Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Forest Boffin Manager Awards (Championship)


Perhaps the most unheralded reason for The Championship being so fascinating in 2012/13 has been the cunning and guile of the men in charge: the managers. Forest Boffin would like to take this opportunity to throw a little praise their way for the tactical efforts that have enriched this season in particular.

Malky MacKay, Steve Bruce and Ian Holloway have taken the spoils and will be plying their trade in The Premiership next season, but the volatile nature of The Championship has ensured there are far more success stories than these three. Forest's own Billy Davies has scored the second most amount of points per game (see league table, right), and from watching Forest we all know how good a job other managers have done in tweaking their tactics to make it difficult for supposed 'better teams'. This is why the division has been so unpredictable - managers have done a great job in closing the gap between ability and making up the numbers.

Davies racked up 1.73 points per game, a huge amount which, along with the dismal nature of Forest's performances immediately prior to his arrival, could lead you to assume he was the manager who made the biggest improvement to his new team. However, there are several other managers who made a big impact.

A lot of praise must go to Mick McCarthy. Ipswich were a laughing stock before his arrival (we all remember how horrified many Forest fans were when they beat us 3-1 last November). Pre-McCarthy they picked up 0.54 points per game - the Irishman improved upon this by over a point per game (see left, all charts on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked). His main impact was defensively, where they had a well deserved reputation for giving away cheap goals and crumbling under pressure. He halved their goals conceded tally and taught them how to defend a lead - under McCarthy they collected a massive 2.59 points in games they scored first in, compared with 0.83 points beforehand. Ipswich also got tougher - under McCarthy they fouled more, and got fouled less (an indicator, in The Championship, that your team is doing well, see below). Forest Boffin couldn't see how Ipswich would survive this season, under McCarthy they were a different team - The Tractor Boys would appear too far down the pecking order to make a promotion push next season, but with McCarthy's record at this level, could I be wrong again?

Kudos must also go to David Flitcroft at Barnsley. I did a preview for their recent game against Forest in which I knew it was highly unlikely, even at The City Ground, that Flitcroft's men would get beaten (see here) because they play so well against teams high in the league. He has utilised what is available to him and changed the way they defend, managing to retain Barnsley's Championship status by beating the best. He managed to improve The Tykes' points per game tally by 0.78 PPG and was the 7th best manager overall.

Billy Davies himself totally invigorated Forest, solving a tactical headache in that Forest have no width and propelling them almost into the playoffs. Forest scored more and tightened up at the back - they were the 4th meanest defence during those last few months. He also generated self belief which led to Forest equalising on 70% of the occasions they fell behind, and managing to collect a huge 1.29 points per game after conceding the first goal - the second best in the league, in this regard.


Bu there are many examples of managers displaying tactical shrewdness this season - Forest have been the victim of this constantly, from teams playing higher up the pitch to neutralise O'Driscoll's possession football, to the likes of Blackburn, Derby and Millwall deliberately muscling and bullying Forest out of games, to more recently Paul Ince having Blackpool clog up the area in front of their penalty box. Forest have been scouted very effectively this season and have, at times, struggled to score goals because of this.

Managers tactical styles have tended to be reflected in their teams stats. It is unusual, for instance, to have a balance between attack and defence - if you're bombing forward scoring goals, often you're conceding a lot at the same time. Eddie Howe's team at Burnley scored more than two goals per game but was letting in even more - Sean Dyche totally changed this approach and turned them into the second best defensive team in the division. Surprisingly, Gus Poyet's Brighton conceded the least amount of goals. Cardiff's Championship winning effort was built on clean sheets - this is reflected in his stats in this regard.

Perhaps the most obvious way a manger can effect the way his team is playing is reflected in the disciplinary side of their game. It has already been touched upon in previous Forest Boffin articles how Billy Davies has toughened Forest up - The Reds fouled on average twice more often in every game under Davies which is a significant amount over a season. It is interesting to note that none of the managers who's team fouled the least had any success whatsoever this season (see Fair Play award, right) -  proof that it is essential for your team to be tough in The Championship.


