After a mixed first-half of the season results took a nasty turn for Stuart Pearce, beginning at the away game in Middlesbrough. Difficult fixtures like this one – and at places like Derby or Fulham – were never going to define Stuart Pearce’s tenure, but losses at home against the likes of Birmingham, Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall are glaring indicators of problems.
There is no doubting the quality of the Forest squad, but they were giving themselves far too much to do by making slow starts. I had a theory that Pearce was getting his tactics wrong initially and having to make changes to sort out problems, which fitted in with my opinion that he was still learning.
Analysis of the times Forest were scoring and conceding seem to support this – they were having to fight their way back into games after going behind in the first-half, but this often left them with too much to do.
This would have exacerbated any confidence issues and encouraged disillusion amongst the players and their form hit rock-bottom, despite playing some decent football coming forward.
The only bright spot was the fabulous win away at Derby – Pearce’s pressing system disrupted the Rams’ possession-building style. Derby (in McClaren’s words) “stopped playing from the back and kicked too many balls long” and Psycho won a good tactical victory on an emotional occasion.
But when out of luck, you are punished in the Championship, and Stephen McLaughlin’s error in the Millwall game proved the last straw for Fawaz Al Hasawi, who chose to remove Pearce.
He had given us some great memories over a short tenure and has probably improved his standing with the fans with his almost unique honesty and character, but as he himself commented, “that’s football.”
I suspect Dougie Freedman had been lined up even before the Derby game, such was the swift manner of his arrival – he certainly knew how to turn results around, collecting 16 out of the first 18 points available.
Forest started scoring a lot of goals; at the time I heard the players and fans refer to the new attacking brand of football – this was a myth. Freedman actually improved results by implementing an ultra-defensive style and taking advantage of our fast attackers to hit teams on the counter attack.
In practice this entailed surrendering possession and defending deep and narrow, scrapping Pearce’s more complicated high-pressing system in favour of a conditional style in which the players had much simpler roles. It was reactive rather than proactive.
This made it easier for the players to understand what they were supposed to be doing when out of possession – they went back to basics, focusing on ensuring they did the bare minimum of not allowing space in and in front of the defence.
Forest saw much less of the ball in this period – possession dropped on average from 50.2% under Pearce to 42.1% under Freedman’s new defensive strategy. It was an unambitious way of playing and unlikely to propel us to promotion, but it solved the confidence issue and eliminated the space that had been appearing in midfield.
Forest were riding their luck at times – for example they left a lot of space down their flanks as they concentrated on crowding central areas. This led to a big increase in crosses coming into their box (over six extra per game on average), but they defended stoutly.
From this solid base they sprang forward and scored the goals which gave us all hope – perhaps that play-off place was a possibility after all? However, in the game at Norwich, Forest’s basic system was picked apart by their creative players and they were lucky to only lose 2-1.
After being outclassed by the Canaries – a team likely to be our play-off rivals should we get there – Freedman changed his tactical ethos. This may have been because he knew Forest would have to show more ambition if they were to challenge for the play-offs, or perhaps he was merely more comfortable having settled in.
The Reds began to press more aggressively, defending more of the pitch and trying to keep more of the ball – their average possession for this period increased by 5%.
But old habits appeared straight away – our opponents once again found it very easy to run through midfield unchallenged as the players began to look confused and panicky.
A good indication of how well a defence is being protected is the amount of goals from open play being conceded, coming through the centre of midfield. Only once did this happen in Freedman’s first 11 games in charge – when the team’s focus was conditional pressing in narrow areas.
But as soon as Forest started to press aggressively – beginning in the Wolves game – they began leaking goals through this area of the pitch at a rate of one every 74 minutes, compared to one every 1,068 minutes previously under Freedman (and 1 every 157 minutes under Pearce).
The subsequent slump saw Forest in even worse form than that which led to the sacking of Pearce. Once again several of the players were not up for the fight and the season fizzled out without a whimper as the Reds lost their last four home games.
Worryingly, Freedman failed to solve the problems that saw his predecessor removed. Initially results improved – but only by using unambitious tactics that we are used to seeing teams like Huddersfield, Blackpool, Millwall and Barnsley use against Forest.
The better teams play more ambitiously, because this is the way to reach the top of the league; merely concentrating on defending a small area of the pitch is doing the bare minimum – in the hope that the opposition won’t find a way through before you get lucky on the counter-attack.
My support for Stuart Pearce is well established, but nobody has been more critical of his methods than I – he made a lot of errors. It was a good appointment for long-term, steady stability, but a poor one for a team desperate for quick promotion.
What did we gain by sacking our legend? The reason given by his detractors was not the failed promotion – it was that Forest were sliding inexorably towards the relegation zone.
But was relegation actually a threat? At no stage did Forest slip out of the top half of the table under Pearce, and to secure Championship football he only needed to collect another eight points in the remaining 18 games. Even if Forest continued in the form during Psycho’s worst spell, they would have stayed up.
My theory that they were being held back by Pearce’s tactics early in games is also highly questionable if you also look at the time of the goals during Freedman’s management – the statistics are strikingly similar. Under both managers, using differing strategies and tactics, the team did very poorly early on in games only to recover towards the end.
Neither manager could produce a protracted spell of good form, confidence and (dare I say it) serious effort – I can’t help pointing out the common denominator during the two, very similar halves of the season: the players.
I am reminded of a statement made by a man who knew a thing about football, especially when considering games Forest lost at home this season against the likes of Huddersfield, Millwall, Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday (I could go on): games in which the players surrendered too easily.
“Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.”
I think the great man was being a little over the top in this, as tactics are obviously important, but if Forest are to find success next season – you can back them to make the play-offs with bethut – the men wearing red need to give their manager a little more help, and the owner needs to give that man more time before pressing the ‘back to square one’ button.