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.