While we can be sure the new manager will bring a bit of international know how to Nottingham Forest after his England experience, two successful seasons in the Netherlands and a brief spell in Germany, there’s no guarantees of the style or formation he may adopt.
The standard Dutch 4-3-3 formation — devastatingly used by Barcelona in their infamous tiki taka style — has been rumoured but, as a Zonal Marking post suggests, McClaren’s formation at FC Twente was more subtle. Moving between formations, depending on attack or defence, the players’ positions allow much more fluidity and flexibility than simply playing three or five in midfield.
“McClaren’s system has been widely defined as a 4-3-3, but Twente’s shape is more complex than that, and depends entirely on whether they have the ball or not. If they do, it’s a 4-2-1-3, when they don’t it is more like a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-4-1-1 – the latter would probably be more appropriate, because as mentioned earlier, the two central midfielders are not ‘holding’ players in the usual sense.”
Dutch football, however, has traditionally been an attacking 4-3-3 country since the development of Total Football by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff in the late 1960s and early 70s. Players have been brought up with an entirely different mindset to the basic 4-4-2 that British football has stuck with for decades. So it would be disingenuous to think that Forest will suddenly start playing anything like Holland, Ajax or even Barcelona. Indeed, McClaren’s brief spell at Wolfsburg saw a failed attempt to revert a diamond midfield to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
But the recent success of Swansea (4-2-3-1), Norwich (4-3-1-2) and Blackpool (4-3-3) — as well as the relatively more affluent Newcastle, West Brom and QPR — shows that you can play your way out of the Championship. And, in the case of the former three clubs, attractive football brings not only success but admirers across the Football League.
As Zonal Marking concludes, stability was the key to success with Twente so it’s expected that McClaren will quickly decide his first XI and stick to it. Obviously this requires the signing of a left-back as well as some midfielders — a holding or defensive player, possibly a box-to-box type or playmaker and a winger. And with the rumoured pursuit of Bristol City’s Nicky Maynard, a 20+ goals a season striker who can play as a lone frontman.
Adopting a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation would suit Forest particularly well given the squad already available, despite the plethora of strikers. Holding or defensive midfielders don’t always get an easy time at the City Ground but they do bolster the back four — particularly if the full-backs push up — and break up opposition attacks, keeping the game moving if adding nothing spectacular. That said, neither Swansea nor Twente played with such a midfielder preferring the likes of Joe Allen and Leon Britton, and Wout Brama and Theo Janssen respectively.
Three attacking midfielders would allow Forest to field their most creative players — Lewis McGugan, Andy Reid and Raddy Majewski — as well as a winger and/or striker behind the main striker. Dexter Blackstock is probably the only frontman we have who could fulfil the role — so a squad addition here is essential — although the likes of David McGoldrick (often an attacking midfielder anyway), Robbie Findlay (his pace presents options on the wing) and Marcus Tudgay (proven as a withdrawn striker) could play as part of an attacking three. Losing Robbie Earnshaw would be a blow but his struggles with injury and lack of goals (no doubt suffering through Billy Davies’ rotation policy) mean his role might be more as an impact player especially in this formation.
With the full-backs given free license to push forwards, there’s less need to play with two out-and-out wingers so it does allow the freedom of playing with, for example, Paul Anderson, Majewski and/or one of the many wingers we’ve been linked with over the summer. This would give McGugan the ability to roam in a ‘number 10’ (or trequartista) role, finding and creating space and exerting influence on the game as a playmaker given the flexibility within the formation.
The signing of Reid gives options but it remains unclear whether he would be best suited to a wide position or a more withdrawn role given his cultured left foot and creative abilities — Chris Cohen also falls into this bracket. A holding or defensive midfielder will play an important part, protecting the back four and breaking up opposition moves as well as bringing the ball forwards — this is one position where McClaren’s stated desire for experience will count, much as Paul McKenna’s did in the 09/10 season.
Most importantly, based on Forest’s difficulties last season, a 4-2-3-1 formation creates space in which to play; cutting back the regimented lines between defence, midfield and attack. Too many times have we seen an inability to find players, make passes or to even go forwards, given what appears to be a complete lack of ideas. If you allow players to move between the traditional lines it makes them difficult to mark, creates space to play and move in and offers new opportunities to attack.
Hopefully we can also expect an increased emphasis on possession. While Forest’s footballing tradition is based on the counter-attack, ball retention and making it count are two things we need to work on. You can argue we should have made the extra man count in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Swansea, but it was their superior possession and footballing ability that really created the advantage. Dominating the midfield should allow us to control games rather than chase them — pressing and tracking back in defence and attacking in numbers.
Davies experimented with 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 last season to varying success, so it’s not something that will be too alien to the players. And Chelsea’s standard 4-3-3 will no doubt continue under Andre Villa-Boas, Arsene Wenger’s Continental-style Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical manipulation at Man Utd (don’t forget where McClaren was 10 years ago) prove that players, managers and fans are already tactically astute even if we can’t manage the same degree of success at a senior international level.
All comments welcome…