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.


  1. Good post Boffin.

    Was very frustrating for the past few months watching a midfield unwilling to collect the ball and constantly, again and again and again getting isolated. One thing I noticed is that we haven't move side-to-side as a team - if the ball was on the left, the right winger was still on the right wing and vice versa, especially against teams like Norwich which you highlighted, they played a narrow system and we are destined to get overrun when the wide players don't tuck inside. Norwich's wide players that day tucked inside when the ball was on the opposite side of the pitch. It also causes an ongoing problem that the central midfield players and defenders don't actually have many options when they did have the ball, unless it was a long pass and it naturally causes the long-ball game without meaning too.

    Back to the point of the midfielders not collecting the ball off the back four - surely Pearce had a perfect player for that kind of role in David Vaughan. I will still never know why he didn't get more game time under Pearce.

    I am not jumping to any conclusions - but in some cases (Fulham is a good example) it seemed Pearce went into matches without much preparation and just kept changing the system during the match until he got it right, and by that time the game was already lost. I could be completely wrong, but that's what it looked like.

    I am an advocate of letting managers build and giving them time but I didn't think Pearce was the right man to give that time too - and my reasons for that were the same cycle of mistakes were happening, and the football was becoming more and more dire to watch. You can count on one hand the amount of times this season we have actually performed well in games - which is telling.

    Let's hope Dougie gets the time and patients to do his job. I would love us to develop a proper philosophy and a proper structure that really doesn't effect the club when managers come and go - similar to Swansea & Southampton. Doesn't matter who is in charge - they will play the same style. Unfortunately I don't see that happening any time soon.

  2. Hi Nick, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I can't really argue with anything you've said - I think you're right about him trying different things until he found something that worked on many occasions. The Norwich game, I think he tried around four systems, until he came up with a bonkers 3-3-4 - which to my amazement worked.

    One thing I will say on that is that the changes were often still based around the same theory - for example in that Norwich game he was obviously trying, for the entire game, to tempt their full-backs forward, and it worked in the end.

    And at least he is not afraid to take decisions which will make him look a fool if they don't work.

    The Vaughan mystery - I agree 100%, he is one of the best players in the league in my opinion. I don't see Pearce's thinking on this - although in his defence, despite looking good at times, Vaughan made costly errors.

    As stated above, I think he should have stuck with two players in the middle - Vaughan and Osborn for me - and let them build an understanding and get some confidence, even if it did not work at first. Like the club as a whole, this area of the pitch was crying our for stability.

    I was perhaps more inclined than you to give SP time - I'm convinced we were not heading for relegation under him. Not he's gone, the fabric of the club has been ripped out. No CEO, new coaching staff - and no staff currently in the 'promoted from within' staff's roles. This is not stability, at a time we need it the most.

    I can't see us developing a consistent strategy either - because I think Fawaz plans things on a week-to-week basis.

    Good points made thanks.

  3. Quality as ever Boffin.

    I'm pleased you mentioned the Bournemouth game. I've only been to a few games so far this season but at the bmouth game we should have been a few down at half time, but Wilson couldnt and can't finish. Second half though he changed the system and we deserved the win. It was then I thought he and the backroom boys could clearly read a game well, which is great. However had bmouth taken their numerous chances it would have been too late, as the season unfolded this appeared to be the permanent problem. If a team took their early chances, which we inevitability gave them, we'd not have enough time to turn it around.

    As you said we were a reactive team not a proactive one, I thought to say we were a direct team was wrong, we seemed to change every match.

    I saw the recent Fulham game and had to say the 1st half was the worst Forest I'd seen since Megson. Silly mistakes repeated (example 3 identical goals conceded) and no desire to have the ball in midfield, Osborn & Gardner a side, but then the second half was the best since the early season BD. Lansbury wanted the ball in the 2nd half and put Fulham to the sword, it baffles me how it could be so different one half to the next.

    I don't think we'll ever know, and I am sad Pearce has gone, but it did look like a struggle to see where the next win was coming from. It'll be interesting to see if Freedman sets Forest out to play his way, rather than trying to counteract the opposition. It could so easily go either way.

