EFL Championship 2019/20: Birmingham City vs Nottingham Forest – tactical analysis
Saturday’s round of EFL Championship fixtures saw fourth-placed Nottingham Forest travel to the St. Andrew’s Trillion Trophy Stadium looking to extend the gap from dropping out of the playoffs. In their way was Pep Clotet’s, 18th-placed Birmingham City, who were five games without a defeat in all competitions.
The resulting three points for Blues in the 2-1 victory saw the home side rise to 17th in the Championship table, whereas defeat for Sabri Lamouchi’s side saw Forest remain fourth with a four-point gap ahead of seventh.
Following the 0-0 draw with Coventry City in the FA Cup, Blues persisted with the formation that Clotet had deployed in five of the ten games before Forest’s visit. Opting for a 4-4-2, Birmingham’s Spanish gaffer has also shown a preference to a 4-2-3-1 and on occasion, a 4-4-1-1. In terms of personnel, three changes were made from the stalemate with the Sky Blues. Ivan Sujnic, Jefferson Montero and Kerim Mrabti were switched for Gary Gardner, Jeremie Bela and Scott Hogan.
In the away side’s dugout, Sabri Lamouchi also stuck with the same formation that he deployed in his side’s previous outing. The midlands outfit opted for a 4-2-3-1 as they had done in the 1-0 victory away to Brentford. In fact, Lamouchi had only deterred from the starting formation on one occasion in the previous ten games. Choosing a 4-4-2 in the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea. Only one change was made in the starting lineup, with Samba Sow making way for Ryan Yates.
Birmingham’s compact defensive line
To prevent Nottingham Forest from being able to play through Blues’ defensive line, the home side used a tactic of keeping the defensive line in the back four as compact as possible. To complement this lateral compactness, Clotet also used longitudinal compactness to remain tight at the back. This being seen in how the midfield four dropped tight to the defensive four when out of possession.
As can be seen in this annotation, when Forest attacked, the Birmingham City backline would become tightly compact laterally, while the midfield would drop just in front of the back four and also keep themselves compact. This was designed to force Lamouchi’s side wide and keep the side difficult to play through, which can be seen to have worked here.
Again, another example of Blues’ defensive compactness can be seen here, with Forest’s possession of the ball having been forced out wide due to the difficulty in playing through the lines. The difficulty in playing through the lines occurs due to closeness between defensive players who can easily intercept a through pass, aiding in the home side boasting an impressive 45 interceptions, compared to Forest’s 33. This lateral and longitudinal compactness led to the away side having 11 shots in total, only three of which were on target and five from outside of the 18-yard box.
A tactic which led to the away side finding the most success against Birmingham’s compact backline was the speed of their counterattack. When the ball was won back in their own half by the visitors, when the opportunity arose, they would quickly and intensely attack Blues’ half, this being intended to limit the time in which City could transition into their compact defensive structure.
As can be seen in this annotation, is the build-up to Nottingham Forest taking the lead. With a quick and lofted ball forward making its way to Joe Lolley, he then looks to move the ball on again as quickly as possible to the onrushing Tiago Silva. With just one defender behind the ball the away side execute their counterattack to perfection and Forest make the speed of their attack count by opening the scoring.
Here, an example of Nottingham Forest using the speed of their counterattack to good effect can be seen again. This time, the annotation is taken from the build-up to the away side winning a penalty which Lewis Grabban went on to miss. In this instance, with the opportunity having arisen to play a direct ball forward to Grabban in the wide area, Forest take it.
Then, following a through ball inside from Grabban, Blues’ defensive line do not have time to effectively react. As can be seen, four players try to create the compact backline, however, their efforts are proved futile. With a first-time cross played across goal to cap off the counterattack, Josh McEachran is adjudged to have handled the ball and a penalty is awarded – which is then saved by Lee Camp.
Birmingham’s direct style of play
While Birmingham City did, on occasion, play through the thirds they primarily looked to move the ball forward quickly and then attempt to maintain possession in Nottingham Forest’s half. This was done by playing direct passes from the defence, predominantly into the wide areas, to move the ball quickly into Forest’s half and cut out the middle third.
Here, this annotation shows an example of how Blues looked to play direct from defence. With three, easy passing options ahead of Harley Dean, as marked by the white arrows, the central defender instead opts to play a long diagonal ball into the half-space on the left-hand side of the pitch. Due to this tactic, Clotet’s side’s passing accuracy suffered, with 73% compared to Forest’s 78%.
Nottingham Forest’s man-marking
The key tactic, though, which proved vital in Blues picking up three points in the clash was through Forest’s use of man-marking. While there are pitfalls to both man and zonal marking, had the visitors used zonal marking they may have been able to prevent Blues’ match-winning goal. Although, the nuances of both styles of marking can have their pros and cons infinitely argued.
As can be seen in this still after the ball has been played in from the corner which Birmingham scored their winner from, Forest are clearly using a man-marking system. The method behind this being that each defensive player closely marks an attacking player and follows their every move, should the ball be delivered near an attacker, then the player marking them should clear the ball.
However, the pitfall of man-marking is that once the ball has been delivered into the box, unless it is direct and can be headed away, it is difficult to track both the movement of the ball and the man being marked. Should Forest have been zonally marking, then they could have stayed in their allotted area of the pitch and cleared from there instead of having to also track runners. After several ricochets, though, the ball falls for Kristian Pedersen, who has wriggled away from his man marker, to slot home.
While Forest would have been firm favourites when heading into the clash, Birmingham City made it difficult for the away side due to their compact defensive style and direct form of attack. Although Nottingham Forest did find an intelligent way to beat their compact opponents, with fast counterattacks, they were not used to enough effect.
Pep Clotet will have been delighted that his side was able to gain an advantage from Sabri Lamouchi’s use of man-marking and that they were able to retain defensive solidarity due to the implementation of his tactics.
This tactical analysis has dissected the clash between Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest, highlighting key tactics and using analysis to show how they had an impact on the game’s outcome.