Mourinho ? The board ? Paul Pogba ?- Who to blame for this mess ?

Jose Mourinho sacked after 30 months in charge of Manchester United – a sentence one was never expecting, or hoping , for that matter, to say. His arrival, partnered with that of his Manchester City counterpart was set to bring competition, controversy and passion to the Premier League. After all, it was Mourinho-Guardiola, Real Madrid-Barcelona, Manchester United-Manchester City. Instead, the gap between the two clubs just expanded as the months passed until there manifested this treacherous void. Mourinho had failed miserably on this task, Lord Sugar might have said. United currently sit in 6th place, 19 points off first-placed Liverpool after only 19 games. An insipid start after their encouraging 2nd place finish last season. Ridding themselves of the Portugese man may well get the monkey of the board’s back, but deep down they, and the players, will know that he was only one issue in this embarrassing tragicomedy. Mourinho was thrown under the bus.

Mourinho

“You’re not special anymore,” was the waxed lyrical in Mourinho’s final away matches with United. He became moody, he pilloried his own players, he stropped around the touchline, he stormed out of press conferences- he behaved like a hormonal teenager. Not a 3-time Premier League winner (which he pointed out rather explicitly at one particular interview) a 2-time Champions League winner , a 2-time Europa League winner and, crucially, the manager of Manchester United. He fell apart. Not all necessarily at his own will, not because he is obnoxious, not to spite the board or his players. He failed to adapt. He failed to adapt to the paradigm shift in football that is the increasing player power. With wage bills stretching up to £300,000 a week, sponsorship deals from the age of 12 and the millions of followers on social media means that modern day players have some hefty egos. Back at Chelsea in 2004, Mourinho was one harsh man. Interviews were brutally honest, he’d make young players such as John Terry and Joe Cole clean the toilets, lambast them in training. However, the difference was that there was a reaction. The players wanted to prove him wrong, and weren’t big-headed enough to clash with him or believe that they knew better. A tough love relationship in its prime. Yet the approach nowadays must be more gentle, more considered, more encouragement less criticism. Look at Klopp and Guardiola, always hugging their players, defending them in public, building them up. Yes, he won a league title with Chelsea only 3 years ago, but was sacked later that year after bust ups with star players such as Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas. The same happened at Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo. And at United, it was Pogba. The bridges were burnt early on with the Frenchman, and their relationship proved irrevocable.

Being the self-acclaimed “special one” was bound to come to his detriment sooner or later. Like I said in a piece on Mourinho back in August, he is the most scrutinised man in world football. And as the manager of United, the biggest club in the world, every word, gesture, decision was to be examined and debated to extreme depths. To the extent whereby , after turning away and shaking his head when Rashford spurned a clear shot on goal, he was fiercely criticised by certain pundits. Have they even seen Pep Guardiola on the touchline ? When one of his players wastes a great opportunity, he can be seen stamping around the technical area, waving his arms wildly like a little toddler. This is where some responsibility lies with the United players, although we will get on to that soon. The media were a laughing stock – their respect for Jose non-existant. “So negative”, “a disgrace”, “doesn’t care about young players” (a myth which Mourinho then classily debunked by reading out the statistics of game time for Marcus Rashford). It was an utter “manhunt” as the man himself described it.

Admittedly, Mourinho is one stubborn man. Even 6 months ago you knew United were on volatile grounds. A disastrous pre-season followed by Woodward’s failure to tie down a new centre back left the Portuguese man in one stroppy state. He pleaded and pleaded but wasn’t listened to. Mourinho’s whole football methodology revolves around clean sheets, defending in all areas of the pitch and near-perfect organisation. Competent centre half’s are crucial – which Bailly, Lindelof and Jones are not. Their frailties were exposed most starkly in the 3-0 and 3-2 losses to Spurs and Brighton respectively. However, while Pochettino or Guardiola might have changed system or boosted the confidence of the players they have to work with, Jose moaned and groaned and pointed the finger. It was again that failure to adapt ; Mourinho had lost his way. His actions can’t be dressed up or dismissed. However Jose is still a fantastic manager, not a dinosaur, he is not ‘past it’ – United are back in the Champions League and finished second last season. Myriad factors prevented him from taking them further.

Who next for United ? Pochettino, it has to be. The man has worked wonders at Spurs on a low budget and with Woodward hesitant to splash out the cash, he seems a perfect fit. His ethos aline with that of the club: promoting youth development and fast, attacking football. Yes, he hasn’t won a major trophy yet but United have tried managers who have won multiple trophies in multiple leagues, they have tried Champions League winners but it hasn’t worked out. Poch would be a breath of fresh air. The question is whether they can claw him away from the awkward negotiator Daniel Levy and whether the Argentinian would want to leave considering his unfinished project at Spurs and the transition into a new pstadium. But when United come calling, circumstances refract.

