Monday, 17 August 2015

Forest 2 Rotherham 1

Fans at The City Ground saw Forest win their first three points of the season on Saturday against an awkward Rotherham United side. It was a much better style of football, however the performance posed more questions than answers - chiefly whether they will be able to sustain it in the coming weeks.

The Millers team was peppered with familiar faces and set up in a 4-4-2 variant, their wingers playing quite narrow in an attempt to play through the middle.

Aggressive and well organised by their manager Steve Evans, they did a good job of bullying the Forest forward players and pressing high in an attempt to force direct football.

There was also a lot of gamesmanship going on at times (and when I say at times, I mean at all times). Evans himself contended every decision – in a constant state of outrage, he prowled the sidelines with arms spread wide in exasperation. His antics were calculated to pressure the officials and it may have worked: his players got away with continual and blatant fouling.

Dougie Freedman opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Tyler Walker up front and Henri Lansbury pulled back into defensive midfield, displacing Michael Mancienne who slotted in at left-back.

Taking advantage of the elongated formation, The Reds pressed high and were able to win the ball back much earlier than has been typical under Freedman's more conservative approach.

There was a real battle for dominance early in the game, as both sides fought successfully to establish their own area of superiority. Rotherham’s pressing was initially panicking the Forest back four, forcing them to play direct balls, which the Forest attackers were poorly equipped to fight for.

The Rotherham defence – with over 38 years combined experience at this level or above, found it easy to anticipate Forest’s long high and hopeful passes, outmuscling the smaller forwards and dominating in the air (see diagram, below-left. Click to enlarge).

They were also able to overload Forest in a key area of the pitch: The Michail Antonio Zone. When Forest were being successfully harried into playing the direct balls, most of them were aimed roughly at the winger. Antonio had caused minor chaos in the opening minutes of the game after getting loose in the Rotherham half, they now took steps to neutralise him.

Antonio found himself surrounded by black shirts; The Millers could double or even treble-mark him in the knowledge that the other Forest attackers were being easily outmuscled (for example, Walker was no match for Danny Collins, who roughed him up mercilessly). Antonio was also subject to a lot of shirt-pulling and manhandling, which went unseen by the referee.

This made it very difficult for Forest go get moving forward, and for much of the first half they had few creative ideas other than kick it towards The Antonio Zone. Rotherham, thus prepared for the direct tactics, sent the ball straight back at the Forest defence. Collins scored from an unmarked header and The Millers were threatening to add to this, winning the tactical battle.

That was only the case, however, until David Vaughan and Henri Lansbury managed to work themselves into the game. Sitting deep and screening the defence, they had been doing a reasonable job when out of possession, but by the end of the first half they had started getting on the ball, providing an outlet when Forest were in possession.

This bravery on the ball was key; Lansbury and Vaughan were staying calm, turning and able to pass to the attackers more accurately than the hopeful punts of defenders under pressure.

All four of the Forest attackers were now playing well, but Jamie Ward was particularly important in turning the game around; he was finding the space left by our opponents as they pressed, making himself available and advancing the possession positively.

Determined to make a comeback, Forest deserved their equaliser at the end of the first half - Matt Mills heading in unmarked to make up for being part of the defence that had let the same thing happen for Rotherham's goal.

But it was Lansbury and Vaughan who impressed me the most. The each touched the ball more than any opposition player, but Lansbury in particular was much improved, making a visible effort to force his way into the game. I get the feeling his performance has been overlooked because his influence was not in the attacking third, where he is best known, but for me this was one of his best performances in garibaldi red.

Which may be ironic; Lansbury looks certain to join our Championship rivals Burnley, just when he has started to do the things required to be a top midfielder. He combined well with David Vaughan both in and out of possession. They were exactly what Forest have needed since the injuries to Chris Cohen and Andy Reid - the search for a midfield solution continues it would appear.

Another concern is whether Freedman will stick with the more aggressive high-pressing system, which made Forest look so much better against Rotherham. It is possible that he will be more cautious against so called better teams.

This has been an ideal chance to get comfortable with high pressing however - two home games against average Championship sides in a row. The only issue is that if we do lose Lansbury, the defensive midfield partnership will be gone, and teamwork in this area of the pitch is fundamental in the organisation of high-pressing.

There are also question marks regarding personnel - a lot of the star performers on Saturday will probably not play in that position all season. As well as Lansbury (and possibly Vaughan, considering his injury record), Michael Mancienne will realistically not play at left-back.

The Machine had an excellent game - it was probably the best full-back performance defensively I've seen for years, but Freedman is likely to want somebody more suited to getting forward on the overlap.

Then there is Tyler Walker, playing on his own up front. He had a good game when involved, but was overpowered by the defenders and is clearly not a lone-striker. That being said, he stuck well to his task and did not appear intimidated  - and even played a key role in Antonio's winning goal.

This wasn't a vintage performance in terms of quality, but the type of performance was better - high-pressing, possession football with a central midfield that worked well together, however I'm not convinced Forest will maintain this style and I think this line-up will look quite different in a few months.

Therefore I'm not sure this game was a sign of revival in itself - I guess we'll have to wait and see starting with Tuesday's home game against Charlton. Thanks for reading, and thanks to for statistical help.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Brighton 1 Forest 0

Forest opened the season with a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Brighton which showed that Dougie Freedman is yet to solve the problems which proved so damaging last season.

Our opponents used a simple and traditional 4-4-2 which made good use of their wingers Kazenga Lua Lua and Solly March. As I remember, this is the system that Seagulls manager Chris Hughton routinely favours, in this case it was a good choice; Brighton do not appear particularly creative, but playing with width is a good way to exploit the narrow defensive ethos that Freedman relies on at times.

