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.


  1. I suppose the answer to your question, Boffin, is "not quite" but, in the crazy game last night, for once, it didn't matter so much.
    I thought Lansbury played very well indeed - leaving aside the goals, his energy and commitment was excellent. And Kasami was OK - he looked like he wanted longer on the ball than he was often allowed, but he played his part.
    Thanks once again for your analysis ... and bring on Newcastle!

  2. Aussie Red belatedly seeing your blog again and (like many) asking for you to keep going. Your thoughts on Mark Warburton would be very interesting!!