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.