The shift from a diamond midfield to a 4-2-3-1 formation could prove to be a crucial turning point in the season, as Billy Davies’ Nottingham Forest side begin to step up a gear in the Championship finale


The sale of Adlene Guedioura on deadline day last August was a turning point in the season. Forget the rights or wrongs, the failed targets, the unforeseen injuries… the dynamic of the team changed that day.

The robust diamond that bossed midfields, with some of the Championship’s most talented players, was replaced by one that struggled to take control; suffering the loss of Kelvin Wilson in defence as much as anything.

The three months following the departure of the Algerian international to Crystal Palace saw just four wins in 13 games. Ultimately it was the 3-1 defeat to Yeovil that prompted Billy Davies to revert to the current 4-2-3-1 formation which has seen the recent upturn in fortunes.

It was slow to take effect and, as all good sides do, it started with building from the back. The growing confidence and form of Karl Darlow, the burgeoning partnership of Jack Hobbs and Jamaal Lascelles, and fortitude at full-back — take your pick from Greg Halford, Chris Cohen, Eric Lichaj, Gonzalo Jara Reyes and Dan Harding — has seen the back five restrict opposition teams to just 26 league goals. Nineteen of those were conceded during the three-month barren period though.

But it’s the midfield protection that has addressed this. Many argue that two defensive midfielders and one striker is “too negative” — and maybe it was early on — but it took a while for the system to bed in, for the players to understand their position. Andy Reid, for example, has blossomed as a playmaker rather than his isolated but freer role drifting in from the left.

In reality, playing with holding midfielders is the modern game. There was a suspicion we might have been here almost three years ago but it’s evident that the classic destroyer and creator partnership can be seen in teams as varied as Arsenal, Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester City. The system stopped teams scything huge holes through our midfield while, ultimately, allowing the wingers to have less defensive responsibility.

The loan signing of Nathaniel Chalobah didn’t work out — expect him to be a future star though — but the arrival of David Vaughan appears to be the cleverest addition since the departure of Guedioura. Vaughan goes about his business under the radar, doing the simple stuff but remaining the heartbeat of the team. Watch what Michael Carrick does for Manchester United, or what Miguel Arteta does for Arsenal, and it’s easy to draw comparisons — always available, keeping the ball moving and anticipating the opposition.

Build from the back. With the defence solid, the midfield making their jobs easier, it becomes time to be more expansive — address the lack of pace in the side, the lack of width, the lack of flair… It’s been easy to identify these issues over the past 18 months, and even with the arrival of Jamie Paterson and Djamal Abdoun it wasn’t immediately solved.

But Paterson is young, Abdoun needed time to adapt — slowly but surely everything has come together, resulting in the outstanding performances we’ve seen against QPR, West Ham and Blackburn. We rode our luck against Leeds and while two points away at Reading and Bolton weren’t bad points, only Sheffield Wednesday have drawn as many games (11) as Forest this season — Leicester, for example, have only drawn three.

As it stands now, there is true balance across the side — the midfield trio of Reid, Vaughan and the Henri Lansbury offer everything the dynamism of the diamond formation offered, and more. (See the heat maps from the Blackburn game below, click to enlarge.) Relying on wing-backs for width only works when you’re attacking and pressing, but now the relentless work-ethic of Jamie Mackie balances the flair of Paterson or Abdoun on the opposite wing.

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So while it can be 4-5-1 in defence and 4-2-3-1 in possession, it’s quite easily 4-3-3 in attack which means ostensibly that you can play three strikers — which, it could be argued, we play anyway with Paterson and Mackie in wide positions.

And while you can bemoan the lack of a clinical striker, Darius Henderson, Simon Cox and even Halford have proved they offer a lot to the team as a lone front man. Holding the ball up, bringing teammates into play, maintaining possession and creating space by movement off the ball is a hugely important role — it’s difficult to think of a striker that we can afford who can play that position and score the goals required. The likes of Connor Wickham or Danny Graham may be perfectly suited, a poacher such as Jordan Rhodes maybe less so?

What is clear though is that this formation — used by most teams in the Premier League and international sides — relies on possession, which Forest have proved particularly good at this season, and a high rate of passing (averaging over 400 a game). More importantly, it doesn’t rely on the high-intensity, pressing game that has been a key part of Billy Davies’ previous sides — part of the reason that rich veins of form eventually run out of steam; despite their high levels of fitness, players seem unable to keep up the relentless harassing of the opposition.

The likes of Blackpool, Norwich, Swansea, Crystal Palace and Southampton have all been promoted without playing a 4-4-2 formation. Which means a) you don’t need to stick to the traditional to get out of the Championship; and b) you’ve got more chance of staying up if you’ve got solidity in midfield and players moving ‘between the lines’.

With 20 games to go it’s still a long way, as Davies is wont to say, but hitting form now and adding to the squad as Fawaz has indicated (retaining Vaughan’s services remain important) will ensure every chance of keeping the pressure on the top two until the end of the season.

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Image: Courtesy of Archipoch/

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