Once the giants of European Football, Nottingham Forest have won a Premier League and two Champions Leagues defeating Liverpool and Hamburg. Now, they have become a fixture in the EFL Championship, but have also made a surge as of late.
Nottingham Forest lie in 5th in the Championship this season, racking up 60 points in 37 games. They are 10 points off the direct qualification and are one of the teams with a great shout to have automatic promotion to the Premier League next season.
This tactical analysis will look at how Sabri Lamouchi turned around Forest’s fates and improved the team’s tactics in both attacking and defensive departments. This analysis will also look at a potential lineup for the future as well as the coach’s philosophy.
Lamouchi prefers to play with a 4-2-3-1. Samba starts in goal, with Yuri Ribiero and Matty Cash as full-backs, and Joe Worrall pairing up with Tobias Figueiredo at centre-back. Samba Sow and Ben Watson play as a double-pivot in the defensive midfield. Joe Lolley plays at central attacking midfielder, with Sammy Ameobi and Diakhaby playing on the flanks at right-wing and left-wing respectively. Grabban, who is the team’s leading goalscorer, leads the team up top as the lone striker.
Another alternate lineup that Lamouchi employs is the 4-1-4-1, which looks like this:
The defence remains unchanged, and the wingers in the 4-2-3-1 become wide midfielders in the 4-1-4-1. Lewis Grabban continues to play as the lone striker. However, the central midfield is mostly changed. Ben Watson plays as the lone holding midfielder, while Ryan Yates and Tiago Silva play in an advanced playmaking position. These creative players aid in advancing the play and get the ball to the striker.
There are multiple transitions in these formations over time. The most common changes in the formation in the middle of games are from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1.
Forest employ a low block. Thus the opponents find it difficult to break through their defence and find pockets of attacking space.
In the 4-1-4-1, the holding midfielder (Watson) drops back and the wide and central midfielders stay in line together as well. The above image indicates their formation against Luton. The midfielders’ position are such that there are no forward options, which forces the players to pass back, where the striker can pressure the opposition defence. When the ball is regained, the CMs and wingers are ready to counter-attack along with the striker.
Despite being perceived as a boring and monotonous formation, the low block has helped in keeping Nottingham Forest as the joint third-best defence in the league, with only 38 goals conceded. However, there is one weakness that arrives with this system, especially in higher leagues. The abundance of creative players like Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba in the Premier League means that the system can be broken apart by well-timed runs by strikers, wingers and highly creative midfielders.
A key aspect of Lamouchi’s defensive tactics is his team’s ability to pressurise the opponents into going into certain defensive hotspots.
The process of pressurising the opposition starts from the opposition’s half. In the above picture, Lewis Grabban, the striker, presses the ball-playing defender into moving into the wings. Lolley marks the midfielder and makes sure that there are no central passing avenues.
When the ball goes onto the wings, they start pressing to win back the ball in further triangles. This is the phase of the defensive routine which attempts to win the ball back in more advanced positions. If the person on the ball is well equipped at dribbling and beats the press, he has to face the fortress of the low defensive line.
Forest are highly effective in transitions and tend to concede possession in their own half and exploit the opposition’s space in the counter-attack. Forest have the least possession per game in the top six, but take around 13 shots per game. This is because most of their shots come from outside the box. This highlights how quickly they lose possession of the ball. But the target man is the reason the team scores a large frequency of goals.
The main target man in this counter-attack is Lewis Grabban, who plays as the lone striker in both systems. The effectiveness of this counter-attacking system is the reason why he has 17 goals this season in the Championship.
The wide player dispossesses the opponent and immediately starts counter-attacking by getting the ball to Grabban.
Grabban holds the ball and allows it to progress upfield and passes the ball to one of the more creative midfielders. He then runs to the box, where he receives the ball and finishes. The reason the counter-attacking system works so well is Grabban. This ties into the defensive playstyle. 10 men are generally behind the ball while in a low block, while Grabban remains ready on the edge of the centre half waiting for the ball.