Forest's galvanisation under Davies was in part due to them getting nastier, which was reflected in the amount of fouls they were giving away - an also in the amount of their opponents getting red cards as they reacted to the provocation. It is not enough to play passing, possession football - The Championship has a high octane blend of skill and muscle. If managers can't motivate their team for a fight they won't get the chance to show off their skill (see Wolves). But being dirty isn't enough - there must be the correct blend of robust craftsmanship if you are to succeed, as proven by the dirtiest manager award, unsurprisingly going to Owen Coyle at Bolton. The Trotters are another good example of how a manager can change they style in which they play to improve their results, Dougie Freedman having them rely more on their skill rather than kicking people and turning their season around.


It is also interesting to look at how often teams were themselves fouled, Owen Coyle's Bolton are again top of the crop in this regard. Bolton's 'fouled' statistics dropped sharply when Freedman arrived - perhaps this was because they weren't as rough with their opponents and thus prompting retaliation, however the cynics could be forgiven for wondering if a Coyle had brought a little Premiership "professionalism" down to The Championship with him. Also relegated Blackburn teams occupy the 3rd and 4th most fouled places. Nigel Clough's Derby were the second most fouled team in the division, although this could be put down to the amount of possession they had. None of the other most fouled teams had particularly high possession, they just got more free kicks when they did have the ball.

Indeed Derby had a surprising amount of possession last season, only behind Billy Davies' Forest in this regard. The East Midlands rivals prove one thing - that it's not how much you have the ball but how you use it. Forest fans will remember having watched their team dominate, especially at home, only to struggle breaching an entrenched defence. Steve Bruce had the balance right at Hull, who were deservedly promoted. It is interesting to note that, despite his philosophy of possession, consolidation football, Sean O'Driscoll's teams both struggled to keep the ball - punished for not robust or decisive enough.

Another area in which Billy Davies' Forest excelled was in their fighting spirit, as the Scotsman had his usual galvanising effect on morale. The Garibaldi looked noticeably more confident from the Bolton game onwards, and this is reflected in the fact that after falling behind, instead of crumbling Forest managed to equalise on 70% of occasions. The popular Gary Bowyer had a similar effect at Blackburn. Many teams in the league fell apart when conceding the first goal, but Forest were often able to recover.

But as well as Davies did, it is difficult for an objective fan to say he was the best manager in the division this season - this accolade should probably go to Mick McCarthy, purely on the extent to which he improved Ipswich. Forest Boffin has Billy coming in second in what will surely be a highly debatable topic. You can't ignore Malky MacKay since he won the league after all, however he only comes in third in our Manager of the Year rankings because of the resources available to him. We think David Flitcroft did a brilliant job at Barnsley, and Dougie Freedman has been a breath of fresh air - they come in fourth and fifth respectively.

We've not even talked about the good job one by Steve Bruce at Hull, or the colourful antics of Ian Holloway. There were starring, yet ultimately self-destructive (in different ways) roles from Gus Poyet and Tony Mowbray, chaos at Blackburn and Blackpool, but in our opinion the league has been enriched mostly by those at the foot of the table in their monumental efforts not to be relegated. The Championship has been such an exciting league because those at the bottom were solving problems and making it difficult for the so called better teams - to such an extent that you could never, at any stage, say with any confidence who would win any game. When the likes of Peterborough go on a late run of 10 unbeaten games you know somebody somewhere is doing a hell of a job. If the managers are as good next season as they have been in 2012/13, we're in for another chaotic year.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Player analysis: Simon Cox

Few players at Forest have proven so divisive as our Irish International Simon Cox. A toothless predator, or the trigger for a successful hunt? Cox has been involved at every stage this season, and win or lose, he has been an important figure.
Cox's detractors have pointed to a poor goal-scoring return from the Irishman (see his stats, right. They are enlargeable if clicked). His arrival, although slightly overshadowed by that of Billy Sharp, was highly anticipated, and five goals does seem low for a player of his reputation - a player who has himself stated his personal dissatisfaction with this. To iterate this further, Cox only scored, on average, one goal every 598.2 minutes he was on the pitch - roughly one every six and a half full games.

So if goals aren't what Cox brings to the team (from his own boots at least), what does he do for Forest? His tireless work rate is probably the most touted of his abilities amongst Trickies - something that will naturally gain the respect of most fans - but hard work shouldn't be, and isn't, enough to keep you in a team of Forest's stature.

