Nottingham Forest and Leeds United lined up at the City Ground, both having high expectations. Both are targeting promotion to the EPL and they are close to it if you see their positions in the Championship table in the EFL. The young and ambitious Sabri Lamouchi would try to win against the experienced Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa is an innovative coach, who has proved many times his tactics ability and his preparation as far as the opponent’s tactical analysis goes. It would be for sure an interesting “football battle”, with a lot of analysis to be done on it.
Sabri Lamouchi made just one change in Forest’s formation after the earlier fixture defeat: that was Samba Sow in for Ryan Yates. Nottingham Forest lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Brice Samba was in goal; Yuri Ribeiro, Joe Worrall, Tobias Figueiredo and Matty Cash were the defensive line. Ben Watson and Samba Sow were the two defensive midfielders. Joe Lolley, Tiago Silva and Sammy Ameobi were the attacking midfielders. Lewis Grabban was at the edge of the formation as a centre forward.
Leeds United made some changes after the loss in the previous fixture against Wigan Athletic. Leeds United lined up with a 4-1-4-1 formation instead of the 4-3-3. Kiko Casilla, who joined Leeds United from Real Madrid back in January of 2019, remained in goal. Ezgjan Alioski, Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas were the back four. Ben White was a defensive midfielder in front of them, while Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez were the centre midfielders. Jack Harrison and Helder Costa were the wide midfielders and Patrick Bamford was the centre forward.
The front 3+1 (the attacking midfielders and the centre forward) did well when defending in the final third. Their task was to block the vertical pass to the defensive midfielder. Once this was achieved, the Leeds centre backs had the choice of playing the ball to each other or passing to the wings. Nottingham Forest controlled their opponents on the wings and it was easier to restrict their choices. Moreover, they managed to overload the space and put pressure on the player in possession of the ball. That lead to Leeds United’s players making a lot of bad decisions.
Nottingham Forest’s players were defending in a 4-2-3-1 formation when the ball was in the opponent’s half and with a 4-4-1-1 when the opponent was coming into their half, with the wide attacking midfielders coming deeper and supporting the defence. This was a way to become more compact and deal with the continuous offensive moves from the full-backs in the final third. Furthermore, Leeds United most of the time were approaching the box of the opponent when they had at least four players in there. That fact made crucial the defensive support from the front line. Plenty of times the wide attacking midfielders were coming into deeper positions and moving into the box to support the defence.
Nottingham Forest chose a balanced way to develop their offensive game. They had 15 attempts from the central part of the field and 19 from the flanks, with 14 of those from the right flank. This is because of Nottingham Forest’s players and especially the attacking midfielders overloading the central and right side of the pitch. Nottingham Forest tried to take advantage of the full-backs’ continuous attacks up the field. For Nottingham Forest, it was easier to find free spaces in the opponent’s flanks as Alioski and Dallas were going high up in the field several times, and they were exposed in the transition game.
Furthermore, the reason why Nottingham Forest was effective in the transition game was that it had many players around the ball. This aimed to overload a small area and put pressure on the opponent. So, the above scenario sees Nottingham Forest’s players to be numerically dominant while defending and attacking. This is important to mention because it is not only the defensive support from the wide attacking midfielders but also the offensive support of the full-backs and rarely from the central-backs that is being shown.
The full-backs were taking high positions on the field. That was a way for them to support the team in and out of possession. Moreover, the close distances had helped them to achieve combination games with the wide attacking midfielders and approach the box of Leeds United. In the left picture, we notice the centre back of Nottingham Forest, Worrall, trying to outnumber the opponent by dribbling the ball and passing to the flank, to Ribeiro. In the right image, we can see that they lost possession of the ball but they outnumber the opponent because of the advance of players coming from the defensive areas.
Despite that Nottingham Forest was mainly attacking the central and the right side of the field, paradoxically they managed to achieve the first goal from the left flank. Nottingham Forest is taking advantage of the bad positioning of Dallas, who is trying to go high up the field. Nottingham Forest’s players have regained possession of the ball and they are approaching the box of their opponent with a quick offensive transition. That makes sense if we see the average positioning of the Leeds United players. We can see that the right full-back, Dallas (number 15) is in a high position on the field. In that way, he is creating a gap at the back, where Nottingham Forest’s players took advantage of it when they had the chance and the first goal came from.
