Sunday, 24 November 2013

Report: Forest 1 Burnley 1

Forest fought their way back from a goal down to draw against an impressive Burnley side on Saturday, and were unfortunate not to take all three points in an enthralling encounter.

This was never going to be an easy game when you consider what Sean Dyche has achieved at Burnley since his appointment last October. It is the free-scoring duo of Sam Vokes and Danny Ings grabbing the headlines, but Burnley’s real strength lies in the defensive improvements Dyche has implemented, organising and installing a defensive ethos into his team in a successful effort to slash the amount of goals they were haemorrhaging – the biggest improvement has been in away games; last season saw them concede an average of 1.5 less goals in away games under Dyche than before he arrived.

So it was always going to be difficult to break Burnley down. Billy Davies opted to stay with his new 4-2-3-1 formation, but even considering The Garibaldi were missing some key players, the line-up always looked more balanced and capable going forward than on previous occasions (see left, all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked). The two Jamie’s, Mackie and Paterson, were the wide men ready to attack the channels, in front of Lansbury and Jara playing in the holding positions.

But perhaps the main difference compared with the Blackpool and Leicester games was the presence of Radoslaw Majewski and Simon Cox down the middle. Majewski in particular is beneficial because, as I've illustrated on many occasions, Forest keep the ball better in advanced areas with him in the side – so adept at moving it along efficiently, this one player alone, improves our possession by several percent on average (see stats, below).

Simon Cox is also good at keeping the ball and bringing others into play, and he was at it again against Burnley in conjunction with Majewski, as Forest were using these two players to establish possession in the opposition half and then bring the wide men into play. Because Forest were able to keep the ball and put Burnley onto the back foot, Mackie and Paterson were able to get into dangerous positions and do damage with the ball.

Forest were thus more dominant than they have been for a while, not only because they could keep the ball in the Burnley half, but also because Burnley couldn’t get going in the Forest half – because the 4-2-3-1 system was ideal for nullifying the threat of Ings and Vokes. Davies had clearly done his homework defensively; the Burnley duo like to pass their way and run through the centre – the two holding midfielders, as well as the centre-backs, denied them the space to do so. Burnley ran out of ideas and (up until their slice of luck) had resorted to direct balls that were being gobbled up easily by Jamaal Lascelles, and in particular Jack Hobbs.
 
But Burnley did indeed get lucky; in a rare occurrence, they found some space down their right wing, with Kieren Trippier’s cross striking the arm of Gonzalo Jara. The crowd gave referee Carl Boyeson a lot of grief when he awarded a penalty, but this really is a grey area and if it were the other way around the Forest fans would have wanted a penalty. Vokes gave Darlow no chance – 1-0 to Burnley, against the run of play.

This prompted a minor wobble as Forest looked shaky, but they soon re-established their authority. Davies had his tactics spot on for this game, he knew how disciplined Burnley are defensively, but he also knows how to put extra pressure on this kind of defending, and he did so by encouraging Forest’s full-backs Lichaj and Cohen forward even more than usual. We’ve already seen how the extra man can confuse a rigid defensive system against Huddersfield (see our first goal of the season, here) – Burnley’s defence was being stretched to the limit.

The two wingers had a good game, in particular Jamie Paterson, who provided the breakthrough. The discipline of Majewski and Cox in keeping the ball rather than taking risks helped establish a base from which Paterson in particular could express himself – he was also exploiting space which was occasionally being left when the Burnley defenders had to worry about our advancing full-backs. A constant threat he beat his man for the equaliser, crossing perfectly for Simon Cox, who bundled the ball into the net. Cox deserved his goal, but Paterson deserves the credit for a great piece of play.

Half time rescued Burnley, after which Forest had another poor period, possibly caused by a shuffle in personnel. Eric Lichaj was withdrawn due to injury, with Jara retreating to right-back and Nathan Chalobah slotting into midfield next to Lansbury. The Chelsea midfielder took a while to get into the game, giving the ball away repeatedly and being slightly off-pace positionally – this delayed Forest’s progress, but to his credit he improved and The Reds set about putting more pressure on The Turfties.

Sean Dyche knows how to organise a defence, and Burnley produced a fine defensive displays. They were using two narrow banks of four (sometimes Danny Ings was dropping back to make the outer line a bank of five) and were organised very well so that very little space appeared; Forest couldn’t really get close to their penalty area un-harassed. They also proved their tackling skills – I was particularly impressed with Trippier, Mee and Shackell.

Another aspect of The Clarets' defensive play was the role of their two forwards, Ings and Vokes. I’ve already mentioned that Ings was dropping back to help (he may as well have, because he got absolutely no change out of Hobbs and Lascelles at the other end of the pitch – kudos to the Forest defenders), but they left a man up at all times – usually the bigger, stronger of the two, Vokes. This proved significant, because upon clearing the ball, Vokes acted as an outlet, fighting valiantly for the ball, and often winning it, giving his team respite and then passing the ball wide where Burnley were springing forward in a pre-planned tactic, taking the ball back into Forest’s half and relieving the pressure even more. It was a brilliant example of team defending.

