Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Forest's defenders: Hung out to dry

After a mini-revival, Forest's play-off hopes were crushed ruthlessly by Bournemouth on Saturday. If you want to know why Forest have been conceding so many goals recently, you need only look at how The Cherries tore Forest apart.

I've been intrigued - and at times appalled - by what has been occurring in Forest's midfield since Davies' departure. The stark contrast for Gary Brazil's first game in charge was that the front four players were operating as a separate entity to the back six; there was a big gap between the two groups, possibly caused by, or contributing to, The Reds' more direct approach to going forward (see my match report for a more detailed discussion on this). I believe this mentality has continued with some players - the midfielders have, at times, been leaving the defenders to face the music alone, culminating in the game at Bournemouth.

The issue is less obvious for Bournemouth's first goal - the main error was in central defence - but there nonetheless. Danny Collins had to come out of the defence to deal with a problem, and the Bournemouth winger got to the second ball before any Forest player. With Collins out of the back four, Harding had gone momentarily to centre-back, leaving the gap for the winger to run into and cross unmolested (see diagram, right, which can be enlarged if clicked).

Why question the midfield for this? Because almost every time a Forest defender needs to come out of defence - the midfielders are not winning the second ball, or even making life difficult for opposition attackers, who are often free to run at the defence - which is now a man light. The frequency of it happening is very worrying.

For example, in the run up to Bournemouth's second goal... Danny Collins has to come out of the defence to deal with a high ball. He doesn't get there this time, but is able to get back into position. The problem is that once again the midfield are not in a position to help defensively - the Bournemouth midfield flood forward but their Forest counterparts do not follow them (see diagram, right).

When a defender has to come out of the defensive line (never ideal, but it has to happen occasionally), the midfielders he is, in effect, covering for, must be prepared to make an effort to mitigate the weaker position the team find themselves in. There will be a gap at the back somewhere - if allowed space the opposition will exploit it!

The QPR game was a prime example of Forest not defending as a team. While we're still on the subject of the defenders having to come out of their line, and not being supported, let's have a look at The Hoops first goal (see right). Here, Jamaal Lascelles has needed to come out, but our opponents midfielders were again first to the ball. With Lascelles out of line, Grag Halford cannot challenge Junior Hoilett; if he gets it wrong, the tricky winger could be through on goal. Halford's role is to slow Hoilett down enough for the midfielders to get a challenge in, or until Lascelles gets back in position. He actually does a good job, but the midfielders are not urgent enough in getting back - Lee Peltier in particular is not prepared to take the responsibility of getting a challenge in, nor does he mark the space in which the goal comes from, he basically goes and stands next to Halford, doing the same job.  Halford was criticised for this goal, but he was the only Forest player actively defending.

Millwall's first goal is also caused by the same fault (see left). The central defender, this time Halford, has to come out of line to deal with a problem, which pins the right back (Jara) into position. The Millwall left back, who scores a deflected goal, has run past Forest's midfield, and is able to get as close to Jara as he likes before shooting. So we see that this problem has been regularly costing Forest goals.

In fact the Millwall game is especially damning for the Forest midfielders, particularly Peltier (who, being a defender himself, you would think knows how to defend).  They were taking advantage of space on the right of our midfield all game long, as illustrated by Forest's average position diagram for this game (see right), according to www.WhoScored.com.

We can see that there was, on average, little cover in front of the right-back - Forest instead bunching up in the middle of the pitch. The two right sided players, Mackie and Peltier, spent far too much time in central positions, which allowed too much space in front of Forest's right-sided defenders. Notice how Scott Malone, their left-back, feels he has the freedom to push up more often, and that Ian Holloway pushed a whole host of players up into this area.

It is no surprise when their second goal comes from this area again (see left). Millwall were such a poor side, in my opinion the only way they were going to score would have been from a severe tactical problem - and Forest had one in that Millwall were able to consistently out-number the Forest right-back.

I cannot imagine Gary Brazil wanted his right-sided midfielders to leave so much space on this side of the pitch - I would suggest this tactical weakness came not from a managerial misjudgement, but from player apathy.

On the subject of player apathy, we will get back to the Bournemouth game. Anyone watching would have noticed how much more determination, passion and urgency our opponents showed, particularly in midfield, where they consistently stole the ball and broke with pace and intent. It looked like they were the team in with a chance of the play-offs, not Forest.

