Monday, 29 December 2014

Forest 1 Birmingham City 3

Stuart Pearce's luck continued to dwindle on Sunday as Forest crashed to a disappointing 3-1 defeat at home to a one-dimensional Birmingham City side, seemingly leaving their promotion hopes hanging by a thread.

The team and system looked a little better; Robert Tesche and Henri Lansbury occupied the pivotal central-midfield roles, and while this would give rise to it's own problems, it at least allowed Michael Mancienne to escape back into the back-four, alongside Jamaal Lascelles. Full-backs Danny Fox and Eric Lichaj appeared under orders to get forward as often as possible.

Matty Fryatt and Britt Assombalonga played up front for Forest, ahead of wingers Michael Antonio and Jamie Paterson, who should have been ideally placed to attack Birmingham's full-backs due to the system our opponents use.

The Blues utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation that we are familiar with having watched Forest's own versions under Pearce and previous manager Billy Davies. This is a fluid way of playing which has come to dominate world football, because it is essentially a 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 at the same time, but Birmingham play it with more emphasis on counter-attacking and are inclined to rely on defending the central areas rather than pulling back the wide midfielders as cautiously as you sometimes see.

The weakness in this system is the area around the full-backs, and with City's style of play, which their emphasis on defending the centre in order to be able to counter-attack with their wide-men, Forest should have been able to hurt them here.

However, it was Birmingham exploiting weaknesses down the channels, not Forest. The Reds started brightly and looked better on the ball than of late, and were determined to attack, but they repeatedly over-stretched leaving themselves wide-open for a counter attack.

Pearce spoke of this threat beforehand, so he obviously warned the players of this, making the neglect in this aspect of their play baffling - it was a total lack of organisation and teamwork.

Both full-backs were pushing up simultaneously, while the wingers did not appear to be under orders to cover their full-backs when advanced - I assume Pearce would have instructed Lansbury and Tesche to provide cover should their full-back need it, something they failed to do.

The (rough) diagram of the players' average positions for the game illustrates what was happening (see left, all diagrams on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked), as Demarai Grey and David Cotterill were repeatedly able to run beyond Fox and Lichaj and cause problems.

This was exacerbated by what the Forest wingers were doing; instead of making runs out wide into the areas where Birmingham's system is vulnerable, they often drifted into the centre of the pitch, which was crowded with blue shirts.

By doing so, not only did they forfeit their chance to get on the ball and hurt our opponents, but they also freed up Grey and Cotterill to go on the rampage themselves, since their own full-backs did not need help as regularly.

It must be pointed out that Forest were playing some good football in the Birmingham half. I hesitate to say they were dominating, since their position was made so precarious by how open they were at the back, but the extra men in the middle were carving out chances, particularly when Lansbury got involved.

It was all down to who would concede first, and it was Forest - after some poor defending from a free-kick (given away when caught  on the counter-attack). This stunned The Reds, and without anybody on the pitch geeing them up, they crumbled, conceded two more quick goals before half-time.

Once again the lack of leadership had ruined what was looking like a good performance. Forest continued to try and play the better football and carved out multiple chances, but when Birmingham sprang forward they created the better opportunities.

The defenders got a lot of stick, particularly Danny Fox. In defence of the left-back, he was Forest's 'go-to' man when coming forward, seemingly expected to create openings from deep. But he was often left with no options. Lansbury - supposedly one of the top midfielders in the league -  was point-blank refusing to take the responsibility to get Forest moving forward himself, and spent most of the second half pointing at other, less gifted players. He simply does not want the ball at times, which is frustrating because he was excellent when on the attack.

Paterson was also disappointing; I would have thought a player presented with a rare opportunity would have been desperately trying to find space to get on the ball, but he offered little in the way of an outlet down the wing for Fox. The left-back was forced to play long, hopeful balls, only four of which found their target, or try more tricky threaded-through passes which were often intercepted.

The more experienced Forest midfielders were shown up when Ben Osborn came on; the youngster wanted the ball and was positive, getting Forest moving forward without as much reliance on direct-play from defenders. He made a big difference.

This was a game in which Forest created the more chances, and looked dominant for long periods, but they were at constant risk of being caught on the counter-attack.

The statistics tell a story too - only 2 of Forest's 26 attempts were on target as they tried again and again to force their way through the packed middle of the pitch, while Birmingham sat back, content to pick them off on the break and create meaningful openings. Because of the type of chances the two teams were creating, you would have to say the right team won.