Forest went close but were unable to get the winner. Billy Davies said afterwards that only one team were ever going to win the game – this is probably accurate. His team had much more of the ball, and created many more chances, but they could not dismantle the excellent Burnley defence, and in my opinion Forest’s progress was hampered by the changes Davies made – enforced or not. Djamel Abdoun replaced the influential Majewski as Davies looked for more penetration, less possession – I can see the logic but it turned put not to work as the Algerian proved ineffective. Henderson came on for Paterson and worked hard but could not find space, but the main setback was the introduction of Chalobah – not that it was his fault, but Forest were looking so supreme at the time, any change would have been a hindrance and Lichaj’s injury stalled Forest for the first ten minutes or so of the second half.

Forest outplayed and nullified the league leaders, apart from one piece of luck – that’s the chaos of football though; you don’t always get what you deserve. This was one of the most entertaining games at The City Ground for a while, one which everybody concerned can come away from happy. Some have been critical of the team recently – and it is a concern that Forest have not won any of their last three home games – but Billy appears to have them playing well again in this new system.

More of the same on Friday will surely see three points, but perhaps the most important issue of this coming week is the fitness of captain Chris Cohen, who limped off in the last few minutes with what looked like a nasty injury. Hopefully this very important player, as well as Eric Lichaj, recovers soon.

Thanks for reading, thanks to the BBC website for the quick stats, if you agree or disagree I'd like to hear from you, either in the comments section or on City Ground Faithful forum, the direct link to the relevant thread is here. COYR!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

End of term assessment: The defenders

Forest have assembled one of the strongest squads since their relegation from The Premiership. There have been mixed fortunes during various changing systems employed, but how have the players done through the first third of the season, starting with the defenders?
 
1. Karl Darlow - 1433 minutes played, 1.73 points per game*

Darlow continues to impress. The 23 year old has consolidated his position this season, clinging onto the goalkeeper’s jersey with a string of excellent performances. I’ve been waiting for the first real blunder from the academy graduate – I’m still waiting after 35 games and 3343 minutes of his Forest career. With a particular habit of making saves when all seems lost, Darlow seemingly has no weaknesses – if he keeps this up he’ll be in the running for Player of the Season.

This season, his minutes between goals conceded is the best of any Forest ‘keeper since the 2009/10 season (see left – all graphs and diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked) – although this is primarily indicative of a team improvement, it implies that Darlow has not hampered this progress.

2. Eric Lichaj - 1261 minutes played, 1.69 points per game*

The American has made a successful start to his Forest career at right-back, forcing the talented Gonzalo Jara to look elsewhere in the team for opportunities. Although steady when defending, it is probably his all-action attributes when coming forward that has gotten him so much game-time.
 
A feature of Forest’s tactics this season has been the attacking nature of the full-backs, with Cohen and Lichaj getting forward to support the midfield, providing much of our width and helping to outnumber the opposing defenders by making advanced runs. This is important for Forest for a couple of reasons – firstly the midfield is often very narrow, meaning the full-backs have been providing much of the width, and secondly Forest tend to try to keep the ball when attacking, passing and probing rather than playing risky balls. This is nice to watch, but it does allow opposition teams to get men back into entrenched positions – when Forest’s full-backs burst forward it gives defenders an extra man to worry about; Lichaj and Cohen have caused a lot of problems already this season by doing this.
 
The downside to the full-backs getting forward so often is that it leaves massive gaps in their position, which need to be filled by covering midfielders – this hasn’t always happened, as anybody watching the Doncaster and Middlesbrough games in particular will know, where we were punished for this. Generally Forest have been very attacking so far this season – nowhere else on the pitch does this manifest itself more. As fans we want to see attacking football; we may just have to accept that we’ll leak goals as Cohen and Lichaj push forward.

8. Chris Cohen - 1433 minutes played, 1.73 points per game*

As stated above, a feature of Cohen’s play this season has been the more attacking role given to him (and Lichaj). Naturally – in my opinion – more of a midfielder, Cohen has proven very dangerous when making these forward runs, providing a further complication for defenders when they have taken up entrenched positions (the Huddersfield goal is a good example of this, see above).
 
But we have also seen Cohen’s continued defensive improvement. The left-back position has been a worry for years – it’s no longer a weakness, with Cohen becoming more and more tenacious. He has improved the most with his defensive decision-making – at times last season he was caught out not knowing whether to go tight or drop off, this season I’ve not seen him have this problem at all.

One thing that has helped the full-backs this season is the better cover they have been receiving, especially from Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury. Forest’s weakness last season – especially under Billy – was their vulnerability to crosses. This was caused by a poor relationship between the wide-midfielders and fullbacks, and was such a problem that other teams were targeting The Reds in this area (see the beautiful job Cardiff did on us for an example of this). Over the summer, Billy seems to have stamped out this aspect of Forest’s defending; it is no longer a major issue.