For Forest, Dexter Blackstock was the lone gunman up front. The Reds initial strategy was to defend deep and stay in shape, and hit Brighton on the break by playing direct balls to their target-man.

They played with two banks of four, in between which was stationed Michael Mancienne, who acted as an extra layer of defence for the back four.

We have seen Freedman's defensive mode before; it was used when turning around Forest's fortunes upon his arrival last season, and involves a very conservative pressing style concentrating on staying in shape and defending the centre of the pitch just in front of the goalkeeper.

This system allows the opposition to have the ball and bring it a long way into your half, before attempting to win possession and strike on the counter-attack (see right, click to enlarge).

It is simple football that does the bare-minimum - not being easy to break down. But that is riding your luck at the best of times; at some stage at this level an opposition player will come up with something special.

The narrow style of defending played into Albion's hands because their wingers were their danger-men. Lua Lua and March were allowed a lot of the ball and had multiple opportunities to take on Reds full-backs Danny Fox and Eric Lichaj.

This was because they were under instructions to stay close to the centre-backs. They would only go out to a Brighton player on the wing when they had already received the ball, instead of getting touch-tight (see example, left).

Forest did a relatively good job in defending; little space appeared through-out the game, although their tactics invited pressure. They had to defend a lot of crosses and menacing dribbles from wide positions - one of which led to the goal.

The Reds' main problem however, was a lack of creativity. Ever since the injuries of Andy Reid and Chris Cohen, both Freedman and Stuart Pearce have failed to build a central midfield which is able/willing to receive the ball from the defenders.

Against Brighton I don't think passing the ball forward through the midfield was even on the agenda - the selection of defender Mancienne as the player closest to the defence hinted at this, as well as the use of Robert Tesche, and Henri Lansbury - both of whom are extremely ball-shy in their own half.

There was subsequently no outlet in midfield - no player willing to accept the ball and get it moving forward, until David Vaughan came on, and this isn't Vaughan's strength, although he is more willing to try.

With no easy pass to a more creative player, the Forest defenders were forced into a familiar habit of playing direct balls forward themselves - passes which were easy meat for the Brighton defenders, who knew it was coming, and were outnumbering the Forest attack force, until Freedman changed the system in the second half.

Having lost the initial tactical battle, Freedman reverted to two-up-front, bringing on Tyler Walker, who impressed. With the Seagulls defenders now having two problems to deal with, Blackstock improved and began to win more aerial battles.

Now that Brighton had more defensive worries they left more space in midfield too; in the first half, with just one attacker to deal with they could push forward a full-back to help pressure the Forest midfielders, but now Lansbury and Co. found more time and space on the ball, and Forest were less reliant on long balls.

Freedmen's side consequently did much better from this point, but they were already behind and Brighton were able to concentrate on defending - and even at this point, the home side were looking just as likely to score as Forest who were having to take risks going forward.

There were a few positives to come from this defeat. Firstly, The Reds appeared organised defensively. They left too much space out wide - but this was deliberate. And while playing Mancienne in midfield from the outset is pure folly, he played a good defensive game, indicating Forest's ability to tie up the centre of the pitch if needed (hopefully late in games Dougie! Not from the start please).

Also, Tyler Walker looks the real deal. Surprisingly strong and pacey, he has that fearlessness of youth, and in my opinion is ready to play a big part this season - alongside an older, wiser attacking partner.

But perhaps best of all was Freedman's post-match comments, where he hinted at abandoning the conservative pressing system.

This negative style of football is for when you are at risk of being outclassed by your opponents - we have seen the likes of Barnsley, Huddersfield, Blackpool and Millwall use it to good effect on us at The City Ground. Freedman implemented it well last season when he needed to inject a little security and confidence by making Forest difficult to break down.

But playing in this old-fashioned, conservative style will not bring you long term success in modern football, because you are waiting for your opponents to fail - you are asking them if they can break you down... well most of them can!

Furthermore, it reduces your own effectiveness going forward; you will often need to use less creative players more suited to staying in shape defensively, and you will be getting the ball further away from the opposition goal, leaving you with more to do - inevitably leading to more direct football.

This is all exactly what happened at Brighton, and while it is a little odd that Freedman is voicing thoughts of changing his ethos only one game into the season, it is better than continuing in the same flawed fashion until Christmas.

Forest face Walsall in the cup on Tuesday - it's the perfect chance to try our a new, more positive and ambitious philosophy. I look forward to seeing what Forest come up with. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Fans confidence league table: The Championship

It is fair to say that Forest fans have been subdued this summer when dreaming of the season ahead. Perhaps fretful of transfers both in and out, the irksome Financial Fair Play – or just past experience – expectations for 2015/16 appear relatively low.

This is reflected in on-line polls (see right). It can’t be very often that facing a new campaign, with all the hope and bravado this time of year encourages, 74% of Forest fans dismiss chances of a top 6 finish (if my research reflects true feeling).

How does the morale of Forest fans compare with their rivals?

Polls such as “Where will we finish this year?” are a pre-season mainstay of football forums; I have scoured the web in a (tiring, frustrating – even tantrum inducing!) effort to compile perhaps the very first fans confidence league table, for the forthcoming season, which shows where each team's fans think they will finish, proportionally (see below).

I expected fans of Derby and Middlesbrough to be looking forward to the new season – we can see that they expect, on mass, automatic promotion. This is no surprise - they are the teams to beat, and their fans know it. The pressure is on!

