Monday, 22 December 2014

Forest 1 Leeds 1

Forest suffered another frustrating afternoon as they were held to a 1-1 draw at The City Ground against an organised and plucky, but ultimately limited Leeds United side on Saturday.

The main talking point beforehand was Stuart Pearce's decision to play Dexter Blackstock instead of top scorer Britt Assombalonga, but the rest of the team was equally confusing; Pearce named a side containing three full-backs in what turned out to be an unconventional 3-5-2. Michail Antonio and Jack Hunt played as wing backs, while Michael Mancienne was preferred in a defensive midfield role.

Leeds boss Neil Redfearn deployed his men in a diamond system, using the extra length this system provides to enforce a high pressing game, before switching to a more traditional 4-4-2 later in the game, as Forest improved.

But it was Leeds who started the brighter, handed the initiative by The Reds' who were struggling in midfield. Pearce's system was designed to overlap the narrow Leeds diamond, with Antonio and Hunt instructed to stay wide and get forward as often as possible.
 
With an extra man in midfield, Forest should have been swarming and dominating in this area, but with Antonio and/or Hunt staying out wide, Leeds often had the numerical advantage.

The Reds also found it difficult to find an effective midfield outlet, because the man most often available was Mancienne who, as I have argued before, is not comfortable enough on the ball to use it in close proximity to pressing midfielders, and his distribution is relatively poor.
The lack of a viable outlet forced the defenders to play the ball forward themselves more often than they would have liked. We saw a lot of diagonal balls to opposite wing-backs, but because Leeds knew they were stopping Forest come through the middle, this direct play was predictable.

The back four Forest players (Darlow, Wilson, Lichaj and Fox) played 59 long balls between them during the game; only 9 found a Forest shirt, meaning they gave the ball away fifty times through direct play alone.

Obviously if you're giving the ball away that often it's going to be coming straight back, and Leeds were finding holes in the Forest defence – chiefly in behind the wing-backs.

Hunt and Antonio were often left isolated and outnumbered as Leeds targeted these areas, and were not being helped at times as the defenders stayed in central areas at first, though to be fair as the game progressed they improved.
 
This vulnerability was worsened by the attacking instructions given to the wing-backs; they were told to push up as much as possible – this often left nobody defending the wide areas at all and Leeds almost capitalised on this on more than one occasion.

These problems led to a difficult afternoon for Forest; they looked shaky at the back as the three defenders and Mancienne became more and more stretched, and going forward they were made to play long rather than getting the ball into midfield before finding their danger-men out wide.

I am at risk, however, of being hyper-critical. The Garibaldi were the better side overall, improving after an ugly first twenty minutes and looking dangerous when able to keep the ball on the ground, while creating plenty of chances and bringing the best out of Leeds goalkeeper Marco Silvestri.
 
Indeed, into the second half they were able to play much more freely through the midfield; Henri Lansbury and Robert Tesche were coming back to help Mancienne, and the extra options made Forest's play more unpredictable, making it easier to get the ball out to the wings, and in particular to Antonio.
 
Tesche got stuck in and had a good game; he was the busiest player on the pitch in my opinion and made an effective contribution both in and out of possession. He might turn out to be a ready made replacement for Chris Cohen - it will be interesting to see how he performs alongside Andy Reid.
 
Fryatt was unfortunate not to have a hat-trick. He was effective on the ball, but more so when lurking, which is how he scored the goals – two of which were wrongly disallowed as off sides.

It is, perhaps, mainly Pearce's unusual selection decisions that leave him vulnerable to criticism. Playing Mancienne in central midfield totally undermined Forest's system; if they had someone collecting the ball in midfield able to distribute the ball, the tactic of playing with attacking wing-backs would have been a success – instead, Mancienne was a liability in this role.
 
Forest have one of the finest deep midfielders in the league, David Vaughan. It is worrying that a central defender gets selected above him (or even Ben Osborn) for this position.

The decision most talked about beforehand, was the omission of Assombalonga. Every occasion the youngster is not selected the manager is setting himself up for a fall. He simply has to play.

But we shouldn't be too critical of Pearce; he is still moulding the club to his own design and is only six months into his Championship career. I get the feeling he is doing a lot of experimenting, and the encouraging thing is that when he makes inevitable adjustments during games, they usually improve the situation, leading to The Reds finishing games stronger than they begin.

Despite their problems Forest were unlucky not to win this game comfortably – denied by a good goalkeeper and a couple of poor decisions. They will surely get better as Pearce finds his feet – whether this happens in time for a promotion push is the big question.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

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