3. Dan Harding - 220 minutes played, 1 point per game*

Harding’s chances have been limited by automatic choice Chris Cohen, only getting on the pitch when the captain has been moved elsewhere as an emergency measure, but when he has played he hasn’t let Forest down. He’s good to have as back-up because of his ability to get forward into the opposition half, which Billy has been telling his full-backs to do. His presence proves Forest’s strength in depth – he’d get in most Championship sides.

25. Jack Hobbs - 1433 minutes played, 1.73 points per game*

It has been difficult to fault any of Forest’s centre-backs so far – in my opinion they have done as well as they could under sometimes difficult circumstances, Hobbs has arguably been the most solid of them. He’s a big, strong unit – the kind of player Billy Davies seems to like to partner up with a slighter, more ball-playing defender. Hobbs usually forms the last line of defence, allowing his quicker partner to venture out of line if needed, and he’s done a good job. The thing I like about him is that he keeps things simple – he’s a defender, nothing more, nothing less. You can see why he was a big part of a team promoted last season – like Wes Morgan, the only question is, is he mobile enough to make the step up into The Premier League? From his showing so far, there are far worse defenders in the top flight.

22. Kelvin Wilson - 531 minutes played, 1.83 points per game*

We’ve not squeezed as many minutes out of Wilson as we’d have liked so far – due to injury he’s only played 55 minutes in the last 9 matches. However when he has played, he’s looked his old reliable self, and it’s no surprise that Forest have done better when he's played. We’ve not had much to complain about concerning his replacements, but the sooner we have his composed influence and distribution back in the side, the better.

One thing we have seen is the defenders having to come out of the back four to cover space left in midfield. Opposition players running into this area has been our biggest issue defensively, the positive action in tackling this has left us short at the back, contributing to several goals (Bournemouth and Charlton for example). But even on these occasions, the remaining defenders have done well to re-organise themselves, filling the gaps left and covering the most dangerous areas smoothly. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Forest’s defending so far this season – the Cohen, Wilson, Hobbs, Lichaj defence looks particularly well organised and adept at communicating.

5. Danny Collins - 435 minutes played, 2.2 points per game*

Collins has performed capably, filling in for Wilson until he too was injured. From a defensive point of view, the games in which he has featured has been The Garibaldi’s most successful – with Collins on the pitch it has taken our opponents 217.5 minutes to score a goal on average – this is up with the best defensive records in the division (see right), and far better than any other Forest player. Perhaps underappreciated by Forest fans (when asked last season, only 28.6% of fans thought Collins was good enough to be in the team), he’s given absolutely no cause for complaint in 2013/14.

16. Jamaal Lascelles - 236 minutes played, 1.33 points per game*

It’s still too early to judge Lascelles, but since breaking into the side he’s not done too much wrong, and I did note that he did a good job in keeping Blackpool’s Ricardo Fuller quiet – a good sign for such an inexperienced centre-back. The youngster looks quite good coming forward too. With Forest’s injury problems in this area, now is his big chance to prove himself.

15. Greg Halford - 525 minutes played, 1.5 points per game*

One of my favourite players, you have to fear for Greg Halford in his fight for a permanent first team place. He has stated at the start of the season he “needed to nail down [a] position” – yet he’s been played up front as much as in defence, where he is more suited. To be fair he’s done well when he’s played, but he looks destined to be a utility player, which is perhaps unfair because he’s good at this level. It will be interesting how the rest of the season pans out for Greg – it’s great for Forest to have someone like him ready to step in, but not ideal for him as he’ll be desperate for the game-time which he would get elsewhere.

18. Gonzalo Jara - 287 minutes played, 1 point per game*

More proof of The Reds’ strength in depth, Jara’s appearances this season have been dominated by tactics. As alluded to above, he has struggled to displace Eric Lichaj this season, partly because of how well the American has been doing, but more significantly Lichaj’s propensity to get forward has suited Forest’s tactics. Jara’s return to the side has also been influenced by what system Billy has employed, as the switch from his diamond formation to a 4-2-3-1 has allowed Jara an opportunity in defensive midfield. He’s not had that much game-time, but the Chilean has looked very tidy, and he’s began to look as if he can even be a creative force from this deep position. He is quite technically gifted for a defender, and has looked to have an eye for a pass too. If Davies opts to continue playing this system, expect to see a lot more of Jara in midfield.

There are some really mean defences in The Championship this season – it’s debatable whether Forest have shown themselves to be one of them yet. Individually our defensive players have performed very well, however weaknesses in our system have perhaps made it too easy for our opponents to have chances in certain games. We have been leaving too much space in defensive midfield areas, inviting disaster.
 
The stats back this up. We have conceded 16 goals so far – the seventh least in the league. Comparing this with past seasons would seem to suggest we’re not too leaky for a playoff space – as mentioned above, on average we’re doing better so far than our last three seasons – including the 2010/11 playoff year. Yet Billy will want to tighten up a little more – and he appears focused on this. He was clearly loathe to change from the diamond system (I base this assumption on the sheer number of players he tried to replace Guedioura with) yet he has done so, in an effort to stop space appearing in the midfield. This will effect us going forward, but cannot fail to improve our defensive record. Hopefully this will not make us too defensively balanced for the rest of the season – it will be interesting to see how Billy adapts Forest’s tactics with this in mind, and how the different personnel cope with their adjusted duties.
 
