How have Billy Davies’ tactics changed since last season? Forest Boffin believes a changed focus to crossing the ball, as well as maintaining possession, is benefiting the team — and the strikers
Upon his return, Billy Davies’ first action tactically was to implement a narrow diamond formation, which basically used the ‘strikers’ to provide our width, occupy defenders and create space elsewhere. This proved highly successful initially; Forest hit the jackpot with 18 goals in eight games. But rival managers soon recognised this and clogged up the area in front of their defence with bodies. Forest were still doing well, but their red-hot scoring form was cooled by the stifling defensive tactics of other managers – how have they adapted to combat this?
This season we have seen an evolution of Billy’s system. He is still using the likes of Simon Cox, Darius Henderson, and now Jamie Mackie, to provide width, however he now has the full-backs bombing forward more, in an effort not only to support the attack in wide positions, but sometimes to go past it (see diagram 1).
The main aim last season was to retain possession and pressure long enough for space to appear somewhere (often close to the D of the penalty box). The focus this season seems to be to overpower teams on the flanks and to cross the ball.
The Reds are generally more successful at this down the left, with natural midfielder Chris Cohen pressing forward from the left-back position. As Cohen comes forward, he links up well with Andy Reid and Radi Majewski. The Pole is an important figure if Forest are to use the ball efficiently in their opponent’s half because he has the technical ability to successfully link up play with one touch, which gives defenders less time to intervene. As the defenders struggle to get the ball off Majewski, the attacker and the left-back, they lose sight of the real threat: Andy Reid. The Irishman helps link up the play to get the ball into these positions, and then lurks nearby until space appears for him to make a cross (see diagram 2).
Reid is simply the best player in this division. He has lost weight and added a new defensive ethos to his game, but he is mostly a creative threat causing absolute havoc. This is Forest’s main strength – the crossing of Andy Reid, and it has been harnessed by mastering possession in the wide areas, allowing Reid more opportunities to play accurate crosses.
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Because they can keep hold of the ball out wide, Forest will pick up a lot of free-kicks in these areas too, and also earn more than their fair share of corners. Another Reid speciality, we have already seen a high number of goals resulting from dead-balls crossed into dangerous areas.
But it is not only Reid with an eye for a cross. Our advanced full-backs are getting in on the act. There will be times that possession-adept Forest will be able to play cross after cross, bombarding the penalty area until something decisive happens. The Reds have already scored a few goals in this manner – such as against Middlesbrough (both goals) and against Barnsley. Last season Forest would have been more cautious and waited until space appeared elsewhere due to a positional error – which is not guaranteed to happen – but now they get the ball in more.
The change in plan – more of an evolution – is reflected in the type of goal Forest are scoring (see stats, 3). This season, crosses have led to 64% of our goals, compared to 26% of our goals under Davies last season.
The good service provided from wide areas is helping our ‘strikers’. They have been questioned for their lack of goals under Davies, only scoring three goals out of 23 last season. This was unfair, as Forest were generally using them in the first phase of attack to get out wide and receive the ball – the system wasn’t conducive for them getting as many clear-cut chances as, for example, Jordan Rhodes or Glenn Murray were getting. Cox et al were busy creating chances for others rather than looking out for themselves. However this season they are having more success as a group – scoring 10 out of 25 goals, and now they are scoring more goals than the midfielders from open play.
Davies’ strategy for getting more crosses in is clearly the reason for the resurgence of Matt Derbyshire. The former Blackburn man is good at finding space in crowded areas (see diagram 4) and he is there to get on the end of crosses in my opinion, although the main beneficiary will be Darius Henderson; if other factors don’t keep him out of the team.
This subtle tactical change appears to be working, but it flies in the face of modern, statistical wisdom – it is well documented that crossing is an inefficient way of scoring goals, with only around 20% of crosses even finding their target. However, the theory is clearly that if Forest are able to retain possession in the right areas, they will be able to put in enough crosses to score enough goals – this is why players like Mackie, Cox, Majewski, and even Henderson, are so important to Forest. They don’t always do the flamboyant, they keep the ball, and possession is central to Forest’s strategy. Forest don’t only try to put crosses in, but the focus has changed towards it being a huge part of their tactics, as indicated by the goal statistics.
Forest haven’t really got going this season, certainly since the departure of Adlene Guedioura – and yet they’re still fourth. I believe they already have the players at the club for promotion – I don’t think another striker, a so-called 20 goal a season man, is a priority. Our system works well coming forward as it is, we just need to sort the glitches in our defensive midfield, and when this happens, I believe Forest will cross their way into the Premier League.
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