    Keep up the good work, Chris.

  4. Thanks Chris, nice of you to say.

    After watching the Fulham game, and even now, I still don't know what the difference was between the two halves of football. I've no idea what the changes were either, but the difference was stark.

    You're right though - we handed too many chances early in games, and getting in front is so important. If you look at Derby's record for example, when they concede the first goal, it is almost identical to ours.

    I do think we played direct at times - sometimes deliberately, but mostly because the midfielders (Ben Osborn aside and perhaps Vaughan, although he's frustrated me a little this season) were not willing to accept the ball. But you're right to say we changed every match. Except when we'd just won a game, which wasn't very often!

    Thanks for commenting

  5. I think being reactive was our main problem. If you're going to try and challenge at the top it should be other teams that are adapting to you not vice versa. Also players aren't able to get comfortable in a system. It's good to have 2-3 systems to be confident in but that's it. In my opinion anyway.

  6. It was certainly at the very least a symptom of the problems Sam.

    But the issue I have a problem with is this; sacking a manager for dropping to 12th position suggests the plan this season was 'challenge at the top' as you put it, or else. But was that ever realistic?

    I was under the impression Forest were all about stability, rebuilding after the mess the club was allegedly left in last season - but this appears now not to be the case...

    ...and if that was not the case, why the hell would they appoint a manager with no Championship experience in the first place?

    Thanks for reading.

  7. To coin a phrase: I agree with NIck ... Stuart Pearce was not the right person in the first place because of his inexperience at this level and, at best, mixed success of any kind as manager. I may have been over-influenced by my City-watching friends here in Manchester, but the standard reaction when I raised the subject of SP coming to Forest was to wince... Our devotion to him helped him to remain in position - without, I think, there being any reason to assume that things were like;y to get any better in the future (which was the worrying issue for me.)
    I had, admittedly, pretty much already lost hope in Pearce by the Derby game, but I saw that as the players scrapping a win despite the tactics, rather than because of any grand plan, possibly even giving an indication of what they have the potential to achieve, given the talent available?
    On Vaughan, I wonder if his fragility is the issue, i.e., attempting to play him regularly is not thought to be a viable option, so he is left as a bit-part player. And, goodness me, yes, I wish Lansbury appeared to be up for it more of the time.
    Meanwhile. let's continue supporting our club in such fine style! At least that has given us something to be proud of this season.

    1. Cheers for reading pal.

      It's an interesting question: was he the right person? If we're a club expecting promotion in his first year then it's a resounding no. As you say Pearce has no track record in this regard - he was still learning about league football.

      But change the question; Was Pearce the right person to bring stability, sort Forest out from top to bottom and turn us into a well run club capable of moving forward and returning to the top with a stable footing - it's a different answer.

      Promotion is so SO important that it's outweighed out building for the future under Fawaz, and we've chosen short term shakes of the dice as our way forward - there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, we might get lucky.

      I disagree regarding the Derby game though - I thought his tactics worked perfectly. Having watched Derby a lot this season, in researching both games, I cannot overestimate how important, and difficult, it is to disrupt their possession. Pearce's teams on both days were better at this than any other team this season. And it wasn't just a case of telling them to press aggressively - everyone tries this against Derby. It was the organised manner and the little instructions to individuals.

      Then to top it off, he tells Osborn to stop tracking back with Christie at exactly the right moment and he scores (they had been playing, as Pearce puts it "a game of cat and mouse" all game in this regard). It was similar to the Forest goal at The City Ground, this time it was Burke, dragging Eustace over after finding space behind Forsyth.

      Pearce stitched McClaren up like a kipper over the two games, getting 4 points off the best team in the league. It was only 2 games, but he deserved credit.

      The support this season has been fantastic agreed. Despite the mediocre results this has been a memorable time, some great memories.

