Saturday, 22 November 2014

Playing away: Midfield dilemma

My latest article looks at how big a blow the injuries to Andy Reid and Chris Cohen have been. Not only are they good players, more importantly they were working as a partnership; their replacements have struggled to work as a unit to the same extent, and it's severely damaged subsequent performance levels.

You can read it here, on top Forest site Seat Pitch:

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pearce's sucker-punch victory

Last week I laid the blame for the Brentford defeat squarely at the feet of Stuart Pearce – but Forest’s memorable comeback victory against Norwich was largely due to the manager’s tactical philosophy, which he used to hit their opponents with a strategic sucker-punch.

Pearce is having trouble shaking the tag that he is "no tactician"- even among the Forest fans who see him as a legend - and he has been outmanoeuvred on occasion, but the win against Norwich was not only a success of tactics, but of his self belief and conviction.

It was clear from the first moments that Pearce wanted to draw Norwich onto Forest and exploit any space that appeared. This strategy was influenced by The Canaries narrow midfield: the theory being that any width our opponents had would arise from their full-backs coming forward.

Forest played a traditional 4-4-2 with Michail Antonio and Tom Ince on the wings, players who are not as defensively minded as Chris Burke for example - this was to exploit space which Pearce expected to appear behind the Norwich full-backs.

The Reds were further instructed to draw their opponents onto them through a conditional pressing game. This caused some murmurs of protest in the crowd which is fair enough - nobody wants to see away teams come to The City Ground and have lots of possession while the Forest midfield stands off, but not pressuring the ball high up the pitch allowed the Norwich players - particularly the full-backs on the overlap - to come into the Forest half more, which was the desired effect.

The only question was whether this strategy was wise. Pearce was showing a lot of faith in Ben Osborn and Robert Tesche, who were playing well, but it was apparent they were becoming heavily outnumbered. I was convinced Forest would revert to a 4-2-3-1 in order to bolster their position in the middle of the pitch.

But even after going a goal down while having little success, the manager stuck with his belief that the gaps would appear, not changing things until the 66th minute. However, this readjustment did not see Pearce back-tracking; instead he took his strategy to extreme levels, reverting to an unconventional 3-3-4 formation (see right, click to enlarge).

Forest now had two banks of three in the middle, with the midfield dropping extremely deep at times - almost onto the defenders' toes, and while the forwards were providing only fluctuating cover out wide, this change of formation was an invitation for Norwich to flood forward and finish The Reds off.

It was an invitation Norwich could not resist, but as they pushed men forward, Forest played long balls into wide areas trying to catch their full-backs out of position. This was the trade off; Forest were deliberately short at the back, in order to have the men in a position to hurt their opponents.

Again Pearce was showing a lot of faith in his midfielders; shorthanded, the three defenders were having to venture out of line to deal with problems, but the deep midfield trio of Tesche, Osborn and Henri Lansbury were working with the defenders and covering them.

This was the reason Pearce's gamble worked: he knew his players were well enough drilled to cover defensively - how did Norwich cope when their defenders were similarly dragged out of position?

As Forest concentrated on pumping direct balls into the flanks, there were always players in red shirts there to fight for the ball. When the Norwich full-backs were caught up the pitch - and even on occasions when they were in position, their central defenders were having to go out and deal with the threat (see right).

But unlike Pearce's men, the Norwich midfielders were poorly drilled at helping the defenders. They repeatedly left gaping holes in the dangerous area in front of goalkeeper John Ruddy, and because Forest had so many players up front, there were always men waiting for an easy tap-in (see examples, below).

Pearce made a gamble - he basically created a situation where Forest were almost guaranteed to score. He knew that Norwich would push their full-backs forward, and all through the match tried to use this against them.

And when this did not immediately work, it would have been easy for him to take a different approach. Forest were in danger of being totally overrun in midfield - the obvious solution would have been to sacrifice an attacker, but Pearce deliberately made Forest weaker defensively to lure Norwich even further forward.

This was a resounding tactical victory for Pearce - the only surprise, as things turned out, was that the equaliser took so long to arrive. Forest were not at their best, but were still pulling the Norwich defence to pieces, while defending well at the other end of the pitch.

And once Assombalonga equalised - a sucker-punch in the exact manner Pearce had been attempting all game - Forest continued to hit Norwich on the break. The Garibaldi were confident now and looking truly dangerous, catching their opponents out every time they came forward.

The Forest manager is still finding his feet at this level - errors are inevitable, but this game proves that he has a flair for tactics, the strength of character to stick with a game-plan, and is not afraid to make unconventional decisions. He deserves a lot of credit for this extremely important victory.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Forest 1 Brentford 3

Forest got their dates wrong on Wednesday: over 21,000 spectators turned up expecting fireworks on Bonfire Night, but were instead treated to a horror show reminiscent of Halloween, as Stuart Pearce’s men were terrified by Brentford.

