words: David Marples
"THERE'S ONLY ONE DYLAN BARKER"
By the time 15.47 on Saturday afternoon came rolling around, Forest fans had witnessed two disappointing halves of football. Hot on the heels of the second half non-event at Derby County followed this first half performance at home against Burton Albion.
Nigel Clough’s team did what was expected of them and they did it well with - more often than not - five at the back and midfielders kept on a very short leash in terms of attacking intent. That’s not meant to sound all whiney or passive aggressive since a policy of preventing goals is not a bad rock upon which to build a foundation and what’s more, it is a policy that has served them well away from home. With three consecutive clean sheets following a five goal shellacking at Elland Road and a couple of four goal hammerings dished out by Wolves and Aston Villa, it is only sensible to set a team up with the primary intent of not conceding a goal. Frankly, to expect Nigel Clough to do any differently would have been downright folly given the recent memo circulated around the Championship informing that to beat Forest, just let them have the ball and wait for them to pick it up and throw it into their own net.
The first half played out precisely as anticipated: Forest having the lion’s share of possession yet doing anything but ‘enjoy’ it since Stephen Bywater in the Albion goal could quite plausibly have rolled out a sleeping bag or done some knitting without disruption. And when Forest did lose possession, the handbrake on the bus was swiftly released as the Brewers looked dangerous on the break. Textbook stuff as Mark Warburton admitted: “When there was no momentum, it just felt flat. We were laboured and we were not shifting the ball. So we had to change it.”
In the second half, the ball was shifted around less like a Sisyphean boulder and more like a pinball as more adventurous passes were attempted. “Move the ball quickly,” Warburton explained. “Play one and two touch football. Play the ball forward, split units and be positive in your decision making and you will get your rewards.”
Indeed they did. Although the bloody doors weren’t blown off the Burton defence, they were prised open after much polite knocking. Jason Cummings took one for the team in taking a clattering from Bywater, allowing Barrie McKay to convert the rebound. Ay first glance, it looked like a straightforward finish but in retrospect, it was a very well taken goal as McKay threaded a ball-shaped needle through a sea of yellow.
With a goal ahead, Kieron Dowell was introduced to the fray in order to exploit the space opening up. He was involved in a wonderful team goal that Eric Lichaj crowned with his left foot. Some may see his lap of honour in celebrating the goal a little excessive yet when you calmly convert such an incisive move with your weaker foot having had to fight hard for your place in the team, you are fully entitled to such scenes.
This was Forest’s first clean sheet since early September and only their second at home this season. What’s more, this came after disruption to the defence with Armand Traore limping off midway through the first half, which meant Danny Fox shuffling over to left back and Joe Worrall partnering Michael Mancienne in the heart of the defence, who despite the concessions, looks to have been growing more and more assured with each performance. Despite incredibly pleasing, a shut out against Burton is an unreliable barometer for whether the defensive foibles have finally been solved yet all involved in this defensive performance can take huge credit and confidence from it.
The starting eleven ruffled a few feathers. Dowell was left out, as were Zach Clough, Mustapha Carayol and Ben Brereton. Dowell looked a little jaded against Derby and perhaps Warburton foresaw him being crowded out by sheer numbers of Burton bodies for this game, hence him being offered some time in the big comfy chairs on the touchline. With a goal ahead and Burton coming out to play, he once again looked the classy player that he undoubtedly is.
All of which leaves Forest slap bang in mid table: five points off sixth place, eight points off relegation and above Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday. The forthcoming away trips to Hull City and Reading look ever so slightly less daunting from the perspective of a home win against obdurate opponents and a clean sheet. There is no pressure to be piling on points to chase the team in sixth place (Bristol City, if you were wondering) and there is no need to crick our collective necks to look over them or to check the wing mirrors in order to see what lurks behind – as it stands, there is no rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex clomping along in that rear view mirror.
Based on the season so far, we will win some – probably the games against opponents lower in the table than us – and we will lose some – most likely against teams higher in the table than us. On occasions, we will be considered unfortunate not to get more from the game (step forward games against Derby and Barnsley) and at other times, we will be slightly fortunate to walk away with the points (big hello to Millwall). We will probably (hopefully) concede fewer goals as the season progresses and likewise, coax more from Jason Cummings and Ben Brereton as Daryl Murphy’s body starts to wave a little white flag.
Mid table obscurity has never felt so nice. You said before the season that it would be nice. You said that you wanted to see a Forest team play some decent football, maybe even look to establish an identity both as a football team and as a club. You said you would be pleased as long as there was evidence of progress. You said that you'd settle for mid table. This is it - this is what it looks like. Let's enjoy it.
words: David Marples
*takes deep breath and raises hand tentatively*
I have some concerns…
words: David Marples
In the build-up to the game, manager Mark Warburton spoke about games being decided by “fine margins”. He has a point and the pendulum swings both ways.
Against Millwall and Brentford, such fine margins swung Forest’s way as they secured wins in two desperately close games. On the other clock hand, Forest were edged out of similarly evenly contested games against Barnsley, Fulham and to a lesser extent, Aston Villa. This too was such a game and although the travelling United fans will be frustrated at not rounding off a wonderful six days with a third win, they will take pleasure in their team’s performance and league position as they enter the international break. Forest fans can take heart from the slow yet visible evolution of Warburton’s methods.
