was first class (this was the biggest difference between the two sides), they had perhaps a bit too much technical quality for Reading on this occasion, and far superior tactics.

We'll see better from The Garibaldi this season - they have a lot of quality still to bring into the team, and they will improve as they play with one another for longer, but they are beginning to look like a side capable of winning The Championship.
Thanks for reading, thanks to for statistical help, and COYR!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Heroes & Villains

As I began last season (ultimately time constraints scuppered this), I'll be keeping a closer eye on how Forest score their goals, and how they are conceded. I intend to examine every goal, and hopefully we'll be able to build up a picture of why and how Forest succeed or fail.

Forest 1-0 Blackpool: Michail Antonio.

Blackpool had been doing a surprisingly good job in clogging up the dangerous areas of the pitch with tangerine shirts, restricting The Reds to balls over the top and crosses. This tactic fell apart when the Forest strikers, in particular Matty Fryatt, began drifting deeper to get involved in midfield play. This not only gave Forest an extra man in this area, but confused the two Blackpool holding midfileders.

Fryatt proved the catalyst for this goal, coming deep and effectively swapping positions with Andy Reid. This fluid movement baffled the comparatively inexperienced Blackpool defensive midfielders, and they left a gap in front of the defence just long enough for Reid to nip in and receive the ball from Fryatt.

Reid's shot bounced off the post, falling nicely to Michail Antonio, who finished clinically. It was an impressive finish, but it was created by the intelligent play by Fryatt and Reid.

Goal: Antonio (1). Assist: Reid (1). Key Contribution: Fryatt (1).

Forest 2-0 Blackpool: Chris Burke.

Forest's second goal of the season was also highly influenced by Fryatt drifting deep; this time he got hold of the ball and played a glorious pass to Jack Hunt on the right wing. This switch of play forced Blackpool to transition to another defensive position.

This transition was made more difficult because upon playing this pass Fryatt made an urgent run across play, sprinting into the area and dragging the holding midfileders too deep.

This left space in front of The Tangerines' penalty area; Burke shimmied past a defender into this gap and scored a trademark goal (see left).

This was a great finish by Burke - he'll score a few goals by cutting inside into space this season. More credit is due to Fryatt for helping create the room for Burke to score the goal.

Goal: Burke (1). Assist: Hunt (1). Key Contribution: Fryatt (2).

Blackpool goals.

Bolton 1-0 Forest: Joe Mason.

The Garibaldi had looked vulnerable at set pieces against Blackpool; this weakness was punished against Bolton, as Joe Mason managed to get free in the area to head The Trotters into the lead.

The main error (see diagram, right. All pictures/diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked) came from 21 year old Britt Assombalonga, although I wonder why he was left to deal with striker Joe Mason without any help. Britt was marking the Bolton man, badly, as the other defenders organised their selves reasonably well, unfortunately Mason was able to get goal-side of Assombalonga; once the cross was on target he had a reasonably easy header to score.

The thing that interested me for this goal was the (in my opinion) oversight made by the seasoned professionals in letting Britt just get on with marking Mason. It was obvious, for several seconds before the free-kick, that Mason was virtually unmarked, but the man organising the defence, Dan Harding, is busy giving advice to the experienced Jack Hobbs.

Assombalonga is not a defender - and inexperienced. I may be being harsh, but I thought the likes of Fox, Harding and Hobbs would be making sure he was defending adequately. Harding found time to give Hobbs advice on how close he should be to Matt Mills; I believe, for example, if Paul McKenna were organising that defence, somebody would have told Assombalonga to get goal-side of Mason.

Bolton 1-1 Forest: Britt Assombalonga.

Britt scored his first goal for Forest, sweeping home from close range to equalise against Bolton. Forest have been getting a lot of crosses into the box so far this season, and here it paid off, as Antonio headed down from a Burke cross, allowing Assombalonga, who was being marked by the poor David Wheater, an easy finish.

I state this to be an easy finish; as an admirer of Simon Cox and Jamie Mackie, I have defended them on many occasions. Would either have scored this? Doubtful. At last Forest have teeth.

Goal: Assombalonga (1). Assist: Antonio (1). Key Contribution: Burke (1).

Bolton 2-1 Forest: David Wheater!

As I say, Wheater is poor... but he was on hand to pick up on a Danny Fox error and tap home to put Bolton 2-1 ahead.

There didn't seem much danger as the Bolton cross shambled it's way through the Forest box, but the big man was there to finish as Fox, for some reason, decided to allow the ball through. I suspect he (wrongly) wanted Karl Darlow to claim responsibility for the ball.

Bolton 2-2 Forest: Britt Assombalonga

Forest's second goal was another Bolton shambles, with the ball bouncing through, for Assombalonga to run into and be industrially chopped down by Jay Spearing.

To his credit, Britt took the penalty himself and drilled the ball straight down the middle; Forest's second equaliser kept them up with the front runners.

Goal: Assombalonga (2).  Key Contribution: Antonio (1).