It was an improvement however, from the last home game - despite the worse result. Pearce's men were having the better of things for long periods, missed some good chances and were only - as it happened - undone by the sloppy defending of two set-pieces, and a freak ricochet from a Karl Darlow save. Again the question is, can Pearce sort things out in time for a promotion push?
Thanks for reading, and keep the faith - Psycho deserves his current support.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Forest 1 Leeds 1

Forest suffered another frustrating afternoon as they were held to a 1-1 draw at The City Ground against an organised and plucky, but ultimately limited Leeds United side on Saturday.

The main talking point beforehand was Stuart Pearce's decision to play Dexter Blackstock instead of top scorer Britt Assombalonga, but the rest of the team was equally confusing; Pearce named a side containing three full-backs in what turned out to be an unconventional 3-5-2. Michail Antonio and Jack Hunt played as wing backs, while Michael Mancienne was preferred in a defensive midfield role.

Leeds boss Neil Redfearn deployed his men in a diamond system, using the extra length this system provides to enforce a high pressing game, before switching to a more traditional 4-4-2 later in the game, as Forest improved.

But it was Leeds who started the brighter, handed the initiative by The Reds' who were struggling in midfield. Pearce's system was designed to overlap the narrow Leeds diamond, with Antonio and Hunt instructed to stay wide and get forward as often as possible.
With an extra man in midfield, Forest should have been swarming and dominating in this area, but with Antonio and/or Hunt staying out wide, Leeds often had the numerical advantage.

The Reds also found it difficult to find an effective midfield outlet, because the man most often available was Mancienne who, as I have argued before, is not comfortable enough on the ball to use it in close proximity to pressing midfielders, and his distribution is relatively poor.
The lack of a viable outlet forced the defenders to play the ball forward themselves more often than they would have liked. We saw a lot of diagonal balls to opposite wing-backs, but because Leeds knew they were stopping Forest come through the middle, this direct play was predictable.

The back four Forest players (Darlow, Wilson, Lichaj and Fox) played 59 long balls between them during the game; only 9 found a Forest shirt, meaning they gave the ball away fifty times through direct play alone.

Obviously if you're giving the ball away that often it's going to be coming straight back, and Leeds were finding holes in the Forest defence – chiefly in behind the wing-backs.

Hunt and Antonio were often left isolated and outnumbered as Leeds targeted these areas, and were not being helped at times as the defenders stayed in central areas at first, though to be fair as the game progressed they improved.
This vulnerability was worsened by the attacking instructions given to the wing-backs; they were told to push up as much as possible – this often left nobody defending the wide areas at all and Leeds almost capitalised on this on more than one occasion.

These problems led to a difficult afternoon for Forest; they looked shaky at the back as the three defenders and Mancienne became more and more stretched, and going forward they were made to play long rather than getting the ball into midfield before finding their danger-men out wide.

I am at risk, however, of being hyper-critical. The Garibaldi were the better side overall, improving after an ugly first twenty minutes and looking dangerous when able to keep the ball on the ground, while creating plenty of chances and bringing the best out of Leeds goalkeeper Marco Silvestri.
Indeed, into the second half they were able to play much more freely through the midfield; Henri Lansbury and Robert Tesche were coming back to help Mancienne, and the extra options made Forest's play more unpredictable, making it easier to get the ball out to the wings, and in particular to Antonio.
Tesche got stuck in and had a good game; he was the busiest player on the pitch in my opinion and made an effective contribution both in and out of possession. He might turn out to be a ready made replacement for Chris Cohen - it will be interesting to see how he performs alongside Andy Reid.
Fryatt was unfortunate not to have a hat-trick. He was effective on the ball, but more so when lurking, which is how he scored the goals – two of which were wrongly disallowed as off sides.

It is, perhaps, mainly Pearce's unusual selection decisions that leave him vulnerable to criticism. Playing Mancienne in central midfield totally undermined Forest's system; if they had someone collecting the ball in midfield able to distribute the ball, the tactic of playing with attacking wing-backs would have been a success – instead, Mancienne was a liability in this role.
Forest have one of the finest deep midfielders in the league, David Vaughan. It is worrying that a central defender gets selected above him (or even Ben Osborn) for this position.

The decision most talked about beforehand, was the omission of Assombalonga. Every occasion the youngster is not selected the manager is setting himself up for a fall. He simply has to play.

But we shouldn't be too critical of Pearce; he is still moulding the club to his own design and is only six months into his Championship career. I get the feeling he is doing a lot of experimenting, and the encouraging thing is that when he makes inevitable adjustments during games, they usually improve the situation, leading to The Reds finishing games stronger than they begin.