Forest remained largely unchanged from the previous game against Fulham yet Matt Mills' suspension meant a place in the starting line up for Danny Fox and a continuation of three at the back and two up front with Jason Cummings partnering Daryl Murphy. In the game on Tuesday, such a strategy meant the ball was shifted quicker from back to front since with Cummings darting between and beyond defenders, more options were created for those behind him. Such a pattern continued against Sheffield United as Forest looked threatening in their regular forays forward. In terms of defending patterns though…
The usual shenanigans occurred regarding United’s opening goal on three minutes. An extended bout of a training exercise in keeping the ball in tight areas, losing the ball in tight areas and then winning the ball again in tight areas broke out deep inside the Forest right back area. Both sides looked confident in playing such a game yet in these circumstances, it’s probably preferable to avoid indulging in such an exercise only two minutes into a game against a very decent side deep in the bowels of your own half. United ended up in possession (marginally) – despite it seeming to change hands seventeen times and promptly stuck the ball into the net.
Of all the things that could happen at all of the moments, this would have been the least preferable from a Forest perspective. After all, as Sky Sports presenter Bianca Westwood pointed out, the home side had lost six of their last seven games in all competitions while United had won their last six from seven in the league. The most obvious and predictable event to occur just did in perhaps the most obvious and predictable manner.
Yet what followed was heart-warming stuff. While there was a hint of fortune in Forest’s equaliser after Ben Osborn’s very weird corner was merely tickled out of the box straight to Cummings’ feet, who dispatched it with compound interest, Warburton’s men remained mentally resolute and brave. They stuck to the plan and kept doing what they were getting increasingly better at: passing the ball to each other with a view to shifting the opposition around. Kieran Dowell fired Forest into the lead before half time and although at that stage it would have seemed ludicrous to suggest there would be no further goals from either side after the oranges and Bovril, that is exactly what happened.
It wasn’t plain sailing though. United pressed high and on occasions romped through the middle of the park with John Fleck proving adept at pulling the strings and Mark Duffy a boy in the thorn of the side of the Forest defence. A change was required and Warburton made it at half time by removing Danny Fox for Andreas Bouchalakis in an effort to stem the haemorrhages leaking through the midfield. It worked. Just about.
Although pinned back in their own half for spells after the restart, Forest played a savvy game and drove forward down the wings with pace as soon as a United attack floundered on the rocks. Increasingly, better decisions were being made on and off the ball. On some occasions, Forest broke so fast that Dowell or Osborn found themselves gallivanting forwards with little support and surrounded by three burly Blades. Rather than run to the corner in the hope of winning a free kick or throw in (or indeed, a corner), they turned around and passed backwards. This irked some folks since BACKWARDS! (capitalised in an effort to capture the vehemence with such a word was shouted) is not a direction they felt the ball should ever be passed. Yet on both occasions, possession was maintained and Forest were able to change the angle of attack. A BACKWARDS! pass isn’t necessarily in and of itself a bad thing – maintaining possession is more important. Not all of the time – obviously – but certainly some or indeed most of the time.
This win meant an awful lot: not because it was against a club less than 40 miles away with whom a simmering – if not fully boiled – rivalry has evolved but more because of the timing. In the previous home game against Fulham, there was a sense that things were starting to come together; that the style of play being developed could be effective for more than small pockets of time. In securing three very hard-earned points against Chris Wilder’s team through a combination of the usual pulchritudinous football and good old-fashioned determination, Forest showed they could not only win a game but win it on their terms. There was a very real sense here that the players fully believe in the methods being taught. Besides, two weeks without a game is an awful long time for a football fan to simmer and stew in frustration.
A win against a team in the top two and coming to the City Ground on the back of two outstanding results against local rivals and fellow promotion challengers doesn’t mean that everything is fixed, fine and dandy with the state of Mark Warburton’s Nottingham Forest. Yet what it and the performance does strongly suggest is that a foundation firmer than sand exists on which to build and move forward. There will be lapses and the flush will no doubt bust again on a few occasions but there’s more than a dirty old teaspoon lurking in the depths of this murky old dishwater.
words: David Marples
Like the thought of sticking your warm cosy limb out from under the duvet at some ungodly hour of a winter’s Monday morning, let’s deal with the grim stuff first.
We shipped another three goals. Despite us having five against three at the back, Ryan Sessignon put Aboubakar Kamara clean through on goal. We’ve seen this before – not just this season but for a while now. Some goals are created, fashioned or even crafted by the opposition and can’t be prevented; this one could have been with closer attention to the movement of Kamara who ambled casually into a wide-open space and while a gaggle (which collective nouns might be most appropriate for a collection of Forest defenders? A quiver (of cobras)? A pandemonium (of parrots?) An unkindness (of ravens?) of Forest defenders stood and appealed for a flag that never came, he slotted home.
If you haven’t seen it, it is exactly one of those types of goals that we concede this season. Whatever you imagine it to look like, it was that. Like when you hear that Arjen Robben has scored and you imagine him cutting in from the left before shaping to shoot, delaying, shaping to shoot, delaying and then actually shooting with his left foot while numerous defenders lay prone on the floor having sold themselves for a tuppence, and then you see it and it’s exactly how you imagined it - like that.
So, quite clearly, problems remain with the defence or at least, the defensive aspect of the current set-up.
In addition, that’s another game of football lost. That’s six defeats in the last seven games now with only the away win against a wretched Sunderland to ease the pain, all the while conceding an average of 2.4 goals per game. Moreover, if Daryl Murphy doesn’t trouble the score sheet, chances are that it will remain blank. Whichever way you dress it up, it’s not a good run of form.
Just for good measure, Sheffield United – on a bit of a high after pummeling their city neighbours at the weekend and the dazzling David Brooks in tow – pay us a visit on Saturday followed by a trip down the A52.
