Luke Freeman had a glittering youth career as he signed for Arsenal as a 16-year-old. He was at the club for four years, though without making a senior appearance. During this time, he also made 17 appearances for England under 16’s and 17’s. After that, Freeman enjoyed multiple seasons on loan in League One with the likes of Yeovil Town and Stevenage, before gaining promotion to the Championship with Bristol City and signing permanently. Freeman was instrumental in the Robins’ success and a move to Queens Park Rangers closely followed, where he also played a key role in a solid Championship side. Ultimately, Freeman attracted interest from the Premier League side, Sheffield United, where he was snapped up for a £5 million fee in 2019. This scout report will assess the potential role of Freeman as he makes his return back to Championship football.
Ultimately, the move hasn’t quite worked out as he has only made 11 appearances with only one assist and zero goals. Given Nottingham Forest’s problems with creativity and goalscoring last season, Freeman was a strong target for the Reds in January to change their attacking tactics, yet the move never materialised. This time Forest have got their man on loan, and they will hope he can make a difference. Through a tactical analysis, we will look at how Freeman could solve some of the problems that led to their heartbreaking end-of-season collapse the last term.
Freeman is a player that is not designated to one position; however, his most common positions are left-wing and central attacking midfield. The heatmap below is from last season’s campaign, which shows that Chris Wilder decided to put Freeman on the left frequently to accommodate his crossing ability. This is perhaps more to do with the style of Sheffield United, instead of necessarily accommodating Freeman’s best position. Perhaps this was also a key factor in the limited appearances he made for the Blades throughout the season.
Given that he was hardly a regular in Sheffield United’s team last year, it is more helpful to look at his statistics at QPR in the 2018/19 to truly measure the player Forest are getting. Freeman’s nine goals and eight assists in all competitions was an impressive tally for an attacking midfielder. This wasn’t a one-off either as Freeman scored five goals and managed 13 assists in the previous season for QPR. He is clearly a player with proven Championship credentials, which is the type of signing that Forest have severely lacked in the past decade.
An analysis of the shots he took last year is a notable indication of the variety of positions he likes to take up as a more left-sided player. In the graphic below, instead of just restricting himself to running the channels and providing crosses for his team-mates, Freeman is keen to come centrally to take shots and cause problems. In fact, more of these shots taken favour the right-hand side of the pitch instead of the left, which suggests a willingness to rotate positionally and influence the game in whatever way possible. This positional fluidity and unpredictable creativity are something that we will explore later in this piece, and it is clearly a vital component to his all-round game.
How did he compare to Championship players in similar positions last season?
As Freeman was a more left-sided attacker for Sheffield United last season, we will compare him to Championship players who played in similar roles. In order to compare Freeman to the attacking wingers from the Championship, we will use the metrics dribbles per 90 and crosses per 90 to track theirs against each other. The graph below plots these together and it is clear from the data that Freeman is above average in both categories, highlighting the strengths in his dribbling and crossing ability, especially when put up against some of the Championship’s most impactful players. Freeman played a total of 770 minutes last season, so all the players studied in the graph below had to have had a minimum of 770 minutes to qualify.
The most noteworthy aspect of this graph is the number of crosses per 90 Freeman achieved, in comparison to the Championship players. Freeman’s 2.61 crosses per 90 was way above the average of 1.52. This is a clear strength of the Englishman’s game, and his dribbles per 90 was also above the average. When Freeman was given the chance to play for Sheffield United last year, it was clear that his dribbling ability complemented his crossing, which resulted in him delivering balls from both sides of the pitch.
Examples of Freeman providing a crossing threat are shown in the frames below. Freeman’s ability to occupy both the left and right flanks to put in dangerous crosses is a strength of his game. The frame below sees Freeman in his favoured position on the left wing in his role as a left attacking midfield player.
It is noteworthy that Freeman is not extremely wide when he is about to play this cross into the box. As a result of Freeman’s intricate off-the ball movement, he is keen to make runs inside to get into the inside left channel. This helps Freeman gain greater space to put more dangerous balls into the box. Ultimately, Freeman was helped by the fact that Sheffield United play with wing-backs and this often resulted in greater support out wide.