On the whole I think the defenders we have are more than good enough to get us promoted - I even suspect the majority would do ok at the top level. The problems Forest have encountered defensively have largely been due to space appearing in our midfield, and the (albeit rare) inability to hold onto the ball further up the pitch. The defence have played very well so far.

Thanks for reading – this is part one, I’ll look at how our attacking players have been doing very soon. You can discuss this article on City Ground Faithful forum - a direct link to the topic is here. COYR!
 
* Points per game only includes games where that player has played for 45 minutes or over.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Heroes & Villains: Goals conceded 12-16 & analysis

A continued look at how Forest are conceding their goals, which in turn is highlighting the main defensive problems Billy Davies is having to solve. This project is subjective, but also not set in stone; corrections, opinions & contribution are welcome.


12. Bournemouth (1-1) Marc Pugh

I think everyone in the ground half expected The Cherries to equalise, and from a tactical point of view it's a revealing goal, exposing a recurring problem for Forest. The Garibaldi were under significant pressure, due to not being able to keep possession up the pitch, but they are caught out because of the gap in front of their back four.

As the ball comes into this unguarded area, Kelvin Wilson comes out to deal with the problem. I've struggled to fault Forest's defence at all so far this season, and here, again, they are doing their job. Wilson advances to stop Bournemouth striker Tokelo Rantie being able to just turn and have a free shot on goal. This leaves a gap in the defensive line, which the remaining defenders have to deal with - they do this apparently automatically, a sign that they are very well organised. As a result of this, the defensive line is much shorter as the play comes closer to the Forest goal (see diagrams, right. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked).

This shorter defensive line obviously cannot cover every dangerous position - so it is positioned in the most dangerous area, the area just in front of goal, but in this instance it leaves more space where the right back would normally be covering - but because Wilson is out of the defensive line, Jara has re-organised himself to become an emergency centre-back... there is no right back. Wilson's challenge results in the ball squirming into this area, where Pugh is waiting; he gleefully slots the ball under Karl Darlow and runs to join in with the corybantic Bournemouth celebrations.

I've been asked why the defence had to contract to fill the space Wilson left - why not just mark their men? It was 4 on 4 after all? The answer to this is that the main objective of the defenders is to protect the goal - if the goal is being threatened in the manner it was, by an aggressive runner surging dangerously towards it, you need more than 1 on 1 defending, there needs to be a contingency in case Rantie gets past Wilson. The main threat is the ball, if the defenders had merely each picked up a man, they may have been dragged off anywhere - then maybe another Bournemouth player could make a secondary run into this now empty space - there is simply not time to telepathically ensure every attacker is covered, so the defenders instead defend the most dangerous area - in front of Karl Darlow's goal. There just aren't enough of them in this instance.

This goal is caused by Forest's lack of midfield cover, forcing Wilson to come out of the defence and try to deal with the problem himself. This is Forest's biggest problem, I've a theory that I'll be able to link the vast majority of conceded goals back to this defect at the moment, and once sorted it will give Forest a footing to express themselves as they were before the departure of Adlene Guedioura.

Players out of position: The midfield!
Players beaten for skill: None.
Goalkeeping error: None.

13. Yeovil (0-1) Ed Upson

Ed Upson's deflected volley came out of the blue, preceding Forest's worst defeat of the season so far. Being hyper-critical, you could point out that it's a shot from the dangerous area in front of the penalty box, however there is a defender able to get in a block - unfortunately the ball spins off at a totally unintentional angle, ricocheting past Karl Darlow, who is wrong-footed.

The ball falls for Upson, who hits it first time, from an errant defensive header from CHris Cohen - defending a throw in. It's not the best header, but harsh to blame the goal on him. Just unlucky in my opinion.

Players out of position: None really.
Players beaten for skill: Cohen could have done better with his header, but harsh.
Goalkeeping error: None.

14. Yeovil (0-2) Ed Upson

Upson's second goal is more worrisome - again one of our opponents is able to exploit the space that frequently appears in front of our defence (see left). The ball falls to the Yeovil midfielder and he takes the invitation to run towards the Forest goal - unopposed - and gets a shot off at long range before any Forest defender can get close.

The problem here is one of position - Forest are simply not defending the area in front of their defence. Gonzalo Jara is playing in defensive midfield, you would suggest the responsibility is his - the Chilean is chasing the ball elsewhere. This problem has been a common theme, and prompts changes from Billy Davies in the next match, his patience finally running out.

Poor old Darlow once again has next to no chance.

Players out of position: Jara.
Players beaten for skill: None.
Goalkeeping error: None.

15. Yeovil (1-3) Byron Webster

A rare goal conceded from a corner, Webster is able to get away from his marker, flashing a header onto the inside of the Forest goalpost which is judged to have crossed the line. It's impossible to tell who was marking him, as there are two Yeovil players bunched with two Forest markers in the same space - I think it's possibly Henderson who loses him - but I can't be sure.

