Thursday, 24 November 2016

Defensive analysis: Ipswich 0 Forest 2

Last week's surprise 2-0 victory at Ipswich was the first time Philippe Montanier's Forest side have shown a true defensive mentality. If replicated, The Reds' attacking flair should ensure a drastic rise up the table.

Ipswich's main strategy was to bombard the penalty area with crosses. They had clearly done their homework as Forest generally concede a lot of goals in this manner due to their poor man-marking and tendency to leave lots of space in dangerous areas.

Forest's defenders are noticeably poor in the air, and statistics bear this out; Armand Traore has been our best header of the ball this season – but he's only won 63% of aerial duels. This is poor – 47 Championship defenders have won a greater share of headers.
The centre-backs have fared even worse – Matt Mills and Damien Perquis have won a mere 56% and 55% of headers. They are the joint 77th and joint 84th best defenders in the league in the air.

Also, at times the Forest goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, while excelling at deflective shot-stopping, has looked far from convincing when coming for driven crosses.

So we can see why our opponents put a lot of crosses in (they managed a massive 49) and spent so much time trying to work openings on Forest's flanks – why didn't it work?

Montanier has recently changed Forest's system, employing a 5-3-1-1 formation designed to reduce space in the Forest penalty area. But what worked so well against The Tractor Boys was not only the system, but the personnel.

Daniel Pinillos and Eric Lichaj were used as the full-backs, which made Forest look much more balanced on the team-sheet, but the other players – so poor when out of possession in recent weeks – redoubled their efforts.

It must be noted that circumstances were in their favour. The Reds offensive flair has not been doubted this season, and they struck almost immediately, when Ben Osborn set up the clinical Britt Assombalonga to score after just 17 seconds.

This enabled Forest to sit back a little more, and for certain players to pick and choose which times to venture forward – something they did unerringly well.

I was concerned before the game about the deployment of Thomas Lam in midfield, mainly because I knew he would need support; I didn't see him as able to dominate this vital area of the pitch alone in the same manner as someone like David Vaughan.

Against my expectations, Henri Lansbury and Pajtim Kasami were extremely diligent in their defensive duties against Ipswich. We have raved about the goals, and the defending, but these two created the platform for both through their hard work and good decision making, and made things easy for Lam by protecting either side of him. The youngster generally only had to worry about a thin strip of the pitch – this enabled him to be clear in his duties, and help the defence in central areas rather than worrying about having to move out to help in wide positions (which was my main concern).

Lansbury and Kasami's continual presence was key as Ipswich created their attacks in the area just in front of Forest's full-backs (see the heat-map for Ipswich's attackers, right). With Ipswich focussed on getting crosses into the box, it was important that Lichaj, Pinillos, and later Michael Mancienne (after coming on at right-back) were in position.

Mick McCarthy is a clever tactician, and he was trying all sorts of methods and tricks to pull Forest players out of position and create overloads in areas of the pitch, but generally Forest resisted – this could not have happened if Lansbury and Kasami were negligent in covering the areas in front of the full-backs, where Ipswich were trying to make things happen.

This meant the wide defenders could stay in their defensive line, which effected the quality of crosses coming into the Forest box; they were usually in position to harry the opposition players making those crosses, and also limiting their opportunities to reach the by-line.

But even more importantly, the full-backs being in position ensured that the central defenders were also in position. In other games we have seen the centre-backs having to go out wide to deal with problems.

The effect of this is twofold; more obviously, it stretches the defensive line which creates more space for opposition players in the central danger-zone. But the effect of dragging players out of position gives attackers the initiative; they have chance to run into a perceived weak spot and the defenders usually cannot react in time.

One thing clever strikers do is run in just behind a defender who has been sucked forward (and this is no criticism of the defender moving out of position – it is the correct thing to do). If the ball is delivered to this sweet spot an attempt on goal is almost inevitable because the next defender in line cannot reasonably expect to get there in time. A good example of this was Brighton's first goal against Forest.

But against Ipswich the Forest defensive line remained compact all night. This combined with the midfielders tucking in when play was not in their half of the pitch, meant the Ipswich crosses were going into an area crowded with red shirts, who all knew their job.

This alone made Forest a much more solid outfit, but the players also appeared more determined. It was easier work due to the system working well, but in my opinion this was the best individual performances I've seen from Joe Worrall and Damien Perquis.

Matt Mills is one of the few players I've had sympathy for this season – he has been overstretching to cover for the lapses of other players – against Ipswich he was outstanding, organising his besieged comrades and encouraging them continuously, he also played well individually.