Hmmmmm. [accompanied by furrowed brows, long stares into the middle distance and much nervous scratching of heads with a double dose of temple rubbing]
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Let’s go all John Keating in Dead Poets Society and stand on the table in order to get a slightly different perspective on the state of things. What’s the worst that could happen? Ok, we could slip and put our backs out while a Health and Safety officer wags an officious finger at us for not carrying out a thorough risk assessment but let’s live life vicariously in the fast lane, burn a guitar, trash an amp and do it anyway.
In some ways, the performance against Fulham offered more grounds for optimism than the defeat at Aston Villa. Going into this game, a paucity of chances was a real concern – especially when you are shipping at least two goals per game. But here – with a 3-5-2 formation – the ball was moved quicker from back to front and Murphy looked less isolated with Jason Cummings in close proximity to him, meaning the Fulham defence had to be wary of runs in behind while also paying close attention to Murphy. This created a little more space for Kieran Dowell and Ben Osborn to get on the ball. Osborn seemed to be deployed further up the pitch leaving just Liam Bridcutt to do the dirty job of receiving the ball from the back – and it worked better. The pace was quicker and there were more targets, movement and options to play a ball forward rather being funneled wide each and every time.
A very presentable chance for Forest arose from Dowell pressing higher up the pitch and exerting pressure not just in the midfield area but also on the Fulham back line, forcing an error from which Murphy got a shot away. The rebound came far too quick at Osborn for him to do anything useful with it. Nonetheless, Forest were seizing the initiative and creating chances rather than waiting for a miniscule gap to appear.
Another chance for Murphy came when he lobbed Tim Ream and set himself up only to blast over the bar but this arose from Fulham playing it out from the back precisely the way Forest are striving to do.
Does this mean that playing out from the back with a deep split of two defenders should be abolished as it only leads to concessions of goals? Is this evidence of a doomed footballing philosophy? Well, Fulham collected bucket loads of plaudits for the quality of their football last season and comfortably made the play offs. Indeed, with five minutes remaining and the Cottagers coming under increasing pressure to hold on to a 2-1 lead, they still played it out from the back in precisely the same manner that they had done the whole game. What’s more, they went and scored another goal to make the game safe. That’s not to say that playing in such a way in itself is a match winner or something akin to the secret recipe of Coca-Cola, but it does go some way to destroying the myth that you can’t achieve success through the implementation of such a strategy.
Murphy’s equaliser arose directly from a sharp pass from Jordan Smith into Cummings who fed Armand Traore, whose cross Murphy nodded in. Smith may or may not have intended the pass to Cummings – he was under pressure to clear – but this is evidence of a quicker pace and urgency to move the ball forward throughout the game. Forest looked threatening throughout and not just for isolated periods when they had to be since they were chasing the game.
This continued into the second half; indeed, if anything the tempo was raised higher. There looked only one team likely to score and the atmosphere was supportive inside the City Ground.
Ryan Fredericks dribbled out from the back, evading Osborn and Bridcutt before being felled by Matt Mills on the edge of the box. Up stepped Stefan Johansen to stick the ball in the corner – top bins and all that. Sure, maybe Fredericks should have been toppled earlier on but it was a sweetly struck free kick.
It wasn’t over though and Murphy poked marginally wide. Chances were – compared to previous games – being created in spades.
So what’s to be done about it?
Fulham are exactly the type of team we want to be in the medium term. Their shape last night was very similar to ours and like us, they insisted on playing it out whenever possible. The thing is, they’ve been doing it a bit longer than our players have. Not all of them – granted – but the philosophy is established and engrained and while not perfect and a little clunky at times, it serves them well. They have a reputation for being a very good footballing side and having made the play offs last season, few would bet against them doing so again, despite their sluggish start this time around.
That would be quite something really, wouldn’t it? Making the play offs while playing very good football on the ground.
We’ve been shouting, blogging, calling in to radio shows, wittering on about it down the pub and pleading with whatever god, deity or force that may or may not happen to be out there for a footballing identity for five years now and suddenly, in front of our eyes, one is being shaped. It’s far from the finished product and it might well not be the footballing identity you had in mind. But it’s not hoofball and we’re not managed by Gary Megson or Joe Kinnear. That’s a start, isn’t it?
Admittedly, football is a results business and as pointed out above, results have been rubbish recently.
So - once again - what to do about it? Give Mark Warburton the heave-ho? Replace him with Jack Lester? That boat looks to have sailed. Besides…..really?
Do you REALLY want to rip it all up and start again for the gazzillionth time? Do you REALLY want to willingly create another Sean O’Driscoll vortex whereby folks point to a specific moment in time and lament the fact that the guy wasn’t given chance to implement his ideas? No. Didn’t think so.
Of course, there is a school of thought that says you should cut your losses and get rid as soon as possible if something is patently not working. This is an approach utilised by Crystal Palace in the binning of Frank de Boer but they’re not the first to do so. It may well work and Palace may stay up but long term, they will be stuck in a cycle of churn while languishing towards the bottom of the Premier league – at best.
Perhaps it comes down to whether or not you believe Mark Warburton to be the man to take the club forward. The thing is though – you don’t know whether he is or isn’t. You may claim that he isn’t that man and that we are only going backwards under his stewardship but you really don’t know. None of us do. Moreover, is it a case of things utterly and unreservedly NOT working? Surely the performance against Fulham, the second half against Villa and some other decent patches indicate that while we are far from a smooth, sleek and efficient machine, some things are working.
Besides….work through what is the most likely outcome to the removal of Warburton as manager. Now this is important that you really do think this through to the nitty gritty of the details. And before you even think about it, spare us (for now) the usual Roy Keane, Martin O’Neill, Nigel Clough noises – not because they don’t have qualities as managers but because quite simply, I am nowhere near ready to clamber aboard that particular ‘new manager name in the ring’ game again.
