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.