It’s been an inconsistent season for Forest so far as manager Billy Davies has needed to shuffle his team and tactics. Forest Boffin identifies the three distinct stages of development…

1. The diamond formation (with Guedioura)

Forest began the season playing a narrow 4-4-2 – the diamond formation (see figure 1). This system involved playing a ball-playing, more creative midfielder at the diamond’s base – Adlene Guedioura, who would play the ball forward, building the attack in a controlled, creative manner. The attacking midfielder was also important, as he would help the forwards keep the ball until the cavalry arrived in what was a patient, possession-hording approach; ideal for pinning the opposition into their own half while playing some good football.


This first phase lasted only five games, resulting in three wins, a draw and a loss away at Wigan. After a disjointed but successful pair of wins, Forest started playing some fantastic football, beating Bolton, but looking particularly impressive against Watford. Although only a draw, for me this was Forest’s best performance of the season; the tactics were perfect and the players executed them at a level higher than we should expect at this level of football. Watford were in rampant mood, but Davies had organised his midfield in particular to play at their best both defensively and offensively.

Because it worked so well in this game, it was easy to see the good work Forest had done over the summer in transforming the midfield into a dynamic, organised unit. Majewski, Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura had formed an understanding and were covering each other’s roles effortlessly (see figure 2, where Watford are attacking. Our defensive midfielder is nowhere to be seen, but the rest of the midfield are covering). This was the balanced midfield Davies must have been striving for as between them they had solved many of the problems of playing Guedioura in defensive midfield. Last season, the Algerian’s positional naivety, coupled with the narrow formation, led to an excessive amount of crosses coming into the box, and also at times too much space in front of the defence (as Guedioura abandoned his post to stop the crosses). Now the midfield were working together to solve these problems.


2. The diamond formation (without Guedioura)

After the Wigan game, Guedioura was sold to Crystal Palace, causing what turned out to be a major tactical issue. The base of the diamond was the most important position in the team – it is a vulnerable but rewarding system, difficult to get right. Forest’s midfielders had bridged the gap and made it work, but with Guedioura gone they lost this understanding and positional organisation. This formed the second phase of the season so far, with Davies trying furiously to find a replacement defensive midfielder – Moussi, Chalobah, Lansbury, Cohen, Jara and even Reid spent time there in the next eight games.

Forest missed the Algerian’s technical skills – his ability to start off their attacks was lost when replaced with the likes of Moussi (see figure 3). But the main issue became the loss of defensive understanding, which made the Reds porous in front of their central defenders, with opponents able to maraud forward and almost shoot at will at times. Forest were still trying to play flowing, passing football (for which Davies gets little credit, this is how he likes his teams to play) but the space in front of their defenders caused many goals to be conceded – the Middlesbrough, Barnsley and Doncaster games in particular causing concern.


It caused further problems when Forest’s defenders (who have been fantastic all season) started taking matters into their own hands by coming out of their defensive line to deal with problems before they developed. This strengthened us slightly, but caused other problems by making us short at the back (see a common example in figure 4, where the central defender, Danny Collins, needed to come forward to cover the defensive-midfielder’s job, leaving the defence a man short).


We thus saw Forest not only be less fluid in getting the ball forward, but also become extremely vulnerable defensively, all because we had nobody to fill Guedioura’s shoes. During ‘phase one’ of the season (the diamond formation with Guedioura), we conceded 0.8 goals per game on average – ‘phase two’ (without Guedioura) saw this rise to 1.5 goals conceded per game.

3. The 4-2-3-1 formation

The problems became so serious that Davies abandoned his midfield diamond after the Yeovil game. His solution was to play two men in Guedioura’s place (see figure 5). This was immediately effective in its main objective; stopping space appearing in front of the defence – and apart from a couple of blips Forest have been defending much better ever since this change, conceding a more comfortable 0.9 goals per game.


Unfortunately there has been a downside to this tactical adjustment – with less men forward (the extra midfielder has been taken from up front) it has been challenging for Forest to keep the ball when going forward. Particularly at the City Ground, our opponents were able to limit our options up front, outnumbering and isolating the forward players by either sitting back (Blackpool and Burnley) or pressing the ball at source and marking the creative players (see figure 6, Reading). This is the problem with playing only one man up front – it allows opponents to push on their full-backs more, causing a chain-reaction throughout their team – they are then able to give us less time on the ball.


Away from home things are different, with the onus on the home side to attack Forest have been able to sit back and attempt to pick off teams when able – they are unbeaten under the 4-2-3-1 system on their travels. This has been the glimmer of hope – Billy Davies has made the Garibaldis more difficult to beat, and despite the grumbles of some fans, were arguably unlucky in both of their defeats (home games against Blackpool and Reading).

In fact, despite the tactical drawbacks, and as the manager will tell you (and has), Forest have been creating enough chances to win games, missing a lot of good chances.

Recently the home form has even improved; good victories against promotion rivals QPR and Leeds gave Forest a great end to the year as Davies has made another tactical adjustment – pushing the two wide midfielders further up the pitch in order to press and win the ball higher.

It sounds easy to press high up the pitch – why doesn’t everybody do it? It is a risky tactic, especially at home where the players will be expected to keep up this hard work all the game – we saw how tired Halford, Majewski, Mackie and Abdoun were in the second-half against Leeds, contributing to allowing them back into the game. Also, it leaves gaps behind those who are pressing, space which unless filled straight away will be exploited (see figure 7). A lot of credit is due to Davies for making the correct decision in pushing players further up the pitch – it could have backfired, but was clearly a response to Forest’s problem of the attacker becoming isolated. Again, this adjustment has worked.


Some conclusions

Overall it has felt like a mixed season so far – but in my opinion the team, and particularly the manager, have all done well. Davies has made one blunder in particular – allowing Guedioura to leave (but when the Premier League comes calling, is it right for any party to deny a player his big move?). This caused tactical problems galore in our midfield, which Forest had clearly worked so hard to get working well.

But piece by piece, it appears Davies has been repairing these deficiencies, firstly by making the Reds more solid defensively; and secondly, by improving their play coming forward. The one thing that gives me confidence is the style in which this team attacks when on song; you don’t often see our opposition come forward with the fluidity and panache that Forest do.

I think we’d feel better if the disappointments were against different teams: losing to Yeovil, drawing against Bournemouth at home – these are poor results. The fact is, Forest have stuttered and struggled, have needed to adjust constantly and cope with terrible injury problems, and have come up against awful luck, and several unbelievable goalkeeping displays. Things have probably gone as poorly as they possibly could have; and we’re fifth.

It will be interesting to see, as we progress into January, how Forest change their system to allow for any new faces.

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