Bolton goals

Bournemouth 1-0 Forest: Callum Wilson

The Cherries had Forest under a lot of pressure, but their opener came from some sloppy defending of a cross, with Mancienne, Hunt, Burke and Darlow all failing to clear, allowing Wilson an easy task in stabbing the ball home.

Karl Darlow has attracted the most criticism for this goal - but the most worrying thing for me was the space in which our opponents were allowed to put the cross in.

The Reds had changed formation to a 4-2-3-1, a system which does tend to leave space in the very area from which the cross came, but I'm not convinced this was the cause, as there were plenty of bodies behind the ball.

Bournemouth 1-1 Forest: Britt Assombalonga

Forest's equaliser came from some dogged work by Assombalonga, winning a free-kick. It was a familiar story, as Reid's cross was converted (how many times have we been able to say that?), by the youngster himself. Assombalonga had overpowered the Bournemouth defender, his header bouncing softly in off of Lee Camp's post.

Goal: Assombalonga (3).  Assist: Reid (2).

Bournemouth 1-2 Forest: Matty Fryatt

Forest's winner came from one of the surprise package's of the season so far; the attacking relationship between Chris Burke and Jack Hunt.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Burke is very dangerous cutting inside, and if we are aware of this threat, every manager and his players will be too. I feel Forest are going to get a lot of joy this season with the adventurous Hunt making overlapping runs, as opposition defenders concentrate on the more notorious Burke.

Hunt crosses perfectly for Fryatt, towering over his defender, to nod home. This is the third goal Forest have scored from crosses already - which was a feature for Pearce's Under-21 side, and reflects the high amount of crosses The Reds have been making.

Goal: Fryatt (1). Assist: Hunt (2) Key Contribution: Burke (2).

Bournemouth goals.
Thanks for reading, let me know any thoughts or if you disagree on my conclusions, and check back in a couple of games and we'll have a look at the next goals, and as the season progresses there will be a bit more analysis of how we're dangerous and vulnerable. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Im-press-ive Forest prove Pearce right.

Stuart Pearce faced his first major tactical headache of the season against an aggressive, skilful Bournemouth side this week, but Forest came away with the points in a display which confirmed not only the endurance of the players, but also the flexibility of their manager.

The Cherries were rampant in the first half, and were taking advantage of Forest's high-pressing game. We thought before a ball had been kicked this season that Pearce would prefer this style of pressing, and this has proven the case, but we (well, I to be more precise) did not reckon on his use of the 4-4-2 formation.

The 4-4-2 (especially away from home) is arguably best suited to a conditional pressing game, with the wider midfield bank of players staying deep and forming a barrier across the pitch, which the opposition needs to play through (see left. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked).

When used in conjunction with a high-pressing game, as happened against Bournemouth, it is easy for the shape of the team to become elongated, which provides more room for the opponents to find space, especially in the area in front of the defence (see right - which is a simplified example, but roughly what was happening in this game).

The answer to this would be for the defence to push up as well, to fill this gap and press as a team - but if the midfielders go too far ahead there is too much space to fill safely, and in this case the Forest defenders would have needed to go right into the Bournemouth half - which would obviously be suicidal.

As we saw last season, The Cherries have a particularly high energy, pass-and-move, adventurous way of coming forward and they were cutting through the loose Forest midfield as it pressed forward, hitting The Reds on what appeared to be a constant counter-attack.

If using a 4-4-2, a more defensive approach - possibly utilising counter-attacks themselves - might have suited Forest better.

Bournemouth were finding space, both by passing into it, and most impressively, the likes of Adam Smith were running at the Forest defence, playing 1-2s and breaking through the porous formation. Bournemouth deserve a lot of credit, but Forest's tactical error in allowing so much space was making them look better than they are.

However, credit must also go to the Forest players who defended well despite the (in my opinion) disadvantage of their tactics. We saw even the more attacking midfielders rushing to get back, the defenders were getting stuck in, and Karl Darlow once again proved his worth with some excellent saves.

It is difficult to criticise Pearce too much - do we want to see Forest park the bus or go for it? After the break he continued his high-pressing style, but reverted to a more suitable formation, dropping Matty Fryatt back into midfield and using a 4-2-3-1 system.

This is more suited to a high-pressing game because there are four banks of players instead of three, allowing the team's shape to be longer without leaving as much space between the defensive lines; Forest immediately looked better.

Ironically it was when The Reds were less vulnerable to space appearing in front of the defence that they conceded a goal, a mix-up when defending a cross giving Callum Wilson an easy tap in.

But Forest continued to force the issue in the Bournemouth half, and did a better job of winning the ball in midfield, and maintaining possession. They were still being sucked deep by Eddie Howe's side, but whereas in the first half Bournemouth only had one line of midfielders to beat before launching an attack, in the second-half Cohen and Osborne were picking them off as they came through.

And to Pearce's credit, it was this very tactic of high-pressing which won Forest the game. They could have been forgiven for sitting back one they had an equaliser, but the holding midfielders continued to drift further and further up the pitch in an effort to squeeze Bournemouth. This could have resulted in Forest being hit on the break - but it was the Forest men who got the goal.

