Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pearce's sucker-punch victory

Last week I laid the blame for the Brentford defeat squarely at the feet of Stuart Pearce – but Forest’s memorable comeback victory against Norwich was largely due to the manager’s tactical philosophy, which he used to hit their opponents with a strategic sucker-punch.

Pearce is having trouble shaking the tag that he is "no tactician"- even among the Forest fans who see him as a legend - and he has been outmanoeuvred on occasion, but the win against Norwich was not only a success of tactics, but of his self belief and conviction.

It was clear from the first moments that Pearce wanted to draw Norwich onto Forest and exploit any space that appeared. This strategy was influenced by The Canaries narrow midfield: the theory being that any width our opponents had would arise from their full-backs coming forward.

Forest played a traditional 4-4-2 with Michail Antonio and Tom Ince on the wings, players who are not as defensively minded as Chris Burke for example - this was to exploit space which Pearce expected to appear behind the Norwich full-backs.

The Reds were further instructed to draw their opponents onto them through a conditional pressing game. This caused some murmurs of protest in the crowd which is fair enough - nobody wants to see away teams come to The City Ground and have lots of possession while the Forest midfield stands off, but not pressuring the ball high up the pitch allowed the Norwich players - particularly the full-backs on the overlap - to come into the Forest half more, which was the desired effect.

The only question was whether this strategy was wise. Pearce was showing a lot of faith in Ben Osborn and Robert Tesche, who were playing well, but it was apparent they were becoming heavily outnumbered. I was convinced Forest would revert to a 4-2-3-1 in order to bolster their position in the middle of the pitch.

But even after going a goal down while having little success, the manager stuck with his belief that the gaps would appear, not changing things until the 66th minute. However, this readjustment did not see Pearce back-tracking; instead he took his strategy to extreme levels, reverting to an unconventional 3-3-4 formation (see right, click to enlarge).

Forest now had two banks of three in the middle, with the midfield dropping extremely deep at times - almost onto the defenders' toes, and while the forwards were providing only fluctuating cover out wide, this change of formation was an invitation for Norwich to flood forward and finish The Reds off.

It was an invitation Norwich could not resist, but as they pushed men forward, Forest played long balls into wide areas trying to catch their full-backs out of position. This was the trade off; Forest were deliberately short at the back, in order to have the men in a position to hurt their opponents.

Again Pearce was showing a lot of faith in his midfielders; shorthanded, the three defenders were having to venture out of line to deal with problems, but the deep midfield trio of Tesche, Osborn and Henri Lansbury were working with the defenders and covering them.

This was the reason Pearce's gamble worked: he knew his players were well enough drilled to cover defensively - how did Norwich cope when their defenders were similarly dragged out of position?

As Forest concentrated on pumping direct balls into the flanks, there were always players in red shirts there to fight for the ball. When the Norwich full-backs were caught up the pitch - and even on occasions when they were in position, their central defenders were having to go out and deal with the threat (see right).

But unlike Pearce's men, the Norwich midfielders were poorly drilled at helping the defenders. They repeatedly left gaping holes in the dangerous area in front of goalkeeper John Ruddy, and because Forest had so many players up front, there were always men waiting for an easy tap-in (see examples, below).

Pearce made a gamble - he basically created a situation where Forest were almost guaranteed to score. He knew that Norwich would push their full-backs forward, and all through the match tried to use this against them.

And when this did not immediately work, it would have been easy for him to take a different approach. Forest were in danger of being totally overrun in midfield - the obvious solution would have been to sacrifice an attacker, but Pearce deliberately made Forest weaker defensively to lure Norwich even further forward.

This was a resounding tactical victory for Pearce - the only surprise, as things turned out, was that the equaliser took so long to arrive. Forest were not at their best, but were still pulling the Norwich defence to pieces, while defending well at the other end of the pitch.

And once Assombalonga equalised - a sucker-punch in the exact manner Pearce had been attempting all game - Forest continued to hit Norwich on the break. The Garibaldi were confident now and looking truly dangerous, catching their opponents out every time they came forward.

The Forest manager is still finding his feet at this level - errors are inevitable, but this game proves that he has a flair for tactics, the strength of character to stick with a game-plan, and is not afraid to make unconventional decisions. He deserves a lot of credit for this extremely important victory.
Thanks for reading.


  1. Good spot that Boffin. Ive been saying for a while the tactical part of Pearce (and I assume Wigley & Eastick too) is very good. We seem to beat teams when we don't deserve to with us taking our few chances and the oppo missing their many (Watford, Bournemouth). Initially it looks like luck but I think the chances we create are so much better they're almost impossible to miss. As we know a Hugh risk game to play though.