Mark Warburton changed Brentford’s system to a 4-2-3-1 in a successful attempt to apply pressure to the area in front of Forest’s central defenders. They flooded this zone with midfielders when they had the ball, and man-marked Michael Mancienne when out of possession, to deny the Forest defenders an easy outlet for the ball.

The Bees passed and moved well, exploiting the space in behind Forest’s main line of four midfielders, and tried to get the ball to striker Andre Gray who ran the channels, isolating either centre-back.

Stuart Pearce responded to his side’s poor form by making drastic changes, adopting a gruesome 4-1-4-1 system and dropping Britt Assombalonga. Michail Antonio played up front instead - presumably to offer a bigger target for direct passes. This decision was not welcomed by the Forest crowd, who felt that not playing a recognised striker at home against Brentford was negative.

The bigger issue however, which hampered Forest’s chances far more than the absence of Assombalonga, was the lack of a capable defensive midfielder.

Pearce decided to play Mancienne in front of the defence – presumably to add bite to this area – behind a bank of four midfielders who were instructed to press conditionally rather than aggressively. This system did not work, due to the players involved not being comfortable or confident enough to know when to make a challenge.

Brentford capitalised on this by filling Mancienne’s area with players. Ben Osborn and Henri Lansbury were stationed just in front of Mancienne, but did not know when to drop back and help.

Outnumbered and playing in an unfamiliar position (I’m aware he has played defensive midfield in Germany, but he is no midfielder), Mancienne began making poor decisions – he abandoned his defensive area too readily to deal with less serious threats, and when he did need to go across to make a challenge, he stayed put.

The first Brentford goal is a good example of how porous Forest’s midfield was (see right, click to enlarge). The Bees right-back Moses Odubajo was able to run straight through, unchallenged until he reached the defenders. Burke, Fox and Osborn all left it to the defensive midfielder to confront him, but Mancienne continued to mark Jon Toral (not very well though – Toral scored).

However, low confidence will have played a role here too – a recurring theme among the Forest players recently has been the tendency to leave it to others to make a challenge – a refusal to take responsibility oneself.

There should have been players queuing up to challenge any opponent running into this crucial area of the pitch, but it was poorly defended throughout. This would probably not have been the case were David Vaughan or Robert Tesche playing.

Brentford targeted this weakness and it paid off for their third goal (see left). Striker Gray is looking for a lay-off, and has a choice of three players in front of Forest’s defence. After exchanging passes he gets a penalty.

At the time I blamed Kelvin Wilson for this goal, but at least he was trying. Where were the midfielders protecting the back four? Where was Danny Fox as Gray rampaged forward? It looks to me like he’s actually trying to get out of the way, leaving it to Wilson rather than taking responsibility himself.

This eschewing of responsibility, this blatant scrimshanking, is all down to low confidence, and while several Forest players – Wilson included – were playing badly, at least they were trying.

While it’s true that we’ve seen an increase in the amount of errors the Forest players have been making – such Eric Lichaj’s awful back-pass for Brentford’s second goal -the bigger problem, the more disastrous effect of Forest’s confidence crisis in my opinion, is this avoidance of responsibility.

Players have been hesitating for a moment in the hope that someone else would deal with problems, they have not been making themselves available for the ball, and when they have the ball they have all too often not had the nerve to try something positive – they have wanted rid of the ball when under pressure.

Under these conditions, goals like the one resulting from Lichaj’s back-pass are inevitable. It was a pass poorly executed while nervous, under pressure and with nobody offering help.

The weakness in central midfield and the lack of confidence are probably parts of the same problem, caused by the loss of Andy Reid and Chris Cohen. Forest have lacked organisation and courage on the ball in this area ever since their injuries, and the team’s confidence has gradually faded from then on.

The Reds woke up after Brentford had knocked three goals in – just as they did against Huddersfield. They played some decent football and vaguely threatened to get back into the game, but in truth The Bees were taking things easy and had dropped ten yards or so deeper.

I was impressed with Brentford. They kept the ball well and played some gutsy, slick football, while manager Mark Warburton identified Forest’s weakness very quickly, and came up with a plan to exploit it. They were unfortunate not to have scored more goals.

Perhaps the only positive from a Forest point of view was the crowd; I feared what the reaction would be if Forest went a goal down, but they stuck by the team, and even at 3-0 down chants of “Psycho! Psycho! Psycho!” could still be heard.

Pearce will be grateful; this was not his finest hour. His decision to drop top scorer Assombalonga backfired, but more crucially he made a howling mistake in choice of central midfield.

The Forest legend will have to do better tactically when Norwich visit on Saturday - but the players must make a braver show of it too. In the past I have criticised The City Ground crowd for making the players nervous, but this was not the case against Brentford. Hopefully they will be just as supportive when watching The Garibaldi break their poor run against The Canaries.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!