Nottingham Forest: What Happened with Sabri Lamouchi, and What to Expect from Chris Hughton

Arran Bee

Death, taxes, and Nottingham Forest sacking their manager. It’s nice to know that in 2020 some things haven’t changed.

On the 6th of October Sabri Lamouchi’s contract with Nottingham Forest was terminated, and he was immediately replaced by Chris Hughton. Hughton has experience in the Championship, winning promotion with Newcastle and Brighton – but there’s so much to unpack after the end of Lamouchi’s reign.

No wins in his last 11 games in charge. Four wins in his last 20 in charge.

Hughton has to restore confidence to a squad that capitulated on the final day of last season – losing their playoff spot on goal difference, thanks to a 4-1 loss at home to Stoke. Forest could have confirmed their playoff place in the second to last game of the season, but they were unable to get a point against a Barnsley team that only avoided relegation because Wigan went into administration. The hangover from the disaster of the final day is obviously still pounding in the Forest players’ heads, especially with the short turnaround in-between last season and this – leaving no time for the dust to settle, or for Lamouchi to properly address what went wrong.

Forest are third from bottom in the Championship, and Hughton came into a similar situation when he took over at Brighton in 2014, when a team that finished sixth the year before were only one place above the relegation zone. In his first full season they finished third (only on goal difference) and the following season resulted in Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League.

Hughton’s biggest task is, obviously, getting Forest scoring again. In Lamouchi’s last 20 games, they scored 16 goals. This season Forest have only scored once. Since they beat Leeds 2-0 at home last season, only five teams in the Championship scored less goals for the remainder of that campaign. Only Wycombe have scored less than them in the Championship this season.

Lamouchi’s Forest were never a free scoring or possession dominant side, opting to play on the break, and only Leeds and Hull scored more counter attacking goals in the Championship last year. In the league, Forest only scored three goals in a match six times (conversely, they scored once in a match 23 times) and in just one of those games had more than 50% possession – a 3-1 win at home against Luton Town. Forest won only twice all season when having the ball more than their opponents.

According to WhoScored, Lamouchi’s most used formation was the 4-2-3-1 below:

A lot of Forest’s defensive success came from sitting deep and staying compact, usually in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1 (the latter especially this season).

In defensive transitional phases Ben Watson would usually look to break up play, allowing the rest of the side to get back, aggressively trying to win the ball. This would slow down the opposing team, and if the ball was won, would let Forest break before the other team is set. But this did sometimes leave space in-behind – for example, against Leeds. Instead of trying to get into a position to block the passing lane through to Pablo Hernandez, Watson tried to win the ball from Mateusz Klich. But when he didn’t get to the ball, Klich was able to pass to Hernandez, who ran into the space Bamford created and scored.

However, Forest’s defensive numbers didn’t quite tell the whole story last season. Having the fifth best defensive record in the Championship was mainly due to the brilliance of Brice Samba – no other team in the top seven allowed more shots on target.

Forest would usually change into a 3-2-5 formation when attacking, with Watson dropping deep to collect from Tobias Figueiredo or Joe Worrall. The other central midfielders (Samba Sow or Tiago Silva) would become the ‘2’ but one had licence to make runs into the box.

When transitioning from defence to attack, the key to Lamouchi’s system was the energy and pace of the two fullbacks (usually Matty Cash and Yuri Ribeiro) – they helped bring the ball, or the team, up the pitch. Their speed (and the speed of Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi) was important on the counter, and it also helped create overloads on the wings. This would let either the fullback or the winger come inside into the half spaces. Lolley and Ameobi could cut inside and shoot, but the overloads were mainly used to create one on one situations.

