Saturday 4th July saw the return of one of the fiercest rivalries in the English football league. Derby County welcomed their East Midland neighbours, Nottingham Forest, to Pride Park. Both sides were in good form following the resumption of the league after coronavirus. Neither side had suffered defeat at that point. Forest was looking to cement their place in the play-offs, whilst Derby was making a late push following an upturn in form since Wayne Rooney’s arrival in January, and an outside chance of returning to the Premier League.

What followed was an interesting tactical battle. Forest took an early lead through Joe Lolley and was able to implement their plan to nullify Derby. It almost worked to perfection, but a lapse in concentration and scrappy goal saw 10 men Derby scrape a point. 

This tactical analysis report will consider the tactics used by both sides in order to gain control in the game. It will use analysis to highlight key tactics used by the Derby and Forest in order to gain an advantage. The tactical analysis will consider the formations used, Forest’s attempt to nullify Rooney and their defensive shape.


EFL Championship: Derby v Nottingham Forest- Tactical analysis tactics

Derby lined up in 442 formations, although Louie Sibley would come often come deep to get the ball or create space, so was a 4231 for the majority of the game. Jason Knight and Duane Holmes played in wide areas, but would often tuck inside in an attempt to create an overload in central areas. Wayne Rooney played at the base of midfield as he has done since his arrival from the MLS. From this position, he looks to dictate play with his excellent passing range. Max Bird, who plays alongside Rooney, attempts to break down play and cover ground in the middle of midfield.

Forest lined up in a 4141, a slight variation on their 4231. Ryan Yates came in for Tiago Silva, the former being a more combative midfielder. This was the first key battle won by Sabri Lamouchi and Forest, which the tactical analysis will consider in further detail. Lewis Grabban led the line with his excellent hold-up play, alongside Joe Lolley and Nuno da Costa, who looked to get forward and assist.

Nullifying Wayne Rooney

All the talk going into the game was how Forest was going to nullify Rooney. England’s top scorer was dictating games and was the biggest threat to Forests success. Lamouchi achieved this with a slight tweak in tactics. Rather than playing a double-pivot in midfield which is the usual tactic, it was switched to a single pivot with two 8s. This meant that Watson sat deep, with Yates and Sambo Sow further forward. As a result, Forest was able to ensure there was always consistent pressure on Rooney without giving away space in behind. 

EFL Championship: Derby v Nottingham Forest- Tactical analysis tactics

As the tactical analysis is showing, when Rooney moved towards the left side of the pitch, Yates followed and would attempt to close down any space should he receive the ball. The same thing happened on the other side of the pitch, except Sow would apply pressure in that scenario. This meant that Forest could continuously press Rooney whilst still having cover in midfield. Other sides have failed by sitting one man directly on Rooney, following him everywhere on the pitch. This inadvertently creates space elsewhere for the likes of Sibley, Lawrence and co. to exploit. 

By using the 2 midfielders to press Rooney, and even the wingers if Rooney went wide, Forest were able to close space and nullify Derbys main creative source. They also covered any gaps in behind that could have been vacated which made it extremely difficult for Derby to play. 

Forests defensive shape

The early goal, scored by Lolley in the 12th minute was perfect for Forests tactics. Forest have been defensively solid all season, and going 1-nil up meant they could soak up pressure and hit on the counter-attack. None of this, of course, is possible without having excellent defensive shape. Forest was able to sit deep and contest the central area of the pitch. This made it extremely difficult for Derby to play through, frustrating them throughout the course of the game.

EFL Championship: Derby v Nottingham Forest- Tactical analysis tactics

As we can see from the average positions, Forest had five players in the centre of the pitch throughout the game when they had the ball. These tactics allowed them to do 2 things, which the analysis will now consider. Firstly, it allowed them to get bodies closer to Grabban. This ensured Grabban was never isolated and Forest maintained an attacking threat. Secondly, it allowed them to counter-press should they have lost possession. By congesting the central areas, they were able to retrieve the ball (or at least apply immediate pressure) should they lose possession, ensuring Derby to strike on the counter themselves.

When out of possession, Forest would essentially become a 541. The winger on the opposite side of the ball would slot into a deeper position and the midfield would become a flat-four. This made it extremely difficult for Derby to progress the ball up the pitch. Derby would often look to get the ball into the 10 positions, with rotation from Sibley and Martin creating the space for this to happen. However, the flat midfield 4 made it hard to pass into this area, as it blocked off any passing lanes. It also meant that every time either Sibley or Martin came deep to receive the ball, space was occupied by Watson. This meant the centre-backs did not have to follow and vacate space in behind.

EFL Championship: Derby v Nottingham Forest- Tactical analysis tactics

Lack of width

As the tactical analysis stated, Forest congested the central areas and made it difficult for Derby to play through them. This suited Forest and the analysis has shown that this was their tactic. However, Derby fell for the trap and played the way Forest wanted them to. Derbys tactics mean they also operate in central areas with the ball, as they try to play quick, interchanging football to get in behind. The tactical analysis will know use analysis to show how Derby could have enjoyed more success using width.

The space fo Derby to exploit was in wide areas. Forest intentionally congested the central areas, but this left space out wide. Derby should have looked to maintain the width and get the ball into these areas, running directly at the Forest full-backs in a 1-on-1 situation. This would have allowed Derby to be more penetrative, looking to attack and cause Forest greater trouble, rather than playing in front of them.

A reason why this tactic was not used was that Derby did not play with natural wingers.  Holmes and Knight liked to drift centrally, whether instructed or not. Therefore, it would have made sense to start Florian Jozefzoon, for example. He is a natural wide player and would have looked to stretch the pitch. This would have forced Forest to become slightly more open in order to close down space in wide areas and would have created space in central areas. Derby then would have been able to play centrally, so long as they passing was quick and slick. However, the lack of the wide option meant they had to play in a congested area of the pitch which would have definitely suited Forest.


The tactical analysis has highlighted a few tactics which ultimately decided the outcome of the game. Firstly, Forest got their formation correct. The slight change meant that they could maintain numbers in midfield to ensure there were no gaps. It also allowed them to effectively press Rooney, ensuring he never had time or space on the ball. This meant Forest stopped Derby’s creative force, and they were never able to find a solution. Forests way to combat Rooney could be the blueprint for the Championship sides to follow.

Secondly, the defensive shape of Forest was excellent. They pressed in midfield when they lost the ball and blocked passing lanes into Martin and Sibley. This again made it difficult for Derby to play they wish. Derby would have gained more success had they possessed width, as this is where space. It also would have forced Forests midfield to stretch and create space in other areas of the pitch.

Overall, Forest did well to nullify Derby. They controlled the game without possession, and with better finishing would have come away with all 3 points on the day.