Thursday, 27 February 2014

Are Forest too negative when ahead?

Last week Billy Davies issued a prickly rebuttal of suggestions that his Forest team were losing points through sitting on leads – from being, to use a dirty word, negative.

The Reds have lost 17 points from winning positions this season. If Davies’ side were able to kill off these games they would be top of the league with 72 points – this is perhaps an unreasonable expectation, but Forest have lost by far the most points from winning positions of all the promotion candidates (see right. The figure in brackets is the amount of games in which the team has been winning at some stage - Forest's have done so often, but this does not account for the discrepancy in lost points).

This is because, for a side so high in the table, The Garibaldi struggle to hold onto a lead – our opponents have equalised on 46.2% of the occasions Forest have led. Again, comparison with our rivals is concerning (see left).

Conversely, they are excellent at taking the lead, doing so on 26 occasions, and are the second best team in The Championship at getting back into a game, equalising on 66.6% of occasions after falling behind.

The question must be asked; what do Forest do differently once they have gotten themselves in front? The situation they find themselves in drastically alters the likelihood of scoring or conceding – it is no wonder some fans are wondering whether a change in mentality is causing these habits.

Do Forest come out of attack-mode when they have something to lose? Or do these statistics reflect an adventurous but young team playing attractive, expansive and speculative football?
Having established that Forest are good at getting themselves in front, but mediocre at staying there, we need to inspect closely where these points have been dropped. This has occurred in 8 games this season (see left, minutes of last conceded goal included). You will note that apart from the Wigan defeat, Forest have been the victim of second-half equalisers in all of these games.

Upon closer examination, it is difficult to credibly suggest that any of these goals conceded were directly caused by Forest being negative or sitting on their lead – in fact in some cases there is a stronger argument to say they were being too attacking.

Watford was a good end-to-end game in which Forest were pushing hard for a second goal – indeed Forest had 4 efforts on goal in-between half-time and The Hornets' 54th minute equaliser.

Forest didn’t have much time to be defensive before Wigan equalised, it would be harsh to say they were sitting on this 8th minute lead.

Charlton were all over Forest, going all-out for their deserved equaliser. The Reds were defending – and had only 3 attempts in the 47 minutes leading up to the equaliser – this is perhaps the most negative of all the dropped points.
The Bournemouth equaliser was not caused by trying to hold onto the lead, tactical issues allowed The Cherries to out-number Forest’s defenders (see right, all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged when clicked).

Reading and Bolton both equalised late in the game from free-kicks poorly defended. Home teams are always going to earn set-plays when chasing the game, but these two goals were easily avoided and caused by a lack of concentration, not negative play.

Forest were caught out against Blackpool trying to begin a counter-attack; being too adventurous, if Forest had sat on this lead instead of pushing forward they would have won.

Finally, Leicester equalised from a clumsily conceded penalty. In between taking the lead and Leicester’s equaliser, Forest had 7 attempts on goal – more than The Foxes, carving out some good chances. They were not sitting on this lead, indeed they were pushing hard to kill off the game.

There have been other late capitulations this season; If Raddy Majewski let the ball trickle out of play against Sheffield United, Forest might still be in the cup; instead he retrieved it in the hope of hitting The Blades with a counter-attack – Forest were trying to go 2-0 up rather than being satisfied with 1-0. Jordan Obita’s goal for Reading at The City Ground is another example - Forest were caught out while pressing forward.

Therefore, there is little or no evidence to show that Forest have dropped points from being negative or attempting to hold onto a lead, but are Forest even doing badly in the latter stages of games?

Rather than losing out due to being overly protective of what they have, Forest are actually strong finishers – only Derby have scored more goals in the latter stages, and only Brighton, Derby and Leicester have conceded less (see enlargeable chart, left. Stats courtesy of

The period in which Forest are at their most vulnerable is actually the beginning of a game; they have conceded 12 goals in the first 30 minutes – only 3 teams have done worse.

The above statistics do not tally with the idea that Forest are not positive enough at the end of games, they end games well scoring a high amount of goals. One team that are relatively poor towards the end of a game is QPR. It is notable that Harry Redknapp makes a lot of negative substitutions with the hope of defending what he has – they suffer because of this in the last period of games.