This was a game in which Forest, and manager Stuart Pearce, rode their luck. Bournemouth will feel aggrieved that their dominance for long periods yielded them nothing, but Forest went there for three points and used extremely aggressive tactics - they rolled the dice and for that reason, deserved their win.

The manager's insistence on trying to win the ball in the Bournemouth half led to Forest looking very shaky by allowing far too much room, especially away from home - but this gamble was ultimately responsible for a Garibaldi victory.

It will be interesting to see how Pearce reacts to the tactical implications of this game - particularly what was happening in the first half. He has David Vaughan and Henri Lansbury as options to add to the midfield, but I don't think Andy Reid or Chris Cohen did anything wrong - they put in a lot of effort defensively - the space was appearing due to the system, which begs the question of whether a 4-4-2 fits into Pearce's high-pressing philosophy.

Thanks for reading. What a good start to the season!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Player under the microscope: Chris Burke

Stuart Pearce’s new signing Chris Burke has been one of the top wingers in The Championship for several years – his arrival at The City Ground represents a significant sharpening of Forest’s attacking weaponry.

Burke is what I call a speculative player – when he gets the ball is inclined to risk losing possession rather than passing to maintain pressure – the opposite to, for example, the recently departed Raddy Majewski, a player so influential in Forest’s possession football over the past few years.
Burke is particularly determined to make an impact himself rather than passing the responsibility to others, and bases much of his game on carrying the ball into an area where he has the space to do so – this is where he has his success. He has a good grasp of where space is (or will appear) and the skill to reach it. In practice this means dribbling the ball – something only one player did successfully on more occasions last season in The Championship.

What makes Burke so effective is that he is one of the more complete wingers at this level – we associate this position with running at defenders and crossing the ball, but we see a lot of players played out wide who are not true wingers; Burke is, and this is reflected in his ability to dribble and cross accurately.
There were players last season who made more successful dribbles per game, and more accurate crosses – but none combined the two as well as Burke. Of all The Championship’s top men at running with the ball, Burke was the more accurate crosser (see table, right - crossing accuracy is in orange).

We saw how good Djamel Abdoun could be at times last season at getting past the defender just enough to put the cross in, but in reality he showed little else – Burke is no such one-trick-pony, and varies his play according to the situation.
As touched on above, Burke has good awareness of where space is appearing, and coupled with his ability to run with the ball, you will often see him cutting inside to exploit a common tactical flaw – where a corridor of space appears between the defence and attack (see diagram, left, which can be enlarged when clicked).
We’ve seen him score against Forest in this manner, and he carries a significant goal-threat. A trademark Chris Burke goal would typically involve him running at a defence, cutting inside when defenders are worrying about a right-footed cross, and shooting into the far corner with his left-foot.
Burke made an unusually low amount of passes last season (less than 20 per game on average), but I don't get the impression this is down to greediness, or him not being involved – he touches the ball a reasonable amount of times for a winger. I think the low pass-rate is due to his tendency to hold onto the ball until he can see a pass he wants to make. This plays to his strengths, as he is difficult to dispossess.

This player’s game is highly weighted to attacking, and – at least for Birmingham – he tended not to get particularly stuck in defensively. He will track back, but (in my opinion) acted more as a positional obstacle rather than having any defensive bite – this was reflected in his statistics last season; he only made 28 tackles in 44 appearances, was in a position to make only 3 blocks, and gave away only 9 fouls, which is always a good indicator of how much a player is trying to win the ball.
I believe this to be another signing that gives us a clue as to how Pearce wants to attack. For the past few years we have seen Forest come forward in a patient manner, building their possession with attractive passing football (when it’s worked); Burke, Fryatt and Veldwijk are players more suited to quick and aggressive – perhaps even more direct – attacking.

Another hint that this is how Pearce wants to attack is the side-lining of players like Darius Henderson, but more obviously Raddy Majewski. The Pole is certainly the most efficient player with the ball at Forest, but suits a style of possession football in which the team turns the screw, rather than having a quick impact.
I think Pearce’s choices with personnel indicate he wants the four advanced players to have a cutting edge rather then to keep the ball and bring others into play.

How often they can bring this kind of player into the game will be where Forest fail or succeed this season. You could, of course, say this of any team – they all need to get their dangerous players on the ball, but if Forest are going to play a 4-2-3-1, it may be more important, as if things aren't working the front four can easily become outnumbered using this system.

Burke's contribution during the friendly against West Brom may be typical – he was a little isolated until his decisive impact in setting up the goal. This was apparent in some of his games for Birmingham last season – hopefully playing for a more dominant team will give him more opportunities.
I think we might see the very best of this player at Forest. Pearce is certainly improving Forest's cutting edge, and signing a player like Burke, who has proven ability to cause defences at this level problems, will make a big difference to their goal-scoring ability.

Thanks for reading, thanks to the fantastic for statistical help, and check back soon for a round up of Forest's other signings.
Further reading:
Burke statistics for last season (will expire next week): whoscored stats 13/14
Nottingham Post interview: Interview
Clips of some goals: Cardiff & Birmingham