One aspect of Cox's game which has ensured he has been one of the first names on Billy Davies' team-sheet (and probably the previous managers as well) is his intelligent movement off the ball. Cox has the ability to cause defenders a headache without the ball being anywhere near him. It is a defender's job to pick up the run of the strikers and ensure they don't find themselves in space with the ball - with this knowledge a striker can manipulate the position of those defenders - a point which has been argued to death on this blog. Cox is one of the better players we've seen at this level for doing this.

Upon arrival Billy Davies had a conundrum to solve: how to get Forest attacking efficiently without any real width in the side. He solved this more effectively than O'Driscoll and McLeish by using the forwards to provide a little width through their clever movement (see clickable diagram, above-left), and to create space for the second wave of attack - this was initially highly successful and resulted in a glut of goals for the late arriving midfielders such as Majewski, McGugan and Lansbury.

But it takes the right kind of player to be able to effectively do this kind of job - it's not merely a case of running out wide, the player must be mobile enough to do this, but more importantly have the technical skill to be able to retain the ball in these areas, and the intelligence to be able to use it when the time comes. Cox has been so important to Billy's diamond formation because he's mobile, good with the ball at his feet, and quick-thinking.

It's useful to have a closer look at the specific movement Cox is good at. Forest have been at their most dangerous when Andy Reid has found space with the ball in midfield. This is also when Cox is as his most troublesome for defenders, but it's the way he does it which is interesting. We at Forest Boffin liken Cox to Jermaine Defoe, in that his runs are often for the benefit of others - at least that's how it usually turns out. Instead of running into a position in which he is likely to score, he often runs where it will cause the most problems to a defence as a whole (see diagram, right). Defenders at this level find this confusing and often allow themselves to be pulled out of shape, which leaves them vulnerable to other players finding space. The runs made by Cox either allow him to get the ball in space, or create space for someone else to exploit.

A good example of Cox's movement bamboozling defenders was Raddy Majewski's goal at Charlton. Cox had a very impressive game throughout, and both goals came in part from his runs inside the left-back, but the Majewski goal proves the difficult decisions he gives to defenders result in goals without him even touching the ball. Obviously Raddy had a lot to do upon receiving the ball, but Cox effectively removed the covering defender Leon Cort, leaving only one player for Raddy to beat (see diagram, left).

Cox is always making himself available for the ball, and his awkward runs put pressure on defenders and force them into making decisions. The strikers under Davies have all been good at making space for the second wave of attack to exploit - they are clearly being instructed to play in this manner. Billy himself has remarked that they don't get as many goals as they could because of the system (see previous Forest Boffin articles on this subject here and here.)

Simon Cox is, in short, a workman-like team player, good with the ball and able shrewd enough to make the runs needed to get the ball, or at least hurt the opposition. But some would argue this isn't enough, that a striker's main job is to score goals. Forest Boffin would argue that as long as someone is scoring the goals, it doesn't matter who - the only questions should be are the team scoring enough goals, and is a player making a contribution towards this.

Under Billy Davies Forest have been scoring enough goals to pick up 1.73 points per game on average. This haul of points would have been enough for automatic promotion (if sustained over a season of course). It is difficult to argue, at least under Davies, that Forest were not scoring enough goals. But was Cox contributing to this?

Statistical analysis confirms that Cox does tend to have a positive effect of Forest's 'goals scored' column. Comparison of goals scored with Cox on the pitch and without him overwhelmingly suggest he is important if Forest are to score: last season it took Forest, on average, over an hour longer to score a goal if he wasn't in the team (see right).

Cox's effect on goals scored is bettered only by Raddy Majewski. Forest scored on average around every 69 minutes, however remove Cox and this drops to a goal every 125 minutes. It is also useful to compare stats with top scorer Billy Sharp (see left). Both have enjoyed a similar amount of game time but Sharp has scored twice as many goals. However, while Sharp has been the more dangerous goal-scorer, Cox has been of more benefit to the team statistically - this could be interpreted as proof of what has been said above - that Cox helps the team through his movement, work-rate, ability to find and create space, and the assertion that he is a team player.