This brings us nicely to substitutions; if Billy Davies is trying to defend a lead, if he’s not being positive towards the end of games, it will show in the changes he makes.
Analysing this season’s substitutions – of which there have been 94 so far – implies that Davies actually tends towards positive changes, replacing a player with a more offensive one on 25.5% of occasions, compared to making changes which will tighten things up on only 9.6% of occasions (see left).

We can see that the manager’s attitude to subs changes depending on the situation at the time however – two thirds of the negative changes are made with Forest in a winning position, but he is still more likely to make an attacking change in this situation than a defensive one.
We also see Billy tries to turn draws into victories rather than settling for what he has; 50% of all attacking substitutions are made from drawing positions, a disproportionately high amount.

So we see that Billy Davies uses his substitutions not to tighten things up, he actually changes things to make Forest more threatening going forward. This is reflected in a high amount of goals scored by The Reds towards the end of games.

Billy likes to fight his corner and has picked up on an area of concern expressed by some fans (it seems clear to me that he pays close attention to social-media and fans forums), but just as in the past where I have tried to debunk his arguments (see "Clinical finishing: was Billy right?"), Davies’ logic is sound; there is no evidence that Forest lose points because they are trying to hold onto a lead, or being otherwise negative in their approach.

The Reds are certainly better at getting themselves in front, and coming from behind, than they are at defending a lead, but this is not because they are switching to a more defensive or negative ethos, it is perhaps more down to, as Davies says, naivety from some of the younger players, in both switching off, and taking risks when they should perhaps be more cautious.

It’s disappointing that Forest have let so many leads slip this season; 17 points is a lot to drop, however we’ve seen that it’s difficult to argue, having looked specifically at the games in question, that we’ve lost out because of trying to sit on these leads. The substitutions Forest have made have tended to be quite attacking – and Forest have performed well in the final stages of games.

If Billy Davies can find a way to kill off opponents he’ll perhaps have the final piece in the jigsaw – but the solution isn’t to be more positive, because Forest are already one of the more audacious sides in The Championship.
Thanks for reading, thanks to for statistical help, let me know what you think, and COYR!

* Note on attacking/defensive substitutions: This is sometimes a subjective issue, I've based these judgements not only on the normal position of the players being changed, but also my experience of how attacking or defensive they are, and changes to the system the change has made, and other re-shuffling that occurs within the team as a result of the sub. For example, on several occasions the defensive midfielder has come off for a full-back (defender), and Cohen has gone into midfield - I have not considered this as a negative (defensive) substitution, merely a re-shuffle, as Cohen can play in midfield. It's a subjective issue, but I'm confident of most if not all of my judgements.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Forest 2 Leicester 2

The year: 1990 (ish). The place: a training pitch just off Quarry Lane, Field Mill, Mansfield.

"Boffin, come here." To be honest this guy scared me, but I wandered over. "Listen, if there's one thing I want you to remember from tonight, it's this: when under pressure defending long or high balls, never let the ball bounce. Now get lost."

This adolescent memory has been bouncing around my head all night, but what ought to be remembered is an exciting game of football between two highly motivated sides. Leicester set up as we thought they would in our preview, and were clearly up for this game, starting brightly.

The Foxes played one of the more stylish brands of football we've seen away sides use at The City Ground - in fact only QPR, Derby and Blackpool have out-passed them this season, although they were prepared to send it long when necessary; an ability which has sometimes been lacking from Forest.

The Reds' as expected deployed Reid and Jara deep in midfield with the intention that they run the game, picking out Majewski in the centre, as well as Mackie and Paterson on either flank.

It was Paterson who proved Forest's biggest threat initially. Beforehand, I suggested that our wingers might be able to creep in behind Leicester's full-backs; this was not the case as both were quite disciplined, however another suspicion was more accurate, as de Laet in particular was left unsupported at times by his winger, and was given a torrid time by Paterson.

The young Scottish winger is a worry; if Forest fail to earn promotion this season he will surely attract the attention of Premiership clubs. Rapidly improving, he's now consistently dangerous and has become our next biggest threat behind Andy Reid.

