Forest got their dates wrong on Wednesday: over 21,000 spectators turned up expecting fireworks on Bonfire Night, but were instead treated to a horror show reminiscent of Halloween, as Stuart Pearce’s men were terrified by Brentford.
Mark Warburton changed Brentford’s system to a 4-2-3-1 in a successful attempt to apply pressure to the area in front of Forest’s central defenders. They flooded this zone with midfielders when they had the ball, and man-marked Michael Mancienne when out of possession, to deny the Forest defenders an easy outlet for the ball.
The Bees passed and moved well, exploiting the space in behind Forest’s main line of four midfielders, and tried to get the ball to striker Andre Gray who ran the channels, isolating either centre-back.
Stuart Pearce responded to his side’s poor form by making drastic changes, adopting a gruesome 4-1-4-1 system and dropping Britt Assombalonga. Michail Antonio played up front instead - presumably to offer a bigger target for direct passes. This decision was not welcomed by the Forest crowd, who felt that not playing a recognised striker at home against Brentford was negative.
The bigger issue however, which hampered Forest’s chances far more than the absence of Assombalonga, was the lack of a capable defensive midfielder.
Pearce decided to play Mancienne in front of the defence – presumably to add bite to this area – behind a bank of four midfielders who were instructed to press conditionally rather than aggressively. This system did not work, due to the players involved not being comfortable or confident enough to know when to make a challenge.
Brentford capitalised on this by filling Mancienne’s area with players. Ben Osborn and Henri Lansbury were stationed just in front of Mancienne, but did not know when to drop back and help.
Outnumbered and playing in an unfamiliar position (I’m aware he has played defensive midfield in Germany, but he is no midfielder), Mancienne began making poor decisions – he abandoned his defensive area too readily to deal with less serious threats, and when he did need to go across to make a challenge, he stayed put.
The first Brentford goal is a good example of how porous Forest’s midfield was (see right, click to enlarge). The Bees right-back Moses Odubajo was able to run straight through, unchallenged until he reached the defenders. Burke, Fox and Osborn all left it to the defensive midfielder to confront him, but Mancienne continued to mark Jon Toral (not very well though – Toral scored).
However, low confidence will have played a role here too – a recurring theme among the Forest players recently has been the tendency to leave it to others to make a challenge – a refusal to take responsibility oneself.
There should have been players queuing up to challenge any opponent running into this crucial area of the pitch, but it was poorly defended throughout. This would probably not have been the case were David Vaughan or Robert Tesche playing.
Brentford targeted this weakness and it paid off for their third goal (see left). Striker Gray is looking for a lay-off, and has a choice of three players in front of Forest’s defence. After exchanging passes he gets a penalty.
At the time I blamed Kelvin Wilson for this goal, but at least he was trying. Where were the midfielders protecting the back four? Where was Danny Fox as Gray rampaged forward? It looks to me like he’s actually trying to get out of the way, leaving it to Wilson rather than taking responsibility himself.
This eschewing of responsibility, this blatant scrimshanking, is all down to low confidence, and while several Forest players – Wilson included – were playing badly, at least they were trying.
While it’s true that we’ve seen an increase in the amount of errors the Forest players have been making – such Eric Lichaj’s awful back-pass for Brentford’s second goal -the bigger problem, the more disastrous effect of Forest’s confidence crisis in my opinion, is this avoidance of responsibility.
Players have been hesitating for a moment in the hope that someone else would deal with problems, they have not been making themselves available for the ball, and when they have the ball they have all too often not had the nerve to try something positive – they have wanted rid of the ball when under pressure.
Under these conditions, goals like the one resulting from Lichaj’s back-pass are inevitable. It was a pass poorly executed while nervous, under pressure and with nobody offering help.
The weakness in central midfield and the lack of confidence are probably parts of the same problem, caused by the loss of Andy Reid and Chris Cohen. Forest have lacked organisation and courage on the ball in this area ever since their injuries, and the team’s confidence has gradually faded from then on.
The Reds woke up after Brentford had knocked three goals in – just as they did against Huddersfield. They played some decent football and vaguely threatened to get back into the game, but in truth The Bees were taking things easy and had dropped ten yards or so deeper.
I was impressed with Brentford. They kept the ball well and played some gutsy, slick football, while manager Mark Warburton identified Forest’s weakness very quickly, and came up with a plan to exploit it. They were unfortunate not to have scored more goals.
Perhaps the only positive from a Forest point of view was the crowd; I feared what the reaction would be if Forest went a goal down, but they stuck by the team, and even at 3-0 down chants of “Psycho! Psycho! Psycho!” could still be heard.
Pearce will be grateful; this was not his finest hour. His decision to drop top scorer Assombalonga backfired, but more crucially he made a howling mistake in choice of central midfield.
The Forest legend will have to do better tactically when Norwich visit on Saturday - but the players must make a braver show of it too. In the past I have criticised The City Ground crowd for making the players nervous, but this was not the case against Brentford. Hopefully they will be just as supportive when watching The Garibaldi break their poor run against The Canaries.
Thanks for reading, and COYR!