The season in review: A tactical analysis

May 14, 2013 5 Comments »

From Sean O’Driscoll’s 4-1-3-2 to Billy Davies’ diamond midfield, it’s been an interesting season for tactics in the Championship. Forest Boffin looks at Nottingham Forest’s attacking evolutions over the past nine months…


This whirlwind season in the Championship has been impressive for many reasons, one of the less heralded being the outstanding tactical performances by the men in charge; the managers. Their puzzle-solving skills have enriched the league as they frantically (and usually successfully) worked on cracking each other’s tactics – this, coupled with multiple managerial changes, has led to constantly evolving playing styles and systems, Forest have been no exception.

Sean O’Driscoll set out this season to replicate his attractive passing style of play utilised when manager of Doncaster. Lacking any real width, he played a narrow 4-1-3-2 system with Simon Gillett anchoring in midfield behind three more attacking midfielders (see fig 1). They found success early on playing the ball out from the back, aiming to keep the ball at all costs, endeavouring to play through their opponents with intricate, and at times beautiful, attacking play.


This system was successful initially, as Forest has the better of their first six games (and were unlucky to only collect 10 points), however teams adapted to playing against this system quickly, and began pressing further up the pitch and hustling the likes of Gillett off the ball (see fig 2). This tactic was exacerbated by Forest’s narrowness, as it allowed opposing full-backs confidence to press further forward, in turn allowing their midfield to creep closer and press the ball without as much fear of leaving space.


There was also a tendency, early in the season, for teams to bully Forest out of games – Millwall, Derby, Leeds and Blackburn, for example, were able to hustle and muscle the Reds and put them off their passing game.

Forest’s season has been all about teams knowing how to defend against a narrow passing attack, and our various managers’ solutions to this conundrum. Sean O’Driscoll tinkered furiously in an effort to break teams down. The same midfield quartet of Gillett, Reid, McGugan and Guedioura started the first six (unbeaten) games, however as teams adapted to close Forest down further up the pitch, he responded by changing personnel, formation and, at times, passing style.

Fans complained that O’Driscoll worried too much about the opposition as he sacrificed a striker, notably against Blackburn and Hull – presumably to beef up the midfield. He shuffled those midfielders relentlessly, using 10 different combinations in Forest’s first 22 games.

At times Forest even resorted to Camp playing the ball long (to the continual, obvious infuriation of Andy Reid), knocking identical diagonal balls out to the right-wing area, where Chris Cohen, of all people, would attempt to flick the ball on to the strikers. For O’Driscoll to abandon his ethos of possession football perhaps shows how much he was struggling to overcome the tactical problems. It is interesting to note that, despite O’Driscoll liking his teams to keep the ball, Forest had less possession under him than later under Billy Davies’ more versatile approach (see fig 3).


The haphazard results that eventually led to O’Driscoll’s dismissal were down to an unsettled, hit-and-miss midfield as he struggled to cope with the more robust approach of opponents, suspensions and a lack of width, overall though the Irishman’s results were pretty good – if Forest had carried on all season picking up the same amount of points they would now be in the play-offs (see fig 4).


Alex McLeish was next to ponder the tactical puzzle. The Scotsman clearly didn’t know his best team – forgivable considering the length of his tenure – and experimented widely. Forest’s lack of width bewildered McLeish, as highlighted by the home game against Watford in which he resorted, perhaps in desperation, to playing direct balls up to three strikers (see fig 5).


The arrival of Billy Davies saw a more considered approach. He shrewdly tailored a system to fit the players at his disposal, focusing on the Reds’ strengths: a versatile defence, forwards able to work for the team and hold up the ball, and an abundance of central creative talent. Tweaking the system which proved reasonably successful for Sean O’Driscoll, he employed a diamond formation.

Forest’s problems under O’Driscoll stemmed from difficulty using the ball under pressure in our own half – Davies solved this problem by replacing Simon Gillett with the more technically gifted Adlene Guedioura. Where Gillett ran out of options when closed down, Guedioura was to work with the ball in close proximity to pressing opponents, and would become the focus of Forest’s more versatile passing game, with the Algerian good enough on the ball to smuggle it away from trouble and creative enough to play accurate, direct passes.

Billy also reintroduced Raddy Majewski, at the tip of the diamond. Raddy’s ability on the ball is easily overlooked, because of the efficient way he moves the ball on in comparison to the more explosive, flamboyant players such as McGugan and Guedioura. Forest see more of (and more efficient use of) the ball when Majewski plays, the benefits of which can be seen in the team’s performance statistics when he plays (see fig 6). Davies knew this from his last spell at the club, and bringing the little Pole back into the side has been one of the main reasons for Forest’s resurgence.


