Monday, 17 June 2013

Getting defensive part 2: Partners in crime

Since our return to The Championship, Forest have appeared to be particularly vulnerable down their flanks, no matter who is in charge or what formation they employ – it has led to some of our full-backs looking poor. We at Forest Boffin would contend however, that this problem has not been one of personnel – it has been down to a poor relationship between those full-backs and their midfield support.

The centre-backs is not the only defensive partnership on the pitch, a 'winger' (or any midfielder responsible for the space down our flank) must form a relationship with his full-back as well –  left to fend for himself the full back will simply become outnumbered (see an example from the Cardiff game below, in which Jara is left to defend alone. All pictures and diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked).

Whether because of the unsettled side, tactics or the attacking nature of certain midfielders wearing the Garibaldi, these partnerships have been rare at The City Ground – the only recent example was that of Chris Gunter and Paul Anderson. Anderson vexed many Forest fans who felt disappointed that he didn’t fulfil their expectations of him being a flying winger. While it was true that he wasn’t tearing through opposition defences, he was benefiting the team when Forest didn’t have the ball. Disciplined positionally, he supported Gunter by doubling up on opponents and knew when to make the under-lapping runs that freed the right-back allowing him to move safely away from the centre-backs without leaving space. Forest were much more solid down our right with these two playing, in stark contrast to the left side – which was targeted by opposing sides because of the space to be found there.

At Forest Boffin we believe this is still a problem – it's possible there is a culture of neglect in this area and base this theory on the continued lack of improvement, which will be highlighted below. The team is crammed with creative players, however they are all central players either unused or unwilling to engage with a full-back and form a partnership.

The problem is at it’s most obvious when our opponents are attacking one of our flanks. Forest Boffin first noticed this habit in the days of Colin Calderwood and it hasn’t gone away whoever has been in charge. As a team brings the ball down one side of the pitch, Forest’s defence correctly shuffles over to meet the threat (see diagram, left). In this instance, the midfielder on the opposite side of the pitch has a job – by shuffling across the full-back furthest away from the ball effectively becomes a centre-back, leaving space; it is the midfielder’s job to defend this easily exploited space. Paul Anderson was particularly considerate of this threat. As a rule, Forest’s more attacking midfielders neglect this duty.

A good example of this problem can be seen when viewing the first goal conceded away at Leicester (see right). The ball has come down The Foxes’ right wing and Forest’s defence have shuffled over to meet it, leaving a huge swathe of empty grass on our right. David Nugent has noticed this space, as has our right hand midfielder, Chris Cohen, who can be seen to glance knowingly at Lloyd Dyer, surely recognising the threat. Bafflingly, Cohen does nothing about it until it’s too late. Nugent receives the ball and plays in Dyer who runs into the space and eventually causes a goal – but it’s not done especially quickly. Cohen has ample time to get close enough to help defend this area but decides against it. This unwillingness to defend this area of the pitch is no isolated incident – it is habitual and does not seem to vary with personnel.

The worst example of this last season was the last goal Millwall scored at The City Ground in November. It is arguable that, with only ten minutes to go and trailing 3-1, the players could have given up (arguable – but certainly not acceptable!), but once again it shows that Forest’s attacking players have no interest in defending this area of the pitch, Simon Cox and Lewis McGugan being the guilty parties here making no effort to track back and pressurise James Henry – who had all the time in the world to play an accurate cross which resulted in a goal. Neither player were likely to have covered enough ground to make a tackle, but by not bothering to put pressure on him he had time to reach a more dangerous position and to concentrate on a better pass.

McGugan is again guilty of this neglect at home against Burnley, along with Andy Reid (see right). Against Millwall you might argue he was tired and the game was already over – but it is only the 19th minute when McGugan and Reid decide to just let Kieran Trippier have a totally unmolested cross, actually jogging lazily away from him when the picture is taken. Martin Patterson hits the post and Forest survive.

I could pick out examples of this in just about every game, and while most teams will do this at times, this is a particular problem at Forest and has been for some time. It could be forgiven if this was the players not recognising the danger or being caught out of position because they are trying so hard to get a goal – but in our opinion they seem to recognise the problem and are often in a position to do something about it – they just don’t seem to think it is their job to assist the full-backs in defending this area of the pitch.

Could the reason for this be the type of player they are? McGugan and Reid – by far the worst offenders (in our opinion) are by far our most creative. Either one of them can create a goal out of nothing and are amongst the best in The Championship when their team has the ball, but what about the other half of the time when we do not have the ball? If they are not going to play their part defensively, then that is around 50% of the game we have to carry a passenger or two. In this highly competitive league, nobody can afford passengers however good they are. McGugan’s goals have been crucial, and Reid is easily our most productive creator (as will be proven in an upcoming article), but the fact is they do not form partnerships with full-backs and it hurts us.