The board

“This club has been crawling on it’s hands and knees for the past 6 months,” ranted Gary Neville on Sky Sports, after his beloved United were taught not only a lesson in football but a lesson in how to run a football club. Manchester United, the biggest club in the world in terms of revenue and worldwide following, sit in 7th place. Sir Alex and David Gill’s departures were always going to leave a hefty transition period, but the hierarchy of the club have dealt with the predicament atrociously. Particularly one man, Ed Woodward. The man has done a fine job in marketing and revenue, his revolutionary methods now copied in other clubs across the world. But what he has in marketing, he lacks in recruitment. A sporting director is one of the staples of the modern football club. Arsenal had Ivan Gazidis who recently bargained the likes of Sanchez, Torreira and Guendouzi, Spurs have Daniel Levy (chairman officially but steps in as sporting director)- responsible for the signings of Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier while Liverpool have Michael Edwards- the linchpin in the moulding of arguably the most revered front 3 in Europe. United have Woodward, executive-vice chairman, limited footballing knowledge, notorious for te disastrous recruitment of Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Alexis Sanchez. The club is a befuddled circus, with Ed Woodward their lead clown. Don’t get me wrong this is no extreme anti-Woodward rant and the man doesn’t necessarily need replacing, but the hierarchy needs restructuring. The relationship between the board and manager is paramount, yet it seemed as though Jose had no say.

The players

Sorry, Roy, but most of the players are good enough for Manchester United. And sorry, Gary, but the midfield can pass the ball 5 yards. Paul Pogba is a World Cup winner, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata both Premier League winners, David De Gea is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, Romelu Lukaku is a beast of a striker, Alexis Sanchez- Chile’s talisman, Anthony Martial is one of the greatest young players in the world right now. Some of them haven’t stepped up though. When the going got tough, they didn’t push through. The minimum requirement on a football pitch is to give 100% which many of them can’t say they have done this season. Pogba, Sanchez, Lukaku, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, Jose’s depressing tactics and belittling man-management is not exactly fitting for a team of superstars, but the club, the badge and the fans come before your own comfort. And Pogba’s Instagram post after Mourinho’s sacking summed up his attitude. United crave somebody who can link the midfield and attack, a No.10 ; Juan Mata doesn’t have the legs anymore. Oh, and obviously some half-decent centre-backs.

Whatever happens, it may be 2-3 years until we see United revive anything near to the hellish dominance of the Fergie era.

All to play for as the Champions League opens up.

Fernando Torres’ famous goal in Vienna initiated a European mutiny. Spanish football had well and truly arrived. Yes, Barcelona and Real Madrid have always been European kings- but never more so than in the past decade. Since the 2008 Euro’s, there has only been one year where Spain hasn’t won a major tournament or a Spanish club hasn’t won the Champions League. A staggering statistic. Zidane’s Galacticos, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, that famous 2008 Spain midfield quartet of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva- it has been simply unfair. Patient possession play, tiki-taka, building from deep, attacking full-backs- Spanish football revolved around it. Iniesta.jpgAnd while POMO was truly behind the Premier League, and Italian football was no longer focused upon the dark arts, their success- particularly Pep’s with Barça, has evolved world football tactics. Even Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth play a style reminiscent of that treble-winning 2009 Barcelona side. However, after another disappointing World Cup for Spain, with Real Madrid languishing in 4th place (such is the grandeur of the club that 4th place and ‘languishing are alined in a sentence) and on their second manager of the season,  Barcelona looking suspect defensively and Atletico Madrid playing some insipidly reactive football could the tide have finally turned?

One thing is domestic form, another completely different thing is form in Europe. Look at the two finalists of 2018 : Liverpool were shipping goals for fun last season, but always turned on the style for those special Anfield European nights and ultimately outscored their opponents, including a 5-1 battering (on aggregate) of Manchester City. Real Madrid, on the other hand, were thought to be in the midst of some behind the scenes bust ups and, although they improved towards the end of the season, finished 14 points behind Barcelona on 76 points. In fact, there Champions League form was not scintillating either- they nearly capitulated against Juventus in the quarter-finals. But  much like Liverpool, that European blood courses through the veins of the club and Los Blancos ploughed on to win their 13th title and third in three years. So to write teams off at this stage would be naïve: especially if it is on the basis of their domestic form. At the same time, the heavyweights are certainly not at their peak.

