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*