  8. The loss to Millwall: this was a very bad game to lose. If we had won we would have been 13 points clear of Millwall (and relegation) instead of 7 points. Still it is hard to see us being relegated with the players we have. Boffin I think your articles are great (really great) but in this case I think there is a flavour of trying to find any positive incidents (in amongst 21 league games of mostly poor performance), to justify giving Stuart more time. Any other manager (any other person) would have been crucified by fans based on the results, performance and decisions displayed in the last 21 league games. The majority of the time team performance has been well below what the playing group "appear" to be capable of. And that is the main function of a manager (and coaches). Sure there is stuff around improving the club, Pearce's status as a player and a human being-but if your form is relegation form ................. But I love your articles and wish you would write more!!

    1. Cheers pal- that's really nice. I'd love to write more but struggle to find time - this only started as six months of writing practice but people seemed to like it so I carried on. It's only this that keeps me going, so thanks for saying.

      I promise I didn't write this with any agenda or pre-ordained flavour. I write everything with an open mind (or until any research makes my mind up on an issue) but I do think it was the right thing to do to give SP more time, Although I hope this hasn't biased anything I said - I honestly don't think it did though.

      If anything, the motivation was hearing people say he's "tactically naïve" - this really annoys me since there are things to be criticised, but it should be done properly, not lazily saying things like that. I wanted to show what he was doing wrong, in my opinion - but I also wanted to balance it with things I knew he was doing right.

      Things aren't as black and white as "Pearce is rubbish tactically" or "Pearce is a long ball merchant" - football isn't like that and there aren't any "tactically naïve" managers - not that I've seen anyway, and I've watched a lot of football.

      It's true that any other manager would have been crucified - but I just don't know, I think this was a chance to buck that trend and have something special - a football club that doesn't press the panic button because of short term worries, and hold out for the long term good of the club...

      ... and now we've got another manager who possibly isn't particularly better, no CEO, no experienced coaching staff, the staff from our other teams - reserves, U21 & academy - disrupted, and an owner threatening to withdraw. I think this sacking has thrown the club into chaos - I just cannot see how it has been a positive move - unless Dougie does the impossible and gets us back into the playoffs. I think he'll chug along exactly how Pearce would have, after a brief honeymoon period.

      I'll stop not haha, thanks for writing.

    2. "Aussie Red" again. Reading about the Brighton match it is ironic. Brighton hit the woodwork several times, two clearances off the line and we score three goals with 35% of the play. Sometimes you don't have luck and sometimes you do!! Very pleased for the win (any win).

      Thanks for the well thought out reply. The article about Fawaz in "Lost that Loving Feeling" (saying he has made mistakes-but we all do-but his heart and his money are in the right place) also struck a chord with me.

    3. Such fine margins - we've been unlucky this season you know! Some of the refs have actively damaged our recent results for example. I think we need to be a bit cleverer, but teams come to The City Ground in particular diving on the floor at every touch (Fabbrini, Maghoma for example), then the rest of their team is kicking lumps out of the Forest players and we get nothing! It sounds like sour grapes though unless you win.

      When you're struggling, luck is against you - ours might have changed. They say a positive attitude effects luck - if Freedman has brought this, then that boost alone may be enough for us to avoid the bottom half, or even climb the table.

    4. PS Dan's article was really good agreed - as was the other one (he was replying to). I agreed with parts of both. Dan comes across as a good chap on his forum, I ought to visit more often.

  9. Another great read, Boffin. I couldn't agree with you more about Pearce wrongly being labelled 'tactically naive'. It's simply nonsense to say that. I fear though that he was never the right manager for this club. A club legend yes, but Pearce needed a club willing to plan for the long term - and I'm sad to say that simply isn't Forest. I don't really blame Fawaz - it's great to have his backing - but the temptation for short term gamble seems hard to resist. Freedman is perhaps a better immediate fit - at least he's got experience of this level and of working within considerable budget restraints, which is probably just what we need.
    I'd happily give up on the gamble for promotion for a long term plan - Southampton have shown exactly how it can and should be done.
    Dreaming for a moment, it would be nice to have Pearce as director of football, Freedman as manager and SOD as head coach..