Tactically there isn't too much to be said about the game; both managers stuck to their guns as the two sets of players tried desperately to find a breakthrough. There was a lot of effort put into closing down opponents, and Leicester perhaps looked the closest to causing a failure in Forest's passing game, but to their credit the likes of Jara, Reid and Majewski persevered. Under pressure, both teams gave away and won back the ball frequently, and both teams looked capable of edging in front. It was a good, competitive game.

Being so evenly matched, and under such a high tempo, individual error was the most likely cause of the first goal, and it came in the Forest defence. I always shudder when defenders allow the ball to bounce at it plummets downwards, and here Collins and Lascelles did just that, under pressure. Darlow - not at fault whatsoever (unless he called for the ball? But even then the defenders should have taken the responsibility themselves) could only punch the ball on the edge of his box, it fell kindly to Jamie Vardy, 1-0 to Leicester.

Forest then went through a very shaky period with the players feeding off of the crowd's frustration, allowing Leicester to assert themselves. A feature of Billy Davies sides is that they prioritise defending and do so as a team (see this in action, right. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked). This has invited criticism in the past - pulling all your players behind the ball means you struggle to go forward - but this was a key phase of the game where it was vital not to concede again; a good example of this kind of mentality keeping Forest alive.

The period of desperate defending saw Leicester in total domination and vexed the crowd, but inevitably Forest came out of it towards the end of the first half and scored from a corner, and with both sides going for it Jamie Mackie then earned a penalty. Billy Davies has since complained that it was a blatant sending off - I've watched it several times and cannot make up my mind - but Andy Reid was never going to waste the spot-kick and Forest found themselves in front!

The second half was characterised by attackers from both teams asserting themselves and individual errors from the majority of players. The game was being played at a high pace, and as the night went on we could see that Leicester were slightly fitter - although as Billy Davies will tell you, they had an extra 10 days rest beforehand. Reid, Fox and Cox all came off because Davies though they needed a break.

The Forest central defence continued to look uncomfortable. It is my opinion that Collins has done superbly when called upon this season - and to be fair he did a lot of good work against Leicester, but he didn't quite command the area in front of goal like Jack Hobbs does. Lascelles also suffered from Hobbs' absence; Collins wasn't ordering him around as much, I think the youngster still needs someone to organise and reassure him to be at his best. This area of the pitch continued to be a weak-spot for Forest.

Twice  more in the second half the defence allowed bombs from Wes Morgan to bounce in front of the penalty area, resulting in Jamie Vardy almost getting in on goal (see left), and inviting Leicester onto us shortly before their equaliser. I think our defenders take more risks because of Forest's play your way out of trouble style - for example, you'll also see them getting into trouble passing the ball around when they should hoof it. It's nice to see Forest trying to play the game in the right way, but there is a time and a place - the bouncing ball situation occurred an amazing 3 times, it should have been knocked into row Z. I suppose people would only moan if the defenders just start hoofing the ball away.

Then came two debatable refereeing decisions. Firstly Paul Konchesky's red card, for what looked an over-aggressive challenge on Jamie Mackie. I was surprised to see a red card to be honest - and video replay suggests this to be slightly harsh, but it was on the cusp between yellow and red, and if Konchesky has gone in with both feet off the ground (it's impossible to see on the replay) he deserved to go.

This event galvanised the Leicester players and they came at Forest like a whirlwind, and I always thought their equaliser was likely. It came from the penalty spot, Jamie Paterson - so brilliant coming forward, clumsily pushed into Danny Drinkwater from behind. Drinkwater, perhaps 3 stone heavier than the lightweight Pato, went tumbling a little easy, but it was definitely a foul so Forest can have no complaints.

Kevin Phillips took the penalty. I love watching Phillips play - but not against Forest because he's superb. I'm a big fan of intelligent movement, which is why I admire Simon Cox, but Phillips is on a higher level; he was making life very awkward for The Reds and spraying around some clever passes - but was denied for the penalty by a superb save by Darlow.

Unfortunately Leicester gobbled up the rebound and scored a deserved equaliser. Another of Billy Davies' gripes was some possible encroachment by Leicester players during the penalty, but this complaint is invalid as it happens during every spot-kick, even Forest's. We all know Davies is part manager-part politician (just like most managers to be fair) - he is always ready with reasons as to why things didn't go perfectly, and I don't begrudge him this, as there are plenty of folks gunning for him; he needs to fight his corner more than the average manager.