Being under pressure in this league is not a comfortable position, considering it’s unpredictable nature and strength in depth, there are some good teams whose fans have every right to believe. Ipswich supporters are the next most confident (although I was able to unearth five of them who thought The Tractor Boys would be relegated).
The relegated sides also have reason for optimism - three strong squads and money still to be spent. The Burnley fans are the next most confident - surprisingly though followers of QPR are more cautious, only a little more sure of themselves than Forests.*
Perhaps of interest to the land's geo-psychologists are the results from Yorkshire. You may be surprised to see Huddersfield and Leeds featuring so high up our confidence table, with large proportions of their fans extolling their automatic promotion credentials; having spent a lot of time in that lovely county, I am not!
It was interesting reading the forums and message-boards belonging to our rivals; there are quite a few teams being heavily backed by very happy sets of fans - teams I didn't expect.
To a smaller extent I include Wolves in this; they had a good season last year, but have just lost their star player and will find their second season in The Championship more difficult, yet the majority of their fans expect play-off action at the very least.
But if you pay attention to the fans of Charlton, and in particular Brentford - at least online - many are looking forward to a season of glory, and this is reflected in their high positions.
 They obviously know more about what's going on in their clubs than the outsider. Compared to some much bigger clubs below them in our confidence table, the Addicks and Bees fancy their chances.
In truth, there aren't any really depressed sets of fans - although that may change if Jordan Rhodes manages to escape from Blackburn. They are perhaps the least happy supporters, but still generally expect Rovers to stay well clear of relegation.
Followers of Rotherham, Preston and MK Dons are the least confident of all, but they generally have faith in their clubs to creep into mid-table safety, and are relatively optimistic.
All this may indicate we're in for another competitive, exciting and unpredictable year - but it also means that there are going to be a lot of disappointed sets of fans around the division. This is the first time I've compiled this data, but if this is the usual state-of-play it may explain why managers have such short tenures at this level.
As for Forest, it may mean the opposite. With comparatively low expectations, perhaps Dougie Freedman will be allowed the breathing space necessary to build. Personally I think the Forest squad is better than many of the teams above them in our fans confidence league table, but coming from under the radar may be a good thing.
Then again, there is only one man whose expectations must be met at The City Ground; lets hope Fawaz Al Hasawi doesn't have any ancestors from Yorkshire!
Thanks for reading, and thanks to the Forest forums in particular I raided for information (Vital Forest, LTLF, and City Ground Faithful), and all the other sources of information too numerous to list here.
*Disappointingly, there was not enough raw data to include Hull City. Try as I could (I really, really did), the polls were neither there to be found, nor could I induce enough opinion myself - no more than a couple of dozen votes - too small a sample to use. They have more important things on their mind, with an owner trying to erase their very identity.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Can Forest keep Michail Antonio?

Last week Dougie Freedman referred to Michail Antonio as “the best player in the league.” It is no surprise that the explosive winger is a transfer target considering the manner in which he bulldozed his way through The Championship last season.

His pace and power were a real game-changer; not only did he have the beating of the majority of defenders when on the ball, the knowledge that this was the case unsettled opposition defences, forcing them to play with Antonio in mind.

For example, we sometimes saw the opposition right-back dropping off rather than getting touch tight, which created room not only for Antonio, but also any other Forest players in this area. This had implications for how high a defensive line they could play too (see example, right).

Additionally, his presence effected how often opposition full-backs got forward themselves, and even their team selection – a good example being the Derby game at The City Ground, where Steve McClaren opted to drop the exciting Cyrus Christie – a potent threat coming forward – in favour of the more conservative Ryan Shotton.

We also saw teams make changes during games, with Antonio’s first victim struggling. Any time you can force your opponent to make changes is a minor victory in itself and often hurts them elsewhere.

Antonio ploughed on almost regardless, and was involved in a fabulous 39 goals. His physical attributes are the player's major strength, but he is able to take advantage of this because he has good – albeit sometimes inconsistent – technical ability.

It was certainly a brilliant season, but we must not get carried away; the 25 year old is yet to prove he can replicate these results consistently.

A big factor in his success last season was the way Forest were set up to play. Stuart Pearce built the team around playing direct football. That is not to say The Reds were playing long-ball; their plan was to get the ball out wide quickly and hit teams on the break, rather than play consolidatory football that establishes possession in the opposition half, such as the style that Forest played under Billy Davies.
This direct philosophy suited Antonio; the player is well suited to running at a retreating defence. Football under Dougie Freedman was initially even more favourable in this regard; Forest ceded possession and territory and were reliant on the counter-attack.

But as Freedman changed his tactics after the Norwich game, Antonio appeared less comfortable in my opinion. Forest tried to play more complex football, and as results suffered as a result of this, as did Antonio’s contribution.

For example, before and including the Norwich game, after which Forest relied less on counter attacking football, Antonio was involved in 62.9% of Forest’s goals; this dropped to 44.4% afterwards. I must point out that this second period covers a comparably small period, therefore the evidence is far from conclusive, but the player’s performance under a more possession orientated approach is something we might keep an eye on in the future.

Another area to watch out for – if Antonio stays at Forest – might be his performance against players who can match him physically. Perhaps the only defender to conclusively get the better of Antonio in 2014/15 was the inexperienced Wolves youngster Dominic Iorfa, who was able to match the Forest man in terms of pace and power.

But these are mere points of interest, because Antonio has proven that he had the attributes to terrify the majority of defenders, and if able to hold onto him Forest will wield one of the more potent weapons in The Championship.
And it is also worth noting the player's apparent resilience - he has a good injury record, and last season he managed over 4000 minutes of league football, only the 7th outfield player to do since Forest were promoted to The Championship (see left) - this makes him a major asset for a club used to their best players being almost constantly injured.

