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.