Despite their problems Forest were unlucky not to win this game comfortably – denied by a good goalkeeper and a couple of poor decisions. They will surely get better as Pearce finds his feet – whether this happens in time for a promotion push is the big question.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

Friday, 19 December 2014

What chance promotion?

"The only way to come out of the embargo is to get promotion to The Premier League – so it gives us a fantastic target going forward.”

…so said Stuart Pearce in his usual honest and (perhaps too) revealing style.

After a fantastic start, Pearce’s men have run into problems. Be it injuries to key players, a confidence crisis – or even the possibility that they were overachieving in the first place, a huge dip in form has led to the first murmurings of discontent since Psycho’s return.

Pearce's minority of detractors have been saying he's not the man to lead Forest back to The Premier League for a while to be fair, and already claim promotion this season has slipped away – despite only being 21 games into the season.

Even when speaking to many believers, there is a sentiment that The Reds probably won't go up first time, that this was always going to be a rebuilding season and Pearce, club legend that he is, needs – no, deserves – time.

Pearce himself, however, was never going to think like that, and the embargo has given him even more motivation than ever to gain promotion straight away.

2014/15 is probably Forest's best chance to win promotion while under their transfer embargo; can they do it?

There is an argument to say they are already too far behind - even at this relatively early stage of the season.

Statistics back this up; they show that it is very difficult to launch a promotion bid from mid table. Since the inception of The Championship ten years ago, of all the teams eventually promoted, only four were not occupying a top six spot at this point of the season (after 21 games).

It has even been rare for such clubs to go up via the play-offs; eight out of the ten winners were in the top six at this stage. Simply put, the successful teams in The Championship tend to be successful all season long.

The Anti-Statistic Brigade will grumble that every season is different and the past has no bearing on the future; while this is true, statistics such as those above indicate a trend, and trends exist for a reason: the reason for this trend is that if a team is not good enough to have muscled it's way into the top six of the league by now, they are probably not promotion material, and are unlikely to improve enough to change this.

However, the trend has been beaten – spectacularly. On two occasions teams have even been able to rise from 14th position and win promotion – due to the exceptionally open nature of the league that year.

And there has only been one season as open as those two years; this one (see graph, right. Click to enlarge).

This season, there are twice them amount of teams you would statistically predict to be within 10 points of leaders Bournemouth at this stage, based on past performance1. The league is wide open.

The conditions are in place for someone to rise from mid-table and win promotion, but an important factor in such a revival would be the fans.

Forest are a big club for this level and are well overdue some success; of their Championship rivals, only the likes of Bournemouth, Brentford, Huddersfield, Millwall, Rotherham and Brighton have been absent from the top tier longer.

Impatience under such circumstances is understandable, but in Stuart Pearce we have a manager uniquely capable of keeping the fans onside. I recently undertook a small survey of fans; 75% of respondents thought Psycho was the right man for the job.

Were any other manager in charge, you could envisage the fans getting on players backs, but so far their loyalty to Pearce has not only prolonged patience, but driven the team on. The atmosphere both home and away this season has been as good as anything I can remember personally.

Such support will be essential considering the existing team must improve without significant reinforcements. The Financial Fair Play embargo will make strengthening difficult, as they will struggle to bring in any player wanted by other clubs.

Pearce himself is doing a good job of downplaying the significance of the embargo, but even if Forest cannot bring in players of sufficient quality to improve the team, they still have Jack Hobbs and Andy Reid returning from injury.

Jack Hobbs has been sorely missed from the back four, but it was the loss of Andy Reid which turned Forest from table-toppers to also-rans. The longer he stays fit, the more inexorable Forest's rise in fortunes will be.

There seems an almost resignation that Forest will not be promoted this season - perhaps I've misread that and it is merely a willingness to give the manager time, which is no bad thing, but it's my belief that we've got a lot to look forward to in the next few months.

Pearce himself is certainly readying himself for a real crack at promotion, and has been at pains to reassure supporters - particularly in light of the FFP embargo. Forest's prized assets will not be sold - in fact the manager is looking to strengthen.

This is probably the best Forest squad since their relegation from the top flight, a squad who’ve already demonstrated they can win games, led by a born winner, supported by one of the most positive Forest crowds in living memory, in an unusually open Championship season.

What chance promotion? Don’t count them out.

Thanks for reading, and COYR.

1 There are 11 other teams within ten points of Bournemouth, who occupy 1st position. The median amount of teams we would expect - based on the previous ten seasons - is 4.5, less than half as many teams are there are currently.