Their third goal (see right) illustrates this perfectly, as their young midfielder Eunan O'Kane picked up the ball in their half and ran dangerously through Forest's midfield. McLaughlin tried to stay with him, but is already stumbling and at a disadvantage. My main compliant is with Lee Peltier, who makes no effort to chase O'Kane. We have seen on-loan players seemingly not put the effort in when chasing back in the past (Chalobah - in particular against Doncaster) - this is another example.

The fourth goal (see left) is exactly the same - our opponents get the ball high up the pitch and easily out-pace their opposite players. It is interesting to watch the difference in attitude between the midfielders when Forest lose the ball, and Danny Collins - who is also caught behind play but makes the effort to get his body back in-between the ball and Forest's goal. But none of the midfield have followed him back, and Bournemouth find it easy to pass the ball around the beleaguered Forest defenders at leisure, eventually finding an opening to score.

Regular readers will possibly note how forgiving I am of Forest players for their faults. I can sympathise with Simon Cox and Jamie Mackie missing when through on goal, I can forgive big Darius when the ball bounces off him as though he has his own personal force-field, I can forget lapses of concentration, or giving the ball away with poor passes; what I cannot abide is a lack of effort, and some of our midfielders, particularly down Forest's right-side, have been demonstrating this under Gary Brazil.

See another example of this, against QPR. The midfielders, Mackie and Peltier, fail to follow Ravel Morrison, as he helps their left-back gang up on Greg Halford. The Forest defence don't stand a chance in the face of such little cover from their team-mates, and only a wonderful save from Karl Darlow prevents a goal.

What about Charlton's goal at The City Ground? Similar to at Bournemouth, Forest lose the ball in midfield, and the Charlton players show more urgency. The Addicks hit the post, but it's not luck that the rebound falls to one of their players, because they outnumber the defenders, having made more effort to be there than the Forest players.

The frustrating thing is that Forest's midfielders have defended well at times - but it has taken the introduction of David Vaughan. He has put in several McKennaesque performances in the middle for The Reds, organising and encouraging the other midfielders to defend properly.

With Vaughan in there, Forest have been hunting down the ball with urgency, and it has given them the platform to build on - Gary Brazil's whole tactic seems to have been to win the ball and break forward with pace. This direct style of play is very difficult though if the midfielders are not close to the defence, because it makes it harder to win the ball, and also it makes it more obvious that Forest will play direct if there are not players close enough to play it short. This was the problem against Charlton; the wide midfielders were not committed defensively, and also as they were pushed so far forward our opponents knew we had to play direct, and were prepared.

Defending is a team effort. I have heard people slating the defenders, particularly Greg Halford for the QPR goals, but this has been unjust - the defenders have not been the problem. Halford was left cruelly exposed against QPR. just as Jara was against Millwall. When a player is 'backing off' they are often doing so because it is too dangerous to make the challenge - this was certainly the case at times in these games, due to the lack of midfield cover.

I've highlighted situations where this problem has cost Forest a goal, or at least a chance, but this problem has been consistently there, Forest have been vulnerable due to this on far more occasions than those I've depicted.

Forest have let in 2 goals on average, per game under Gary Brazil, compared to 1.24 per game under Davies - this has not been due to failings from the goalkeeper or defenders, there has been a deficiency in the organisation and effort of the midfielders. Vaughan's contribution would tend too indicate that this is not down to the manager though - perhaps some of the players might want to ask themselves whether they could have done more.
 
Thanks for reading and thanks to www.whoscored.com for help during my research.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The race for sixth place: Update

Since my last look at the battle for the last remaining play-off spot, there have been just three games in The Championship, but they could all prove crucial.

Each of the results went against Forest; on Tuesday night Reading beat Middlesbrough, as we expected. This was their game in hand, and they leap-frogged Forest in the process. Leicester's victory against Bolton on the same evening could also prove costly, as it won them the title; a loss would have spurred Burnley on, who we need to carry on picking up points as they face two of our rivals.

Matters took a further turn for the worst last night, with Brighton beating Yeovil 2-0. I had a sneaking suspicion that Yeovil would get a result against The Royals, but it was not to be. So Forest's two main rivals for sixth place have both struck significant blows,  leaving very little room for error.

With both Reading and Brighton winning, it would seem that Forest too must win today against Bournemouth - although a draw may not necessarily prove fatal - at the very least, to stay in the hunt, Forest must match whatever Reading do against Doncaster.