Look. It’s a bit demoralising on the field at the moment and given the start we had, we all feel a little deflated since no matter how much our brains warned us, we couldn’t get the ‘but Huddersfield Town finished in eighteenth place but then got promoted the very next season’ shaped thought out of our heads. In fact, we may well be staring at a season very similar to last – nobody is promising that it won’t be like that. It might be. Maybe this current run is just a pre-cursor of worse to come.
Yet put simply, there seemed to be enough about the performance against Fulham to suggest that something is coming together. We have seen development in the formation and patterns of play to address weaknesses and up until Johansen’s 72nd minute free kick, most in the ground would have been satisfied with the performance, feeling that we were unlucky not to be leading. Of course the result was rubbish and of course we lost – again. And of course, we feel bloody frustrated and want – with every fibre and sinew of our mortal being – for it to be better than it is.
Yet if you are indeed of the opinion (and you are more than welcome to such an opinion - nobody’s saying you aren’t) that we need to burn everything down (again) and start once more with a new manager, playing staff and so on and such forth, please think through what you think will be different about such an outcome this time around.
Be a little more patient and above all, most of all – and this is very important – try to enjoy your football. It’s difficult when your team is in the midst of such a run as this but football – not just the results – are there to be enjoyed: the floodlights, the anticipation, those moments…heck, even the game in and of itself.
*climbs down from soapbox feeling a little embarrassed and not quite knowing where that rant came from*
words: David Marples
Those halcyon days of Hildeberto Pereria dancing through the Villa defence and receieving a booking for being happy at a late Forest equaliser at Villa Park, Philippe Montanier’s raincoat straight from a scene of The French Connection and buffets boasting a lovely spread of assorted cheeses suddenly seemed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The cause of such a marker? Ben Osborn missing from a starting eleven for the first time in just over a year.
The game started as it usually does these days: nice and tidily. Despite Daryl Murphy looking his usual isolated self with some kind of mystical force field around him into which team mates seem to bounce off on contact, Forest produced some typically lovely passing and patient build up play that eventually released Tendayi Darikwa. His ball in from the right was a shade behind Ben Brereton yet it was such patient play that allowed the full backs to get forward into advanced positions. So far, this was textbook Forest – a kid as cute as a button playing harmlessly with a football in the back garden. Indeed, between the ninth and fourteenth minute, the away side enjoyed 74% possession.
But possession is like charisma: only worth having if you do something with it. The moment Villa got their grubby mitts on a bit of it, they pointed it straight at the Forest defence and squeezed the trigger. Albert Adomah’s well-timed run going beyond the back line created space and a huge dollop of panic. A slice of simple movement created more gaps than a slice of Leerdhammer cheese and while Darikwa and Liam Bridcutt performed an excellent impersonation of The Full Monty cast doing an impersonation of the Arsenal back four, Adomah combed his hair, plucked his eyebrows and brushed his teeth before slotting in. Midway through the first half and Mark Warburton’s men had little to show for their efforts: not a shot on goal, not a goal attempt and not even a tin of Spam. Such a goal had consequences: Forest looked more shaken than a Polaroid picture in the possession of Outkast.
There were problems all over the pitch. At one stage, a defensive diving header from Matt Mills in his own box was the cue for Darikwa to hurtle up the right wing, ending up ten yards in front of Ben Brereton wide on the right. Perhaps this could be the springboard for a speedy counter attack…? Yet typically, the move was on the rocks before it was released from the bottle as Brereton passed the ball back to the right back area for Joe Worrall to clear. Well, that was the intention anyway. While Darikwa had reached the halfway line, Worrall was being forced back into the corner flag, leaving the defence - once again - more exposed than a tin of tuna left out on a kitchen surface with a hungry kitten in the house. Once again, this is not about apportioning individual blame – football always was, is and will always be, a team game. Yet clearly there is still some fine-tuning required. Maybe even a big spanner to thwack the malfunctioning thing.
It helped matters little that the front players seemed static - almost as if trapped in positions like Han Solo in carbonite. The secret to playing against Forest was out: let them have the ball in front of you and pounce when a mistake is made – their full backs will be in advanced positions, leaving the gooey centre of the defence exposed. Come half time, there were few positives upon which to dwell. There was one though: this team has a habit of staying in the game; even when being smacked about like a little plaything.
And so it proved as the second half commenced and the Mister Hyde incarnation to the first half’s Doctor Jekyll emerged. Just like at Sunderland, Daryl Murphy showed he only needs one chance.
Still in the game.
For a little bit anyway. The hour mark meant the usual substitutions – Mustapha Carayol replaced Barrie McKay – and perhaps rather predictably, a second Villa goal. Predictable? Despite being able to stay in the game, this team also has a rather frustrating habit of shooting itself in the foot. Conor Hourihane’s free kick found the corner of the net.
One step forward, two steps back.
Still Forest looked short of bodies going forward though and on one occasion, Murphy found himself up against seven Villa defenders in the box. He did well to win the header and was unlucky to see it sail just over the bar. Moments later Ben Osborn, having replaced Andreas Bouchalakis, burst forward into the area after a foray from Armand Traore. His cross was only just steered away from Murphy’s head yet immediately, there was more of a threat and intent to exert some pressure on the increasingly wobbly Villa back line.
In spite of their goal advantage, Steve Bruce’s side looked as nervy as they did this time last year when they succumbed to a late Henri Lansbury goal. Kieran Dowell troubled Sam Johnstone with a dangerous free kick from range. A wave of anxiety swept around Villa Park. Alan Hutton replaced Robert Snodgrass with three minutes to go in a substitution that had Colin Calderwood’s name writ large on it in highlighter and underlined (Calderwood is Steve Bruce’s assistant these days, in case you were wondering.)