In defence of the midfielders, this is a teamwork issue as much as neglect on their part. You often hear the professionals stating that they “defend as a team” – the fact is Forest often don’t. When a goal is conceded it is tempting to blame the defenders, but without teamwork their job is impossible. Derby’s goal at The City Ground is an example of Forest being ripped apart because they are not defending as a team (see right). Like with the centre-backs, if there is too much space between the full-back (Harding in this case) and the winger (Reid) it can be exploited. Reid has no idea how much space is behind him, because he has no defensive relationship with Harding whatsoever – they are defending as two separate entities. The Irishman goes chasing the ball, trying to win it but not being mindful of the space he’s left. Harding cannot close up this space because Paul Coutts has taken up a clever advanced position on Derby’s right wing. Forest’s central midfielder could help by either stopping the ball getting to Will Hughes, or defending the space Reid has left – he does neither, Craig Bryson plays a 1-2 with Hughes allowing him to get past Reid and exploit the space. Harding is stranded now, alone and outnumbered he cannot stop Coutts getting the ball, or crossing for Bryson to score.

But it does not take such a clever move to breach a defence not playing as a team – look at what happened against Huddersfield (see left). Reid and Harding are again defending as two separate entities rather than as a team. It’s two against one here – there shouldn’t be a problem, except Harding is at fault this time, again there is too much space between him and Reid, allowing Jack Hunt to beat them one by one, rather than having to beat both of them working as a team.

When isolated Harding has shown himself to be beatable, as in the above example, yet in his defence, and this goes for all of Forest’s full-backs, in the circumstances he has a very difficult job because full-backs at Forest don’t get enough support from the midfield. Harding is a good defender at this level – we have all seen him prove this by keeping Wilfred Zaha quiet last December, and he has proven it in gaining promotion with Southampton.

To be fair, the better wingers at this level should be able to get past the likes of Harding at some stage over 90 minutes. Players like former African Footballer of the Year El Hadji Diouf and future England star Nathan Redmond will inevitably create something if your defence has any kind of weakness. The Championship is littered with players as talented as these two – we’ve seen how to defend against these kind of players at the City Ground recently – not by Forest though! Barnsley and Blackpool have shown us what is required defensively – the solution is to organise and team up against the more skilled players, to deny them the space they need. At no stage against Blackpool could a Forest player take someone on without immediately having someone come to his rescue – we only managed a goal because one of these ‘rescuers’ mowed down Simon Cox.

Forest have been guilty of sacrificing their defensive teamwork to allow their creative juices to flow – this is not surprising since our most influential players are all attackers, nor is it particularly objectionable – we all crave goals after all. But since this is a defensive critique the point needs making. Do we want a Paul Anderson type on both wings, or two Andy Reids? Midfielders who can both defend and attack are exceptionally rare at this level; they will all have strengths and weaknesses, the trick is finding the right balance. Forest fans should probably be satisfied with what they have been seeing on the whole - this is just an area we believe they could improve, a critique not a lambasting. We would like to stress that we're not having a pop at our midfielders - we're aware that at this level, we can't have everything.

This article has picked up on what we at Forest Boffin believes has been, and still is, Forest’s biggest weakness. We are blessed with creative players who are great to watch with the ball, but fail to develop a defensive relationship with their full-back, and this leaves us vulnerable down our flanks; we believe this lopsided nature of our increasingly centrally based attacking talents have led to a culture of neglecting their defensive duties, so much so that even the likes of Chris Cohen have been caught falling into this trap at times. It hasn’t mattered who is our manager, or what system we play – our opponents are consistently able to find space in wide positions, get in lots of crosses and outnumber us in this area, which at times has made our full-backs appear out of their depth.

It will be interesting what additions Billy Davies makes over the summer, and whether he tackles this problem - which is at least as big an issue as that of our centre backs - which incidentally will be the subject of the last part of our dissection of Forest's defending in part three of Getting Defensive, coming in a few weeks. Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Getting defensive part 1: Full backs and square pegs.

Perhaps the most lamented tactical issue since Forest’s return to The Championship has been the left-back problem. During the last four seasons we have seen an excessive amount of players tackle this position – 12 in fact, with the slot currently occupied by Chris Cohen. Can he hold onto his place here next season? And is the shuffling between left backs clouding over a more serious defensive issue which leaves Forest especially frail down our flanks?

The hunt for a permanent left-back has been an ongoing source of frustration for the fans over the past few years, various managers have swapped between various players – some being played out of position – we will adopt Billy Davies terminology and call them square pegs – and some being 'proper' full-backs (round pegs).