However, such a result would possibly let in Ipswich or Blackburn, a win for either would put them above The Reds in the even of a draw, and in any case Forest would then be relying on Reading failing to win on the final day; Forest in reality need to win today.

Our opponents have been all but eliminated by the two results earlier this week - it is mathematically possible for The Cherries to get 6th place, but they would need all the teams above them to lose their remaining games, as well as improving their goal difference by a dozen or so goals. How this will effect them is yet to be seen, but with Eddie Howe's side having nothing to play for, you would like to think Forest had a good chance today.

Whatever happens, I expect today to be a volatile game (as in the score-line, not that it will be a physical battle) with quite a few goals. I think if Forest win both remaining games they will go into the play-offs, but it's looking like a very close finish if I'm honest, I can see Forest being one of three teams on 69 points, and losing out on goal difference.

Thanks for reading, good luck Forest!
 



Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The race for sixth place

Seven clubs are left scrambling for the (realistically) single remaining play-off place as The Championship draws to another thrilling conclusion. Unbelievably, with no team seeming able to string a few wins together, Forest are amongst them.

People have suggested that the quality of league is down - because many teams are unable to find consistent form. Personally I would argue the opposite; that so many teams are making great strides that just about everyone has the players capable of winning a game, it is a more even league rather than a poorer one.

What is undeniable is that it's exciting, with twelfth-place Watford in with almost as good a chance at promotion as sixth-place Brighton. But who has the upper hand? Who has the easier fixtures, the better squad available - who will prevail?

Brighton
 
The Seagulls are clearly a side on the up but may be about to experience another dramatic choke. They arguably don’t score enough goals, relying heavily on Leonardo Ulloa, and have won only twice in their last nine games.
 
I don’t fancy them for either of their remaining games; they travel to Forest on the last day of the season in a game where anything could happen but The Garibaldi will be slight favourites, but Yeovil could shock them before that – The Glovers will be fighting for their lives and we’ve seen at first hand how awkward they are – I also think their physical style could give Brighton problems.
Boffin's Brighton Verdict: 11th Both their games will be close and could go either way. A win against Yeovil will put them in the mix on goal-difference, but I can see a surprise here.
 
Forest

It is no coincidence that The Reds have pulled off two victories since the return of David Vaughan, and it’s possible other players will return, boosting them further. With Gary Brazil finally teasing that bit more enthusiasm and organisation out of Forest, they look likely to finish strongly – two wins will do it!

They face what are effectively two play-off eliminators, both of which will be tight games. I can see a draw against Bournemouth, who are strong at home and in good form, but one advantage is that they have to win, while Forest possibly don’t.

We could do with the injured players being back for the Bournemouth game – with even Henri Lansbury in there instead of Peltier I would predict The Reds booking a play-off date against Derby.
 
Boffin's Forest Verdict: 7th Denied on goal difference again? A tale of what should have been.
 
Ipswich

I predicted in August that Mick McCarthy would have Ipswich up in the play-offs this season – he’s not quite managed that yet but The Tractor Boys have done well to be in there, especially having lost some key players.
 
David McGoldrick was knocking in goals for fun, Ipswich looked set to drop away after both his injury and the loss of Ryan Tunnicliffe to Wigan, but McCarthy toggled their system slightly and has eked out the best from his squad.

To stand a chance of the play-offs though, they must travel to Burnley and avoid losing – but Sean Dyche’s men are strong at home, well suited to dealing with Ipswich’s direct style, and will be having a promotion party.

Boffin's Ipswich Verdict: 9th  A great effort by the best manager in the division, but in reality they probably need two wins.

Reading

The Royals are having a strange season and probably epitomise the unpredictable nature of The Championship. They only have three wins in the last twelve games, but their squad is littered with excellent players for this level. However, key man Danny Guthrie could miss the rest of the season, and they have been over twice as likely to lose in his absence (being defeated on 46.7% of occasions where he has not played 45 minutes, compared with a 21.4% loss-rate with him).

But it is all in Reading’s hands, and they will most likely only have to collect five more points from three games – two of which are at home against teams with nothing left to play for.

Boffin's Reading Verdict: 6th They will probably scrape through on goal difference - but if they slip up, Forest can pounce.

Blackburn

It perhaps shows the volatile nature of The Championship that Rovers are still in with a shout; they are probably the poorest side for quality, their promotion bid being sustained by good organisation and work-rate.

