High-flying Forest continue to prove that keeping the ball isn’t necessary


When promotion chasing Forest faced relegation threatened Huddersfield at the City Ground on Sunday afternoon, the statistics suggest it was an even game that the hosts were perhaps a little fortunate to win 3-1 and climb to fourth in the Championship.

But Sabri Lamouchi’s side have spent the whole season defying the conventional football wisdom that dominating the post-match numbers, in particular possession, breeds success.

Substitute Nuno Da Costa carries the ball forward on the break against Huddersfield (credit: Nuno Da Costa)

The Reds were in complete control throughout their game against the Terriers; a two-goal defeat flattered the visitors. Forest had plenty of chances to score four, five and six.

They dictated play, controlled the tempo and never gave their opponents the opportunity to get back into the contest, following top scorer Lewis Grabban’s quickfire brace either side of half-time.

Someone who didn’t watch the game, however, could open their favourite sports app, see the stats, and think that the visitors could and should have gone back to Yorkshire with at least a point.

Both sides had 14 attempts on goal, whilst possession (60-40), passes (434-318), attacks (122-60), dangerous attacks (78-23) and corners (11-3) were all in favour of Huddersfield – by a big margin.

Lamouchi’s men were anything but lucky though; it was a textbook performance from the team that currently sit comfortably in the play-off places.

Lamouchi has won the Championship’s Manager of the Month award twice so far this season – in August and January (credit: Sky Sports)

The thing is, the refreshing French manager doesn’t seem to subscribe to football’s modern obsessions.

Expected goals doesn’t matter. A high press is a waste of energy. Passing side to side on halfway is a waste of time. There are no bonus points for winning the possession.

If Forest had to face a physical, long-ball, deep-defending team like Millwall every week, they’d run out of ideas creatively and be facing relegation.

But the Reds have put themselves within reach of the Premier League by using a deep, compact defence to exploit the fact that traditional, 4-4-2 English game plans are dying out in the Championship.

By trying to play more football, teams are playing into their hands.

Forest aren’t in a promotion battle despite only having more of the ball in 14 of their 39 Championship matches so far; they’re in a promotion battle because they’re rarely ahead in possession statistics.

In those 14 games, with the onus to create rather than absorb pressure, they’ve managed only one win (1-5-9) – at home to second bottom Luton.

But in the 25 matches where the play-off bound Forest haven’t had the majority of possession, they’ve pounced on the counter-attack to amass 56 points.

That record includes 16 wins and just a single defeat, on the opening day to West Brom when second-choice goalkeeper Aro Muric cost them two goals.

It will be a while before the City Ground is packed full of fans again, but Forest have picked up where they left off since their return to action with two typical performances (credit: Getty Images)

Defensive managers are often successful, but generally in avoiding defeat and fighting relegation, rather that collecting victories and fighting at the top end of the table.

Now the Reds are as close as they have been to a PL return in over 20 years, thanks to Lamouchi’s impressive ability to consistently achieve victories whilst conceding possession to the opposition.

The signs were there back in August, just weeks after his appointment, when Forest won 2-1 at Fulham.

The hosts had 72% of possession in the first half and 82% in the second, but it took Aleksandar Mitrović until the 83rd minute to respond to Lewis Grabban’s brace and there was never any danger of an equaliser.

Fulham also completed 704 passes compared to 156, racked up 20 attempts to the visitors 11, and had a dozen more corners.

But, as so often this season, Forest were the more impressive team both technically and tactically, looked comfortable sticking to their game plan throughout, and carved out more and better genuine chances.

Of course, it helps to have the best GK in the Championship – Brice Samba – who nonchalantly bats away the long-range efforts that opposing attackers are often restricted to.

Brice Samba is a reliable shot stopper whose languid style has made him a favourite of Forest supporters (credit: Athena Pictures / Getty Images)

It helps that the fans are on board with a more defensive, counter-attacking style too. The best bosses to have patrolled the touchline on the banks of the River Trent have all been similar.

Brian Clough won two European Cups by signing England stopper Peter Shilton and building solid foundations; Frank Clark took the club to 3rd in the Premier League and a UEFA Cup quarter-final with a succession of 1-0s; Billy Davies, the last time they had a serious push at a return to the top flight, was the same.

What the Scotsman’s side lacked was a clinical finisher as effective as Lewis Grabban – the lone striker has netted 19 times from just 84 shots – and genuine width.

Wingers Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi are both great dribblers at second tier level, who can carry the ball past multiple defenders with ease and create openings on the break.

The success of Lamouchi’s 4-1-4-1 system and deliberately conceding possession is built, though, on having a settled, youthful back four and a smart, aging general to organise in front of them.

Matty Cash (22), Tobias Figueiredo (26), Joe Worrall (23) and Yuri Ribeiro (23) have got the legs to keep their shape for 95 minutes, three times a week, where a more experienced group may tire.

Their athleticism also allows Ben Watson, who turns 35 in July, to shine in the midfield pivot role and use his years wisdom on the ball.

But the man really shining as Forest counter-attack their way to the playoffs is the man in the dugout, Sabri Lamouchi.

He’s got the best win rate of any Reds manager since Clough and has fans dreaming that they’ve already been to their last Championship game at the City Ground.


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