Freedman himself does not offer much comfort when talking about the player's future. Despite stating that he is staying, he says “I have not had a conversation with him about the situation,” before going on to say “I am a coach – if he wants to talk to me about that situation, then he can. If he wants to talk about anything else then we have a board and he can talk to them about that.

Perhaps I am having a cynical moment, but I worry if Freedman, who should be close to the players, won’t talk to them about their future, instead leaving it to a boardroom full of comparatively unfamiliar businessmen. Who is Antonio more likely to be persuaded by - his coach, or some guy in a suit?

But then again, then in the same interview the manager is making statements like “I will always have the final say on players. I will tell him (Fawaz) which players can stay and which can leave,” which doesn’t seem to fit in with Freedman’s implication that Antonio’s future is in the board's hands (and thus out of his). Have we got another manager who will tell us anything to cover his own backside? Is Dougie getting his excuses in early? Or have I got out of the wrong side of bed this morning?
There are few short-term reasons for allowing Antonio to leave if he wishes to go. A well covered fact is that Forest would not be able to reinvest even a large transfer fee due to the transfer embargo.

However, one could not blame him for wanting to test himself at a higher level. He is unlikely to have as good a season as last year; demand for his services is likely to fall. And Forest are (at best) just one of the multitude of teams with ambitions of promotion; it would be far easier to transfer into The Premier League than achieve it with a club.

Antonio would perhaps need to be a particularly patient man, and extremely happy in Nottingham, not to want to leave. And while Forest could refuse to sell him, it may be unwise to keep an unsettled player.

Personally I feel he will move in the next few days – Freedman will want to know what he has to work with as soon as possible. Whatever happens, Antonio will have my admiration and thanks for providing some memorable moments in a season of mixed fortunes.

Thanks for reading.
Further viewing:

Friday, 12 June 2015

Has Danny Fox been given a raw deal by Forest fans?

I'm surprised that Kenny Burns is surprised that Danny Fox is still wanted by Forest. The Scotsman has been derided by many fans - but did he do that badly last season?

Beginning the season at centre-back, he looked uncomfortable and made errors. My biggest complaint concerning Fox is that he is generous with the amount of space he allows, in contrast to Eric Lichaj, who will go in aggressively and bully the attacker off the ball; Fox is more stand-offish.

This approach is debatable in the full-back position, but untenable for a central defender - but Stuart Pearce did not hesitate to use Fox here, possibly because he thought it may pay off when the player had the ball, but it was a relief when he was moved back out wide, and he looked much steadier defensively.

Fox appears to have acquired a reputation in the game as some kind of wizard with the ball at his feet - and at times last season (with much of the midfield hiding from the ball) he was being used almost as a playmaker; Forest were playing the ball forwards through him in an attempt to supply the attackers directly - at times relying on their left-back to get the ball moving forward.

This approach was doomed to be unfruitful, and I'm yet to see Fox work that much magic with that left foot of his. He may be prone to growing the odd supernatural array of facial hair, but Gandalf he is not.

Any defender who gives the ball away regularly (Fox's pass success rate was just 69% in 2014/15) and does not get stuck in will attract criticism, but a closer look suggests I am being unfair on both counts. Asked to take on the responsibility to play the ball forward, he did give the ball away - but the player was being asked to play more risky passes - to create, which means he would inevitably give the ball away.

And though predictable at times, Fox made an excellent contribution going forward, involved in 11 goals (making 4 assists and 7 key contributions). This is a good amount for a defender - he contributed to a goal once every 215 minutes on average - not only was this far more often than any of the other defensive players, but he even outperformed several of the midfielders in this regard, including Chris Burke (who contributed to a goal every 224 minutes).

Statistically, Fox had a good season all round, outperforming his fellow defenders in the majority of areas. Contrary to my own misgivings about Fox getting stuck in, Lichaj was the only defender to make more successful tackles per game, no player blocked more crosses per game, and he was rarely dribbled past.

But it is with the ball that Fox stands out. Stats tend to back this up - he made a high amount of key passes in 2014/15 (0.9 per game, which is high for a defender), he was rarely dispossessed (0.4 times per game) and miscontrolled the ball on very few occasions (0.3 times per game).

The team did better generally when Fox played too. Forest earned 50% more points when the Scotsman played, scored 17.8 minutes faster, and conceded 3.9 minutes slower (which reinforces the theory that he offers more going forward than he does defensively).

I'm obviously not saying that - for example - Danny Fox was the sole reason why Forest earned more points on the occasions that he played; it is a team game and there are 11 players involved. However, the fact remains that Forest did better with him on the pitch, and he has contributed to that.

Recent news that Fox would be involved next season prompted a few grumbles - but it is no coincidence that the player compared well in any statistic you could name last season, apart from goals scored and pass success - both of which can be easily mitigated.

He has attracted a disproportional amount of criticism in my opinion. We saw too many players evading responsibility last season and I imagine they are thankful for the likes of Fox and Dan Harding - players who have the courage to be seen to fail.

For example, when Fox was playing those endless and predictable long diagonal balls forward, when Forest were finding things difficult and confidence was low, certain midfielders - high profile players - were content to allow Fox to take the risks rather than make themselves available for the shorter pass.

This eschewing of responsibility - this blatant scrimshanking - was where Forest's problems were last season - not in players like Danny Fox. He is far from the most talented Forest player, however while under a transfer embargo The Reds will be hard pressed to find a better left-back; other areas of the pitch need looking at before we're in a position to be discarding the players who made a good contribution in 2014/15.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to for statistical help.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Performance assessments 2014/15: The defence

Last season was a strange one defensively - Forest probably have the most quality in this area of the pitch since their promotion to The Championship, yet these players have struggled to consistently measure up to their predecessors.