Lewis Grabban’s importance cannot be understated, and not just because he became the first Forest striker since 2002-03 to score 20 goals in a season. He constantly pounced upon, and profited from, defender’s mistakes, and ran the right (or inside right) channel to find space. This, combined with late runs from midfield on counter attacks and Grabban’s excellent hold-up play, created opportunities for Forest. Tiago Silva’s goal against Cardiff, for example, saw Watson win the ball and pass to Silva, who then played the ball over the top to Grabban who was running the inside right channel. Alfa Semedo’s run occupied two defenders, then Grabban crossed from the right to Silva (who made a late run into the space Semedo’s run had created) who scored.

These late arriving midfield runs have unfortunately been seen less this season. For instance, Jack Colback made several runs into space during Forest’s 1-0 loss against Huddersfield on the 25th of September – but simply wasn’t picked out. This, and an over reliance on Lewis Grabban, means goals have been hard to come by.

Grabban scored 35% of Forest’s goals in the Championship last season, and no other Forest player got into double figures in the league. Along with his 21% shot conversion rate, this meant he had to get the ball if Forest were to score – but Grabban has only scored four goals in his last 20 games. However, it’s not as if the team aren’t creating chances for the 32-year-old, as Luke Freeman’s cross against Cardiff would testify.

Is Lamouchi responsible for runners not being found or for his star striker not scoring? Possibly not, and Lyle Taylor has been brought in as cover for Grabban, and to provide a different option off the bench. But there’s obviously a lack of confidence, and a fear of getting things wrong, running throughout the whole side, and Lamouchi’s system clearly depended upon Grabban’s efficiency in front of goal.

It’ll be interesting to see what Hughton does with Grabban after having a similarly prolific striker in Glenn Murray when Brighton were promoted in 2017. WhoScored notes the below 4-4-2 as that same Brighton side’s most used formation.

Looking at Brighton in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 (playoff and promotion) seasons, the team usually morphed into a 2-3-5 when attacking – this let the fullbacks overlap the wingers and created crossing angles. It also provided width which would let Anthony Knockaert cut inside from the right, to either shoot or run at defenders.

Under Hughton, Brighton were a counter attacking team, much like Lamouchi’s Forest. In 2016-17, no one scored more counter attacking goals in the Championship than Brighton. Glenn Murray scored 23 times that year, which was 31% of Brighton’s goals. However, three other Brighton players got into double figures for goals in the league – Anthony Knockaert, Sam Baldock and Tomer Hemed – with Knockaert being named Championship player of the season, scoring 15 goals and creating seven others. A lot of their attacking play involved getting the ball to Knockaert on the counter (or in one-on-one situations) and giving him the license to create.

Brighton were also amongst the best defensive teams in the division that season. David Stockdale conceded 40 goals (no team conceded less) and only Newcastle allowed less shots on target (140, to Brighton’s 154). Normally, Brighton defended in their 4-4-2, staying relatively compact, with the two strikers lightly pressing the defenders or goalkeeper when they were on the ball.

When Brighton were in the Premier League under Hughton, they would line up slightly differently. They opted mainly for a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1 (according to WhoScored) which was more than likely to avoid being outnumbered in midfield and to help with defending.

There’s certainly a deep squad at Forest, and they have players with Championship experience – but does their current squad fit Hughton’s system?

If he is to opt for a 4-4-2, Taylor would obviously start with Grabban. Joe Lolley, or maybe even to a certain extent Sammy Ameobi, can fill the Knockaert role – even if Knockaert himself has been linked with a loan move to the club. Shane Duffy was similar to Ben Watson when trying to win the ball, or disrupt play, whenever the opposition initially passed into midfield. Maybe a defensive change could replace Watson’s aggressive tackling in transition after his move away from Forest, despite Jack Colback’s return to the club. But if he decides to play with only one striker, the side could remain relatively unchanged.

It may take time for Hughton to settle upon the best set of defenders and midfielders for his system, as Forest have more than enough of both in the squad. He has shown he can get teams promoted, but he will need time. Exactly the kind of time he had at Brighton.

But time isn’t something Evangelos Marinakis has shown he’s been willing to give.

No one knows what will happen. Maybe Hughton will be gone by Christmas. Keep your phone on loud Gary Brazil.