Freeman is also comfortable drifting to the right-hand side to put crosses into the box. The frame below shows Freeman occupying the right channel where he is cutting back on to his favoured left foot to deliver a cross.
As stated in the previous frame, Freeman is keen to occupy the inside wide channel. In this instance, Kieron Freeman, who is playing wing-back has overlapped Luke Freeman, which has given him the space to get the ball on his left foot to put in a cross that targets the three men waiting in the box.
The frame above comes from the same game and this time depicts Freeman cutting back on his left foot to get a shot off from a right-sided position. In fact, Freeman is comfortable playing across the front line and was successful in playing the number 10 role when he was at QPR for two seasons. Ultimately, Freeman’s positional fluidity and unpredictably is something that will make Forest a harder side to play against next year. Given that he can play in multiple positions, Lamouchi will be eager to experiment with Freeman’s position to help Forest counteract their problems with creativity, which plagued their campaign last season.
An alternative system?
Last season, Forest played with a much more restricted style and the full-backs weren’t allowed to be as forward thinking as Wilder’s Sheffield United. Therefore, if Freeman is played in a left attacking midfield position this season then Sabri Lamouchi must consider a five at the back formation to accommodate his strengths. Forest only played one up front in a 4-2-3-1 last year, however, the summer signings of Lyle Taylor and Miguel Angel Guerrero may allow Forest to play two up front. In addition to this, Forest have signed left-sided centre-back Tyler Blackett and are close to securing Loïc Mbe Soh’s (centre-back) signature, who could easily accompany Joe Worrall and Tobias Figueiredo in a back three for the Reds. Given these added personnel, Lamouchi must think about implementing a 3-5-2 system next year, especially if he wants to get the best out of his new signing Freeman.
Reducing the workload on Lolley and Ameobi
As already mentioned, Forest struggled a lot with chance creation last season. Tiago Silva was often the player that occupied the number 10 role behind Grabban in Forest’s 4-2-3-1. Although he offered a lot out of possession with his tireless work rate, Silva only contributed three goals and four assists. For a number 10, Silva’s key passes per 90 was below average, in comparison to the rest of the league. Silva’s average of 0.24 key passes per 90 was way down on the league average of 0.4.
This is because Forest were heavily reliant on their wingers to create chances. Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi both have a unique crossing and dribbling ability, similar to Freeman. When we look at Forest’s last five games, Forest became heavily reliant on their wingers to supply the likes of Grabban. Both players looked exhausted at the end of Forest’s remarkable collapse and this can be attributed to their importance in the system where they were given limited rest. The tired legs of Forest’s wing pairing meant they struggled even more to create chances.
The first graphic above depicts the positioning of crosses from Forest in the last five matches, with the second showing who played the crosses and how successful they were. It is notable here that the top four are the full-backs and wingers on either side of the pitch. Out of Forest’s 69 crosses played in this time, 55 of these were played by wide players showing their heavy reliance on using width to create chances. This led to predictability and Forest becoming easy to play against because of their one-dimensional and at times negative tactics.
It was not only crossing where Forest became overly reliant on width, but it was also their successful dribbles in the final third. Ameobi and Lolley were so far clear in terms of this metric in the last five games, which was yet another sign of Forest’s desperation in terms of chance creation. As already mentioned, Silva lacked penetration in the number 10 role, and this is shown by the fact he only had 6.5% of Forest’s successful dribbles in the final third. In fact, Lolley and Ameobi combined had more than half of Forest’s successful dribbles with 54.4% in the five games studied. This data is shown in the graphics below.
Given the nature of Forest’s end of season burnout, it is important that they find alternative solutions this season. The presence of Freeman and the likes of Nuno Da Costa, who has shown glimpses of quality in his Forest career, will provide Forest with greater options in wide positions next term. However, a big part of their stubborn attack, which lacked creativity was the persistence in playing two defensive midfielders. In order to involve the number 10 player, who was Silva last year and could even be Freeman this year, then they must get away from a system that limits their involvement. We have already made the case for a 3-5-2, yet a 4-1-2-1-2 system may even be as useful. This would take out the extra defensive midfielder, maintain the width and have an additional striker to drop back and support the player in the number 10 role. This is something that Lyle Taylor is renowned for and Lamouchi must make sure to involve him, to change Forest’s worrying trend of attacking data at the end of last season.