Forest don't let in too many from set pieces - this goal does not concern me.

Players out of position: None.
Players beaten for skill: Possibly Henderson - impossible to tell.
Goalkeeping error: None.

16. Blackpool (0-1) Scott Dobbie

Dobbie's goal should not have counted, because old-boy Nathan Tyson was stood offside, however three are a couple of mistakes in there by Forest - nothing major though. Blackpool were finally putting us under a little pressure - we were unable to keep possession out of our own third (anywhere on the pitch actually) so it was slightly akin to a defence v attack situation - The Seasiders really ought to have been able to get a goal at some stage. So the main defensive problem here is not the errors in defending, more Blackpool's cumulative ability to constantly put our defence under pressure, after Abdoun's red card.

The ball is played high into the area, and a Blackpool player is able to nod down to Tyson far too easily, who battles for the ball which squirms to Dobbie, who knocks it past Darlow (again not at fault). Eric Lichaj has the chance to clear during this mêlée, but misses his kick.

Players out of position: None.
Players beaten for skill: Cohen is marking the man who knocks it down. Lichaj could possibly do better.
Goalkeeping error: None.

We're around one third through the season, and the nature of the goals against Forest is, in my opinion, telling a story about the evolving weaknesses of the team. I personally break down the season into three loose but distinct tactical phases:

  • Diamond system with Guedioura (games 1-5)
  • Diamond system post Guedioura (games 6-13)
  • 4-2-3-1 system (games 14 & 15)
Unfortunately these three tactical phases are of dissimilar timeframes, but I believe they still help to paint a picture of what has been going wrong (not that I think all that much has been - but this is an exploration of why Forest concede goals).

Our most successful period defensively was the first phase - with Guedioura playing at the base of the diamond. I've spoken extensively about the tactical implications of losing him here and here, so I'll just summarise here how the goals we've been conceding backs this up. My contention that without Guedioura there has been too much space appearing in front of our defence, bears itself out here; undefended space in front of the defence accounted for no goals in phase 1, however they contribute to 6 out of the 12 goals during phase 2. I must point out this is a subjective issue, however I can back this up, and have done in the preceding Heroes & Villains posts.

In my opinion, this has been our biggest weakness, and it is also the reason that Billy Davies has dropped the diamond formation for our last two games. It is noteworthy that this space has not been appearing with any regularity in these two games - the two defensive midfielders - and indeed the rest of the team - have been defending this area jealously.

I have a test of whether the defence, and system, is doing it's job defensively - it is not a perfect test of whether the defence is working, more a personal test of whether I am happy with the defending, and it is as follows: have the opposition been able to score without beating a forest player for skill? - or to put it another way, were they able to score because Forest players allowed him an unacceptable amount of space, or because they weren't doing their job? I don't mind seeing a defender bamboozled by a great bit of skill - I just don't like to see our opponents jobs made easy.

And tellingly, during phase 1 (with Guedioura), none of the three goals were scored without a Forest player being beaten for skill - I was happy. Even the Wigan goals I was content with - the Wigan players swash-buckled their way through challenges and deserved their goals. However, during phase 2, 50% of our goals failed my test - and I was being generous (I let Forest off for the Middlesbrough goals because they were pushing forward to get a goal and were hit on the counter-attack).

Although yet unproven, I expect the number of goals that fails my test to drop again, if we continue to play two defensive midfielders, because I think this problem all stems from the lack of organisation, or understanding, in this area of the pitch. Our defensive problems are due mainly to the loss of Guedioura, in my opinion.

The amount of goals we're conceding through set-pieces has dropped - this is due, in my opinion, to our opponents being able to get through into scoring positions with out a Forest player being able to get close enough to foul them. At times, we have been powder-puff in front of our defence - they've been getting through this area too easily.

A side issue that we need to keep our eye on is that a couple of our goals (against Brighton and Blackpool) have been contributed to by Chris Cohen not asserting himself in the air, allowing his man to make easy knock-downs, leading to goals - but this is a small issue compared to the major one.

This article was always going to be critical by it's very nature - I'd like to reaffirm my trust in the Forest management at this point. Every team will concede goals - I'm not having a go, merely discussing them, because they're interesting and help paint a picture of what's happening on the pitch. I find it reassuring that Billy Davies has changed the system. I would personally prefer to see us make the diamond system work, but if it can't be done yet (it clearly took a lot of work over the summer for the players to form the necessary understanding), at least it shows Billy is addressing our most serious tactical problem.

Thanks for reading, well done if you're still awake, and COYR!
 
Feel free to get in touch if you disagree or want to discuss, here, on City Ground Faithful forum. You can read the two preceding articles which look in detail at our goals conceded here, and here.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Why Billy changed the system vs Blackpool

As Forest have hit a bit of a rough patch, much has been made of manager Billy Davies’ tinkering with the side in their latest game, against Blackpool – where his tactical alterations did not work. I’ve been critical of Forest’s tactics myself over the past few weeks, but the manager’s tinkering has illustrated one thing which should give Forest fans hope; that he has isolated, and is tackling, the team’s biggest weakness – the defensive midfield situation.