Statistically speaking, Cox has been the second most beneficial player for Forest this season. Stats aren't everything, however there is a difference between stats and results - The Reds' results have improved when Cox has been in the team, from watching him closely, this is no surprise to Forest Boffin. His assists statistics are also impressive. The Football league has him at number 10 in the list of most assists for The Championship - more proof that his industry is great for the team.

In conclusion, goal-scoring is the only thing this player hasn't done enough of at Forest - however this is probably due to the style of play we have been employing. He has sacrificed this aspect of his game, whether as his own behest, or more likely under instructions of the managers who knew what else he could offer, and has become more than a striker, he is a team player. We have seen flashes of what he can do to make the onion-bag bulge (see his magnificent goal against Birmingham), but he has proven more useful at creating for the team, which is why Forest Boffin endorses Simon Cox's first season at The City Ground as a resounding success.

Hopefully Coxy won't be under too much pressure to change his game next season, because he's contributing already, and thanks for reading. COYR!
 
Also, thanks for statistical reassurance from www.statbunker.com (brilliant site, used for help on assists & starts), and www.football-league.co.uk .

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Player analysis: Raddy Majewski



The time is 14.20 on Saturday the 4th of May, anguished groans echo through the Trent End as over 14000 eyeballs stare aghast at the backs of four Leicester players rampaging almost unopposed towards the Forest goal.
 
Wood receives the ball. He lays it off to Knockaert. There is an instant of anticipation – like waiting outside the headmistresses’ office for punishment. Goal. Season over.
 
Moments earlier, Forest had been on the attack, looking for the precious goal to propel them back into the play-offs, when Radoslaw Majewski attempted a highly ambitious through-ball – which was intercepted. With Forest committed going forward, the error proved costly. The Foxes raced down the pitch and dispatched unlucky Forest.

It is testament to the popularity of the young Pole that his mistake didn’t result in any murmurs of disdain from the fans. It was clear at the final whistle he was as upset as anybody, and in truth he deserved some slack because of his contribution up until that point. But what does Raddy do for the team?

The most obvious trait of an attacking midfielder is his goal threat – Majewski hurts teams in multiple fashions. The most unusual skill he possesses (for this level of football) is his movement off the ball and instinctive ability to find space. Watch the clips of him playing for Groclin as a youngster and you can see him doing exactly what he still does today – some players don’t need to be taught this and it clearly comes naturally to Raddy. The first time we saw it for Forest was his Carling Cup goal against Middlesbrough in 2009, where he instinctively checked his run into the box until the perfect time, allowing space to create itself, ready to be exploited (see right). This deliberate technique is routinely praised on match of the day, when Hansen & Co. are extolling the virtues Berbatov or Giggs, but such vision is relatively rare at this level for a player to do it so regularly, as Raddy does.
 
Majewski utilises this skill to find space where there shouldn’t be any, constantly ghosting into the danger zone apparently invisible. This is part of a wider team game as the forwards occupy the defenders, who fail to realise the real threat, as the second wave of attack suddenly appears in space. Raddy does this so consistently, in the same area of the pitch so often, that we at Forest Boffin have renamed this area of the pitch the Raddy Zone (see left).

There have been numerous examples of Majewski materialising to find space in this area (or exploiting isolated defenders) and scoring (see example, right), yet for every goal there are half a dozen other times he lurks here and doesn’t score, either through not being passed to, or missing the target. One thing that would improve the Pole’s game significantly is his finishing – his goal-scoring record is slightly disappointing for someone clever enough to find space in these positions. However it’s difficult to grumble at this because, if Raddy could finish more regularly, he wouldn’t be at Forest, he’d be too good for this division.

Majewski is also a threat from outside the box, inclined to shooting from range if able to find enough space. He is most effective in this regard against a defence still backing into their penalty area, rather than an entrenched defence – where he is better utilised passing and probing to create space for others due to his quick mind and technical ability.

