This should have been Forest’s year. After strengthening over the summer they had the players and manager to compete favourably for promotion, but a series of own-goals and misfortune destroyed this dream; what went wrong? Forest Boffin assesses the season’s tactics


Phase one: Polishing the Diamond

The Reds began the campaign well, with victories over Huddersfield, Blackburn and Bolton. Billy Davies had adjusted his tactics from the previous season – still employing a diamond formation, it was now tweaked to encourage more flexibility of movement, which was made possible by a new defensive ethos.

Davies has a particular flair for re-tasking players to improve their defensive game and make them better rounded players; it soon became clear that he had been working on this through the summer, and the midfielders in particular had formed an excellent understanding which allowed them to defend as a team.

This improved organisation and understanding provided a good base to work from; it gave the midfielders and full-backs (who were told to get forward) confidence to leave their assigned positions knowing they were covered. The best example of this was the away draw at Watford, where Forest continued a bright start making it 10 points out of 12.

Davies rotated the strikers – as he likes to do – depending on the opposition, and we saw a surprise up front, with Greg Halford being used, it has to be said, successfully.


However, the first blunder of the season was just around the corner. Perhaps the player who looked the most improved was Adlene Guedioura. He was bearing all the hallmarks of a Billy Davies re-programming – which makes it all the more inexplicable that he was sold to Crystal Palace.

There have been all sorts of rumours concerning this transfer, the most lingering one claims that Davies always had it in his mind to sell ‘Pep’ – considering the amount of work Billy had clearly put into improving Guedioura’s defensive awareness, this seems unlikely to me. The suggestion was that he merely wanted to play in the Premier League, although he later denied wanting to leave.

The decision to sell, together with a fruitless scramble for a replacement, turned out to be quite a blow. As good a player as Guedioura was, it was the position that was so important; the base of Billy’s diamond was where Forest’s communication and teamwork was most important – the other midfielders had spent time practicing and forming an understanding with Guedioura that would now be missing.

Phase two: Life after Guedioura

Over the next eight games, Forest leaked goals over twice as fast as before Guedioura’s departure. Teams like Barnsley, Doncaster and Middlesbrough – not the most lethal in the Championship, were exploiting the gaps in Forest’s defensive midfield with glee.

The manager spent this next period desperately shuffling through his players in the hope someone could play in this position; Moussi, Lansbury, Jara, Reid and Cohen all filled in here at some stage. Nathaniel Chalobah was loaned from Chelsea, but none could recreate the understanding with the other midfielders needed to make the diamond formation work defensively.


However, up until the disastrous trip to Yeovil, Forest had still only lost one game. At the time questions were being asked of Forest’s strikers, but the front-men were being used in an unselfish fashion to help the team score, and it was working; for all its defensive vulnerability, the system brought goals.

Forest were, despite being weakened by the sale of Guedioura, were still holding their own, hovering around the play-off places, and it was mainly down to their goal-scoring – which made the criticism of this aspect of their play harsh. The real problem lay in the space appearing in front of their defenders.

The Reds scored an average of 1.75 goals per game in this period – a comparable strike-rate would later see Leicester crowned champions – but it was apparent that Davies’ side were blasting their way out of jail on too many occasions, and the 3-1 thumping against Yeovil was the final straw.


Phase three: Switch to 4-2-3-1

Frustrated, Davies solved the porosity of the Forest midfield with a change in system, reverting to a two-man defensive midfield against Blackpool. This caused consternation for that game, which was a dismal 1-0 defeat. Fans were frustrated at playing one man upfront at home, but it was a move to cure a serious problem and made good tactical sense.

The change was successful in its main goal; opponents found much less space in front of Forest’s defence leading to fewer goals conceded. However, the new formation needed to be worked on as other tactical problems emerged, mainly due to losing a forward. With less men ahead of the ball, maintaining possession when attacking became difficult, which meant that although their average goals conceded for this period dropped significantly, their goals scored dropped even more.

They were able to eke out a couple of victories – notably at Leicester, and also Sheffield Wednesday – in retrospect it is not surprising that Forest’s successes came away from the City Ground, since their system was based heavily on defending. Against teams who prioritised defending, as they often do when visiting Nottingham, Forest found it difficult, and with fewer chances being created a lack of ‘clinical finishing’ became more important.

The solution would be to employ a truly intelligent ball-player as one of the two defensive midfielders, someone who could switch quickly from defensive mode to attack, someone to give the other players confidence to go and express themselves – someone even better than Guedioura.


It seems paradoxical that you need more quality in the defensive midfield area to play with two men in this position than if you use just one, but it can be the case; since at least one of them needs to be thinking attack and defence simultaneously, in order to allow the team to transition between defending and attacking.

It is no coincidence that Davies switch to this system coincided with the arrival of David Vaughan – he was brought in to galvanise this area of the team, but this is where Billy’s luck began to falter, Vaughan got injured after the victory at Leicester, leaving Forest struggling to come to grips with the system in his absence.

The five games after Leicester featured predominantly Gonzalo Jara and Henri Lansbury deep in Forest’s midfield, and they did reasonably well, but in retrospect it is no surprise that as soon as Vaughan returned to the side they were able to get the best of this formation – it is a solid tactic, but requires that little bit more guile when coming forward because there are less targets for players in withdrawn positions to aim for.

This takes us to mid-December. Injuries have begun to bite, weakening Forest but they are still in a good position. They had also been slightly unlucky at this stage; had their finishing been slightly better, and one or two refereeing decisions gone their way, they would have been even further up the table.

But the fact is that the whole first half of the season was derailed by the sale of Adlene Guedioura; Forest wasted a lot of time searching for a replacement from within their ranks, and then fiddling around getting another system to work.

But Billy Davies was about to bounce back, find out how when we look at the next three phases of Forest’s season – Glory Days, Billy’s Promotion Ambulance and Just Like Watching Brazil.


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Image: Courtesy of Jomphong/

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