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.