It seems so very odd that despite such a change in personnel, management and ownership since the corresponding fixture a year ago, this Forest team somehow retains the characteristics of its predecessor: shakier than a Shakin’ Stevens Christmas hit (ask your parents, young ‘uns) at the back yet capable of scoring goals when they can shake off what seems to be a periodical bout of teenage sulkiness.
Just because something is malfunctioning, doesn’t mean it’s utterly broken.
words: David Marples
Back in January 2007 Forest found themselves two goals down after 19 minutes in an FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. Back then, with Forest in League 1, they were up against Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Andriy Shevchenko. With Grant Holt at left wing back and poor old John Curtis kicking around somewhere in the defence, Forest were no match for Jose Mourinho’s team. If it were a boxing match, it would have been stopped after the third round.
A little over ten years later and once again, Forest found themselves two down after 19 minutes. Some things never change. You can count on football to occasionally amaze you but most of the time, what you pretty much expect to happen, happens.
Mark Warburton’s men were soft and gooey butter to Chelsea’s swift and sharp knife. Lightning fast movement from back to front undid Forest and before the away team had got their bearings, Kenedy and Michy Batshuayi had given Chelsea an unassailable lead and dampened the noise of the sizeable away support. Forest tried to play their usual neat passing game but seemed nervous and hesitant. Besides, Chelsea were good. Very good. Too good.
One hoped, especially from an away perspective, that the home team might ease off the pedal a little and take it easy after effectively ending the tie as a contest midway through the first half. But no – they ploughed on through at high speed, sending Forest shaped barriers hurtling through the air. In any case, with Antonio Conte prowling the sidelines like a wounded animal, no Chelsea player desiring to see another sunrise would allow their performance to drop even the slightest fraction.
Unlike 2007, there was no Lampard, Essien or Drogba. In mitigation though, there was Cesc Fabragas, Eden Hazard and a whole bunch of very talented young players who may well be spoken about in such reverent tones in the near future.
As for Forest’s line up, there was a degree of frustrated that perhaps this didn’t have the feel of a first eleven. Tyler Walker and Jason Cummings came in up front with Jack Hobbs, Danny Fox, Eric Lichaj and Michael Mancienne being drafted in for defensive duties. This is hardly a starting line up that has fans checking their programmes in an effort to learn the identity of the newcomers; these aren’t untried rookies getting their first taste of action in the first team. Only Lichaj hasn’t seen much action this season but then again, this is an American international who played in the Gold Cup during the summer. Would a notional first eleven have done much better? Perhaps not. Regardless of the opposition, this was an impressive Chelsea performance – lightning quick, fluid in movement and with crisp passing to boot. It was all a bit like when Sky launched in 1992 and claimed to bring us a whole new ball game – Chelsea indeed seemed to be playing a different game at times. The gulf is wide and getting wider with each season.
Fabregas is no pretty yet useless ornament and displayed his whole range of passing vision, from which it is to be hoped the young Forest players can learn. He was more than happy to play long balls from deep when the time was right and the option was on. He didn’t pass for the sake of passing but passed - long, short, medium – with purpose and penetration. Such a skill comes from years of experience in the hub of an all-conquering Barcelona team and also a very good Arsenal side well before they metamorphasised into a big splodge of a Jackson Pollock painting.
As the goals rained in, Forest retreated from a back three to a back five on occasions with Lichaj tucking in on the right and Andreas Bouchalakis dropping even deeper – just as well really when Hazard has the ball and is running at you. It didn’t really matter – Hazard and Fabregas were allowed a two-on-two against Fox and Osborn in the wide right area and inevitably, the ball ended up at the feet of Charly Musonda with a clear sight on goal. Three goals down before half time oranges.
That’s not to say that Forest were blameless in their demise. More could and should have been done to prevent the goals flowing in from every angle - both from an individual and team perspective.
Batshuayi notched a fourth after sterling, bamboozling and unselfish work from Hazard and with five minutes remaining, he bagged the matchball by happening to stand still in the right place. When you are on the end of a right old pasting, such goals tend to happen. Tendayi Darikwa got his first notch on the goal post with the final kick of the game to give the scoreline an ever so slightly more respectable sheen.
Forest are not utterly useless – as some would claim - and it would be futile and foolish to draw too many conclusions from such a performance and result against this Chelsea team in isolation. Having said that, five goals in the ‘goals against’ column – regardless of who they are conceded against – does hint at some work to be done on shape, formation, desire and quite simply the ability to keep the bloody football out of the bloody net.
After getting away lightly with a 3-0 defeat back in 2007, Forest manager Colin Calderwood observed that, “It was a dream and we played in a dream – we were ineffective. We didn’t show any of our ability in the first half.”
In 2017, Mark Warburton bemoaned once again the concession of soft goals: "There's no lack of work ethic or character, but we can't be easy to score against. It's about goals. Goals change games."
Maybe we are temporarily trapped in a 2007 shaped vortex.
words: David Marples
“The first half I thought was a good game of football,” said Mark Warburton in his post match interview. Indeed it was. The two teams laid out a neat and tidy buffet of precisely cut triangle sandwiches and carefully arranged crackers while diligently tidying up crumbs or spillages with the minimum of fuss.
Neither team were interested in going long; only with moving the ball around in order to create space in wide areas and thus attack it with heft and fury. It was a half of football that belied its status as a Championship fixture given its wealth of patient build up play and intelligent movement. The long diagonals for a Premier League striker such as Peter Crouch or Christian Benteke were notable for their absence. It was clear that the 25,000 or so at the City Ground were witnessing two good teams.
