Samba Sow plays as a defensive midfielder and has been an integral part of Nottingham’s Forest’s rise to promotion contention this season. His record when starting for the Reds this season underlines his importance to the system: from 19 starts Sow has won 11, drawn six and lost only two. This is in comparison to when he is not in the side where Forest’s record is played 24, won seven, drawn nine and lost eight. A win record of 29% without Sow, contrasted to a 58% win record with him in the starting 11 highlights his value.
Sow has been injury prone which has meant he hasn’t featured as much as Forest would have liked him to. The 31-year-old Malian international has had these lingering injury issues throughout his career, during which he has played in France and Russia for the likes of Lens and Dynamo Moscow in Ligue 1 and the Russian Premier League respectively.
This scout report will examine the role of Sow as a defensive midfielder in Sabri Lamouchi’s counter-attacking set up. Through a tactical analysis, we will look at the strengths of Sow in and out of possession, while also analysing his role in Forest’s transitions, which are a vital part of their overall tactics.
Sow’s role in the Forest system
Forest play a 4-2-3-1 system or sometimes even switch to a 4-1-4-1 particularly with the absence of Sow. However, when Sow is present, Sow sits in a double pivot with the experienced midfielder Ben Watson. Given Watson is entering the twilight of his career at 35 years of age, Sow often does more running than he would usually be expected to.
The heatmap indicates this, with him covering both the left and right sections of the pitch, most notably in the half spaces where his job is to break up the play of the opposition. It is also important to note that Sow rarely drifts wide in his defensive positioning as a result of Forest’s low block where usually wingers of Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi tuck in to provide solidity on the flanks.
Ultimately Sow’s attacking numbers are nothing remarkable, with zero goals and only two assists. However, this is simply not what is required of him in this system, and his interceptions and aggressive defensive style are vital in beginning Forest’s effective transitions. In fact, this is perhaps the biggest reason for the huge drop-off in results when the midfielder is absent.
Winning the ball quickly
Sow is extremely effective at winning the ball quickly as a result of his tight marking and intense pressing when defending. In fact, Sow’s defensive duels are impressive, and the definition of a defensive duel demonstrates his strengths. A defensive duel is when a player attempts to dispossess an opposition player to stop an attack progressing. Sow is fifth in the Championship in this respect, with 11.4 on average per 90 minutes and a 61.73% success rate. This success rate is higher than any other player who averages more than 10 defensive duels per 90.
An example of Sow’s successful defensive duels is shown in the frame above. In this situation, Forest have been caught on the counter-attack, with the full-backs pushing high and left-back Yuri Ribeiro leaving space on the flanks. However, Sow is able to recover and come across to quickly win the ball back. It is notable that Watson is still finding his way back, which nicely sums up the relationship between the two in this double pivot.
Watson’s role is possession-based with the job of dropping between the two centre backs and distributing the ball when the opposition decides to sit off Forest. Sow, on the other hand, is the one who covers the spaces defensively and utilises his athleticism to cover the gaps left by Watson and at times the full-backs. This is why he is the perfect foil Forest ageing vice-captain Watson.
Another hallmark of Sow’s game is tackling, particularly the sliding tackle. He averages 3.5 tackles per game and 0.64 sliding tackles per 90 minutes. The frame below is a perfect example of when his aggressive tackling becomes another key aspect in his role of breaking down dangerous opposition attacks.
Even though Forest had created a two vs two situation out wide with Lolley helping Matty Cash defensively, there were developing gaps in the half space for Fulham playmaker Bobby Reid to vacate. Sow has been caught slightly out of position here and is quick to realise by getting across and making a successful sliding tackle to abruptly stop the developing move.
It is also important to note the lack of attacking support Fulham have in this frame. This is down to Sow’s relentless tackling style which means attackers are not given time to sufficiently build and create a realistic opportunity. Cash eventually cleared the ball and Forest were able to recover back into their solid 4-2-3-1 shape. It is not hard to see why they have been so successful when the Malian midfielder has been present because of his success in defensive duels and tackling prowess.
The vital component of Forest’s transitional play
The role of recoveries cannot be understated in Sow’s midfield play. His constant recoveries of the ball are a vital component of Forest’s transitional play. A closer look at these stats show that out of Sow’s 164 ball recoveries this season, 136 are in his own third or the central third. Ultimately, this defines his job in the team, which is to recover the ball and distribute it to the flair players who can cause the opposition problems, especially on the counter-attack.
The most intriguing part of the diagram above is the amount of counter-pressing recoveries from Sow. Even though Sow’s heatmap portrays his general positioning as largely central, we can see that he has drifted out wide more than a few times this season to recover the ball. This is something that was highlighted in the frame of Sow dispossessing Ivan Cavaleiro of Fulham, in the earlier section on Sow winning the ball back quickly. Although Sow’s role is to break down attacks centrally and in the half spaces, he is simply not constricted to this. Perhaps his venturing out wide and excess running because of Watson’s ageing legs have contributed to the knee problems he has suffered throughout the campaign.
