Nottingham Forest’s strong start to the season was, somewhat predictably, derailed by injuries. But it’s the loss of Andy Reid and Chris Cohen in midfield that has proved crucial, says Forest Boffin
No players were more influential during Forest’s great start to the season than Andy Reid and Chris Cohen, playing in the heart of the Reds’ midfield.
They have obviously worked hard over the summer under instruction from Stuart Pearce, and increased their effectiveness by sharing responsibilities both in and out of possession rather than having separate roles, in a style which has become known in modern tactical jargon as the double-pivot.
This cooperation in front of the defence was an essential factor in Stuart Pearce’s direct style of attacking, as working together they were able to provide defenders an outlet when in possession – important if Forest were going to get the ball forward efficiently.
Cohen and Reid were not only making themselves personally available, but helping their partner get on the ball too. By working as a team they made it difficult for opposition midfielders to know who to close down (see diagram, above), and when on the ball they were brave enough to play a positive pass to the attackers – this was the basis of Forest’s tactics going forward at the start of the season, and they did it well.
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It obviously helped that both Reid and Cohen are good communicators and experienced enough to read what each other were going to do – their teamwork made it much easier for the Forest defenders to get rid of the ball without having to go long.
After they were injured against Derby, Forest lost this cooperation in central midfield. Various combinations of Robert Tesche, Ben Osborn, David Vaughan, Henri Lansbury have been used instead – with a desperate cameo appearance made by Michael Mancienne.
Aside from perhaps Osborn, these players are much less willing to accept the ball under pressure, but this problem is exacerbated because the midfield have not been working together to help provide the outlet – at times happy to let others take responsibility. Faced with little movement and lacking options, often the Forest defenders are forced to play the ball to the attackers themselves.
This is a tactical disaster as the balls played forward tend to be longer and less accurate, which does not play to the team‘s strengths. Opposition managers have seized upon this – post-Derby, every away team except Brighton at the City Ground has made a point of forcing Forest to go long by removing options for a short pass in midfield.
The injuries to Reid and Cohen have hurt Forest when defending too. Cohen’s energy and defensive nature serve Forest well in this area of the pitch, while Reid is unrecognisable from the apathetic, luxury-style winger that arrived a few years ago, having developed a genuine defensive flair.
But knitting these skills together was the partnership they had forged. Just as when in possession, they worked as a unit to cover their defensive responsibilities, synchronising their efforts naturally. When one member of the partnership ventured forward or pressed the ball, the other automatically tucked in behind to cover the defensive position.
Their replacements have struggled at times to replicate this teamwork, instead relying on their own instincts when defending – inevitably gaps have appeared in a previously solid area.
The first goal scored by Cardiff is a good example to compare with how Reid and Cohen worked as a team (see diagram, below) When the Bluebirds win possession Tesche presses the ball, but Henri Lansbury fails to drop behind Tesche – leaving a huge gap, which Cardiff invade gleefully. Tesche and Lansbury did not work as a team.
This is no isolated example. There has been a theme of players not taking responsibility to cover when others have found themselves dragged out of position, leading to Forest’s midfield looking porous, particularly against Fulham, Brighton, Cardiff, Brentford and Norwich. Brentford’s first goal is a good example of this being punished, as no player wanted to take responsibility of making a challenge as the Bees’ right-back charged through the Reds’ midfield.
The lack of an effective defensive midfield partnership has been a double-edged weakness; defenders have been under more pressure because they have been forced to play the ball forwards themselves – and as it’s come back at them (more regularly then before) they have had less protection.
The amount of goals conceded per game has risen, since the Derby game, by 158%.
This does not bode well for Forest; we won’t see Cohen again this season, and Reid is out until January at the earliest. Even when he returns, the Irishman – though he just might be the best player in the Football League, simply cannot be relied upon to play many games considering his age and injury record.
Forest must look to other players to provide some stability in this area of the pitch – and they do have quality in depth. Tesche, Vaughan and Osborn have all shown glimpses that they can excel this season.
I note Tesche has started 10 out of the 11 league games since the Derby game, but Pearce has shuffled his partner relentlessly between Lansbury (who struggles when played deep in midfield), Vaughan and Osborn.
I would like to see two out of Tesche, Vaughan and Osborn trusted with enough game-time to form a partnership in central midfield until Andy Reid’s return. It would be asking a lot – particularly of the two younger men – for them to replicate the knowledgeable, organised teamwork Reid and Cohen were producing, but I feel a settled midfield would grow to know one another and form a partnership. The only problem is who to leave out?
It‘s a difficult question; Vaughan is easily the better of the three players, but the Welshman has injury problems of his own. How can Tesche or Osborn learn to play alongside him, become familiar with him, if he is often injured?
Forest’s only two recent wins have accompanied the midfield partnership of Tesche and Osborn. They are fresh and enthusiastic – but do they have the nous to dominate?
I don’t see too much wrong with Stuart Pearce’s tactical philosophy – the cutting edge he’s introduced is refreshing and ensures Forest will be a threat in every game, but it is vital Pearce sorts out the lack of teamwork and leadership in central midfield.
Installing a consistent partnership in this part of the pitch will go a long way to restoring confidence in the rest of the team – whoever it be, Psycho should pick two players and give them the shirts until Christmas.
And the Forest Boffin blog is essential reading.