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 www.whoscored.com and www.squawka.com 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.

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 www.whoscored.com 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.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Can Forest keep Michail Antonio?

Last week Dougie Freedman referred to Michail Antonio as “the best player in the league.” It is no surprise that the explosive winger is a transfer target considering the manner in which he bulldozed his way through The Championship last season.

His pace and power were a real game-changer; not only did he have the beating of the majority of defenders when on the ball, the knowledge that this was the case unsettled opposition defences, forcing them to play with Antonio in mind.

For example, we sometimes saw the opposition right-back dropping off rather than getting touch tight, which created room not only for Antonio, but also any other Forest players in this area. This had implications for how high a defensive line they could play too (see example, right).

Additionally, his presence effected how often opposition full-backs got forward themselves, and even their team selection – a good example being the Derby game at The City Ground, where Steve McClaren opted to drop the exciting Cyrus Christie – a potent threat coming forward – in favour of the more conservative Ryan Shotton.

We also saw teams make changes during games, with Antonio’s first victim struggling. Any time you can force your opponent to make changes is a minor victory in itself and often hurts them elsewhere.

Antonio ploughed on almost regardless, and was involved in a fabulous 39 goals. His physical attributes are the player's major strength, but he is able to take advantage of this because he has good – albeit sometimes inconsistent – technical ability.

It was certainly a brilliant season, but we must not get carried away; the 25 year old is yet to prove he can replicate these results consistently.

A big factor in his success last season was the way Forest were set up to play. Stuart Pearce built the team around playing direct football. That is not to say The Reds were playing long-ball; their plan was to get the ball out wide quickly and hit teams on the break, rather than play consolidatory football that establishes possession in the opposition half, such as the style that Forest played under Billy Davies.
 
This direct philosophy suited Antonio; the player is well suited to running at a retreating defence. Football under Dougie Freedman was initially even more favourable in this regard; Forest ceded possession and territory and were reliant on the counter-attack.

But as Freedman changed his tactics after the Norwich game, Antonio appeared less comfortable in my opinion. Forest tried to play more complex football, and as results suffered as a result of this, as did Antonio’s contribution.

For example, before and including the Norwich game, after which Forest relied less on counter attacking football, Antonio was involved in 62.9% of Forest’s goals; this dropped to 44.4% afterwards. I must point out that this second period covers a comparably small period, therefore the evidence is far from conclusive, but the player’s performance under a more possession orientated approach is something we might keep an eye on in the future.

Another area to watch out for – if Antonio stays at Forest – might be his performance against players who can match him physically. Perhaps the only defender to conclusively get the better of Antonio in 2014/15 was the inexperienced Wolves youngster Dominic Iorfa, who was able to match the Forest man in terms of pace and power.

But these are mere points of interest, because Antonio has proven that he had the attributes to terrify the majority of defenders, and if able to hold onto him Forest will wield one of the more potent weapons in The Championship.
 
And it is also worth noting the player's apparent resilience - he has a good injury record, and last season he managed over 4000 minutes of league football, only the 7th outfield player to do since Forest were promoted to The Championship (see left) - this makes him a major asset for a club used to their best players being almost constantly injured.

Freedman himself does not offer much comfort when talking about the player's future. Despite stating that he is staying, he says “I have not had a conversation with him about the situation,” before going on to say “I am a coach – if he wants to talk to me about that situation, then he can. If he wants to talk about anything else then we have a board and he can talk to them about that.

Perhaps I am having a cynical moment, but I worry if Freedman, who should be close to the players, won’t talk to them about their future, instead leaving it to a boardroom full of comparatively unfamiliar businessmen. Who is Antonio more likely to be persuaded by - his coach, or some guy in a suit?

But then again, then in the same interview the manager is making statements like “I will always have the final say on players. I will tell him (Fawaz) which players can stay and which can leave,” which doesn’t seem to fit in with Freedman’s implication that Antonio’s future is in the board's hands (and thus out of his). Have we got another manager who will tell us anything to cover his own backside? Is Dougie getting his excuses in early? Or have I got out of the wrong side of bed this morning?
 
There are few short-term reasons for allowing Antonio to leave if he wishes to go. A well covered fact is that Forest would not be able to reinvest even a large transfer fee due to the transfer embargo.

However, one could not blame him for wanting to test himself at a higher level. He is unlikely to have as good a season as last year; demand for his services is likely to fall. And Forest are (at best) just one of the multitude of teams with ambitions of promotion; it would be far easier to transfer into The Premier League than achieve it with a club.

Antonio would perhaps need to be a particularly patient man, and extremely happy in Nottingham, not to want to leave. And while Forest could refuse to sell him, it may be unwise to keep an unsettled player.

Personally I feel he will move in the next few days – Freedman will want to know what he has to work with as soon as possible. Whatever happens, Antonio will have my admiration and thanks for providing some memorable moments in a season of mixed fortunes.

Thanks for reading.
 
Further viewing:

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 www.whoscored.com for statistical help.