For all his ruminations about "square pegs in round holes", Davies seems to use them more than the average manager – for example, he has played a non-full-back as left back in 53.3% of his matches at Forest, compared to the combined total of 24.7% of the times the other managers have done so. It would appear Billy is not prepared to weaken the team merely for the sake of having a proper player in that position (as further proof of this, see how he’s played Adlene Guedioura last season – in a holding role not best suited to him).

Billy plays the best players rather than the player who is best in that position – this has benefited Cohen who has now played 37 times at left back for The Garibaldi. Although this method is generally considered not to be ideal, it is difficult to argue with Davies' method here, as his record as manager is far superior to the other managers we’ve had in recent years.

Indeed, comparing results by left back sees Cohen comparing well – Forest have collected 1.57 points with him playing in this position, the fourth best total of all the twelve contenders. Although it’s important to remember that we are only talking about one position – not even the most important position and there is a lot more going on than what’s occurring in Cohen’s area of the pitch, however these statistics show that having Cohen, a square peg, playing at left back, does not automatically have a detrimental effect on results.

The counter argument to this is the spectacular effect it appeared to have when Davies added Nickey Shorey to the side. Although only over a short period, the difference was obvious as Forest played some of their best football in The Championship – is a quality left back the missing piece of Forest’s jigsaw?

Under Davies, there has been a significant improvement in results when he has used a round peg for a left back (see stats of Billy's games at Forest, right, click to enlarge). Forest have collected 1.8 points per game when he has used a proper full back here, as opposed to 1.58 points when he hasn’t – this would equate to a ten point difference over a theoretical season.

However, we must remember that the left backs Davies has been able to bring in have been of a much higher quality than those of his contemporaries. He brought in the likes of Shorey, Bertrand and Konchesky – other managers were only able to manage Harding, Cunningham and Elokobi. With all due respect to these last three players – Forest Boffin especially respects Dan Harding and recognises that he is a good player at this level – there is no comparison. The left backs Davies brought in are far superior and were bound to have a positive effect on the team.

Despite what he says in the press about square pegs in round holes, Davies won't, and hasn't, imported any old left back to fill a position, he ensured they were better than those already at the club. It’s something he talks about often, about bringing in faces that can improve things. Are the round pegs of Harding and Cunningham, for example, significantly better than square pegs Chris Cohen and Joel Lynch? We would suggest not.

Indeed, statistically it hasn’t been the case that you need a proper full back in this position – playing with square pegs has only left Forest fractionally worse off. In the last four seasons, Forest have averaged 1.49 points per game with a proper full-back, compared to 1.44 points per game with an out of position player - the difference negligible.

Cohen has performed admirably in defence, once again our player of the season. His work rate and understanding of the game ensure he is able to do a job – as he probably could in any position – and he hasn’t looked out of place performing in difficult circumstances. There has been a distinct lack of midfield cover for this position, which will be covered in our next article, ensuring this position to be a bit of a poison-chalice. Tactics and a lack of defensive commitment from Forest’s creative midfield have made this a difficult job which has sorted the men from the boys. At times we at Forest Boffin have felt sorry for the likes of Dan Harding and Greg Cunningham as they have been tore apart, outnumbered such as they have often been – Cohen has not let us down here and done better than most - Forest's defence have arguably performed better with him as left back than with the round pegs of Konchesky, Cunningham, Elokobi, Harding and Gunter, for example (see goals conceded chart, left).

It’s reassuring to have Davies at the helm as his tendency not to fill a position without improving on what he has will stand Forest in good stead from the left back point of view – there are other more important factors in this area of the pitch to consider than personnel, as will be explored in our next article. A top class full back like past loanees Nickey Shorey or Alan Wright will be good enough to paper over the cracks, but unless Forest bring in someone of top quality, Forest Boffin is more than happy for Cohen to be given the chance to make this position his own. If other issues are dealt with, we do not believe he needs replacing.

Thanks for reading, and look out for our follow on article, Getting defensive part 2: Partners in crime, which is a companion to this post and looks at the shaky relationships between Forest’s full backs, and the wide midfielders. COYR!

Monday, 3 June 2013

Player analysis: Adlene Guedioura

Robert Snodgrass steps up confidently and whacks in the penalty - Forest Boffin must have used a months subscription of Forest Player on this clip alone, usually wearing a glib expression. As the Leeds player celebrates, you can see a frustrated Adlene Guedioura in the bottom corner of the shot - possibly cursing in Arabic - he'd just given away the penalty that put his side behind and looks angry. Leeds won't like Guedioura when he's angry...

Guedioura's riposte - a thunderbolt that almost vaporised the Leeds net - was the catalyst for one of the most memorable victories in recent memory, a 7-3 victory at Elland Road. Under Steve Cotterill Guedioura proved nothing short of a revelation. One of several loanees used to patch up Forest’s makeshift side, he helped avert what would have been a disastrously timed nose dive into League One (you would argue that any such relegation could be described as disastrous, however for ownerless Forest, staying up was essential).