Another important tactical change was the way Billy used the forwards. Supported by Majewski, they have been able to peel off into wide positions to receive the ball, and link up with the midfield, proving especially useful in creating space for the second wave of attack – i.e. Majewski, Lansbury and McGugan. Some have questioned the front men, and Forest’s goal-scoring. In Billy’s 15 games Forest have scored 23 goals, which is 1.53 goals per game. If that continued over a season it would equate to 70 goals – champions Cardiff only scored 72, so it would be difficult to argue Forest under Davies haven’t been scoring enough goals. The forwards have been a big part of that.

Forest went on to win six of their first seven games under Davies, which again attracted attention from opposing scouts. Contrary to their approach to O’Driscoll’s side, teams ditched the tactic of pressing Forest high, instead dropping deeper, clogging up their defensive third of the pitch in an attempt to nullify the threat of Guedioura and company playing decisive balls into space (see fig 7).


As the season reached its climax the response of the ‘weaker’ teams has been outstanding as they found ways to frustrate and beat those higher in the table – Forest suffered from this as goals became harder and harder to come by. It severely affected the performance of creative players such as Andy Reid, whose job it is to play high risk balls to split open a defence – teams have been more disciplined in not leaving the space needed to play these balls.

Forest managed to surge into the play-offs using Davies’ diamond system, but it ultimately failed to keep them there, largely due to the fact that its success was noticed and teams adapted, and with so short a length of time in charge Davies, like his two predecessors, struggled to find a solution. This is not to malign Billy’s efforts – under him Forest were performing well enough for automatic promotion over a season (see fig 8).


It’s the opinion of Forest Boffin that Forest didn’t have the width, or the right kind of players to consistently unlock an entrenched defence; Forest’s creative players are generally best at passing, rather than being blessed with an ability to get past a man with the ball. With one or two tricky wingers, we may have been better at breaking teams down, but Forest’s reliance on passing to stretch open an organised defence is too predictable, as proven by Blackpool (see above). Maybe with a few additions things will be different next season.

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  • CyprusRed

    Statistics can be an indicator but only that there is not always a total picture derived from numerical analysis. If you go back to the fans favourite player to hate PVH his goals from open play dried up at the end of the season. The booed player prior to the arrival of PVH was Kevin Campbell who had his most productive spell partnering the dutch renegade. I may not be thanked for this but PVH’s predictions as to the club were close to a nostrodamus prediction. PVH drew all the defence out wide leaving KC to exploit the space and PVH though having a good goal tally due to his dead ball prowess didn’t score so many as KC in open play. Good to see the stats but a statistician can pick numbers and manipulate outcomes.

  • This bit interests me: “The haphazard results that eventually led to O’Driscoll’s dismissal”. In 15 games in charge Billy Davies won 26 points and was hailed as a “gift from God” whereas in his last 15 games prior to being sacked for being “haphazard” Sean O’Driscoll won 25 points. The Cult of Billy is both fascinating and a little unnerving, especially given the degree of control he has been given over the club.

    • Forest under Billy Mk II have had a “Forest under Billy Mk I” season in miniature. A very good run at the start which then tails off and looks increasingly like he doesn’t know how to turn it around. No doubt the inital win run was impressive, but only compared to mcleish is he a revelation.

      If it’s true that his cousin is acting as CEO then that is very worrying. It took Clough and Ferguson several years and some silverware to get that kind of control over their clubs, yet he seems to have been handed it straight off.

  • Timmy P

    A good & interesting write up. One point to note: It was O’Driscoll that first employed Guedioura in the midfield holding role in the 4-2 thrashing of Leeds. We can only speculate how O’Driscoll may have fared had he been able to keep his job.

  • Gino Padula

    This is really interesting. I think the overriding message is that managers need to be given stability and offer variation. The problems this season were more associated with our players (the lack of creative width) than the tactics they have played within.

    As well as installing Majewski as the fulcrum of the side, I think two other turning points this season have been replacing Camp with Darlow and bringing Guedioura away from the right wing (where he’s just not suited to play) and into defensive midfield. Darlow’s distribution is much more varied than Camp’s, which offers variety in how we bring the ball forward. Guedioura in defensive midfield allows us to press further forward than Gillett (who was excellent early in the season, but faded as O’Driscoll’s tactics were understood better).