This was a fantastic game because both sides were highly motivated to get three points, and both managers had solid tactics. They were quite evenly matched, and playing at a very high tempo, so it was inevitable that both sides would make a high amount of individual errors. Forest passed it around better, and got around the back of Leicester a few times, while Nigel Pearson's side pushed Forest back and were threatening enough to cause errors.

I thought Leicester were the best team I've seen Forest play this season, but this bothers me, because I wonder what difference the injured players would have made; in my opinion we would have beaten them quite comfortably with a full side.

Well played Forest - but we'll see whether a draw was enough on Saturday against Burnley. Lose and The Garibaldi will trail second place by 8 points. Although a difficult proposition, Billy perhaps needed to beat Leicester, but it was not to be.

Thanks for reading, let me know what you think if you've time, and thanks to for statistical help.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Preview: Forest v Leicester City

As the Captains of the West rode towards Mordor with what remained of their battered army, they knew they were approaching the critical point of their campaign, and also that the odds were heavily stacked against them. Perhaps this is how Billy Davies feels this week, leading his injury ravaged Forest side against the dark forces of Leicester and Burnley.

League-Champions-elect Leicester will probably play a 4-4-2 against Forest, pushing forward either full-back to support their two creative midfielders, winger Lloyd Dyer and Anthony Knockaert, who plays on the right but tends to drift inside. They have a solid core which protects the centre of the pitch effectively, and a plethora of dangerous forwards who between them provide a variety of threats for every occasion.

While scouting them for this preview, I have been extremely impressed with Jamie Vardy. He is not the most high-profile player on their team – perhaps that honour goes to Knockaert or Nugent – but in my opinion he’s the most dangerous. When on song he has superb technique and lightning pace, and an aggressive determination to get in an effort on goal. He also has a good work-ethic.

Forest must not play too high a line, as Leicester are more direct away from home (they average 48.9% of possession, compared to 56.5% at The King Power Stadium) – they will look to play balls betwixt our full-backs and central defenders for Vardy to run onto. We must also avoid any defenders becoming isolated against Vardy, who has the acceleration and skill to explode past them.

Home or away, Leicester conjure most of their attacks down either wing with the aim of crossing the ball; in their last match against Watford, they made an impressive 44 crosses. Similar to Forest, their full-backs are quite adventurous, and when on the attack they will cross the half-way line and join the midfield.
Commendably, Leicester seem to go for the throat rather than playing cautiously, but this leaves them vulnerable as Konchesky, and to a lesser extent de Laet, get caught out of position (see an example, left. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked). In my opinion Billy Davies targeted this trait earlier in the season as a weakness. This will be a key area of the pitch again, and whenever The Blues have come unstuck this season, this is where their problems developed.
This may also be exacerbated by the attacking nature of Dyer and Knockaert – I’ve not seen much evidence of either having formed a defensive relationship with their full-back, so even when in line, there have been occasions where the defenders have been unable to prevent crosses (see an example, right).

The adventurousness of Leicester's full-backs could be influenced by the system Billy Davies plays, i.e. the number of strikers employed. We saw against Reading what sometimes happens when Forest play one up front – it can free up opposition full-backs to get forward more offensively, and press into our midfield when defending. An extra striker will automatically help pin back Konchesky and de Laet.
However, their absence when forward has, in my opinion, been Leicester's Achilles' Heel – if Billy opts to play two up front, making them more reluctant to press forward, he may actually make our opponent’s defence stronger in a game we need to win (see diagrams below). As funny as it sounds, one up front may, in this instance, be more adventurous than two!

Just as I suggested prior to the Watford game, this is another opportunity for Simon Cox to use his intelligence and drift into the space behind positive full-backs. We saw the havoc he caused almost immediately in that game when introduced at half time – he needs to start this game, up front on his own.
Also, if Cox is played up on his own, it will allow Billy to use two wingers to support him, exploiting
this space themselves when Cox doesn’t. If Forest play two up front, the midfield will probably be narrower, and these players will play in the more congested centre – where Leicester are strong. As mentioned above, in my opinion Knockaert and Dyer aren’t as defensively minded as they could be – another reason not to play a narrow midfield.

