Following a rousing victory over Coventry City on Saturday, Nottingham Forest are out of the drop zone for the first time in weeks. Peter Blackburn takes a look at the tactics and players behind optimism for survival.

There have been calls in recent months and years for a fluid Forest side, playing a 4-2-3-1 formation and, in doing so, getting the most out of Radoslaw Majewski and Lewis McGugan, with both allowed free roles in the most part. This was a system that some were convinced could fire us to promotion under Billy Davies last year, and save us from the dreaded drop this season. However, as a jubilant crowd left the City Ground on Saturday evening, elated for the first time in weeks, I had the words of Mike Bassett: England Manager ringing in my ears. “Four, four, f**king two.” For once, he’s right.

Although the nature of modern football and its need for the constant fad and the latest trend, might tell you otherwise, there is no infallible system. The past decade has seen something of an obsession with the varying 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation, and the heralding of 4-2-3-1 as balanced perfection — the solo striker the apex of the modern game. On the continent they are toying with three centre-halves again all over the place. The point is though, that there are no inherently and absolutely good or bad formations. Each has its merits, perhaps some more than others, but each is fundamentally valuable if you have the players within your ranks to make it work. In the current situation, Forest must return to the old friend of British football and make the 4-4-2 work.

Sean O’Driscoll, recently installed as Forest’s assistant manager/first team coach, once spoke out against the footballing fashion police who had denounced 4-4-2 as a system, and were criticising England coach Fabio Capello for his dogged insistence upon its use. Many of the same people blamed the South Africa debacle on the system used at the tournament but, as O’Driscoll noted, it is never the system itself to be blamed, but whether the players suit the system (the decision of the manager), and how you work within that particular structure. O’Driscoll’s points should open the eyes of many people when he suggests that, contrary to popular opinion, the 4-4-2 can be as flexible as the 4-2-3-1. Of course it can be. We are all so guilty of over-complicating the game.

The emergence of Adlene Guedioura, on loan to Forest from Wolves, has, in the most part, caused the posing of these tactical questions. No longer is it necessary to find a system that can carry the likes of McGugan and Majewski and allow them to optimise their talent whilst not relying on them to defend, and not giving them too much responsibility. Tied with Moussi — or fingers very tightly crossed indeed, Chris Cohen — Forest now have, temporarily at least, an attacking and creative midfield player capable of playing in a 4-4-2 without losing face tactically.

In Garath McCleary, Forest also possesses the necessary attributes to pose problems for most sides in this league. McCleary is finally showing why he is constantly referred to as one of the most skilful players around his team-mates, and Reid clearly holds more quality in his left-foot than several sides in this league have in their first eleven. Throw in the likes of Paul Anderson, McGugan and Majewski as competition and replacements for the two wide spots, and the Reds have found a potential blueprint for success.

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The first half formation of 4-2-3-1 (left) left Forest with a massively isolated, and unfit Marcus Tudgay up front, as makeshift winger Chris Gunter struggled to resist playing secondary full-back and failed to support the attack. With a centre-half playing right-back in Wooton, Forest were unable to provide the added width from full-back that would have given much needed thrust given the ever deepening roles of Moussi and Guedioura. The 4-4-2 (right) that was implemented in the second half gave the Reds the ability to hold the ball up front and allowed Guedioura, McCleary and Reid the time to push forward and support the attack. With Gunter taking his more usual position at full-back, another threat was provided from deep and thus created further problems for the opposition.

One of the key aspects for Forest in making the 4-4-2 work is in the use of strike partnerships at the top of the formation. With a vast list of strikers to choose from, Steve Cotterill is spoilt for choice but also given reason to further question why his side struggle to put the ball in the opposition net. It is not simply a case of the quality of the striker available, or indeed the quantity of said strikers, but most importantly the blend. The 4-4-2 works if the partnerships within work; notably the full-back and the winger, the centre-halves and the central midfielders. Most importantly though, if you are going to win games, a strike partnership with complementary abilities simply must be formed. In Dexter Blackstock and Robbie Findley, Forest found one of those partnerships that has enough shared abilities to make the sum more valuable than the total of its parts. In early games this season Findley and Ishmael Miller looked like it might offer a similar impression and there is no reason why Matt Derbyshire, David McGoldrick and Marcus Tudgay cannot play a part as well.

With a return to winning, and scoring ways now in the bag, can the demons be cast off the players of the Forest players and staff? We can only hope that with a plethora of capable Championship strikers available, Steve Cotterill can send out the best partnerships available and provide those players with a confident platform to shine. In Miller, Blackstock, Findley, Derbyshire and Tudgay, Forest have more than enough firepower to succeed. And with a resurgent midfield supplying them there’s hope.

Most importantly, however, in Reid, Guedioura and McCleary, Forest have three attacking midfield talents with the combined capability to take this league by the scruff off the neck and drag Forest to safety. The magician-like capability of Reid, the pace and trickery of McCleary and the driving force of ‘the classy bull’. Hope springs anew for a balanced and talented Forest side.

Make no mistake, Birmingham — unbeaten at home this season — will be tough opposition on Saturday but it’s taking the positives from the Coventry game and maintaining an upward curve that will save the season. Upcoming home games against Doncaster, Millwall, Bristol City and Portsmouth will be key in the fight against relegation.

Follow Peter on Twitter: @petermblackburn

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