They have been keeping things simple, relying on their two very effective strikers, Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes, and as unlikely as it sounds they probably have the best chance of all to grab sixth place – travelling to an awful Charlton side before facing Wigan in a local derby, where anything could happen.

You would think Blackburn would beat Charlton – they are good away, Charlton have the worst home record in the league. It may all rest upon how badly Wigan, who have nothing to play for themselves, want to wreck the hopes of their rivals.

Boffin's Blackburn Verdict: 8th. Close this one – Don’t be surprised to see Blackburn coast into 6th, but I can’t see them winning both games. If Blackburn get into sixth in front of Forest, some serious questions need to be asked, as The Reds are a far superior side - even with the injuries.

Bournemouth

The Cherries looked to be the form team and, with all around them losing their heads, set to gatecrash the promotion party. But when finally in the mix they too seem to have crumbled slightly under the pressure, having not won in three games.

They welcome Forest in a hugely important game – but as they are that bit further behind Bournemouth probably need to win. This, coupled with their attacking nature, could leave them vulnerable when coming forward against a Forest side who appear to have mastered getting in behind teams with pace on the break.

They also travel to Millwall, who will be fighting for their lives. Eddie Howe's side are capable of winning, or losing, both games.

Boffin's Cherries Verdict: 12th. A great effort by Eddie Howe will probably fizzle out into respectable mid-table.

Watford

The Hornets could provide a late sting in the promotion hunt, but will probably have to win all three games. However, they have a lot of quality in their side, and this is another team who I wouldn’t be surprised to see finish 6th.

It may all rest on their game away at Derby; The Rams have nothing to play for, but are excellent at home. If Watford win this game, they are my favourites to finish 6th, because of their superior goal difference.

It may be a simple matter after the Derby game, since they travel to Charlton – who are terrible (and worse than terrible at home), and play Huddersfield at Vicarage Road. Watford have some big-game players and will be hot favourites for both these fixtures.

Boffin's Watford Verdict: 10th. This is going to be close though.

Conclusions

This last play-off position could go to any of the seven teams – games will be won on very tight margins and it could all come down to a single error, piece of skill or refereeing decision.

I can see a scenario where up to four teams are tied on 69 points – or I can see another scenario with probably the worst side, Blackburn, sneaking in; they have two very winnable games and can end on 70 points.

I think the two teams with a game in hand will both win them, and this could prove decisive – especially for Reading as this will put them in the driving seat, but this will go down to whether any of the seven rivals can get through to the end of the (scheduled) season without dropping any points – I don’t think any will, but if they do they will probably be alone in doing so, and will finish 6th.

As for Forest - I think personally that their available first 11s' - even the one stated above, without the injection of returning 'stars' like Lansbury, Reid and Wilson, is as good as any of the other likely teams mentioned. I also think that they have an advantage in that they play two of their rivals, and have the opportunity to effectively eliminate them.

Am I wrong to discount Brighton? They are in 6th place currently after all - however I think they are up against it - even if they beat Yeovil (I've a serious doubt they will), I still think that, in the chaos of the last day, Forest could beat them heavily if it is necessary; don't forget each goal would count double as far as goal difference between the two sides is concerned. A three goal difference would probably be enough, assuming Forest don't lose to Bournemouth.

Thanks for reading; although a stab in the dark. my final verdict is that Reading, Forest, Blackburn and Watford are the most likely play-off candidates - I can't see the winner of this race coming from either Bournemouth, Brighton, or Ipswich - but what do you think? Let me know below, enjoy the climax of the season, and COYR!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Preview: Forest v Sheffield Wednesday

As the play-offs look to be slipping from Forest's grasp they welcome Sheffield Wednesday side to The City Ground this week. The Reds face a tougher side than the one they beat 1-0 earlier in the season - but there are weaknesses to be exploited. We're about to see what Gary Brazil is made of.

The Owls have injury problems with both centre-backs (who have been impressive) out, necessitating a reshuffle which may also interfere with their midfield - I expect either Kieren Lee, or more likely Liam Palmer to be hauled back into the defence. Both have been playing well in midfield according to Wednesday fans.

They will probably play with an attacking 4-5-1. Before viewing Wednesday I expected them to be a tough defensive unit, but they are more positive than I envisaged, and the wide midfielders are more forwards than wing-backs in my opinion. More on this shortly.

It's difficult to say how Forest caretaker Brazil will set his team up, but the most important factor will be the return (or not) of injured players - Henri Lansbury and Kelvin Wilson in particular should come back in. I expect The Reds will play in a traditional 4-4-2.