    1. Cheers Chris, I think they're underrated too. I did an article in the summer about how Pearce is perceived - he's got a reputation as a bit of an outdated knuckle-dragger, especially in the national press, but he's actually quite modern in his thinking and what he tries to get his players to do. It's actually a concern of mine - an opinion formed purely from listening to him talk about tactics - that he's TOO technical and complicated for players to take in what he's asking - at this level anyway. That's just a pet theory of mine though and a bit of a guess.

      He'll get things wrong and it will be obvious because he's inclined to try unconventional things, but Pearce is underrated tactically certainly. I bet he doesn't care though. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  2. Great article and I sincerely hope you are right. Hard to know if Pearce was bold -or too risky (and lucky two went in at the end) and astute (if so big change in performance compared to the previous week). You may well be very generous in your very well considered judgement.
    We have had two chairmen since I started following closely (been following since 1966 but being in Australia not followed closely until the internet era). Both Chairmen have had hugely great intentions and have ploughed their money in to back this up. Yet it appears little is simple and we take many tortuous turns as a club. We have the fans, the facilities, the backing and mostly the players to be promoted, and have had so for most of the last 4-5 years. Calderwood, Davies, McClaren, Cotterill, O'Driscoll, McLeish, Davies. What am I asking? Do we lack the wisdom to "finish the cake off" properly? Has Fawaz had trouble attracting really first rate managers. McCarthy and Warnock baulked (-if they are first rate managers)? What do you think? Hopefully Pearce will be the able manager we have been seeking.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment pal.

      He was certainly bold, but thinking about it, we were losing - he needed to try something, what could he lose, except to risk a thrashing - and I don't think he'd let that scare him.

      I don't think it was lucky though - the screenshots of the space appearing in front of the Norwich goal is a massive indication, in my opinion, that the tactics were working. They were dragging the centre-backs away quite deliberately and it was only a matter of time. If I were a Norwich fan I'd be asking questions as to why their management team or someone on their team wasn't concerned about this.

      Can we attract a first rate manager? I do class McCarthy as one, and he didn't want the job. We do appear a bit of a circus from the outside I suppose, but it's a great club ready for someone to make a name for themselves.

      Pearce is the right man though - the feeling around the ground, even when we lose, is so much nicer. We're together at last - it's a fantastic time to be going to Forest and it's all because of the man in charge. If he gets us playing really good football as well..? I think I'd burst.

    2. Great comments Boffin and I really hope you are right!!

  3. Thanks again, Boffin, very thought provoking. I am interested by the notion that SP might be too technical for some. I wonder if that could account for a rather tentative quality to some of our recent performances?
    I had pondered over a debate elsewhere as to whether we were under or over confident - but neither really seemed to be quite right. Anyway, here's hoping that we can build on this success at Wolves!

  4. Cheers pal, the 'too technical' theory - I could well be talking rubbish, there might be something in it. I had the thought when looking in detail at his tactics before he'd taken over (in here somewhere... ); it was purely from watching videos where he explained what he wanted from players in certain situations - when this happened they do this, but not unless that, and if this player does this then they do something different - from my layman's point of view it seemed there was a lot for players to consider in a mere moment that could cause them to hesitate, and unless they are experienced or have very good footballing brains, I thought there was a chance players (who aren't even nearly as good as Pearce was) might struggle.

    But it's purely a theory and I've not seen anyone else saying so, so I'm prepared to be wrong on that. There's some really interesting videos of Pearce talking on the article I mention earlier where he talks about this.

    Yes come on you Reds vs Wolves - need another win really. Thanks for the contribution as always.

  5. Fantastic analysis as always. I went to the Norwich game (my first live game in over a year) and I'm pleased you rate Pearce's tactics so highly. I must admit, I thought we were a bit all over the place in midfield, but from reading your analysis everything has slotted into place!

    Let's hope Pearce can shake this "tactically naive" tag - let's just hope the players are up to it.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Cheers Si!

    Being all over the place isn't too bad a description - the midfielders were outnumbered in the middle, and struggling, and up until he decided to go for broke, Pearce's tactics weren't working. So it's not that I rate his tactics extremely highly - but on this occasion he must be given credit. His game-plan worked, in a way, perfectly.

    It's been mentioned to me that the first goal came from a lucky punt up the pitch and us scrapping for the ball, with the suggestion that it was nothing to do with tactics; I refute this. Hoofing the ball onto the flanks, where the Norwich full-back was absent having been sucked up the pitch, was exactly the plan all along. And guess what? Forest had got the players on the flanks to take advantage - which wasn't lucky, he had stuck 4 up front to make sure he had! This direct ball counter-attacking was the game-plan. It worked.