Yet as is often the case in such games between two evenly balanced sides, Wolves had just that little bit more nous and penetration to secure three points – perhaps just a Rizla paper’s width more quality in the shape of Diego Jota and Ivan Cavaleiro – the latter, although occasionally frustrating, offering a glimpse at what Middlesbrough’s Adama Traore might be were he to exhibit a smidgeon more composure at the crucial moment.
A lot is said and written about best times to score a goal and in the context of this game, the away side opened the scoring at a very good time from their perspective: a minute or so into the second half. Cavaleiro put the ball on a dime for Jota to swing the pendulum in Wolves’ favour. Jota was a right old pain the posterior for the home defence all afternoon and it is worth remembering that Athletico Madrid felt it worth forking out £6.5m for him after only 41 appearances for the impressive Pacos Ferreira in Portugal. This is a Wolves side boasting some serious talent that didn’t come cheap.
Jota’s opener meant Forest had to chance their arm a little more having made a concerted effort to tighten up at the back, starting with a back four rather than a three. Sadly, there lacked a sense of urgency and pace in Forest’s passing – it was a little ponderous and labored on occasions and any misplaced balls were pounced upon by the away side and swiftly manufactured into a dangerous counter attack. Consequently, the home side created precious few clear-cut chances and on the few occasions that space was found in wide areas, the cross was either misplaced or easily mopped up by the away defence. The fact that Mustapha Carayol’s speculative shot ended up rippling the net was perhaps as much a surprise to him as it was the home fans.
Having leveled the score, this young home team chased for a win yet with the passing radar a little faulty and slow for the duration of the second half, Wolves punished the home side for one too many errant passes with an assured finish from Jota despite Matt Mills and Armand Traore employing something akin to all-out and no holds barred martial arts in an effort to prevent the winning goal.
Forest can take some comfort from going toe-to-toe with a very good Wolves team for 45 minutes. Liam Bridcutt is improving with each game he plays, almost making home fans forget that they are currently without the injured David Vaughan, which is testament to Bridcutt’s recent performances. Although another two goals were conceded, the defensive formation and selection looked more comfortable with each other and maintained a solid shape throughout.
On the other hand, very few presentable goal-scoring opportunities have been created in the last two games against Sunderland away and here at the City Ground against Wolves. The two goals scored are largely down to errors on the opposition’s part. In the final moments, Warburton threw on Jason Cummings to partner Daryl Murphy up front and one again wonders about how to get the best out of a mouth-watering amount of talent going forward, especially when one recalls that Ben Brereton is currently being stationed wide on the right. That’s not to say that a forward line comprising all three should be employed, and certainly not to say that Murphy should be replaced since once again, he impressed immensely, just that with the current set-up, a central defender faced with Murphy need not concern himself with balls in behind him – as long as he or his full back stops the cross from wide, he will face few surprises. The pattern of play for attacks is akin to a baby being rocked gently from side to side. The ‘goals for’ column is respectable yet at home, Forest have found teams difficult to break down.
The porous nature of the defence is well documented yet it is questionable whether a change in personnel would shore things up. Some clamour for the inclusion of Jack Hobbs and/or Danny Fox yet this has been employed and done little to prevent the ‘goals against’ column being troubled. Perhaps a bit of patience is required in this area, especially regarding Joe Worrall and it is worth noting the development of Jamaal Lascelles since his move to Newcastle United. Written off by many, he has grown into a leader of a Premier League club and what’s more, a fine central defender. Worrall, at 20, is younger than Lascelles was in his final season at Forest. In other words, look what Worrall might be in a few years. In the meantime, be patient and allow him to, as Brian Clough might have said, ‘learn his trade’.
Nonetheless, in terms of performances, there wasn’t a lot wrong with this one and patterns of play are clearly evident, in stark comparison to the kamikaze and random nature of performances a year ago, which eventually led the club into a dark and foreboding hole.
While the visitors might not have necessarily deserved to win this game, the hosts didn’t do enough to win this game.
After gift-wrapping and serving with a pretty bow and a red ribbon two goal-shaped early Christmas presents to Sheffield Wednesday in their previous game, there was a steely determination evident in this Forest performance to hide any presents at the back of the wardrobe. In fact, there were no presents even bought. Nothing. Forgot to go shopping. A card from a multipack was all that Forest were giving away this time. Purely perfunctory, at best.
It wasn’t quite comfortable watching Jonny Williams and Callum McMananam dance around like Staying Alive-era John Travolta while in possession only to evolve into something more approximating John Prescott when they got a sight of goal, yet it was never a case of full on panic stations at def con one. Williams’ fizzer from the edge of the area caused a few audible exhales of breath to be released as it whisked narrowly past the post and an aerial bombardment in added time at the end of the game had those in the away end repeatedly urging the referee to end it yet apart from that, while no cigars were in close residence, Sunderland were kept largely at arm’s length.
The deployment of a good old-fashioned back four no doubt contributed to this improved defensive performance with two full backs whose main function was to defend. No gallivanting up in support of the wide men unless the ball was deep into the opposition’s half. Even then, stop, check, think, think again and only then, tentatively put a fairy step forward beyond the halfway line. For those who feared manager Mark Warburton perhaps lacked a plan B, this performance was his riposte. Of course, this cannot be solely attributed to the switch to a back four – the personnel changed too with Matt Mills and Armand Traore coming in at the expense of Danny Fox and Jack Hobbs. But beyond formation and personnel, what really matters when defending is to generally get in the way of the opposition and make a right old nuisance of yourself so that any shots are blocked and balls in the air are properly challenged. This Forest did - and did well.