The Reds have massive injury problems which will be tempting Billy to bring back his diamond system (with two strikers, the one kind of player we have plenty of), but because of the above reasons I think he should proceed with a 4-2-3-1, withdrawing Andy Reid to a more defensive position. It is a shame, because with Vaughan and Lansbury in the side, this would be a much easier game. Forest could really do with Reid in the attacking midfield position, whatever system we play – it will be interesting to see how Billy juggles his midfielders as I can see this becoming a problem area.

A key battleground defensively, apart from stopping Jamie Vardy, will be how Hobbs or Lascelles handle David Nugent. The ex-England international had the better of things against Lascelles earlier in the season, particularly in the air and should have found himself on the score-sheet. Leicester crossed the ball 26 times in that game. They will probably play a few more through-balls this time – as Forest won't be defending as deep – but Nugent et al will still be a threat from crosses. He will also be a threat from the penalty spot – he alone has taken 10 so far this season, scoring 8.

The Garibaldi will have to get everything right, because Leicester are full of confidence – as befits a team on route to the title. And with that confidence and winning habit comes the rub of the green – they been fortunate in a lot of the games I’ve seen, particularly away from home against teams like Bournemouth, Leeds and Millwall, and have benefited from a lot of marginal refereeing decisions. Winning teams give birth to luck, and Leicester are earning theirs aplenty. I have the feeling if Forest are going to get anything out of this game, they will have to earn it conclusively, because things are falling nicely for City.

A key aspect of earning that result will be scoring first, because Nigel Pearson’s team have the highest win-ratio in The Championship when they draw first blood – a whopping 90%. This is down to their ability to protect a lead, their opponents have been able to equalise on average only 19.2% of the time, but away from home, where they are more cautious, this drops to 16.7%.

But Forest are one of the two Championship teams who are outstanding at forcing their way back into games (Burnley are the other - no other Championship team comes close at fighting back). We know they have superb character, and they equalise on average 69.2% of the time they fall behind. And should The Reds’ score first, they also know how to finish teams off, especially at home where they win 88.9% of the games in which they do so. Overall, this drops to 63.2% - Forest struggle more to hold onto a lead away, but at The City Ground they are lethal. The first goal may be crucial.
This week is likely to define the remainder of the season for Forest. Do well, and they will have proven that even without Cohen, Lichaj, Wilson, Lansbury and Vaughan (half of our first team) we are one of the best sides in The Championship, and will be in a strong position; do poorly and we will at best be playing catch-up until May – at worst fighting to cling onto a play-off position. Lose against both Leicester and Burnley, and we will be nine points behind second place, Derby and QPR will be pulling away, Reading, Brighton, Ipswich and Wigan will be hunting us down, and the fans confidence will be tested. This is a massive week for The Garibaldi, and considering our opposition and injury situation, it’s as difficult as possible.
But this is a winnable game for Forest, especially at The City Ground. Billy Davies has gotten one over on our rivals already this season, in a game where Forest rode their luck but defended well in an ideal away performance. This week is the acid test for Forest; their injury situation is what it is – there is no realistic prospect of replacing players like Vaughan and Lansbury adequately, it will merely be a case of muddling through with the players we have; this time next week we'll know where battered and bruised Forest stand. To continue the Lord of the Rings analogy with which I began, beating Leicester, and afterwards Burnley, is not quite as epic a task as casting The One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom - but the odds are against us, and our automatic promotion hopes are in the greatest of peril.
Thanks for reading, thanks to for statistical help (fantastic site), and COYR!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Player under the Microscope: Darius Henderson