When Sow wins the ball back, his on the ball contributions are largely simple but effective. Although Sow only averages 27.67 passes per 90 which is down 5.62 on the league’s average of 33.29, he has enjoyed a passing accuracy of 88.03%. These stats are a product of the system that Sow finds himself in.
Sow’s main role is to break up play and play simple passes to more creative players, which explains his high pass completion. The frames below illustrate a move where Sow is able to recover the ball by intercepting a ball from out wide and laying it off to the dangerous Lolley.
Forest’s low block and Sow’s desire to win the ball back are noteworthy once more in these two frames. However, the second frame demonstrates the point concerning Sow’s high passing accuracy. Not only are his off the ball movements important, but also his on the ball contributions are vital in launching Forest counter attacks for the dangerous wingers of Lolley and Ameobi to exploit space left by the opposition.
Pushing higher up the field
Although Lamouchi has rarely steered away from his double pivot when Sow has been playing, there have been occasions where Lamouchi has utilised Sow’s stamina to press the opposition higher up in a 4-1-4-1. This consists of Watson as the deepest midfielder with the energetic Ryan Yates or Tiago Silva alongside Sow higher up the field to put more pressure on the ball.
In fact, the graphs above show that his role is not always limited to defending his own third. Although 1.57 recoveries in the final third per 90 minutes isn’t a staggering figure, it is made more impressive by the fact Sow has 0.58 dangerous recoveries per 90. This data supports the idea that Sow doesn’t do the majority of his recoveries higher up the pitch, but when he does, he is extremely effective at it. This is mainly seen when Forest employ a 4-1-4-1 and it is a tactic that Lamouchi could perhaps exploit further, especially as a potential play-off semi-final is on the horizon.
Lamouchi used this formation in their recent 1-1 draw with arch-rivals Derby County. As you can see in the frame below, Watson is the single pivot with the likes of Lolley, Sow, Yates and Nuno Da Costa forming a line of four to press Derby higher. Forest were extremely effective at stopping the in-form Derby team play, with the impressive Sow registering a 66.7% success rate for his duels throughout the match.
As this move developed, Wayne Rooney’s ball was intercepted by Sow and he was able to lay the ball off and drive forward, which was indicative of Forest’s higher press and Sow’s slightly changed role in a 4-1-4-1 system. It is important to note that Sow’s passing accuracy was 100% in this game, further highlighting his importance for a team that bases its game plan on counter-attacking situations. The fact that Sow’s xG chain on counter-attacks is 27.87% is a further indicator of this, as this is one of the highest in the league. The success that Forest and the key figure of Sow enjoy when they employ a 4-1-4-1 is most definitely something the Reds should exploit as they move forward. It is the best system for the 31-year-old midfielder.
What can he improve?
As we have already discovered, Sow’s defensive output is very impressive. A closer look at his data in terms of interceptions and defensive duels mean it is understandable that there is a huge drop off when he is absent from the Forest side. In a system that advocates sitting off the ball and counter-attacking football, Sow is the perfect player in a centre defensive midfield position. However, there are flaws in his game and areas of improvement particularly when weighed up against other defensive midfielders in the Championship.
In terms of Sow’s shortcomings, progressive passing is clearly an issue. Sow makes an average of 6.63 forward passes per 90, which is the lowest out of all 59 defensive midfielders in the league. This may be a product of the system and as already discussed, Sow is effective at playing simple passes to spring Forest counter attacks. However, Forest have only won one game this season when they have had more than 50% of the ball. Even if Sow is a defensive midfielder, Forest clearly lack a midfielder with the ability to penetrate low blocks with progressive and forward passes. This is an area of improvement for the midfielder.
Also, Sow only makes 0.06 key passes per game, compared to the likes of Kalvin Phillips and Joe Ralls who enjoy an average of 0.54 and 0.19 key passes per game respectively. Much like key passes, Sow has a very low average for progressive passes per 90. His average of 3.08 which means he ranks 151st among all Championship players this season.
You may argue that these stats are natural for a team with an average of 47.4% possession. Therefore, for Sow to take his game to the next level these numbers need to improve and could potentially help the team’s general problem, which is breaking down low block defences.
Sow’s robust style and ability to halt dangerous opposition attacks is something that has gone somewhat unnoticed with some Forest fans. An analysis of his defensive numbers shows that he would be a good short-term fix for a mid-table Premier League side who like to have less possession off the ball like Forest.
However, his attacking output is somewhat unspectacular, and this is perhaps what has prevented him from performing at a higher level than what he is at now. In addition to this, he is very injury prone which is something that Forest have had to carefully manage throughout the season. If he can stay fit until the end of the campaign, then Forest will greatly increase their chances of finally gaining promotion from the Championship.