When attacking from the back, Forest throw a lot of men into the attack. This helps in creating space against teams that do not employ a low block as there is enough space, especially for the wingers or wing-backs. This means that Lamouchi’s tactics require his team to have a lot of stamina, as they fall back in line to defend deep, and the players also run up to attack.
Another area that Nottingham Forest focus on is exploiting the wings. Link-up between Ameobi (RW) and Cash (RB) allow for the team to progress very well on the right-wing. The central players would play long passes to that side, and the man in space would hold the ball and pass it around until space opened up in the final third. Ameobi plays as a wide target man as well, holding the ball against all forms of pressure until Cash arrives and plays crosses into the box. When Cash arrives, Ameobi drifts in centrally and acts as a goalscoring option due to his aerial ability.
The usage of full-backs
Lamouchi extensively uses wing-backs with high work rate. He employs Matty Cash at right-back and Yuri Ribeiro at left-back. Both full-backs contribute defensively and offensively. To accommodate for the lack of wing-backs in the attack, the team shifts to a three-man backline with the holding midfielder (Watson) falling back and covering until reinforcements arrive.
Defensively, both full-backs stay back and remain back in shape with the centre-backs. Their main jobs are to ensure there are no opposition runs on the wings and to cover any balls coming their way defensively. This helps to create counter-attacks.
Here, the full-backs are covering the opposition wingers, so that the person on the ball has nowhere to pass forward and can then lose possession and start countering.
When countering, their attacking roles and responsibilities come into play.
Both full-backs make runs behind the opposition lines to create overlaps. This helps as there are extra men in attack to play crosses to Grabban or Ameobi who drift centrally. Cash and Ribeiro’s runs help stretch the defence wide, as indicated below:
The defence is stretched wide and creates space for the midfielders and wingers to make runs and remain open. This suits the high stamina of the wing-backs as they need to run up the pitch when in possession and run back when the team loses the ball.
The possible future lineup, which combines the best part of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 is above. Cash and Ameobi have a very promising connection which will be very important for the progression of the team. Lewis Grabban plays as the lone striker in this system, as Forest’s attacking system largely depends on him. The main change is in the midfield four. Tiago Silva and Joe Lolley, who are both strong at dribbling, maintain possession as the team goes forward when counter-attacking. However, compared to the previous lineup, Lolley adds a more defensive element as he is strong at pressing and counter-recoveries. The Cash and Ameobi link-up still remains intact and can thrive due to the reduction in defensive duties because of Lolley.
The 4-1-4-1 formation is better than the 4-2-3-1 in defensive regard for Forest. The low block has better stability in the new formation as the positions are held for all the players. All players are in line as well which prevents breaking through the defence. The strength of the formation is shown below. Grabban also receives more support in attack with the creative Silva, and the absence of Sow is replaced by the presence of Lolley.
Nottingham Forest are one of the teams to invest a high amount of time and resources into their youth development. Two of their starlets in the U23 team are Marcus McGuane and Tyler Walker. Both of them have a lot of experience under their belt.
McGuane is an English central midfielder that plays for Barcelona B. He came on as a substitute for Barcelona in the Super Cup final, being the first English player to play for Barcelona’s main team in the 21st Century. McGuane is their most exciting defensive midfielder as his skills are a perfect match for Lamouchi’s 4-2-3-1.
Tyler Walker is a striker with 56 goals in 157 games in lower leagues. Walker’s main strengths are finishing, crossing and long shots, putting him as a quality deep-lying playmaker for the future.
In summary, Lamouchi has considerable experience under his belt as the manager of Rennes in Ligue 1 and Nottingham Forest. His tactical ability and understanding has evolved over time and has gelled well with the players. Lamouchi has already won two Manager of the Month awards in his relatively short tenure.
He has the acumen to take Nottingham Forest to the top step of English Football: The Premier League. If he does so, the midtable battle will certainly get more interesting and consequently, the club’s following will definitely grow.