This is how we will play. We often call for an identifiable style of football or a ‘Forest way’, even though that type of terminology leads to all sorts of problems. Yet what we are seeing under Mark Warburton is exactly that – a game that relies on passing the ball from the back along the floor. Long balls hoisted from back to front seem to have been eradicated not only in this game but in pre season friendlies too. This means taking risks in possession. Get used to it. No harm ever came from striving for perfection and if Warburton has a vision of emulating Napoli under Maurizio, then that can only be a good thing. If this move were finished, it should have counted double:
As a consequence of such a style of play, David Vaughan is an essential cog in this particular machine. Indeed, Vaughan completed the most short passes over the weekend – 74. Vaughan’s outlet upon receiving the ball was Joe Worrall and it was he who spent a lot of the game with the ball at his feet and the responsibility of starting the move. This is a lot of weight on the young man’s shoulders and although he occasionally struggled against Steve Morison’s brawn and experience, he never once shirked from passing the ball on the floor. Simply put, he and Vaughan are essential to this style of play.
With such a pattern of play established, much reliance is also heaped upon the goalkeeper. Jordan Smith once again proved himself to be a superb shot-stopper, not only from distance but also in one-on-one situations. Almost inevitably though, as instructed to pass or throw the ball out to his defenders rather than hoofing it long, mistakes will happen: exhibit A being the moment he threw the ball out to Steve Morison. The thing is though, finding the perfect goalkeeper who is comfortable in possession of the football, makes excellent distribution choices each and every time and pulls off world class saves like…well…the one Jordan Smith made on the final day against Ipswich Town, are rare to find. Ask Pep Guardiola. Admittedly, on the few occasions that Smith was forced to welly it up upfield with an attacker hurtling towards him, his left foot curlers were rather aimless and invariably ended up at the foot of the opposition. Sure, there is a time and place to hoof the ball forward but to really stretch the opposition and dominate the game, possession must start from the back and it is Smith – along with Worrall and Vaughan – who will see an awful lot of the ball at their feet this season. Mistakes will happen and when they do, remember the times that Smith kept us in the games against Ipswich and Millwall with stunning saves.
The opening 30 minutes were tough to watch - the team looked overawed. Maybe it was nerves. Steve Morison gave a masterclass in winning every ball lumped up to him and he always found his strike partner Lee Gregory, thus allowing space and licence for Millwall wingers to bomb forward and cause mayhem in the Forest back line. On occasions, Worrall struggled but as the game wore on, he gained his composure and Morison’s influence decreased. The young defender stuck to his task and when faced with a problem, didn’t crumble but looked at ways to solve the problem while at the same time, continuing to take responsibility for getting moves started from the back. This begs the question of how we might play without Vaughan and Worrall to receive the ball in dangerous areas. It will be interesting to see whether Warburton executes an alternative plan or asks Danny Fox, Matt Mills or Chris Cohen to play in a similar manner.
Going forward, Daryl Murphy looked rather lumpen, apart from when he chased back almost the full length of the pitch after losing possession. It should be noted though that he was very isolated up there with his attacking partners – Ben Brereton and Barrie McKay – hugging the touchlines and Zach Clough busy plugging the gaps that were appearing in midfield while Neil Harris’ team hurriedly closed Forest down before the passing moves advanced over the halfway line. McKay’s goal was the result of an unexpected piece of magic as he simply ran at the opposition from wide before firing in, rather than a flowing move with the aim being to stretch Millwall’s defence and find space behind the full backs. As moves from the back frequently broke down, it was difficult for Murphy to show what he is capable of.
Forest looked at their most threatening when attacking down the flanks. Brereton causes panic when he is one on one against his full back coming in from the right and McKay made it clear to anyone and everyone that he’s happy to be shown inside, outside or even straight through a rusty old iron fence – it’s all the same to him. Pre season friendlies have seen Brereton deployed in a wide right position, from which he has impressed and more often than not, played exactly as he always does – without fear. It is hoped though that he will be shifted inside to lead the line as the season develops.
As the game wore on, Forest enjoyed more possession and the confident interplay between Vaughan, Clough, Ben Osborn and his replacement Kieran Dowell was a joy to watch. Osborn’s radar had been a little faulty earlier in the game and as he came off, his frustration with himself was palpable. No matter who has been picking the team over the last two years, each and every manager has found a place for Osborn as whether in possession or out, he always does the right things and makes the right choices. He will always show for the ball and try to do something with it. Of course, passes or dribbles don’t always come off but it is always clear to see what he was trying to do. It will be interesting to see how his game develops under Warburton as we have seen him deployed effectively in a number 10 role supporting the striker and increasingly deeper in the midfield, being asked to receive the ball from the back, hold on to it and then spread possession wide. Dowall impressed everyone with his assurance of touch and ability to find space when he was introduced but it doesn’t appear to be a binary choice between Dowall and Osborn. The Everton loanee appeared to be deployed further forward with a remit to exploit the spaces that were appearing as the game got stretched, which he did to great effect. It would be highly surprising if Warburton saw Dowall as a replacement or an upgrade on Osborn. When the former replaced the latter, it wasn’t a straight swap in terms of tactical deployment. There is scope for both to play together, although as much as we may wish to see the triangles that Clough, McKay, Osborn and Dowall might weave together, the four of them are quite lightweight.
We will come up against many teams like Millwall through the season. The urge to use the adjective ‘organised’ should be avoided since each and every single team at professional and semi-professional level is ‘organised’. What Millwall did execute very effectively was putting pressure on a team trying to play it out from the back and once they won the ball, got men forward very quickly. If they could have finished their chances, they might have been out of sight before Forest stopped thinking about the magnificent Trent End tifo. Perhaps Millwall’s strong start was as much a result of trepidation on the home team’s part as the players took a while to settle down and play their game in front of an expectant opening game crowd.
Luck played a part in the maintenance of an excellent record at home on the opening day of the season. It was though merely a very small step in the evolution of this exciting team.