What has been the problem? Simply stated; the sale of Adlene Guedioura.

In the five games Guedioura played this season, Forest unveiled a new, more fluid midfield which gave each player licence to move around the pitch as they deemed fit. The midfield system against Huddersfield was so interchangeable I dubbed it the washing machine, as Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura cycled through each other’s positions. Guedioura is good at driving forward, but is also prone to abandoning the area in front of the defence to go out wide to press the ball – it's clear to me that the midfield had put in a lot of work over the summer to form an appreciation of this, working on their organisation and defensive awareness – they learned to cover each other’s positions in the defensive phase, especially Guedioura's.

This new level of understanding and organisation was best demonstrated against Watford – positionally the midfield were perfect, working hard in a great defensive effort (see right – all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked).

Billy Davies has since said that no one player was assigned these defensive midfield duties – that they were all expected to pick up this role, and this ethos gave Forest a flexibility that helped their free-flowing style, however if the midfielders are not highly organised, especially while employing a diamond formation, attempting this tactic is bound to leave gaps in dangerous areas of the pitch.

Yet none of the goals we conceded up until Guedioura was sold were caused by the appearance of these gaps. Immediately afterwards though, we looked, and have been continuously, porous in the area just in front of our centre-backs, with opposition teams able to run into this area almost at will. The Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Doncaster games were particularly alarming in this respect.

The understanding developed over the summer, the knowledge of when to cover the roaming Guedioura as he battled elsewhere on the pitch, the organisation, has not been there since his departure.

This has now resulted in a lot of space appearing in front of the defence – obviously making it very easy at times for opposition players to drive towards our goal, and find room to shoot at range. But as we'll all have noticed this, I want to focus on another problem this causes which has hurt us even more.

It is the extra strain on our defence I want to highlight. Our back four have done an outstanding job so far this season, but have at times been let down by the amount of space appearing in front of them, sometimes forcing them to abandon their own positions to come to the rescue. Often they have been able to save us, but we’ve conceded goals because of them having to do more than their fair share as the midfield allowed gaps to appear.

The first hint of this was the passage of play leading to Barnsley’s penalty (see diagram, left). Some good movement by Barnsley players leaves Andy Reid isolated for a moment on the left wing. Cohen sees this and steps out of the defence to prevent Reid being double-teamed, leaving space in the left-back position, which David Perkins runs into and draws the foul as Guy Moussi – too far away to make a safe tackle. This was the start of a worrying trend for Forest – the defender (Cohen) was out of position because he was covering the space in midfield.

This was not poor defending from Cohen. When problems appear on the edge of the box, the right thing to do is to act, to stop the threat before it gets into range – opponents must not be able to have things so simply that they can appear with the ball unchallenged on the edge of the box. Even if the defender leaves space behind him, it is still more complicated for attackers to find someone in this space to pass to than simply having a shot themselves.
 
Perhaps the clearest example of this was against Bournemouth, in an incident which should have been a warning to Forest – because The Cherries later score from this exact scenario. Here, Danny Collins does well to challenge Tokelo Rantie, who has run through the our empty midfield with the ball (see right). The gap left in our defensive line was immediately filled, with Hobbs and Jara redeploying themselves slightly, effectively acting as the centre-backs for a few moments. This left Forest with no player covering Jara’s right-back position, and there was a man over; if Rantie had been able to find him there is a problem.

Tactically, Marc Pugh’s goal was conceded in identical circumstances – Wilson this time rushing out to challenge Rantie (see left). This time the ball does find it’s way to the spare attacker, Pugh, who has time and space to hit the equaliser. The diagram to the left shows the moment Wilson comes out, before the defenders behind him have closed up - notice the player next to Forest's right back - that is Pugh, the goal-scorer.


We’ve another example of Forest getting into trouble because of this against Charlton – this time Eric Lichaj feeling the need to come out of the defence to press the ball (see right). Forest’s defence appear to have adjusted smoothly, with Hobbs replacing Lichaj at right-back, and Chalobah dropping back into the defence next to Danny Collins – all very well positionally. However, Chalobah then goes on to make a very slight defensive error allowing his opposing forward to get away from him and get in an effort on goal, which eventually leads to Charlton scoring. I propose that if the midfield were defending the area in front of Lichaj properly, the American would not have felt the need to leave the defensive live, then Hobbs would not have moved out to the right-back position, then Chalobah wouldn’t have been playing as a temporary centre-back – and I further propose that Hobbs wouldn’t have let Sordell get away from him. All very theoretical, but I believe it to be realistic, and I see it as another goal contributed to by defenders trying to do the midfield’s job.

It is this weakness in front of our defence that prompted Billy to change his system against Blackpool. The hoo-ha revolving around our strikers has been disproportionate – our real problems, since the Wigan game, have come from the defensive midfield area. The amount of goals this problem area was contributing to will have forced Billy Davies' hand – I can point to 6 out of the 12 goals conceded in this unsettled period leading up to the Blackpool game that were caused by positional failures in this area of the pitch. The Garibaldi were desperately weak in this respect.