Aside from threatening the goal himself, Raddy is a particularly inventive player. Forest are blessed with a glut of central midfielders who can create, yet it is interesting to compare Majewski with Andy Reid, for example (see left). Raddy is good at playing shorter penetrative passes into the box (as he was attempting to do against Leicester)- especially in between the full back and central defender, which put a defence into trouble. His interplay with the forwards is more two-way than Reid for example, who often looks to supply the striker with an immediate goal-scoring opportunity. Majewski typically looks to progress the attack into a more dangerous situation, it’s more about keeping the ball and making an even easier chance. They are differing creative styles, neither of which is more relevant than the other – it’s good Forest have versatility in their attacking options; Lansbury, Guedioura and McGugan also bring different approaches to this.

However, the most important thing Raddy does for Forest isn’t creating or scoring goals (directly, that is). Majewski is so important because of his superior technical ability. There are very few players at this level as good with the ball, he has a quick-thinking brain coupled with technique, which allows him to move the ball efficiently, needing less touches and progressing the teams position while making it less likely Forest will lose the ball, and this is reflected in Forest’s possession statistics (see right).

This less remarked-upon role that Raddy plays is his main benefit to the team, for if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score, and are also under threat from conceding. Majewski’s talent isn’t as flashy as that of McGugan, or Guedioura, the damage he does is more silent and cumulative. He helps Forest keep the ball while efficiently advancing their position.

Raddy also plays a role defensively. Fans of The Garibaldi have often had cause to lament their attacking midfielders’ defensive limits, but Majewski is an exception to this: he is very hard working and unafraid of his defensive duties, so much so that when asked recently in an interview what his strengths were, he mainly thought it was his running and fitness.

The 2012/13 season has illustrated not only what a good player Majewski is, but how important he is to Forest. Billy Davies did not hesitate to install Raddy at the zenith of his midfield diamond, recognising the benefits of such a technically gifted player. He has formed an important bridge between the midfield and attack, necessary because Forest lack width in midfield – the strikers peel off to the flanks under Davies, collaborating with the advancing midfield, the first on the scene often being Raddy, who is gifted enough to be able to help keep the ball as Forest advance.

Proof of Majewski’s effectiveness is in the results: Forest picked up almost twice as many points in 12/13 when he played over 45 minutes (see stats, left). The statistics also show that having Raddy on the pitch sizably increased the likelihood of Forest scoring, more so than with any other player, and also Forest were less likely to let in goals with him on the pitch. This is due to the improved possession Forest enjoy with the Pole in the side.

A sign of how much value Billy Davies attached to him is perhaps the extent to which Raddy has been pushed into the media spotlight recently. His earnest and enthusiastic interviews have been a welcome change from the boring diatribe routinely spouted by footballers.
It was perhaps fitting, in a sardonic fashion, that it was Majewski’s inaccurate pass that led indirectly to Leicester’s fateful goal. In one way or another, Forest Boffin would argue that Raddy has been The Trickies’ most important player this term – both in his presence and absence. Majewski was on the pitch for less than half a season – he played 1849 minutes out of a possible 4372, yet he had such an influence when played, he was so important to the best, most enjoyable part of the season, that we do not hesitate to offer him up as an alternative, pound for pound, player of the season. With Forest almost twice as likely to pick up points when he played, we wonder just how well we’d have done if he had managed more time on the pitch.
 
Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Preview: Forest v Leicester

Forest welcome Leicester City to The City Ground as the season reaches a frantic climax. At Forest Boffin, we're in a state of ambivalence: there is dread at seeing rekindled hope kicked into touch by the boots of David Nugent, tinged with excitement at the glittering hope of Forest overcoming the odds and somehow making the playoffs after all. At one stage it appeared Billy would have secured those extra games before now - while disappointed this was not to be, we must not forget that after the first two thirds of this season, anything from here on is a bonus.

Leicester come into this final game on abysmal form. After magnificent start to a season full of promise, they have faltered since the end of January, winning only two of their seventeen games (in all competitions). Canvassing their fans has been more difficult than usual as they have been mostly tight lipped - I have even been accused of being Natalie Jackson spying for Billy - a lighthearted accusation, but one possibly indicative of the nervous and guarded demeanour of, perhaps, both sets of fans.