Ask Forest fans what has been missing this season – even ask the manager – and sooner than later the phrase “clinical finishing” will be mentioned. It would be easy to conclude that The Reds’ strike force of Simon Cox and Darius Henderson had been sub-standard; this has not been the case.
Hendo has been one of the best target men at this level for a while now. It is unusual for this type of player to score too many goals, but that isn’t what they are generally there to do. Henderson is most influential when providing an outlet, receiving the ball when Forest attempt to come forward.
Direct play isn’t generally the Billy Davies way; he likes the ball played to feet and to build up possession gradually. The forward’s role in this is often to pull out into space – typically onto the wing - and help establish a foothold in enemy territory (which is why Simon Cox and Jamie Mackie are so admired by Davies).
But our manager is canny enough to realise that his ball-hogging tactic can’t always work, and has equipped the squad with a variety of forwards capable of playing different roles; Henderson is his option for when Forest are having trouble retaining the ball in the opposition half. He uses his strength and is particularly good at receiving the ball in the air, and although inconsistent, on his day he can be extremely effective with the ball played to feet.
Henderson is so good at this aspect of play, that at this level he can completely change a game. Good examples of this were the home game against Middlesbrough, and in particular the 3-2 loss against Reading. Although defeated, Forest's recovery against The Royals was impressive, and largely due to Henderson's influence. He linked up threateningly with Simon Cox, but most significantly his presence unsettled a defence which up until half-time had been pressing forward causing problems for Forest's midfielders.
Davies has made good use of Henderson’s ability to bring something different to a game; 15 of his 22 appearances have been as a substitute, and it has been very effective. After his introduction, Forest’s situation has improved 6 times, worsening only once (see chart, right).
This effect is all down to being able to keep the ball – the more you’re able to do so in your opponents half, the less pressure your defence will be under, and the less goals you will concede. This season, we have let in goals over 20 minutes slower with Henderson on the pitch, as opposed to when he’s not been present (see stats, above).
But, I hear you say, isn’t a ‘strikers’ main task to hit the net? In some cases yes – but this is a wildly simplistic assertion. It’s dependent on a player's role (as I have discussed in detail here, here and here), but it’s certainly useful for any front-man to be able to score. How does Henderson do?
Taking into account length of time on the pitch, Henderson is the third most ‘lethal striker’ currently playing in The Championship, and has the fourth best record overall (see table, right). Only Adam le Fondre, Ross McCormack and Connor Wickham (now no longer a Championship player) have scored more regularly in this regard, Henderson has scored, on average, every 141.7 minutes. To put this in perspective, in the unlikely event of Darius keeping this up while playing an entire theoretical season, this form would see him net 30.8 times.

The statistics are even kinder when you take into account the manner of those precious minutes on the pitch. We hear time after time the importance of strikers playing regularly in order to settle into a team – consecutive starts are a huge advantage; Ross McCormack has started every league game for Leeds this season, he was less effective for Cardiff when he was only able to play sporadically - this is no coincidence.
Of the 20 top strikers in the league, Henderson fares the worst in terms of regular game-time, in fact he has only started a maximum of 4 games in a row. This seems to be a feature of Billy Davies’ tactical thinking, he is inclined to chop and change depending on the situation, and while his methods are proven to work (only 2 teams have scored more goals in The Championship than Forest at the time of writing), it cannot be easy for his strikers to build up any kind of rhythm.
I’m not suggesting that Darius Henderson is some kind of Pele-esque goal-machine – we have all seen instances where he has lacked composure in front of goal, but the fact is his strike-rate compares favourably with his contemporaries. 64 other forwards have played 700 minutes of Championship football this season, 61 of them are behind big Darius in average time taken to score.
Personally I would expect this statistic to fade slightly if Henderson were allotted more starts; it is my belief that he is being abetted by a manager who knows just how and when to use him. He is introduced cleverly, when his skills will be at their most effective. Nevertheless, this is only a theory and you can’t take anything away from Henderson, he is a significant goal-threat.
And he can certainly finish – anyone doubting this, or under the belief that he is technically poor should watch the goal he scored during our victory at Brighton. Technique, awareness, hunger, composure, clinical finishing – he displayed it all.
Perhaps the only drawback to this player is that he’s not the man for every occasion, that certain brands of football do not play to his strengths – and indeed the last three times Henderson has played over 45 minutes all have one thing in common: Forest lost. But my opinion is, and the facts back this up, that this says more about The Reds’ style of play under Davies than Henderson’s ability.
Used correctly – something Billy knows how to do – Darius Henderson is an extremely influential player at this level. His skills help Forest score more often (on average 12.8 minutes faster with him on the pitch so far this season), concede less often, and he also weighs in with an impressive amount of goals for a target-man (he is by far the most prolific of this type of player in Forest's recent history, see chart, left), and considering the lack of regular football.
Henderson is an invaluable tool in the armoury of Billy Davies – often 'plan B', he would breeze into the majority of sides in The Championship.
Thanks for reading, and COYR!