It was a really good away performance – Forest hit the home side when they could and defended in an organised, determined manner. I've been asked the question whether it was in part due to Ipswich being poor, but in my opinion this is slightly unfair. The Tractor Boys camped in the Forest half and put 49 crosses into the box.

On past performances this should have been more than enough, but Forest defended very well. The amount of defensive actions Forest were needing to make illustrates how much pressure they were put under – they made significantly more than the average away team (see table, right). Only 8 out of 49 crosses found an Ipswich player.

It is pleasing how Forest stood up to this pressure – there was no petulance, no silly free-kicks around the penalty area, no needless bookings, no free-headers or neglectful marking, no lazy pressing or shirking of duties. This game represents a major improvement in attitude and professionalism from the Forest players.

It will be interesting to see how the absence through injury of Lichaj and Pinillos effects this on Friday night away to Barnsley – but if their replacements are supported as diligently by Lansbury and Kasami they will have a simple job.

But more importantly, it is yet to be seen whether this was just a spurt of determination you sometimes see in lazy teams, or whether the players have taken to this new system – which the cynic in me has to say reeks of Montanier spoon-feeding his players instead of making them defend properly – you don't need a back 5 to eliminate space in your penalty area, 4 players are enough if everybody is doing their job.

The next few games will be very interesting from a defensive standpoint; the players have the tools to defend well and have shown they know how to use them – can they continue these standards? We're about to find out.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to and for statistical assistance.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Attitude adjustment

Much has been said of the problems which have seen Nottingham Forest become entangled in, on the face of it, a relegation scrap this season. Owner Fawaz Al Hasawi's mismanagement of the club and Philippe Montanier's unfamiliarity with Championship football have been key contributors.

But one problem – just as important – has gone relatively unheralded so far; the attitude of the players.
Aside from a few exceptions – the likes of Ben Osborn and the rest of our younger players in particular – Forest's playing staff have demonstrated a severe lack of commitment, professionalism and discipline this season.
When I talk about discipline, I don’t only mean they pick up a lot of bookings (they do, by the way) – I’m talking about the commitment to do their job properly without cutting corners, I’m talking about them taking the easy way out, avoiding responsibility. Scrimshanking their way through games.

Cheating the fans.
This is a team, I suggest, that is not struggling due to a lack of skill or confidence. The expansive, assured way they are playing their football when in possession betrays this. They have proven in spells that, playing the attractive, attacking brand of football preferred by Montanier, they have the ability to succeed at this level.
Under the Frenchman, Forest often start well and  manage to get themselves in front. But this is a competitive league, and you cannot afford to rest on your laurels.
Whether, after starting well, they think the job is done and get complacent we can only speculate, but one thing is certain – when opponents come back at them they fold. This season, after going behind, our opponents have equalised on 73.3% of occasions.
And worryingly, once behind, Forest hardly ever get back into a game, only equalising on 27.3% of occasions.
The Reds have thrown away 17 points from winning positions, and rescued just 4 points from being behind.
Other teams are reacting to the ebb and flow of the game better than Forest – they have demonstrated the commitment and discipline to keep doing the right things when things are not going to plan. Forest, on the other hand, fall apart because they lack this attitude, and stop doing the basics needed to compete at this level.

They start sitting deeper and deeper. Even against QPR's ten men this was evident, as they invited Rangers forward. This is common when teams lack discipline. They naturally drift back towards their goalkeeper to make life easier, as they then have, in theory, less space to defend. It’s not what the manager would want, but it feels safer.
Against QPR this allowed our opponents more time on the ball in our half and to get a lot of crosses into the box – which was a recipe for disaster considering Forest aren’t very good at defending crosses. To compound the danger, Forest also gave away a lot of set-pieces around their penalty area.

Almost ironically considering the above point, Forest's lack of commitment has also manifested itself into an over-use of the offside trap. I don’t think I can remember as many hands up signalling the linesmen as this season.
For this to happen so regularly, for me, shows a lack of commitment. It seems almost automatic; why bother running back if that nice man with the flag will do my job for me? It's the easy way out.