With Guy Moussi enforcing in midfield, Guedioura was given a freedom to rampage forward using his excellent passing range to make a decisive difference (see left). Between the Moose and himself, Forest had the muscle and energy required to win the ball, which was then smuggled to attacking outlets such as Andy Reid or Gareth McCleary.

It was no coincidence that McCleary at this time began to realise the potential he had lurking under the surface. Guedioura had a carefree confidence and flair which seemed to infect the rest of the midfield, he also had the technical ability to hold onto the ball long enough to pick out men in space. Guedioura’s performances were amongst the most impressive witnessed at The City Ground at this level.

Under Sean O’Driscoll Pep’s role changed subtly, as he had a slightly disappointing start to the season. Intentionally or not, the Irishman narrowed the midfield and tried to replicate the style of passing, consolidatory football he found relative success with in his Doncaster days (see right). Guedioura was initially moved into a less central role in Forest’s narrow midriff, and many surmised this slight change of position was to blame for Guedioura’s quiet start, but we would now argue he was not suited to O’Driscoll’s possession football. It’s not that Guedioura isn’t capable of keeping the ball, but he is at his best playing decisive, risky passes and beating his man with quick feet. Playing a brand of football which by it’s very nature limits the risks you are taking with the ball, which instead promotes short intricate passing, is not playing to Guedioura’s strengths – this diminished his impact.

Upon the arrival of Billy Davies Guedioura was immediately withdrawn to the defensive midfield position. Teams had been pressuring Simon Gillett on the ball and Davies astutely recognised Guedioura would be better able to keep it under pressure. The Algerian is a typical swashbuckling midfielder who relishes battle at close quarters, he is also capable of using the ball much more decisively than Gillett and found immediate success spraying the ball forward where Forest’s strikers were making themselves available in increasingly wide positions, supported by Raddy Majewski. The Classy Bull, as Guedioura was known in France, proved so successful in this role that opposition teams were forced to sit back more to deny space to those runners looking for his passes (see diagram, left).

Guedioura was effective in this withdrawn role because of his technical ability and energy, essential because of Forest’s narrow midfield. With fewer outlets in the less congested wide positions, whichever midfielder was closest to the defence would need to be good with the ball, else Forest would have to resort to hopeful punts up-field.

This position negated the most striking aspect of Guedioura’s game: his eye for goal. Forest fans are used to seeing him have a crack from distance, and he can also make dangerous late runs into the box, yet under Davies these have been less prevalent – in fact he did not score in any of Billy’s games despite playing for over 1200 minutes.

Another reason why this position is not ideal for Guedioura is his tendency to hunt down the ball, abandoning his own defensive position. This was best highlighted in our final game against Leicester but began as soon as Davies implemented his tactical changes. When a team attack Forest down either flank, Guedioura tends to close down the ball, but this leaves The Reds vulnerable in the centre (see diagram, right), which is a much more dangerous area of the pitch to leave space. Forest have struggled defending their flanks for years largely because of the poor off-ball relationships between wide midfielders and full-backs – playing a holding midfielder like Guedioura who is not tactically experienced adds to this problem. An organising defensive midfielder in the mould of Paul McKenna wouldn’t allow himself to be dragged away from his real responsibilities so easily. We shouldn’t be too harsh on Pep in this regard since he’s only trying to cover for weaknesses in other areas, yet his lack of experience in this position is easily exploited. Guedioura is touted as a defensive midfielder, however Forest Boffin would contend that he is more of a ball-playing, energetic box-to-box midfielder rather than a tactically astute, hard tackling interceptor who breaks up play.

It is a testament to the Adlene’s ability that he has been used in so many different midfield roles – the different managers have all wanted him in their team, Davies even playing him in an unsuitable role (in our opinion). This is because the level of quality he possesses is highly beneficial to the team’s performance wherever he plays. Over the last two seasons, having Guedioura in the team has significantly improved the team’s results (see stats, left).

If we were extrapolating and comparing the figures over a theoretical season, Forest with Guedioura would collect 65.78 points over 46 games – in this year’s Championship that would be good enough for 8th (where we finished). However, remove the Algerian from the team and Forest would collect only 52.9 points, which would leave us theoretically relegated in 22nd position. This is only in theory obviously; however as an exercise it highlights the fact that when he has played, we have tended to do better..

Billy Davies has a lot of decisions to make this summer, chief of them will be the shape of his midfield – what role if any will he have Guedioura play? Hopefully The Classy Bull will play an important part because there are few finer sights at this level than the Algerian swivelling on the ball to play a long, lateral pass to someone in space, or him rampaging towards the opposition penalty area. His progress last season has been hampered by his versatility – a settled role which suits him will surely see a return to his best, which is why Forest Boffin predicts big things for Guedioura in the season to come.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!