Another season to forget for Nottingham Forest, somewhat predictably derailed by injuries, confidence and form. Forest Boffin begins his tactical analysis of 2014-15 with a defence of what Stuart Pearce was trying to achieve
Chants of Psycho! Psycho! Psycho! announced what we all hoped would be the start of a proud new era for Nottingham Forest. And as Stuart Pearce saluted the fans before the home game against Blackpool, I don’t mind admitting that I was a little emotional — although 2014/15 featured many disappointments, this was one of a few extra special moments.
Contrary to the caricature painted of him by his lazier critics, Pearce favoured a modern, ambitious and flexible system designed around implementing a high-pressing game. It was a shift from the patient, possession-building approach taken by Billy Davies – the new manager wanted to win the ball through pressing and hit his opponents fast.
Forest beat Blackpool comfortably by playing 4-4-2, but against better teams this formation would prove unsuitable for the high-pressing system. A good example of why was the first-half against Bournemouth; the Cherries simply played around the Forest players as they tried to press high up the pitch.
To solve this problem, Forest switched to Pearce’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system – a tactic pioneered in Spain and designed especially to allow high-pressing. Forest had clearly been working on this as their primary way of playing, and the longer formation (with its four banks of players rather than three) left little space while defending.
Key to Forest’s success were Andy Reid and Chris Cohen, operating as a double-pivot in central midfield. Intelligence in this area of the pitch when pressing aggressively is vital; they were organising when out of possession. And Reid was collecting the ball from the defenders and launching Forest’s attacks, having been tasked by Pearce to operate as a deep-lying playmaker.
There were still improvements to be made, but Forest were playing very well, and found themselves top of the Championship. Unfortunately things are never simple. Both Reid and Cohen picked up season-ending injuries in the first-half against Derby, with Jack Hobbs also retiring hurt in the second-half. At a stroke Pearce had lost the team’s three leaders, and his tactical flexibility was about to be tested.
The next game was a revealing battle against Fulham which, although yielding three points, sent alarm bells ringing. Ben Osborn and Robert Tesche took over from Reid and Cohen but struggled to organise themselves defensively – Forest survived this match on belief alone, playing some wonderful, confident attacking football to win 5-3.
It was around this stage that we were realising just how good Pearce’s recruitment had been over the summer – and how well it fit into his ethos of direct attacking play. Michail Antonio and Britt Assombalonga were attracting praise – Antonio in particular was an astute, almost clairvoyant piece of business — but Jack Hunt and Chris Burke also looked tailor-made for each other. Forest were dangerous when coming forward on either flank, and they now had serious fire-power up front.
But over the next few games they found it difficult to blend defence and attack in the absence of Reid and Cohen. On reflection, Pearce was faced with the same problem as Billy Davies the previous season; the loss of key personnel in central midfield saw all his work over the summer unravel.
Trying frantically to find a solution Pearce used nine different central-midfield combinations over 16 games, but this constant shuffling probably exacerbated the problem. The strength of Reid and Cohen was that they worked as a team, but their replacements had no time to form a partnership and struggled to follow the manager’s complicated instructions.
The players in central midfield had too many decisions to make – they were confused when to press and when to drop off, and what their roles were defensively in differing situations. Perhaps a simpler system would have been more suitable for the second-string. Unsure what they were supposed to be doing, they began to hesitate and leave responsibility to others at times. Forest’s midfield was suddenly very porous and the defence under increasing pressure.
The confidence crisis spread backwards; Forest began conceding a worrying amount of goals in a period of nervous errors and timid defending, best illustrated in the 3-1 loss at home against Blackburn. Kelvin Wilson and Michael Mancienne were bullied into submission by Rhodes and co, they looked to goalkeeper Karl Darlow to come and rescue them too often, gifting Rovers the victory.
It wasn’t doom and gloom all over the pitch. The Reds played some good attacking football in the game against Huddersfield, but their weakness was giving away goals. This game was a particular low point at the back as they conceded where assertive defenders would have dealt the problems easily. Five-foot-seven Nahki Wells scored a header in the middle of a crowded penalty area – enough said!
As Pearce was becoming more and more desperate, his tactics became more and more creative as he continued to shuffle the central midfielders at a time when it may have been wiser to introduce a little stability.
He was punished ruthlessly by Brentford for using Michael Mancienne, a delighted Mark Warburton commenting “We saw they had Michael Mancienne in front of the back four and we felt Toral could exploit the space.”
But in fairness to Pearce his unorthodox ideas worked brilliantly against Norwich City, Psycho used the narrow Canaries system against them, eventually winning a memorable game by switching to a 3-3-4 system.
And he set the team up perfectly for the game at Wolves, his pressing system allowing the attackers to assert themselves. But conversely, using very similar tactics, he was outmanoeuvred at Birmingham City.
I tend to give Pearce credit for the fact he was still learning about Championship football, which is why I feel his eventual sacking was harsh. I firmly believe he was getting better and learning lessons from his failures. But on the other hand, is Nottingham Forest, an ambitious club trying to get into the Premier League, the right place to be learning?
I mention this now, and not in my end of season conclusions, because this was the period when I believe the players themselves decided on the answer to this question. The constant shuffling of systems and strange tactics – even when they worked – was a dangerous game, and Pearce appears to have lost the dressing room at this stage.
The three draws against Charlton, Rotherham and Leeds were all games a confident, committed Forest side would have won, but by now the defensive insecurity had affected the team so badly that few players were hungry for the ball. Defenders were put under even more pressure because they had no outlet in midfield – often there was nobody confident enough to pick the ball up in tight areas and be positive, meaning the defenders had to play long balls, which was not playing to the team’s strengths.
Things were not yet disastrous on the pitch, but better teams would soon punish Pearce for not solving his midfield dilemma.
Read part two here…