words: David Marples
There is a school of thought that the Championship is edging away from the blood and thunder football it has often been tarred with and towards a more experimental and adventurous tiki taka lite game. Even in the mucky league, 4-4-2 is a lesser-spotted creature these days and a number of teams are having joy by pressing high up the field with a front three. Such teams squeezed the life out of Forest at the City Ground – most notably Wolves, Leeds United and less effectively, Sheffield United. While at the back, teams are increasingly eschewing the long diagonal and trying to make yards by passing it from the back and through midfield.
Yet for all that, this is the Championship and more often than not, teams adopting such a strategy get bogged down by their own inertia – lacking the speed of thought and perhaps technical ability to confidently manoeuvre the ball from back to front fluidly via a series of quick, silky touches.
Admittedly, there is always a Neil Warnock team to upset the apple-cart and be the outlier.
When such a silky, passing strategy works, it is a huge one in the eye for the old skool yet when it doesn’t, it all looks a bit stodgy, slow and laboured. Suddenly, the one man up top looks more like a spare part than a focal point for dynamic forward play.
Beyond the tried and tested method of scoring more goals than the opposition, there are a number of ways to win a game of football. Jose Mourinho formulated a seven-point plan for winning big games:
1 The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.
2 Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
3 Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
4 Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
5 Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
6 Whoever has the ball has fear.
7 Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
Obviously, Nottingham Forest are light years away from having to conjure up a tactical plan to navigate through a tight Champions League quarter final tie at Stadio San Paolo yet regardless of the level, certain truisms exist – Mourinho’s first point being one of them.
Everyone makes mistakes – we are but human – yet Forest seem to be cornering the market in mistakes, especially away from home and especially within ten minutes of the first shrill peep of the referee’s whistle. In addition, the more Forest enjoy the greater slice of cake possession, the more likely they are to drop it on the floor as they attempt to transport it from the kitchen to the comfy chair in the living room away from all the noisy kids. It sometimes feels like they need little provocation in making mistakes – they are perfectly capable of simply dropping the cake on the floor – icing side down – at the mere sight of a small corner of a rug being curled over.
It is indeed Mourinho’s fourth point that seems pertinent to this Forest team. The more they have the ball, the more likely they are to make a mistake. Away from home, this is increasingly worrisome.
Since September, it has been apparent that when Forest come calling to your ground, all you really have to do is let them have the ball until they dizzy themselves out with short, intricate passes then pounce on their holding midfielder while their full backs are higher than the sun, leaving them with only two centre backs to beat while you flood forward from midfield, outnumbering the now flimsy Forest defence. Such a pattern has been witnessed at Barnsley, Aston Villa, Derby, Reading, Birmingham and now Ipswich. There are times when although they have the ball, they have the accompanying fear of which Mourinho speaks.
Yet how do you break the cycle? Do you renounce possession entirely and hoof the ball long up to a big ‘un up front? Or do you persevere and focus on capitalising on the possession you seek to dominate? Or perhaps you cultivate or buy players who can play in such a way with more consistency – both home and away.
None of the above options are easy wins or quick fixes. Twenty different players made at least nineteen appearances last season and eighteen the previous season. In other words, until Mark Warburton’s arrival, Forest were muddling along with a very small nucleus of regular players aided and abetted by a high proportion of half decent loanees, less than decent loaness and simply downright weird signings (doffs cap towards Nicklas Bendtner) – particularly last season.
Admittedly, that was all last season and as it stands, they are hurtling headlong towards Christmas staring down the barrel of……mid table.
That’s not to say that conceding four to a very average Ipswich Town team is acceptable – a point Warburton concedes: "Mistakes have cost us today and we've given away an unacceptable level of goals,” he said after the game. "We finished the first half so strongly, started the second half really well and looked in control. But then we've given away two very soft goals, the same as we had in the first half, and it's unacceptable.”
It’s not acceptable; as Warburton stresses, it’s very unacceptable.
For all the piffle about tactics, possession and personnel, Ipswich Town were on it far more than Forest from the start – a state of affairs beautifully illustrated when Joe Worrall tripped over his own feet while running back into position to defend a throw-in.
It was another deeply frustrating away performance in which Forest were, for the first half anyway, at best mediocre. Fortunately, such mediocrity was punctuated by excellence in the shape of Kieran Dowell and Tyler Walker’s goals. Furthermore, as predictable as Sergio Ramos being sent off for an errant elbow, Forest improved in the second half only to shoot themselves in the foot and drop the rifle on the floor too, resulting in a double shooting of each foot. It is at such times that calls to “kick it up the field” and “put it in the mixer” are voiced.
Such shouts are no doubt borne of utter frustration rather than a real desire to execute 1980s school football tactics.
The source of such frustration at Ipswich was the fact that, like at Birmingham, Forest lost an otherwise winnable game against very average opposition. On both occasions, Forest simply blinked first when challenged to keep the ball. Just as infuriating is the fact that this four-goal concession came when there appeared to be something of a solid defensive triumvirate developing in the shape of Jordan Smith, Michael Mancienne and Worrall.
Maybe, in time, Forest WILL be the team that others ask how it is possible they keep the ball so well and not only carve out numerous chances but convert a good proportion too. Glimpses of what they are striving for have been sighted. It is a long and rocky road ahead to such a vision and until they get there, they simply must improve in terms of keeping the round thing away from the net thing away from home.
Within the context of Mourinho’s rules, they either let the opposition have the ball more or get better at the possession game. The former seems counter intuitive and the latter will not be as easy as picking low hanging fruit from low hanging branches.
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Issue Six celebrates the mighty John Robertson and contains an exclusive interview with the great man. If you ever bought a pack of Panini stickers there's a wonderful article in there which will transport you back to that beautiful feeling of ripping open a new pack and seeing a shiny in there. Remember Betamax? Johnny Metgod does. Remember Ron Atkinson noodling around in the away dugout? That away game against Dynamo Berlin? All this and so much more.
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