It would be wrong not to mention the circumstances which saw players in this area of the pitch underperform. 2014/15 was another tumultuous season; two managers arrived with contrasting defensive styles, and each were unable to make up their mind what their best starting XI were.

Forest used 40 (forty!) distinct defensive line-ups, the most common of which (Fox-Lascelles-Collins-Lichaj) only appeared together on 5 occasions, clocking up just 453 minutes together. This inconsistency hardly seems conducive to a settled, organised defence.

Eric Lichaj: 7.5/10

Full-back Lichaj - released by Aston Villa last summer - proved himself a good defender at this level. It was refreshing to see such an aggressive player in the Forest shirt. I get the impression that there aren't many wingers who enjoyed playing against him.

His versatility was also an asset - although when playing on the left he was a little predictable when coming forward (due to him being right-footed), something he did adventurously all season; Lichaj contributed to 6 goals, which is a decent amount for a defender.

My area of concern with Lichaj was his slump in form and confidence under Stuart Pearce - the American appeared confused as Pearce tried to implement a modern, high-pressing defensive style and was often caught out of position (the Fulham away game is a great example of this).

When Dougie Freedman arrived and made things simpler defensively by switching to a less ambitious, conditional pressing style, Lichaj excelled and was probably Forest's best player under the new manager.

I see Lichaj as capable of Premier League football, however to stay there he will need to demonstrate the positional awareness and concentration needed for more complicated pressing systems - perhaps this is why he had to take a step down?

Dan Harding: 6.5/10

Harding has been wrongly singled out as a problem over the past few years. He is not the best player in the league by a long way, but has proven himself competent at this level, and will never go missing.

Statistically Harding was one of Forest's better players last season - The Reds earned more points, scored more goals, and conceded less, with him in the team, but now is probably the right time for him to move on - I'm sure he'll find another Championship club and we'll see him again soon.

Michael Mancienne: 6.5/10

Mancienne arrived on big money from European giants Hamburger SV last summer, and his start at The City Ground was highly impressive. As Forest began the season well, The Machine - as he was known in Germany - did a good job in tidying things up at the back, using his pace and intelligence to intercept problems.

And there is no doubt he is a good defender - as highlighted by perhaps the greatest central defender ever to wear the Garibaldi, Des Walker, who called the acquisition of Mancienne a stroke of genius.

In fact, I think he is such a good player that we should demand more than he gave last season. I thought that when the going got tough, Mancienne shrank a little - perhaps happy for others to take responsibility. I did not see the leadership or confidence I expected from this high-profile player.

Kelvin Wilson: 5.5/10

It was another frustrating season for Wilson, who managed a little more game-time but struggled to recapture the sparkle we know he is capable of. And while statistics are absolute proof of nothing, the team performed considerably worse last season when he was included.

There were flashes of the irrepressible central defender who won himself a move to Celtic all those years ago - the man who bullied forwards and was calm with the ball at his feet - but for every good game there were instances of victimhood - the home game against Blackburn a good example; Wilson and Mancienne were tyrannized mercilessly by Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede.

Wilson is capable of being the best centre-back in The Championship - it is time to prove it.

Danny Fox 7/10 - I look in detail at Fox here.

Jamaal Lascelles 6.5/10

There is no doubt that academy product Lascelles - back on loan after his big move to Newcastle United - is progressing nicely - he looked no worse than any of the more seasoned central defenders last season.

There were times where his decision making could have been better - particularly when it was safe to step forward and make a tackle instead of backing off - but the Forest defence was not an ideal place to be learning the game last season - not because it was under pressure, but because of the disorganisation and panic which swept through it at times.

And there were signs of him learning to read the game better, and having the confidence to deal with problems - especially during the periods when the central midfield area was being badly defended - it was often the youngster taking decisive action.

Jack Hobbs 6.5/10

Hobbs was the rock around which the formidable Forest defence was built at the start of the season. Leading a group of defenders who needed to be organised enough to keep up with Stuart Pearce's high-pressing system, his injury was damaging, because without Hobbs the Forest defenders tended to drop off a little, allowing space in between them and the midfield.

This is another player (like Andy Reid and Chris Cohen) who is good enough to get Forest where they want to be, but seems destined to spent a lot of time injured, which prompts the question; can we afford to rely on him?

Danny Collins 7.5/10

Overlooked by Stuart Pearce, Collins was reintroduced by Dougie Freedman at the expense of Kelvin Wilson, and his return coincided with a remarkable upturn in form, during which the 34 year-old proved he could still do a good job at this level.

Not to take any credit from Collins, but he was included at a time when Freedman introduced a more defensive and cautious ethos - Forest were concentrating on protecting their centre-backs, so their job was a lot easier than under Pearce (read my tactical review of this period here).

Nevertheless, Collins displayed the determination and gumption his more illustrious counterparts had been lacking, and his partnership with Hobbs, Fox and Lichaj appeared the most balanced of any back-four we saw in 2014/15. He was unlucky to lose his place to the suck-it-and-see policy employed by both managers last season, where they appeared to base their selection habits on the result of the previous game, picking the same team if they had won, and making seemingly random changes when they lost.

Todd Kane (6/10) and Jack Hunt (7/10)

Both loanee right-backs signed by Stuart Pearce were brought in for their prowess when crossing the half-way line, rather than their defensive capabilities. Hunt in particular struck up a good partnership with Chris Burke, and was dangerous when allowed to attack his opposite full-back, notching three assists in his time at The City Ground.

Kane did this less often - perhaps because The Reds were doing worse generally at the time - but showed real touches of class and looks like he'll turn out the better player, but neither could match the defensive grit of Lichaj, and were only included when the American was injured, or playing at left-back.

