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?