To combat this, we changed to a 4-2-3-1 system, in an effort to stamp out the space appearing here. I’ve already described how this system contributed to our downfall against Blackpool in my last article, however if we only focus on the system’s dominating purpose, which was to solve our problems in the defensive midfield area, we have to say it achieved this aim.

The inability of Forest to keep possession, especially in the Blackpool half, put a lot of pressure on the defence – yet I understand where Billy was coming from when he said that he couldn’t see Blackpool scoring. From a defensive point of view you could argue the system was a success, limiting our opponents to few clear-cut chances and a goal which was clearly offside so should not have stood.

I think I’ve shown conclusively – and I think we all knew anyway – that Forest have been experiencing major organisational and positional problems in defending the area in front of their defence, since the sale of Guedioura. Not only have our opponents been able to run a will through this area with the ball, it has also been putting too much strain on our defenders, pulling them out of position too.

Billy Davies was right to try to address this weakness. Desperate to keep his relatively successful diamond system, he’s tried Moussi, Lansbury, Cohen, Chalobah and Jara at it’s base, but none have been able to fit in to Guedioura’s old role. It’s been a major issue, it was understandable that he switched formations to provide this area with more cover.

The diamond of Majewski, Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura, had an entire summer to work on their understanding with one-another. Their fluid transitioning of positions was not a normal, or accidental, thing at this level of football. Because of it's shape, the system is prone to weakness in front of the defence (see right) – the midfield need to be as organised as they were at the start of the season for it to work from a defensive point of view – the advanced wide midfielders are generally further away from the full-backs meaning the defensive midfielder can often be dragged away from his own area – he needs help, as the Forest players were doing so well against Watford.

Given time, Forest may be able to once again create that understanding with their defensive midfielder - Vaughan is an intelligent footballer, hopefully he'll be able to take on the Guedioura role, but it was a big ask for him to step straight into this against Blackpool. The diamond formation requires a lot of teamwork - Billy Davies was probably justified in going for a tighter system in light of the problems we have been seeing, which I've shown effect more than this area of the pitch. We were simply giving our opponents too much room here, and we were conceding too many goals, as the stats above illustrate.

I talked about the sale of Guedioura in a previous article, where I discussed the effect it would have on Forest going forward; I totally missed the real damage this would do, and I think Billy did too. Sometimes the right personnel come together for a system and click, form that understanding and it works - the games leading up to his departure were solid from a defensive point of view - even the goals conceded because of the Algerian's failure to deal with problems were not positional, he was just beaten for skill - it this league that will happen. The Classy Bull was a better defensive midfielder than I for one recognised, and suited to Forest's style of play.

I hope The Reds are able to return to their free-flowing diamond system when Vaughan settles in - it's a good, entertaining little formation and the benefits going forward make the organisational effort worthwhile. I see them playing the 4-2-3-1 against Leicester, but afterwards we may revert, and if they get it right there won't be as much strain on our defenders. 

Hopefully I've not been to hard on the Forest management - I do think they were justified in their 'tinkering'. Thanks for reading, you can comment on City Ground faithful forum here.. COYR!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Report: Forest 0 Blackpool 1

Forest made it three disappointing results in a row as visiting Blackpool snatched three points from a game where Billy Davies' tactical recalculations failed to pay off. The Garibaldi are having serious problems adjusting their midfield since losing the key figure of Adlene Guedioura - once more that played it's role in their misfortune as Davies abandoned his workable diamond formation in an attempt to plug the gap in front of the defence.

I'd like to point out, with sincerity, that I am Billy Davies' number one fan. Without him, Forest have been nothing short of mediocre, under the Scot we are a force in this league, entertaining and (when in full flow) genuine promotion candidates - yet in my, albeit amateur, opinion King Billy has gotten things wrong in recent weeks.

Davies welcomed The Tangerines by changing Forest's system. The diamond formation has been relatively successful since Billy's return, and had incurred problems, but over the summer it was clear the midfield had done a lot of organisational work, however since the departure of holding-man Guedioura, there has been a lack of cover in front of the defence. Davies has stated that it was never one man's responsibility to cover this area defensively, however I would suggest that the midfield have lost that organisation and understanding which is necessary if the four midfielders are going to shuffle these responsibilities. The gaping holes in front of the back four recently have cost Forest goals and stability.

Bringing in new signing Vaughan against Blackpool, Billy opted to have two men protecting the back four, rather than one, employing a 4-2-3-1 formation (see diagram, right. All diagrams & graphics on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked). This extra defensive player sacrificed an attacker, meaning Henderson was up front alone, in front of Lansbury, and Abdoun & Mackie who would be making inroads up either wing. I can understand the inclusion of players you would recognise as proper, mobile, wingers in Abdoun and Mackie - they were a threat going forward with the ball. Also, the inclusion of Lansbury was a no-brainer, as he's been one of our better players this season and is a constant threat. However these changes meant there was no place for Andy Reid or Raddy Majewski - both of whom were missed. As things turned out, Forest also missed the dogged niggling of Simon Cox, as Henderson struggled to keep the ball on his own.