We've also seen a habit of not tracking runners - even in the penalty area. It could be argued that Montanier is playing an attacking brand of football, and in some cases - especially in midfield - he might not want his attackers tracking back, but there has to be some balance to this. Players still have the responsibility to make decisions on the pitch when, to not do so, leaves gaping holes in your defence. This bad habit has been rife this season.
Marking appears to be viewed as optional. The Cardiff goals are both good, if different, examples of Forest not having the discipline or commitment to mark opponents in goal-scoring positions.
Aron Gunnarsson scored Cardiff’s first; unmarked on the edge of Forest’s six yard box. His marker was Thomas Lam – this was a complete physical mismatch, and the Icelander brushed Lam aside. However, this area of the pitch should have been vigorously defended regardless of Lam. There has to be somebody attacking the ball, when it comes into that area.
Cardiff’s second was a comedy of errors. Armand Traore received the brunt of the criticism for giving the ball away near the corner flag, but the more worrying aspect was the lack of positional discipline shown by the other Forest defenders.
When defending, you should have an overload, or at least even numbers – but on this occasion (see diagram) there are two Cardiff players being marked by Eric Lichaj – his Forest colleagues don't have the discipline or commitment to be in position. They were assuming, and hoping, Traore would clear his lines so that they wouldn't have to work to get into position.
Note the difference in attitude of the Cardiff players; it appears a lost cause, but they are chasing it anyway. They are showing commitment, discipline, desire – all those words you have a right to expect as a bare minimum from professional footballers.

These are not isolated examples - Forest have been leaving attackers unmarked all season - look back at the goals we've conceded.
The next problem is the routinely lazy implementation of Montanier's conditional pressing system. Forest have spent periods of several games standing off and allowing opposition players to receive the ball and turn in dangerous areas – and even get their head up and pick out passes into the penalty area.
The first Reading goal was a good example. Many fans have picked up on the goalkeeping error, Vladimir Stojkovic should have done better, but the initial effort was allowed to be made by Pajtim Kasami, who failed to close down the shooter with any vigour or effort. He was resting on his laurels - in position but doing the bare minimum.

The amount of cards Forest pick up, silly free kicks given away and petulance displayed, especially towards the end of games, is another symptom of their poor attitude.

It is self evident that bookings and sendings off damage your chances whenever they are in a match, but the majority of Forest's come late. 64.4% of the cards picked up by Forest have come in the last third of the game - this is revealing as it indicates their reaction when the going gets tough.

This last third of the game is the period when Forest also let in a disproportionate amount of goals - 58.6%. When our opponents are giving it a final push to get back into or seal the game, throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at us, Forest are losing their heads.
It’s clear The Reds are bereft of leadership on the pitch. Chris Cohen is the club captain – he’s a nice lad, but is he nasty enough to knock a few heads together?
Vice-captain Henri Lansbury has a lot of influence – he is a forceful character, but not the man, I would argue, to inspire discipline, commitment or professionalism in the players around him, since at times he lacks all three of these qualities himself.
It’s not as if we’ve been watching a team of school-kids – although, as Colin Fray so brilliantly said after the Cardiff game, they are doing the kind of things you see 12-13 year-olds doing. This is an experienced team – the players that started against QPR on Saturday had made 2123 appearances between them.
If it takes more than 2000 games worth of experience before somebody thinks ‘we can’t allow free headers in the six-yard box’ or ‘I can’t let him have the ball there unchallenged’ then there is something wrong, and it’s not the manager’s tactics.
Head coach Philippe Montanier has been widely criticised for his tactical shortcomings this season, and I don’t totally absolve him of responsibility for the current mess either. But there is a big difference between the manager not having the knowledge or experience to do manage in The Championship, and the players deliberately not doing their job.
Is the manager instructing his players to get sent off, or argue over penalty-taking responsibilities, or give free kicks away in stupid positions, or delay kick-off in stoppage time when your team is 2-1 down by ambling petulantly back to your own half?
Are we to believe Montainer wants the players to not bother with such basics as marking? Is he a fan of letting the ball bounce rather than heading it away, or not tracking back, or dropping off rather than maintaining your defensive line, or appealing for offside because you can’t be bothered to chase your man?
Is he telling them to take their foot off the gas when Forest are winning? To only do the bare minimum and hope for the best? Somehow I don’t think he is.
In a few weeks a new manager will come in, and we’ll see at least a brief upturn in performances and results. But it will still be largely the same players, and they will still have this unprofessionalism in them, this lack of discipline lurking under the surface, waiting to reappear.
Don’t forget, we’ve still got certain players at the club who were not putting 100% in for Stuart Pearce. It’s in their arsenal; you cannot rely on these players.
You cannot teach heart. Dedication. Professionalism. The willingness to take responsibility. Discipline.
But if these players don't find some of the above from somewhere, we'll be playing in League 1 next season, whoever the next manager is.
Thanks for reading, and extra special thanks to everybody who has sent messages asking for the return of this blog. I don't know how often I'll be posting, but I intend to back up the above criticism in more detail, as I don't feel I've had the space or time to elaborate as much as I wanted.