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you agree with my assessments. There will be a more detailed look at Danny Fox later this week, followed by a look at the midfielders.
And let me know if you don't understand the stats - are they clear enough?

Thursday, 28 May 2015

2014/15 Player assessments: Karl Darlow

Karl Darlow - back on loan after last summer's transfer to Newcastle Untied - held onto the goalie's jersey in 2014/15, despite strong competition from Dorus de Vries.

Academy product Darlow attracted criticism at times - probably not helped by his big move - but he was one of Forest's strongest players. It's impossible to say how many points his saves alone earned The Reds, but it was far more than any errors cost us.

An outstanding shot stopper, he has also developed a good sense of when to come out of goal, having been required to do so on many occasions this season, due to a defence low on confidence and often looking to their keeper for help.

The main criticism of Darlow is that he does not “command his box” – personally I only half understand what this even means; it smacks of being a lazy footballing cliché to me, similar to calling a manager “tactically naïve.” Should a 24 year old kid be “commanding” the likes of Kelvin Wilson and Michael Mancienne – experienced, high-profile players earning well over £50,000 per week between them?

Maybe I'm being facetious, but the point is that Darlow has been under more pressure this season, because the defenders often looked to him to rescue them instead of dealing with problems themselves. This is particularly true when defending crosses - sometimes causing Darlow to look like he was "not commanding his box." Forest have some expensive, experienced centre-backs who should be able to organise themselves and dominate in front of their goalkeeper, it ought not be just down to a youngster to command this area.

Possibly a mute point considering the unlikelihood of seeing Darlow in a Forest shirt again, I nevertheless looked at all of the goals Forest conceded which involved a high-cross in an attempt to attach blame to Darlow.

The Reds conceded 29 such goals last season, 25 against Darlow, 4 against de Vries. With Darlow this amounted to one every 160 minutes, compared to one every 95 minutes on average with the more experienced Dutchman in goal - suggesting Darlow's perceived weakness hasn't been especially detrimental.

Of all these 25 goals, I could only criticise Darlow on four occasions - two of which I am probably being a little harsh (the first Watford goal, and the second Cardiff goal, both at The City Ground) where I think he might have claimed these crosses if he'd have come.

He made two errors by coming for crosses and not clearing the danger, leading to goals. Against Brighton (away) he came out to punch the ball, missing it completely.

He also made poor contact when dealing with a cross during the Blackburn game (at home, see above) which led to a goal - but this occasion is a good example of my earlier point, the defenders were not dealing with crosses, having been bullied and outmanoeuvred by Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede.

On this occasion Darlow decided to come out and punch, probably because seconds earlier his defenders (Wilson and Mancienne) had been particularly lax in defending a long throw. He made minor contact with the ball diverting it away from Gestede (who would have scored having lost his marker) only to see it fall to Junior Baptiste, who scored.

It's harsh to say Darlow does not command his box. Even this season, when he has been lambasted at times, he has been reasonably reliable in dealing with crosses - he has needed to be, with Jack Hobbs absent for long periods The Reds defenders have been quite poor in the air.

Towards the end of the year we heard a lot of fans questioning why Forest were continuing to play Darlow, but the truth is that Forest were stronger with him in goal. They earned significantly more points per game, and it took them on average ten minutes longer to concede, which is quite a big difference.

In fact, the team has performed better with Darlow in goal during every season since his shock inclusion ahead of Lee Camp in 2012/13. Forest have conceded less goals, and collected more points, when the youngster has played.

It is difficult to say whether he'll be a success at Newcastle, but he has certainly earned a shot at a higher level, having been one of the better goalkeepers in The Championship for two years now.

Darlow is another of those academy products which have progressed faster than the club - hopefully we don't see too much more of this in the future, but unlike Partick Bamford at least we've gotten to see some of Darlow, and he has made a contribution before his departure. I think he'll fulfil his potential and get to the very top.

Thanks for reading. Statistics refer to the 2014/15 Championship campaign only - not cup games.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

What is the best Championship Forest XI?

Perhaps a leading factor in the disappointment felt by Forest fans this season has not been results alone, but also the feeling that we have the best squad of players in recent times. This got me pondering what the best Forest XI would be, since our promotion to The Championship in 2008 - how many of the current players would be in it?

This is, of course, a subjective issue. As football is a results business, I thought it interesting to look at some win ratios*, and have picked a team based purely on that. How does our team of winners compare to the players we have seen week-in week-out in 2014/15?

We can see straight away there are some surprises in our team of winners (see right, click to enlarge). The defence is almost as expected - I have included Chris Cohen at left-back because I wanted to recreate a balanced team rather than shove the best win ratios onto the pitch haphazardly.

I don't think many would argue about the inclusion of Lee Camp, Jack Hobbs or Chris Gunter in a best XI, but I personally would never have included Elliott Ward. That being said, in his presence Forest were more likely to win - in fact without him in 2012/13 The Reds' win ratio dropped to 31.2%.

My gut instinct would have been to put Kelvin Wilson in my own best XI, but aside from the 2009/10 season, results with Wilson in the team have been dire - we have had some reasonable centre-backs in this period, but how many of them, except Hobbs, could we say are significantly better than Ward, based on results and performance?

The midfield is another area which may cause debate. It is no surprise to see Raddy Majewski, Andy Reid and Paul McKenna firmly established in our win ratio best XI. Majewski's influence has been, in my opinion,  massively underestimated and his exclusion was one of the worst errors made by Stuart Pearce - especially when considering the one thing undermining Psycho's tactics was the lack of anyone able to accept the ball in midfield.