Playing one up front at home is a bold move; home teams should be pushing forward, on the attack, but against Blackpool it severely hindered Forest's threat going forward.  Henderson, at a time when many fans are questioning The Reds' strikers, was asked to do the impossible. Even with 11 men Forest expected him to hold up the ball - often from direct balls, and then teleport himself instantly to the middle ready to knock in a cross. With only himself up front, he was forced to look for space away from the central danger-area (where there were two central defenders and a midfielder marking him), either off to the sides, or deeper, meaning that when he did win the ball, and Forest were looking to play in or cross to their striker - he wasn't there.

With only Henderson in an advanced position we lost that ball-winning, possession clinging presence that Forest have based their game on - this was a good example of the merits of Simon Cox, who would have acted as an outlet for Forest, would have kept the ball in wide areas until the cavalry arrived. With Henderson the only man up front (unless Lansbury made an overlapping run), when he deviated to help fight for the ball, it left not one in a dangerous position.

We also missed the linking midfield talents of Raddy Majewski. Forest were having to play longer balls up to Henderson, or play balls into the wingers Mackie and Abdoun - however they are quite decisive players and not the men to keep possession. The Blackpool defence were back in numbers, meaning that our wingers and solitary striker could not hold onto the ball for any length of time in the Blackpool half. We desperately needed someone like Majewski, or even Cox or Reid, to hold onto the ball in advanced areas in order for the rest of the team to push up the pitch and help.

However, despite my moan, Forest were creating a few chances  because of the endeavour of the front four players, forcing the issue - especially Henri Lansbury who was having an exceptionally effective battle with Blackpool's seven defensive players. We had what appeared to be a good shout for a penalty turned down, as Henderson looked to get a shot in - Billy Davies has argued we "had one or two good chances" and this may be the case, but in my opinion Forest could not keep the ball in the Blackpool half well enough because our our system and I couldn't see us winning the game.

This was before we even went down to ten men.

At the time I didn't catch why Djamel Abdoun was in the left-back position (at a guess I'd say he was covering Cohen, who was pushing forward, as he does, and as I like him to do so I've no complaints), but it looked a definite penalty and sending off from where I was sitting in The Trent End - I'm open for correction though? After Darlow's heroic saves Forest were forced to change their set-up, with Billy Davies saying afterwards that "our tactics and shape after Abdoun's red card went out the window". I think he was being harsh defensively, but attacking we were utterly misshapen, with Henderson becoming more and more withdrawn into central-midfield, and Lansbury going out wide to where Abdoun was.

This was a conservative approach from Forest in my opinion. Blackpool seemed more than happy with a point, indeed only Tom Ince seemed intent on creating anything out of the ordinary. Forest stuck with the two defensive midfielders, which continued to restrict the opposition's attacking players space, but our constricted formation meant that whenever we won the ball, there was nobody to play the ball to - no outlet whatsoever. We would play the ball out to Henderson, who had retreated back to his own half, and he would be over-powered by two or three Blackpool players. The only joy we had was the occasional burst down a wing, when the likes of Mackie managed to beat a player - but even then the Forest player still had to beat the rest of the Blackpool team, because there were never any Forest players in front of him.

At this stage Henderson was reduced to a shambling mess - the effort was there but, seemingly personally responsible for at least half of the pitch, he simply couldn't cope, or outfight the multitude of Blackpool players that smothered his every move - I felt sorry for him to be honest as I listened to the unfounded negative comments in the stand. Any world-class player would have struggled in his position - his was an impossible task. A fresh and lively Greg Halford fared no better when he came on.

The first objective in changing Forest's system was a success; Vaughan and Jara protected the Forest defence adequately, therefor we were not subjected to a Yeovilesque barrage of long range shots, nor did players run through into our soft-spot like Bournemouth's Tokelo Rantie did so often, but this change came at a price - the extra player in our half made it harder to keep the ball in their half.

I've not seen Blackpool's winning goal since the game; it's been said to be offside - this may well be the case. However, the ball had been loose in the Forest area once or twice before that incident, and the failure to keep the ball, resulting in cautious Blackpool having many opportunities to try their luck, probably deserved misfortune. Forest perhaps didn't have the run of the green, however teams in this division are going to make things difficult at best, and even before Abdoun's sending off Forest were not keeping possession in the opposition half. We have good players and a good manager, but so do other teams, and if we don't get things right tactically, we won't win.

Back to your diamond formation please Mr Davies!

Thanks for reading, & thanks to the BBC website for the quick stats. I'd love to hear if you disagree with my opinion, here or on City Ground Faithful forum (link to thread). I believe in our manager, and our players, we win more than we lose, and I think we'll do the business this season and go up - I don't mean this to be a lambasting, more a critique. If things had gone differently we could have won today, my criticism is based on the perfection Forest achieve in my over-active, Kronenbourg befuddled imagination - no big downer intended. COYR!