Freeman’s counterpressing capabilities
A big part of Lamouchi’s success in the early part of the season especially was the fact that he had successfully imprinted a clear identity on his Forest side. The Reds became an extremely effective counter-attacking side who sat back and soaked up pressure in most of their games. This is showed by the graphic below, which shows where on the pitch Forest recovered the ball most. Lamouchi doesn’t want his team to press high and would rather maintain a solid shape, with the wingers and number 10 dropping narrower and deeper in defence to form a 4-4-1-1 shape.
The addition of Freeman in Forest’s midfield will also add a pressing capability, which will help them push higher up the pitch and alter their style of play. You could argue that Lamouchi was successful in guiding Forest to their most successful season in nine years, however the nature of his defensive style is one that must end in results. A key part of Lamouchi’s tactical adaptation is making Forest a more progressive and aggressive team out of position and Freeman is just the sort of player that can turn defence into attack with his counterpressing capabilities. This is shown in the graph below, where we compare Freeman to the other midfield and attacking players in Forest’s team. Once again with the other graph, the player must have played at least 770 minutes to qualify for this graph. The graph plots defensive duels per 90 with the defensive duels won percentage. It is important to note that the definition of a defensive duel is when a player attempts to dispossess an opposition player to stop an attack progressing.
Freeman’s average of 7.55 defensive duels per 90 is way above the average 6.1, however for defensive duels won he is only just above the average line. In comparison to players in similar positions to him, Freeman sits well above the likes of Ameobi, Lolley and Albert Adomah in defensive duels per 90 who occupy wide positions for the Reds. Ameobi and Lolley’s defensive duels won % is higher, yet this can be attributed to the fact that they are not having as many duels per 90 as Freeman.
Examples of Freeman’s pressing and ability to win the ball back high and quickly can be seen in the frames below. The frames come from Sheffield United’s 2-1 win over Championship opposition Blackburn Rovers in round two of the EFL Cup.
In these frames, Freeman is not a player that would be content sitting in a low block and inviting pressure. As soon as the ball is received by Blackburn’s midfield player, Freeman is quick to pounce and press the player receiving intently. Freeman’s attacking intent can further be shown by the fact that when he gives it to Billy Sharp, he automatically looks for an overlap to maximise the team’s chances of scoring. These are all qualities that Forest dearly missed last season. Instead of setting pressing traps and looking to win the ball back in the opposition half, Lamouchi preferred a containment approach. Now that he has Freeman at his disposal, Forest must use him to provide a greater attacking spark. Many Forest fans have bemoaned the football for being too slow and turgid, but Freeman is a proactive player that can help Forest change their pressing patterns and alter their style of play.
The other notable aspect of the frames above is the exact positioning of Freeman when he wins it back. Instead of occupying a wide position, Freeman is in more of a central attacking midfield role and it is a position that he is more than comfortable playing. As Silva is currently injured, Freeman could also slot into this role at Forest. In fact, Freeman’s defensive duel figures were much better than Silva last year with 1.3 more duels per 90. In addition to this, Freeman has shown that he has capable of scoring a flurry of goals and assists as shown by his two seasons in the Championship with QPR.
Although he did not feature much for Sheffield United in the Premier League last season, Freeman is a proven Championship player that will give Forest a much-needed attacking spark. His impressive dribbling and crossing ability, alongside his off the ball workrate will be welcomed by the demanding Lamouchi. Freeman’s versatility will also help to give Forest greater unpredictability, especially when playing against teams that sit back against them. He is also someone that has the ability to fill the wide positions for Lolley and Ameobi without losing any quality. It is important that Lamouchi looks to quickly integrate Freeman and find a system that suits him but also the team.