In truth, it wasn’t a great game of football. Given the slippery conditions, all too often the ball ran away too easily from any attempts to control or dribble the ball, at which point, a howitzer of a sliding challenge was launched from around forty yards away. At one stage in the second half, possession changed hands five times in the space of thirty seconds as players from both sides won the ball impressively yet found it more taxing to keep hold of it. It was that type of game.
While Forest struggled to carve out many chances and indeed, shots on target, they enjoyed 56% possession which although counts for nothing in the whole scheme of things, suggests that this wasn’t a fly-by-the-night-hit-and-run-park-the-bus type of away performance. A point and a clean sheet would have done just nicely before kick off and if patience in possession provided something shiny on top of that, then it would be smuggled home and treasured.
Perhaps typical of the game, it was a mistake from Sunderland defender Tyias Browning (on loan from Everton) that precipitated Daryl Murphy’s late winner. It was Browning who knocked a seemingly simple ball out to the right back area fully expecting the right back to be there. He wasn’t. Barrie McKay pounced, fed the ball inside to Murphy who took a touch before finding the bottom corner. It wasn’t an easy chance but he made it look relatively straightforward.
While the win – a first for the club at the Stadium of Light – abruptly halted a run of two consecutive defeats, the game says as much about Sunderland and the Championship as it does Nottingham Forest. The hosts haven’t tasted victory at home since December 2016 and entered this game low on confidence. Consequently, home support has dwindled significantly and morale is low; few home fans walk across Wearmouth Bridge these days expecting to see a win. Yet with Forest in town – a team on a run of two consecutive defeats, leaking goals like leek field and not the greatest travellers in this league - they surely fancied their chances. There are better teams than Forest that will come knocking on the Black Cat’s door this season and as Forest fans know, it can be a hard slog when you can’t buy a home win for any amount of love, money, bluster, screaming or pleading.
A sterner test awaits Forest with Wolves up at the City Ground next but this performance indicates that there is more to this team than flowery prose punctuated with huge black inkblots at the bottom of the page. Sometimes, you just need to make straightforward bullet-pointed notes.
words: David Marples
With five changes from the previous game, it seems that Mark Warburton has located and dusted off the randomatic-team-selector toy utilised so frequently by Stuart Pearce and Philippe Montanier. Not content with the five changes, more followed during the game with Zach Clough withdrawn for Andreas Bouchalakis just before half time. Regarding this change, Warburton said it was “purely tactical” with an eye on closing down the space that Barry Bannan was finding in midfield and to counteract Gary Hooper dropping deeper. The Forest manager also noted the high starting positions of the Wednesday team, which restricted his own team’s options when it came to moving the ball forward. In fairness, the mid-game changes were effective and with Bouchalakis employed as a double pivot alongside Liam Bridcutt, the away team looked a little more assured. This though was after Ben Osborn had leveled the game and so it is tempting to deduce that the team had started to settle anyway directly as a result of this, as much as the substitutions and tactical tinkering. One could either say that the starting line-up wasn't quite right or one could praise Warburton for seeing it and taking steps to rectify the situation.
Performances under Warburton seem to follow the pattern of a bell curve, especially this one at Hillsborough: slow to start but rising gently and smoothly to a peak around the halfway mark before falling to a flat-line by the end. If only they could dispense with the half-time break which seems to come at precisely the wrong time owing to its untimely interruption of a full head of steam.
Beyond the plethora of changes, what remained was a frighteningly young team in terms of going forward. The age and experience of Jack Hobbs, Danny Fox, Tendayi Darikwa and Liam Bridcutt (who is older than you think, assuming you think he is younger than 28, which he isn’t) towards the stern of the ship was countered by the babes which comprised the bow. It is perhaps worth noting that for all the experience of those at the stern, their appearances are intermittent at best since none of them has played regular first team football in recent years. Going forward, the average age of Ben Osborn, Zach Clough, Ben Brereton, Jason Cummings and Barrie McKay weighed in at 21. Of course, you can only get experience and games under your belt by playing games and what’s more, 21 is arguably a perfect age for the attacking element of the team since it provides youthful dynamism without the baggage of fear. Indeed, McKay and Osborn linked up wonderfully for the goal while Cummings was a right old pain in the posterior of the Wednesday defence all afternoon. The wider point here is that this was a team that is still relatively new to the hurly-burly of the Championship. In the words of The Beautiful South, it will need a little time.
The opening goal at Hillsborough was a rubble of a mess wrapped up in a jumble sale. Hobbs didn’t look like he was ready to receive the ball from Jordan Smith to the side of the penalty area and so he quickly knocked it back to his keeper. The weight of the ball seemed a little light and he seemed caught on the hop – knocking it back seemed logical. Yet this meant that Smith had no option but to hurriedly boot it away. Two problems immediately presented themselves. Firstly, Smith seems to struggle with applying the requisite amount of good old fashioned welly to such a ball. He seems to favour hitting it with his instep and curling it away. For a deep cross from a wide position, this type of kick would be perfect but significantly less so for a goalkeeper’s kick when under pressure. Secondly, the shape of the team wasn’t quite set for such an outcome and where the shield of a defensive midfield might otherwise have been, there was simply a huge space save for a Wednesday player to saunter through and take full advantage.