McKenna and Reid would presumably get in most fans teams; they have been the best players to wear the Garibaldi for quite a few years and it always surprises me when I hear them criticised. I have put Paul Anderson in the team ahead of Guy Moussi, who has a better win ratio - purely in order to pick a realistic team.

To me, this midfield looks very balanced and I think our current crop would have real problems if up against them. Even the much derided Anderson has many of the qualities Forest have lacked this season -  chiefly his positioning and willingness to defend and form a partnership with the right-back, his ability to be an outlet for the ball and his work ethic.

Anderson does not have the explosive talent or potential to step up a level, possessed by players like Henri Lansbury and Michail Antonio, but they have not measured up to him in other more mundane areas which are important in The Championship. That is why he is worthy of his place in our win ratio best XI - hopefully in the coming months the supposedly better players we now have will be able to push him out of the team.

Robbie Earnshaw and Dexter Blackstock have the best win ratios of any recent players, and deserve their place leading our attack.

We've not exactly been spoiled when it comes to goal-scoring strikers in recent times, Earnshaw has probably been the most lethal, although there is hope that Britt Assombalonga can eclipse the Welshman.

But the youngster's recent injury has placed more emphasis on Blackstock to step up for the remainder of the season, and it's reassuring to see how well Forest have done historically with him on the pitch. At 28 years old, he is now in his prime and having been a positive influence in the past, there is no reason he can't do well for us this season.

An honourable mention must go to Marcus Tudgay - another player who has missed out on my win ratio best XI because of his position. I'm sure he'll get over it. There has also been the odd player, like Nicky Shorey, omitted because they only played for short periods - I set the qualifying bar at 15 games.

So there it is - the best Forest team of recent times according to win ratio. Personally I would prefer points per game if we were using statistics to pick a 'best team', but this is only meant to provoke thought and create debate. What team would you pick as the best Forest team since promotion back to The Championship?

And since many Forest fans (myself included) have been claiming that the current squad is the best since we've been back in this league, what does it say that so few of our current players feature in the win ratio best XI? True, Jack Hobbs, Chris Cohen, Dexter Blackstock and Andy Reid are all still at Forest, but they have featured relatively rarely in 2014/15.

Looking at some of the teams that have been fielded this season, I can't help reconsider how good I thought the current players are. I know there is some (limited) crossover, but the win ratio best XI is, in my opinion, by far superior. With the removal of Cohen and Reid, I wonder whether the current players have the mental attributes to achieve the same level of results.

Is Lansbury a better player than Majewski, or Burke better than Anderson? Or is Michael Mancienne a better player than the likes of Elliott Ward? If the team as a whole are up to the standard of our win ratio best XI, then it's time to prove it with results.

The players have a fresh start under a new manager, and their recent form will have confidence high - they have every opportunity now to show us whether they are in fact the best bunch of players we've seen at The City Ground in the Championship era.

Thanks for reading, and let me know who you think Forest's best XI have been in The Championship.(since our promotion to this level).

*Some clarification on what I deem as a player's win ratio: it is the percentage of time the team wins when the player has played 45 minutes or more in those games. Obviously not a perfect test, however in my opinion the 45 minute rule is a far better guide than a straight win ratio regardless of time involved.
**All stats are for league games only, correct on 19/02/2015, from the start of the 2008/09 season.
***Only players with 15 qualifying games (played 45 minutes) have been included.

Edit: stats abbreviations as requested: mins -  minutes on pitch; TS - total scored when on pitch; TC - total conceded when on pitch, G - goals; m/ts - minutes between team goals scored; m/sc - minutes between goals conceded; gm (45+) - appearences for 45 plus minutes; WR - win ratio in these games; PPG - points per game in these games.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Psycho: A tactical review

An awful run of results leading to Forest dropping to 12th position in The Championship saw the removal of Stuart Pearce amid frustration at his tactical ability.

Psycho's tactics have been lambasted - but for the most part this has been lazy, partisan criticism. There were certainly strategic problems, but I despair when I see slapdash phrases such as tactically inept, or worse, naïve. It makes me suspect the critic doesn't know what they're talking about, or has not bothered to analyse what they have seen.

Saturday's loss against Millwall was far from their worst performance of the season - Forest were unlucky, but Pearce did not help matters by employing, in my opinion, the wrong pressing system. Forest pressed conditionally, allowing The Lions to have the ball in safe areas instead of taking the game to them.

The pressing game has become important under Pearce - his experience of football outside of The Championship has been an asset in this regard. There has been more uniformity on a match to match basis - more of an advanced stratagem. Individuals have been doing little things like 'halving the pitch', and trying to manipulate the opposition into playing the ball where Forest want them to.

But an oversight by Pearce was, in my opinion, that Forest don't have players as good as those he had watched employ these techniques while learning about the game elsewhere.

The Bournemouth game was a good example; the players were not intelligent enough to press high up the pitch while in a 4-4-2, and The Cherries found space easily. Only some heroic defending kept Pearce's men in the game until he changed the formation.

Pearce's lack of experience at this level caused problems. Often the most important thing in the high energy bluster of The Championship is whether the players are leaving themselves vulnerable - for example not pressing properly or straying out of position. Pearce, in my opinion, did not know what his players were capable of in match conditions.

But it also showed he could assess and adjust - the change Pearce made (he switched to a longer formation, the 4-2-3-1) eliminated much of the space Forest were neglecting and led to a Forest victory (see diagram, right. All pictures on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked).

But the pressing game continued to be an issue for Pearce - and he often had to rethink his strategy in this regard, and how it was applied.

Another tactical issue was Pearce's repeated failure to get the numerical balance right in midfield. This was often a result of his choice of how narrow he would set his side up - he got this wrong on several occasions, particularly at home.

