In part two of Forest Boffin’s assessment of the season’s tactics, Billy Davies’ switch to a 4-2-3-1 system kept Nottingham Forest in touch with the league leaders — until everything began to fall apart
Phase four: Glory Days
Forest were more solid at the back playing 4-2-3-1 but struggled to get the balance between attack and defence right. Victories against QPR and Leeds announced that they had solved this puzzle, but the signs were there during the goalless draw against Birmingham City.
The reintroduction of David Vaughan gave Forest more options in midfield. He was the lynchpin that allowed the other players to express themselves, and Davies instructed them to move around the pitch to confuse the opposition.
During this period Forest were playing some reasonably complicated football; you see the odd clever move at this level but Forest were basing their whole tactic around it — using the players’ (and manager’s) experience to out-think and out-move their opponents.
In the heart of midfield, the two defensive midfielders were pulling the strings – they were well organised – when Reid burst forward, he knew that Vaughan was covering and it was safe. Even when less skilful players were employed in this area, such as Moussi and Jara against Watford, they knew what each other was doing and played within their limits.
The players further forward were using clever movement too. Simon Cox is often derided but creates space for others brilliantly; he was very effective in pulling out of attack into a deeper position, allowing one of the wide-men to exploit the space he created.
The shrewd positional play also helped Forest’s pressing game; Davies wanted his side to win the ball further up the pitch – they pressed the ball aggressively, but only at the correct times. This was achieved because the experienced midfielders were deciding when to do so.
Forest earned more than two points per game during this period, but it should have been more; they were conceding late goals from set-pieces as players at the back lost concentration, but perhaps the reason why they dropped points was a lack of clinical finishing.
This period also illustrated how good Davies was tactically, with options at his disposal. He entered into a series of tactical duels with other managers, outmanoeuvring them at will. The Blackburn game was a good example of Davies having an answer for his rivals’ every move (see diagram). If only he was as shrewd off the pitch…
Phase five: Billy Davies’ Promotion Ambulance
Throughout this whole time, Davies had been waging an unwise war against the media; this was forgiveable when he was successful, but he was walking on a knife-edge – a blade which he had sharpened himself.
Forest had been without key players for the majority of the season, but now even more became unavailable – Reid, Lansbury, Hobbs, Lichaj and Vaughan joined Wilson and Cohen at various times; that is Forest’s entire back four and the core of their midfield. As Davies asked – what other teams could survive losing such players?
And it was in this period that Forest faced perhaps their most difficult group of games in the season – Leicester, Wigan and Burnley all faced the makeshift Forest side in quick succession. They stuck nine goals past Karl Darlow between them and now the pressure was building – these games came as a blow to Forest’s confidence and while the manager should have been doing his best to motivate his team, he was having enough trouble coping with it himself due to his abject relationship with the press.
Davies’ clever tactics worked against him too. The Scot is a student of the game with a tactical mind worthy of a higher level and was implementing complex movement into Forest’s system. The cleverer players could organise this and, using the free-flowing tactics, were a match for anybody at this level, but the fringe players found it too complicated to implement as the big boys gradually dropped out injured. Reid and Vaughan were particularly important in making things work.
Forest had the players to go to places like Barnsley and win, but the system was unnecessarily complicated. Are Majewski and Jara the right men to play in defensive midfield as they did at Oakwell? In a system reliant on organised, free-flowing movement? Was it realistic to expect them to operate this clever system successfully?
Forest were defending well at times, and doing well coming forward, but rarely at the same time. They looked unbalanced, culminating in the horrible match against Derby – where Forest actually looked decent coming forward, but the Rams picked Forest off clinically, finding too much space in front of Forest’s defence. It was the last straw for the owner (and most fans), and Billy was sacked.
Forest’s form throughout the season correlated roughly with the amount of injuries – there was a rise slightly earlier in the season which coincided with worse results, and now during this period they rose sharply again – undoubtedly causing a massive crash in form (see diagram). But could Billy have mitigated this better? He was unlucky, but the results were down to him, and he had deliberately placed himself in the firing line with his antics.
Phase six: Just Like Watching Brazil
Academy coach Gary Brazil was installed for the game against Charlton. He was shrewd enough to realise he needed to take things back to basics, and so employed a 4-4-2 and instructed the players to go more direct. But with so little time to create a proper system, the front four players were playing as a separate entity to the defenders, and opposition teams found it very predictable.
Direct football failed to play to Forest’s strengths, and teams like Charlton, Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday must have been pleasantly surprised to come to the City Ground and find the Reds playing their kind of football.
As well as failing to keep the ball when going forward, the separation of Forest’s attackers and defenders left the midfield reluctant to help out defensively. The better of the opposition managers picked up on this weakness instantly; for example Ian Holloway, who noticed that the right-side of Forest’s midfield were not protecting the right-back, and adjusted his tactics accordingly, getting the ball in this area as much as he could, and pushing forward his left-back, Scott Malone (see diagram).
The only time Forest’s midfielders were defending as a team was with David Vaughan in the middle, organising and instructing. He returned to the starting line-up for the game against Birmingham, and it was no coincidence that this was a rare victory. Forest’s midfield were dominating until he was too tired to continue, as was the case for the 2-0 victory at Leeds.
Unbelievably, Forest were still in the play-off hunt. They had been invigorated by the inclusion of a few youth players – whose attitude and application was superb, and the good form of Matt Derbyshire, who was benefiting from a more direct style of play.
The second string defenders were doing a good job too. Nobody doubts the quality of Jamaal Lascelles, but Danny Collins, Dan Harding and Greg Halford were all working very hard in difficult circumstances and doing a decent job.
But Forest’s problems had never been the defenders, and their play-off hopes were stamped out viciously by Bournemouth. It was the midfield’s willingness to defend which once more let Gary Brazil down, as Forest were thrashed 4-1. The midfield’s ethos during this game was reflective of their attitude since Davies had left – they refused to track back with any regularity and did not seem to think it was their job to help out defensively.
Forest were not defending as a team – we should be grateful that they didn’t sneak into the play-offs; Derby would have had a field-day. In the end the season was mercifully short.
You would have to say that this season was an opportunity missed. On paper, Forest’s squad arguably compares well with the two promoted teams, Leicester and Burnley. But a series of setbacks and errors scuppered the Reds’ hopes.
Who is to blame? Billy Davies made one or two harmful decisions on the pitch – the sale of Guedioura and his tactics as the injuries piles up, but they were exacerbated by poor luck, and they were fatal because of his fall-out with the media, which made his position untenable.
But was it a mistake to replace him? He would almost certainly have picked up more points than Gary Brazil, who faced some of the easiest opponents of the season. But Billy had lost the fans – over 50% of fans I questioned online would have sacked him, immediately and unconditionally, even with the hindsight of Brazil’s initial results. Under Fawaz’s populist methods of running the club, Billy was a goner.
This was a very open league – the only two teams showing consistency have been promoted with ease. This ought to have been a Garibaldi season. But everything happens for a reason – we now have another year in the Championship to look forward to, being managed by a Forest legend. Things are never dull at the City Ground – next season will be interesting too.
You can read part one here.
Image: Courtesy of Jomphong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net