Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Forest Boffin: Playing away..

I'm sometimes lucky enough to be allowed to write on other sites; as promised to one reader, here is a link to my latest such away day, a look at our recent game against Derby, on my favourite Forest related site, Seat Pitch.

http://seatpitch.co.uk/2014/09/16/fans-eye-view-forest-1-1-derby/

Friday, 12 September 2014

Preview: Forest v Derby

When Forest welcome Derby on Sunday, they are perhaps fighting to restore pride rather than for bragging rights. Stuart Pearce is the ideal man to accomplish this, but it is difficult to predict exactly how he’ll go about it.

Steve McClaren likes The Rams to play a patient 4-3-3 system which will be similar to the one that destroyed Forest so efficiently in March. Most of their expected starting 11 were involved in that game, although we are fortunate that Jeff Hendrick and George Thorne are both out injured. Even if a little weaker, we know they will be motivated and nearly always put on a good performance in this fixture.

Derby are a possession hording team. They like to probe for space from their own half, patiently holding onto the ball until they spot an opportunity rather than taking risks going forward – this is in contrast to Forest, who have been more direct under Pearce.
 
Their defenders see a lot of possession. Derby’s centre-backs have touched the ball, on average, 23 times more in each game than their Forest counterparts so far this season, which reflects their patient, deliberate ethos; they are loath to pump hopeful balls forward.
 
That is not to say Forest play hopeful long balls - just that The Garibaldi get forward quicker than Derby - you could say more efficiently if putting the best possible spin on it. To illustrate the difference between the two sides further, Derby have touched the ball 747 times more than Forest this season (a massive difference - it's almost as if they have played an extra game) and played 162 more short passes. This could turn out to be a real clash of styles.

As Derby probe and pass, moving the ball and switching play, they like to push forward their full-backs into any space that appears down the flank. They attack quickly with pass and move football aimed at getting to the by-line, from where they make a lot of low crosses trying to catch out retreating defenders.
 
The wide areas are probably where this game will be won, and the attacking nature of full-backs Craig Forsyth and Cyrus Christie is key to Derby’s strength in this part of the pitch.

Christie in particular looks an exciting player – Forest will have to play close attention to his runs. He particularly likes to drift inside of the right-forward and make a nuisance of himself down the edge of the penalty area.

However, Pearce will have Forest well prepared, and has given presentations in the past on how he likes to nullify this kind of player, and also how to defend against the exact system Derby use. I won’t examine the tactics I therefore know Forest will use in this regard here, as I’m aware that Steve McClaren is an avid reader of Forest Boffin, but it will be interesting to pick apart how successful Pearce’s methods turn out to be in a future article.
 
It will be a game of cat and mouse between the Derby full-backs, who will be trying to get forward to link up with the wide forwards, and Forest’s wingers, who will be looking to continue putting in the crosses that have created the majority of Forest’s goals.

This battle in wide areas will be effected by whichever system Pearce decides upon: 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. Speculation has centred on whether Forest should play two up front rather than one, but I think the most important effect of the system will be out wide, and whether it stops Derby’s wing-backs effecting the game.
 
One option would be to pin them back; Charlton did this effectively by playing a rigid 4-4-2 – an option Pearce will be considering. The positioning of Charlton’s wingers, plus having two men up front rather than one, gave Forsyth and Christie less space to run into, and made them anxious about getting forward – limiting Derby's choices while trying to play their way out of their own half.

Derby were, however, unfortunate to lose this game as they possess far more quality than The Addicks. But Charlton’s system restricted their options, and I'd suggest that Forest would do a much better job of penning Derby in given the same tactics.
 
However, in doing so Pearce would be eschewing the type of football that has propelled Forest to the top of the league. The Reds have focussed on attacking quickly and urgently, abandoning possession football in favour of creating a direct threat by cutting through teams as they leave space at the back (see charts, left; the difference in possession has been stark, Derby even have over 10% more away possession than Forest have enjoyed at home).
 
A question on the manager’s lips may be whether he wants to deny Derby possession and hem them in, or have a more open game and hit them on the break? By playing a 4-4-2 he will probably make Steve McClaren more cautious, and Forest might see more of the ball.
 
A 4-2-3-1 however, would give the Derby full-backs more licence to come forward, because the two central defenders will feel they can handle the lone striker without much assistance. And if the full-backs are bombing up the pitch, Forest's wingers will find it easier to cross the ball on the counter-attack, and will catch Derby out at some stage.
 
Another reason Pearce may be considering playing a 4-2-3-1, is the glut of talent he has at his disposal in central midfield. Henri Lansbury will be difficult to ignore when writing the team-sheet – but Reid and Cohen are virtually undroppable. Add David Vaughan and Robert Tesche into the equation and it equals a selection headache which would be so much easier to solve were there three places in the middle rather than two.

So the 2 up front vs 1 up front argument is never as simple as that – as the above considerations illustrate. But whichever system Forest use I would like to see Matty Fryatt take on the Derby defenders at some stage. I'm of the opinion that Keogh and Buxton sometimes fail to get tight enough to their man, Fryatt would thrive under these conditions.
 
For all the guessing and postulating about tactics, we must remember that this is a blood and thunder local derby – not a game of chess. Pride, passion and guts will play a massive part, and one battling run, inspired pass or defensive blunder, could make all the ruminations about 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 a mute point. The only thing for certain is that Pearce will have the Forest players fired up for this one.