Despite having stumbled, it is important to remember The Foxes are still aiming for promotion, and are doing so on merit. Their players have not become poor overnight and will be more than capable of coming to The City Ground and taking all three points. Their seems to be issues with confidence at Leicester - if Forest give them a reason to be confident we may struggle - their results after scoring first (see charts, right) confirm this danger.
However, weakness has crept into Nigel Pearson's team. They have had a very inconsistent season, both in their quality and playing style. Their average possession has varied enormously, rising gradually while they are doing well but dropping alarmingly while losing. Since January their possession has fell gradually from over 60% to 46.33% (Leicester's average possession over the last 6 games). This may be a confidence issue, or it may be another disastrous tactical alteration from one of our promotion rivals. One knowledgeable fan claimed "lately we've gone a bit hoofball" - it's possible Pearson has changed their approach to utilise their strength up front in Chris Wood, or perhaps The Foxes don't want the ball when the going gets tough so are going long - either way this surrendering of possession has been a woeful development for them. Their results after conceding the first goal are poor (see charts above) - they lose in over 70% of these games - suggesting mental weakness.
 
One striking aspect of Leicester's season is the effect on their results the more free kicks they are awarded: they do worse the more times they are fouled (see clickable chart, right). They score more goals and pick up more points if they are not being fouled by their opponents. Assuming the referees are getting these decisions right (!) and Leicester are in fact being fouled, it suggests they can be bullied out of the game. Some of their fans refer to them playing some good football "when they have the ball" - I would theorise that this is only the case when they are allowed time and space on the ball, but when denied this and hustled, their young, physically and mentally weak side can't cope and so start knocking the ball long. This is the theory - an obstacle to which is that they have people in their team such as Big Wes Morgan and Lloyd Dyer - physically strong men who it would be hard to imagine being bullied, however I have been told that Leicester "are a very young side and haven't got many players with physical presence," suggesting there may be something in the theory.
 
This theory led Forest Boffin to inspecting Forest's statistics in this regard. Like most teams in the division, there is no negative correlation between The Garibaldi's 'fouls awarded' stats and results or goals scored - it is unique in this extent to Leicester. However, Forest's stats in regard to fouls committed are interesting (see left). Since Billy Davis has arrived, Forest are fouling on average 12.5 times per game, more than any other team in the division. This nasty streak instilled by Davies has made Forest more combative, competitive and has possibly been a reason for The Reds conceding less goals. Another side effect has been that opponents don't tend to like being kicked and react - there has been a marked increase in red cards for those playing against us. This new dirty side to Forest's game can only bode well in a game against a team who do worse when fouled
 
But despite Leicester's faults and Forest's revival under Billy Davies, the Key Battle(s) on Saturday won't be under our influence, they will be played out miles away in Bolton and London, for even if The Trickies win they are relying on others to help them reach the playoffs. Crystal Palace face The Posh at Selhurst Park, which may be the biggest chance of an upset considering both team's form. Peterborough have lost only once in their last ten games and are fighting for Championship survival, but realistically Palace need just a point and will be heavy favourites to claim their playoff place. Bolton are against a Blackpool side with nothing to play for - indeed they have a manager who has promised to improve on their league position next season - Blackpool could finish anywhere between 10th or 20th - while Forest Boffin is not suggesting The Seasiders would lose on purpose, a loss would certainly make Ince's target more achievable and so defeat wouldn't be the end of the world.
 
A win for Forest is essential therefor, but their goal difference and goals scored are worse than their rivals. A 1-0 victory for Bolton would see Forest needing to beat Leicester by 5 goals. Leicester have not conceded more than two goals in any single Championship match all season. Should Bolton only draw, it would turn Saturday's game between The Foxes and The Garibaldi into a straight shootout for the playoffs with a point being no good to either team - expect fireworks come 2 o'clock if Bolton are drawing!
 
Which all makes for a very exciting and nervous Saturday afternoon. Under the right conditions, Leicester are clearly a very good side full of quality, however their failings have been exposed and it seems Forest should be taking the three points. Will it be enough? The odds are against either us or Leicester having a chance, however this is The Championship, and anything can happen - hopefully the God of Chaos in charge of this division hasn't finished. Whatever happens, Forest fans have been treated to unexpected hope since Billy's return - will it feel even worse than before if the dream is snatched away? It's been a roller-coaster, hopefully there is yet another twist or turn ahead.
 
Thanks for reading, and COYR!