The Norwich game is a good example; Michail Antonio & Tom Ince were instructed to stay out wide to provide an outlet, and flank the narrow Canaries midfield. But the Forest midfielders became overrun in central areas, and by the time Pearce made changes to rescue the game they were already losing - although it has to be said against the run of play.

Leeds was another example - here an experimenting Pearce changed formation to a 3-5-2, wanting numbers in the middle but width as well. Again, this did not work, as Leeds pressed the defenders and defensive midfielder aggressively; the ball could not get out wide often enough and the wide men became isolated.

Against Birmingham, Pearce attempted to pre-empt the problem by instructing his wide men to come inside when possible to bolster this area - but The Blues took advantage of this and their wide midfielders has a free reign, hurting Forest at will, because their full-backs needed less support.

The problems in finding the right balance and Pearce's subsequent, frenzied attempts to find a solution - he rarely used the same midfield - is a similar issue to the pressing game - a clear case of Pearce learning on the job.

Another issue has been the direct style of football we have seen this season. Pearce had got this right at the start of the season; Forest were playing the ball out of the defence to Chris Cohen and Andy Reid, who were getting The Reds moving by playing the ball forward.

Their injuries were tactical disasters - Pearce simply did not have an answer for losing these two key midfield generals, when the other players did not have the ability or gumption to get on the ball in this busy area of the pitch.

This led to the midfield being bypassed, as the defenders did not have an outlet. We know from his interviews that Pearce did not intend - initially at least - for Forest to play direct football, but with the midfielders unwilling to get on the ball, the defenders had to play it forward themselves.

It was clear to me that Pearce needed to settle on two players to replace Reid and Cohen, and leave them in the team so they could build an understanding, but his constant shuffling in this area of the pitch was disruptive - although no tactics or poor motivation can excuse players as skilful as Henri Lansbury making the conscious decision to become a passenger.
But there were areas of success. As alluded to earlier, Pearce is clearly not tactically naïve, as proven by his ability to change games to his advantage. More often than not, Forest finished games stronger than they began, due to his tinkering.

The victory against Reading is a good example of this; already winning 1-0 at half time, Pearce made the unorthodox move in changing the shape, from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1, enabling Forest to dominate in the centre where before they had only been doing so in wide areas.

The two games against Derby are probably the best examples of Pearce getting things right - I could (and should have) written reams about the second game, such was the success of his strategies.

Forest's pressing game was organised to neutralise Derby's possession in their own half - particularly aimed at their defenders who like to hog the ball. A good illustration of how well this was accomplished is how much possession the Derby defenders had; they touched the ball significantly less against Forest (174 & 184 times collectively) than in any other games this season (they averaged 254 times per game at the time - but sometimes had as many as 350 touches).

The Reds were also able to win most of the second balls in midfield, and midfielders were perfectly organised in covering the defenders and tracking back - most importantly when to track back, and when to let them go. Pearce is particularly good tactically at the game of cat-and-mouse on the flanks, and it has lead to several Forest goals this season - including the fabulous Ben Osborn strike against Derby.

While it is clear Stuart Pearce got a lot of things wrong, the games where he had success seem to have been overlooked. I can think of many occasions where he was significantly out-manoeuvred; Brentford, Ipswich, Charlton and Leeds spring to mind - but I can think of a similar amount of games where, in my judgement, he did well tactically - games like the two Derby encounters, Wolves, Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday away, and the Spurs game.

It is clear that much of what Pearce was doing tactically was from the 'suck it and see' school of thought - it was reactive management rather than proactive, and even if he made the right changes on every occasion (he didn't of course), it's not good to be giving your opponents a head start.

The experimental nature of Pearce's tactics after losing key men Reid and Cohen - and his tendency to improve the situation through changes - is hinted at when looking at the time of goals scored and conceded; Forest often went behind in games, only to recover towards the end.

Losing the two central midfielders - and their replacement's inability to carry out the same tasks - sent Pearce back to the drawing board. I think he overestimated the squad's ability - and inclination - to work under pressure, and from game 7 onwards he has been experimenting.

I'm disappointed with several of the high profile Forest players - it is clear some of them did not buy into Pearce's tactical solutions. The likes of David Vaughan, Henri Lansbury, Kelvin Wilson, Michael Mancienne and Jamie Paterson could probably get into any team in the league - they have all gone missing at times when Pearce - and Forest - needed them.

And it's all very well saying things like "Pearce had lost the dressing room" and "they thought he was talking rubbish" - but unless the manager was telling them not to track runs, or telling the central defenders to shirk responsibility and hope somebody else deals with the problem, or asking Henri Lansbury not to want the ball... unless Pearce was telling players to not put in 100% - they are as much to blame (if not more so) as the deposed manager.

The tactics were wrong at times - but it is too simplistic to cite this as the cause of Forest's failed promotion bid; Pearce got as much right as he did wrong, which is why The Reds are mid-table and not in the bottom three.

We will never know whether Forest would have continued to decline under Pearce - although they were probably still earning enough points for Championship safety. Personally I think they would have improved - especially upon the return of Andy Reid, a player so important to the initial tactics which saw Forest top the league.

For footballing reasons, this is the most understandable of the sackings under Fawaz Al-Hasawi - but since we're talking strategy, you have to question that of the owner - the wisdom of employing a manager with no Championship experience has to be questioned, if immediate success was expected. It was an error as poor as any tactical gaffe on the pitch this season.

Thanks for reading - and I would like to put on record my thanks to Stuart Pearce for all he has achieved at Nottingham Forest - both as a player and a manager. He's not a Forest legend - he's one of us.