Brazil's tactics for this game will be key. Previously Forest have played far too direct, culminating in a bizarre decision to play Jamie Mackie up front, virtually alone, against Millwall. A similar error was made against Charlton. I worry that Brazil, rather than changing they style of play, will again opt to keep things simple and merely change the personnel, bringing in Darius Henderson.

I have been an advocate of Henderson, but this is not the game to be getting into a battle of strength and aerial ability against the opposition, because they have, in my opinion, a glaring defensive weakness which would be better exploited by smaller, trickier forwards.

It is my contention that The Owls struggle badly at defending attacks down their flanks, because those wide midfielders I mentioned earlier often fail to track back, offering little support to their full-backs which causes a multitude of problems (see below for examples of this against Leicester. All diagrams on Forest Boffin are enlargeable when clicked).
This is a common defensive vulnerability in The Championship, but our opponents have been particularly weak in this area - at least recently. Their surprisingly positive nature has left a lot of room in front of either full-back, both at home and away - the midfielders seem not to think it is their job to defend.

This gives the full-backs difficult decisions to make - it pins them in-between responsibilities. It's actually been interesting to observe how different Wednesday players have taken different approaches to being abandoned in this fashion, for example left-back Jeremy Helan tended to stick to his defensive shape, ceding a lot of space out on the flank, against Wigan (see right).

While Lewis Buxton seems to try to do both jobs, and has been subsequently dragged too far away from his proper defensive position. This leaves gaps in more dangerous areas, which are not as likely to be exploited, but once they are this is a bigger problem - as happened against Doncaster, which cost Wednesday a goal (see left).

In a similar fashion to the problems Forest were encountering earlier in the season, the defenders' lack of help (in this case, Wednesdays' full-backs) has been forcing them out of position, resulting in attackers being able to exploit the gaps. A particular problem has been short passes being played in behind the defence, in-between the full-back and central defender.

Gray sets his team up to be very strong in the centre of the pitch - the three central midfielders cover this area excellently and work very hard, but the gaps in front of their full-backs is a real Achilles Heel and has been exploited by every team I have watched them face.

Forest must take advantage of this - or at least set themselves up to do so. At some stage The Owls will learn their lesson and be more defensive in this respect, but for Forest not to go for this will be criminal. This is why I think Cox and Mackie should play, and Brazil should abandon his more direct approach. This kind of opponent is tailor-made for the cleverness of Simon Cox, either making runs in behind Wednesday himself, or dropping deep to slide in another, quicker player, Jamie Mackie would fit the bill, or even an overlapping midfielder in the shape of Paterson.

Wednesday have allowed teams to thread men in behind them on a consistent basis, relying on their goalkeeper to get them out of trouble. If Forest can get men making runs behind them, they will have opportunities, but they must be found by accurate passing rather than hopeful punts forward.

I have made a lot of this particular weakness that I believe The Owls have (actually I have been reserved and could have written an entire article or two illustrating this) because it is quite pronounced, but overall I was impressed with our opponents. They are hard-working, positive and play better football than I expected - more than Forest have been over the past three games.

They will be a threat coming forward, and because their midfielders don't all get back, will be in a position to catch Forest on the counter-attack. In particular I can foresee Michail Antonio causing problems should he play. The Wednesday fans I've asked have not mentioned him, and he's not been much more than a fringe player, but defending and backing off as they have been doing, I can see the Forest defenders being troubled by this powerful, quick and direct player. He runs straight at a defence and shoots; Gonzalo Jara beware.

But this, as with the last two home games, is another very winnable game. We still find ourselves only five points away from the play-offs, despite recent results. It is still a possible target, and with the likes of Lansbury, Reid, Wilson and Vaughan returning to fitness, it would have been very much on if they had done better in recent home games. Our rivals have been struggling too, this was the ideal time to be punishing them.

This game will be the more difficult of the three 'easy' (ha) home games. Our opponents seem to be playing with confidence, are positive, hard-working, and have been rising through the table. I believe there is a serious weakness to be exploited - but who knows how it will pan out? I'm not sure I can even name the Forest side!

One thing is for certain - another disappointment at home will see Forest continue their tumble into mid-table; it will be season over, and so this is probably the biggest game yet.
 
Thanks for reading, thanks to the Wednesday fans who kindly helped me in preparing this article at Owlsonline and Owlstalk, and COYR!