words: David Marples
With five changes from the previous game, it seems that Mark Warburton has located and dusted off the randomatic-team-selector toy utilised so frequently by Stuart Pearce and Philippe Montanier. Not content with the five changes, more followed during the game with Zach Clough withdrawn for Andreas Bouchalakis just before half time. Regarding this change, Warburton said it was “purely tactical” with an eye on closing down the space that Barry Bannan was finding in midfield and to counteract Gary Hooper dropping deeper. The Forest manager also noted the high starting positions of the Wednesday team, which restricted his own team’s options when it came to moving the ball forward. In fairness, the mid-game changes were effective and with Bouchalakis employed as a double pivot alongside Liam Bridcutt, the away team looked a little more assured. This though was after Ben Osborn had leveled the game and so it is tempting to deduce that the team had started to settle anyway directly as a result of this, as much as the substitutions and tactical tinkering. One could either say that the starting line-up wasn't quite right or one could praise Warburton for seeing it and taking steps to rectify the situation.
Performances under Warburton seem to follow the pattern of a bell curve, especially this one at Hillsborough: slow to start but rising gently and smoothly to a peak around the halfway mark before falling to a flat-line by the end. If only they could dispense with the half-time break which seems to come at precisely the wrong time owing to its untimely interruption of a full head of steam.
Beyond the plethora of changes, what remained was a frighteningly young team in terms of going forward. The age and experience of Jack Hobbs, Danny Fox, Tendayi Darikwa and Liam Bridcutt (who is older than you think, assuming you think he is younger than 28, which he isn’t) towards the stern of the ship was countered by the babes which comprised the bow. It is perhaps worth noting that for all the experience of those at the stern, their appearances are intermittent at best since none of them has played regular first team football in recent years. Going forward, the average age of Ben Osborn, Zach Clough, Ben Brereton, Jason Cummings and Barrie McKay weighed in at 21. Of course, you can only get experience and games under your belt by playing games and what’s more, 21 is arguably a perfect age for the attacking element of the team since it provides youthful dynamism without the baggage of fear. Indeed, McKay and Osborn linked up wonderfully for the goal while Cummings was a right old pain in the posterior of the Wednesday defence all afternoon. The wider point here is that this was a team that is still relatively new to the hurly-burly of the Championship. In the words of The Beautiful South, it will need a little time.
The opening goal at Hillsborough was a rubble of a mess wrapped up in a jumble sale. Hobbs didn’t look like he was ready to receive the ball from Jordan Smith to the side of the penalty area and so he quickly knocked it back to his keeper. The weight of the ball seemed a little light and he seemed caught on the hop – knocking it back seemed logical. Yet this meant that Smith had no option but to hurriedly boot it away. Two problems immediately presented themselves. Firstly, Smith seems to struggle with applying the requisite amount of good old fashioned welly to such a ball. He seems to favour hitting it with his instep and curling it away. For a deep cross from a wide position, this type of kick would be perfect but significantly less so for a goalkeeper’s kick when under pressure. Secondly, the shape of the team wasn’t quite set for such an outcome and where the shield of a defensive midfield might otherwise have been, there was simply a huge space save for a Wednesday player to saunter through and take full advantage.
The second concession was just as eye-gougingly hard to watch too. The starting position of the Forest defenders for a Wednesday corner seemed quite high as they adopted a zonal defence. Zonal marking gets a pretty good kicking once in a while but it is generally more successful than not. The problem is that when it is exposed, it makes the principles of it to look about as strong as a plastic fork. The idea is to contest and win the ball without having to worry about the movement of the opposition. Given that generally, the defence will outnumber the attack and that the defender can head or kick the ball pretty much anywhere rather than having to worry about hitting a specific target, the defence will, more often than than not, clear the ball. Yet in order to contest the ball, the defender requires a starting point from which to generate lift and power. In this case, the Forest defence seemed quite high and once the ball was played in – a very good delivery by the way – they appeared to be running back alongside the Wednesday attackers – an accident waiting to happen. Hobbs seemed to be caught between keeping his eye on a man at the far post and attacking the ball: in the event, he did neither and Steven Fletcher cleverly exposed the gaps with his clever movement to nod in from the near post area. That’s not to point a wagging finger at Hobbs or indeed at Joe Worrall and/or Ben Brereton who were stationed at the near post – just to point out that regardless of whether a defence adopts zonal or man marking for a set piece, someone needs to show desire and determination to head the ball before the other team do. As Mark Warburton conceded post match, “we gifted two goals.”
It wasn’t a complete and unmitigated disaster – this wasn’t Norwich City away last season: far from it. Liam Bridcutt impressed more as the game wore on, showing glimpses that he can fill the David Vaughan-saped hole. Although Barrie McKay was quiet, his assist for Osborn’s goal was timely and besides, opposition teams now know all about him and are starting to double-up and on some occasions, treble-up on him. The performance of Cummings too suggested he can do the boring stuff like hold the ball up as well as run in behind for a through ball. Attacking moves are becoming increasingly embedded too with the team seemingly efficient at keeping the ball on one side of the pitch in order to create space for the wide attacker and wing back to double up on the other side before switching it to them. Yet this is often at the expense of a through ball from midfield for the main striker to latch onto. As yet, this doesn't seem to be something the team are looking to do. When you have Murphy up front, this seems entirely logical yet slightly less so when Cummings is that man. One senses he would thrive on a few balls in behind from midfield.
What was particularly frustrating though was that having worked their way back into the game after a torrid start, Wednesday were there for the taking. Home manager Carlos Carvalhal was not pitch-side owing to a ban, Fernando Forestieri was absent through injury, the Wednesday strike force were curiously out of form, the Owls were yet to win at home this season and the natives – if not lining up with pitchforks – were certainly grumbling a little. But when Gary Fletcher nodded the home team in front, one sensed that the game was over. Suddenly, the strike force of every other team in this league looks ten times more frightening than it did a few a weeks ago: even Gary Madine at Bolton Wanderers probably fancies his chances of bagging a goal against Forest at this stage.
At some point in the season, the following scenario was always going to present itself: what happens when Forest go lose three games in a row? How will the team react? Just as importantly, how will the fans react? This precise scenario is lurking around the corner and has adopted a sharper focus given how positive the season started both on and off the pitch. As Forest head to Sunderland on Tuesday looking to avoid three straight defeats, it is worth holding on to the thought of the attacking prowess the team possess. Given the devil of the goals against column, this is difficult but cherish it, embrace it and give it a big hug.