Nottingham Forest did well in the transition game because they had many players around the ball. The full-backs were supporting the attacks.
Alternative options for Leeds United
Leeds United focused on playing most of the game on the wings. It is worthy of mention that 48 out of their 58 offensive attempts came from the flanks. Alioski and Dallas support this type of game as they are full-backs that take up high positioning on the pitch and support the offensive part of the game. Furthermore, Bielsa’s tactics demand from the left and right back to have that role and support the team when in possession.
Bielsa’s team tried to approach the opponent’s box from the flanks with a combination game. One of the full-backs was on the ball, while he was supported by the wide midfielder and the centre midfielder. For situations like these, Nottingham Forest was defending with the wide attacking midfielder, who was coming deeper, the defensive midfielder on that side and the full-back. So, Leeds United had to face a 3-v-3 situation. The solution to that problem was given by the centre forward, who was coming deep and supporting the combination game that his teammates were trying to do. A combination of passes would take place in the middle third that probably would lead to a long ball, which would have as a target one of the full-backs or the wide or centre midfielders. The problems that Leeds United faced using that strategy were twofold. Firstly, no one was taking advantage of the free space that the centre forward was creating. The defence and the goalkeeper were, therefore, able to clear the deep balls that were entering that area because of their positioning.
The second problem had to do with the compact defensive line in the box of Nottingham Forest. Even though sometimes they were able to approach the final third and the box of the opponent with great quality and creativity, the options in the box were blocked because of the defence. Even if the delivery was good and a player received the ball, then he had to deal with the high pressure of the opponent, where most of the times they were outnumbered.
Leeds United was using the 4-1-4-1 formation while Nottingham Forest the 4-2-3-1. If we break down the two formations, we will notice that the only players from both formations that have a numeric advantage are the two centre backs. Nottingham Forest were pressing high with the two wide attacking midfielders going straight to the full-backs, while the central attacking midfielder was marking the defensive midfielder of Leeds United, Ben White. Nottingham Forest’s full-backs were taking a higher position to restrict a long diagonal ball to the wide midfielders of Leeds United and the two centre midfielders were marked by the two defensive midfielders, Sow and Watson. So, that was the situation for Leeds United when trying to build-up the game from the first third.
Leeds United would also look to develop its game from the central part of the field. This could happen by taking the chance of the numeric advantage that their formation was giving them against their opponent’s formation. The two images below are demonstrating how a 2-v-2 situation in the middle of the field can turn into a 3-v-2 situation. At the “Before” image, which is on the left side, one of the centre backs could drive the ball into the middle third, here Cooper after receiving the ball from Ayling. When this happened, Lolley would be in a disadvantageous 2-v-1 situation. White’s task was to unmark himself while Cooper is driving the ball into the middle third. Once this takes place, the centre back must pass the ball to the defensive midfielder. The image on the right side, which is the “After” part of the scenario, shows what White needed to do when he received the ball. He must take advantage of the free space that he has in front of him and drive the ball higher up the field. That move would lead to a 3-v-2 in the central area of the field.
Klich or Hernandez could have possession of the ball in a high position in the pitch. Here is the point where the flanks are coming into this tactical scenario. The “Before” image at the left part of the image is showing the centre midfielder, here Klich, who is the receiver of the ball, and must direct it to the flanks. The “After” image at the right side, is demonstrating the way that they will try to outnumber the opponent full-back, who is Cash in this specific scenario, either by giving the ball to the wide midfielder or by trying to do a combination move with him. For a situation like this to be successful, it demands that the winger and the central midfielder put between them the opponent’s full-back and either play a 1-2 or take him out of play from this 2-v-1 setup.
Nottingham Forest achieved a great victory here that gives the whole team incredible energy and confidence to continue targeting the play-off positions in the table. On the other side, Leeds United did not give up and tried their best until the end, but it was not enough for them to take something from the game. Without a doubt, both teams gave a fair fight and proved the reason why are considered two of the best teams in the league.