The second concession was just as eye-gougingly hard to watch too. The starting position of the Forest defenders for a Wednesday corner seemed quite high as they adopted a zonal defence. Zonal marking gets a pretty good kicking once in a while but it is generally more successful than not. The problem is that when it is exposed, it makes the principles of it to look about as strong as a plastic fork. The idea is to contest and win the ball without having to worry about the movement of the opposition. Given that generally, the defence will outnumber the attack and that the defender can head or kick the ball pretty much anywhere rather than having to worry about hitting a specific target, the defence will, more often than than not, clear the ball. Yet in order to contest the ball, the defender requires a starting point from which to generate lift and power. In this case, the Forest defence seemed quite high and once the ball was played in – a very good delivery by the way – they appeared to be running back alongside the Wednesday attackers – an accident waiting to happen. Hobbs seemed to be caught between keeping his eye on a man at the far post and attacking the ball: in the event, he did neither and Steven Fletcher cleverly exposed the gaps with his clever movement to nod in from the near post area. That’s not to point a wagging finger at Hobbs or indeed at Joe Worrall and/or Ben Brereton who were stationed at the near post – just to point out that regardless of whether a defence adopts zonal or man marking for a set piece, someone needs to show desire and determination to head the ball before the other team do. As Mark Warburton conceded post match, “we gifted two goals.”
It wasn’t a complete and unmitigated disaster – this wasn’t Norwich City away last season: far from it. Liam Bridcutt impressed more as the game wore on, showing glimpses that he can fill the David Vaughan-saped hole. Although Barrie McKay was quiet, his assist for Osborn’s goal was timely and besides, opposition teams now know all about him and are starting to double-up and on some occasions, treble-up on him. The performance of Cummings too suggested he can do the boring stuff like hold the ball up as well as run in behind for a through ball. Attacking moves are becoming increasingly embedded too with the team seemingly efficient at keeping the ball on one side of the pitch in order to create space for the wide attacker and wing back to double up on the other side before switching it to them. Yet this is often at the expense of a through ball from midfield for the main striker to latch onto. As yet, this doesn't seem to be something the team are looking to do. When you have Murphy up front, this seems entirely logical yet slightly less so when Cummings is that man. One senses he would thrive on a few balls in behind from midfield.
What was particularly frustrating though was that having worked their way back into the game after a torrid start, Wednesday were there for the taking. Home manager Carlos Carvalhal was not pitch-side owing to a ban, Fernando Forestieri was absent through injury, the Wednesday strike force were curiously out of form, the Owls were yet to win at home this season and the natives – if not lining up with pitchforks – were certainly grumbling a little. But when Gary Fletcher nodded the home team in front, one sensed that the game was over. Suddenly, the strike force of every other team in this league looks ten times more frightening than it did a few a weeks ago: even Gary Madine at Bolton Wanderers probably fancies his chances of bagging a goal against Forest at this stage.
At some point in the season, the following scenario was always going to present itself: what happens when Forest go lose three games in a row? How will the team react? Just as importantly, how will the fans react? This precise scenario is lurking around the corner and has adopted a sharper focus given how positive the season started both on and off the pitch. As Forest head to Sunderland on Tuesday looking to avoid three straight defeats, it is worth holding on to the thought of the attacking prowess the team possess. Given the devil of the goals against column, this is difficult but cherish it, embrace it and give it a big hug.
words: David Marples
Barrie McKay walks into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. He spends most of his time walking around, picking up items such as s set of fours cups and saucers but putting them down again. For the most part, he is ignored by the serving staff or if not ignored, confining himself mostly to the end of the aisles so that anyone walking perpendicular to the aisles and looking up each one would quite feasibly miss him as he lurks at the top end. After a while, one store assistant finds him and Barrie McKay sweeps majestically out of the store having picked up a silver platter containing the head of Luke Ayling.
Kieran Dowell walks into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. Actually, he doesn’t walk, he pirouettes into the store having shaped to use the exit door but at the last minute confuses anyone watching by simply sauntering through the entrance. In the past, he has waltzed, sashayed and tangoed up and down the aisles, brushing the stock with delicate hands to the oohs and the aahs of the staff. Not today though. After a few fancy twirls, he slows his pace to that of a thirteen year old boy being dragged around a rustic antique store in Lymington by his parents.
Armand Traore walks into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. He catches his ankle on the door and hobbles out.
Apostolos Vellios walks into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. Actually, he doesn’t. He is asked to wait outside.
Nottingham Forest walks into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. They were in there the previous week and although at one stage they huddled in a corner looking a little afraid as a bunch of big boys walked past the front window, they were, according to the staff, a joy to serve. They asked intelligent and thoughtful questions of the stock, handled it carefully and lovingly - rarely giving it to someone who didn’t care for it - and left having bought a beautiful set of sturdy dinner plates, earning a loyalty card and £10 off their next purchase in the process. This week though…eesh…not the same. They stumble into the store like a gaggle of nervous schoolboys. The staff discreetly arrange themselves at the end of each aisle. Nottingham Forest stand around wondering what to do about it. They scratch their heads for a bit. They do that weird thing that schoolboys do and put their hands down the front of their shorts and scratch or cup or hold or whatever it is they do with themselves. They try a few things: one tries bulldozing his way through the carefully positioned staff. One tries jumping over. Yet whatever they try, they seem to lack the speed of thought and mind to execute what’s on their mind. It’s not their day. They saunter off looking a little embarrassed. They’ll learn from this experience. There are many more occasions on which they will walk into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. Each time they do won’t be an exhibition of perfection. On occasions they will clumsily drop an expensive teapot or pick up the starter cutlery and unwittingly put it down in amongst the dinner silverware. So far though and generally speaking, they have acquitted themselves well in this fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. It’s better than that time they were fumbling around in Primark for what seemed like five years.
Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City walks into a fine China shop – a bit like Whittard of Chelsea but even more posh. They bludgeon their way in, stomp up and down the aisles and utterly ransack the place, taking anything and everything, even the kettle from the staff room.