As someone close to both clubs once said: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes!

I’m sure he was closer to the mark than I am!

Thanks for reading, thanks to www.whoscored.com for statistical help, and special thanks to Charlie from www.ramsramble.com for helping me once more. If you want to read my match report on this game, it will appear on www.seatpitch.co.uk.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Sheffield Wednesday 0 Forest 1

Forest continued their role as The Championship’s pace-makers on Saturday as they earned a hard-fought victory against an enthusiastic Sheffield Wednesday side – who will think themselves unlucky.

Wednesday operate a physical, high-octane 4-4-2 system. I expected them to focus on hoofing the ball forwards to their target-man,  Atdhe Nuhui; while the Austrian does receive a fair amount of direct play, our opponents did not base their game-plan around this and the amount of long balls they make is actually around average for the division.

Indeed, they cut Forest open twice in the opening passages of play, as The Garibaldi were perhaps taken surprise by the enthusiasm of the home side, backed by a partisan crowd. The Owls could easily have been ahead were it not for a fantastic tackle by Michael Mancienne, and some wasteful finishing.

The Reds looked to have learnt their lesson from the Bournemouth game, fielding a five man midfield in what I deem a 4-2-3-1 system, pressing more conservatively than they have in other away games, instead trying to hit Wednesday on the break.

After initially looking shaky, Forest woke up and the system began to work. This is the second game already this season where home teams have come away with nothing after battering Forest - but although  they did rely a little on luck, they ultimately deserved the points because they put in the effort to make their tactics successful.

I've seen Saturday's formation referred to as a 4-4-1-1, 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3; this is a reflection of the flexibility the system gives in that essentially the 4-2-3-1 is several formations in one, as many of the players are basically playing more than one position - this has been the key to Forest's success so far this season, without playing their best football they have been out-working their opponents.

When Wednesday had the ball, instead of pressing high Forest sat deep and pulled the wingers back (see diagram, above-right. Click to enlarge). This gave the coverage and security that two disciplined banks of four players provide.

But when in possession, this quickly changed into the classic 4-2-3-1 (see left), and as Forest sprang forward those tireless wide-men sometimes even overlapped the striker.

It is this willingness to play more than one role (and very importantly, when to do so) that has paid off for Forest. The two wingers have been the most important players in this regard - as illustrated in the two diagrams, but this has been a team philosophy. We've seen the full-backs flying forward as well as rarely going missing at the back, Andy Reid making himself available to receive the ball in his own half yet getting forward energetically, and it is also how Forest have managed to have so many players back defending when under pressure, and yet are able to spring forward so quickly.

Stuart Pearce has instilled a real team philosophy of hard work and structured fluidity - the only players that really just do one task are the centre-backs and goalkeeper. It is the fact that this fluidity is structured that sets this game-plan aside from midfielders just being told to get forward. They, and their team-mates, know when this is going to happen, which is what makes this system a 4-2-3-1, and not just a 4-4-1-1 with the wingers told to make runs.

This is how Forest have been able to pick up so many points without playing their best football. They haven't been lucky, they have been working very hard and taking advantage of a system of play which has taken over world football in the last 15 years, but is only recently filtering it's way down to this level.

Pearce's tactics may have ensured Forest were difficult to score against, but The Owls had a gaping hole in their tactics which Forest exploited; the aerial ability of Glenn Loovens.

The Dutchman's partner in central defence is Tom Lees - a smaller, less powerful player but one who has excellent ability in the air. I had a theory that by attacking mainly down the left, Forest were deliberately sucking Lees away from the area where crosses would arrive (as the defence shuffles across to meet the pressure on one side, the  closest centre-back automatically needs to drift towards the ball, see diagram, left). However Forest have tended to go down this side of the pitch a lot under Pearce - dragging Lees away may have been mere luck.

For such a big man, Loovens is exceptionally poor at defending in the air. He has won only 4 aerial duels this season according to Whoscored.com, in contrast to his partner, Lees, who has won 26 so far. Forest will have known all this, so it's possible they targeted Loovens. The majority of their crosses came from the left into the area where Loovens and Mattock had the responsibility to defend.

When ahead, Forest worked very hard to defend, often getting every player behind the ball, but their system ensured they were quick to disperse and still offered a threat going forward - meaning Wednesday, for all their pressure, could not totally set up camp in the Forest half. Forest usually had an outlet, giving our opponents something to think about.

Along with the three advanced midfielders - who spent much of their time behind the ball but were ready to attack, Britt Assombalonga provided the best outlet; not only quick and strong, the youngster is clever on the ball and has good technique - he gave The Owls problems, ensuring they could not merely set up camp and besiege Forest into submission.

The defenders were very strong. It was a real team effort - as mentioned earlier Forest were getting 10 or all 11 men behind the ball, and pressing selectively, blocking the path to goal through sheer weight of numbers, but special recognition should go to the men at the back, who dealt with the pressure calmly but with urgency.

The best player on the pitch was Karl Darlow; his quality has been unfairly doubted at times over the past year, but he showed during this game why he is a Premiership player in waiting, making a series of stunning saves.

But the most credit must (again) go to Stuart Pearce; he has galvanised (a word we will be hearing a lot I feel this season) the squad, brought in some real quality, and most importantly has them well organised and knowledgeable about their roles on the pitch. Psycho continues to prove his critics wrong.
 
Thanks for reading, thanks to www.whoscored.com for statistical help, and bring on the Derby!