Despite my previous points, Real Madrid’s post-Ronaldo woes haven’t and shouldn’t go under the radar. The saga began back in June when Julen Lopetegui was sacked as Spain manager for premeditating a move away from La Roja to Los Blancos after the World Cup. As the season kicked off and they had 3 wins from their first 3 games the summer maelstrom was seemingly behind them. Only seemingly, though. Indeed, October would dispel that consensus in what was a torrid month for Lopetegui’s men. Between the 26th September and the 28th October Real Madrid lost 5, drew 1 and won 1. Julen.jpgTheir losses ? A 3-0 battering by Sevilla, 1-0 defeats to CSKA Moscow and Eibar , a 2-1 loss at home to Levante and- the straw that broke the camel’s back- a 5-1 annihilation at the Camp Nou. Lopetegui was subsequently relinquished of his duties. What went wrong, you ask ? It is debatable.  Fundamentally, the Spaniard intended to implement a more sustainable style, one that differs from relying on individual brilliance- especially Ronaldo. His style of football revolves around giving the front 3 ( Bale, Benzema and Asensio) freedom to roam and disorganise defences while Isco or Modric, at the no.10 in the 4231, would orchestrate the build up play in between the lines. Kroos and Casemiro- the metronome and the bully- were also relied on to fill the gaps when the full backs bombed forward. What could do wrong ? A lot, in fact. Casemiro, Kroos and Isco were horribly off-beat from the off, perhaps flustered by their summer antics or even jaded by them, provoking an early switch to the 433 system and an introduction of Golden Ball winner Luka Modric- The Croat failed to make an impact though. Free to grasp the season by the scruff of it’s neck after Ronaldo’s departure, Gareth Bale disappointed aswell. And with half your team under-performing where do you look to ? A somewhat pathetically inexperienced bench, with barely anybody capable of making a significant impact. Quite a contrast to Manchester City, who ran out comfortable winners against Everton on Saturday despite resting Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and John Stones. This issue exposed one stark flaw in Loptegui’s arsenal: experience as a club coach and the lack of it. Healthy relations with young players is all well and good, but when they are not cutting the mustard and you have the money to invest you can’t hold back.

Santiago Solari is stabilising the sinking ship, but Real have some patching up to do before they can get back to their very best. 13km east at the Wanda Metropolitano things have become almost too stable. El Cholo Simeone, the dapper yet fiery Argentinian, is renowned yet often frowned upon for his reactive, defensive football methodologies. And it has certainly been more of the latter recently. Heading into the season, Atleti were said to be serious contenders not just in La Liga- but in Europe too. Having brought in Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins and Nikola Kalinic to enhance their attacking potency, they looked the full package with Rodri and Thomas Partey sitting in front of that famously impermeable back five. Yet, their performances have often been stale and insipid. Don’t get me wrong, Simeone and Atleti are in no crisis but the former’s ultra defensive football is beginning to wear fans down. Thomas Lemar has even been brainwashed into a ‘Simeone player’ and appears inhibited by his relentless defensive responsibilities. It stretched to the extent whereby when 1-0 at home to Barcelona with 20 minutes still play, fans bouncing in ecstasy- they were defeating their main league rivals but Simeone completely shut up shot and tried to see out the game with 9 men behind the ball. Barcelona’s pressure eventually gave way and Ousmane Dembele equalised in the 90th minute to earn a well deserved point for the catalans. Partner this with their embarrassing 4-0 loss at Dortmund and, once again, you have one beatable side. And Juventus is no easy Round of 16 tie.

Now let’s just clarify : Barcelona can beat anybody when Lionel Messi turns on the style, and look somewhat unstoppable when Coutinho, Suarez and Dembele are at it too. And when Artur Melo, Rakitic, and Busquets are also on their game, they simply are unstoppable.

Litty.jpg

Matthijs De Ligt

The only question mark over Valverde’s men is their shaky defence -they have only kept 3 clean sheets in their 15 La Liga matches this season. Samuel Umtiti’s serious knee injury is an unquestionable factor while Pique doesn’t look the player he was 5 years ago, hence those rumours of the promising De Ligt as one of many centre-backs said to be on their way to Camp Nou. Yet with seemingly flawless sides like Manchester City and Juventus this season, will these minor frailties be exposed ?

With three of the biggest not at their strongest, the competition begins to open up. Juventus, the European bottle jobs , are unbeaten at the top of Serie A while their German counterparts in Dortmund stand equally tall over their stuttering rivals Bayern Munich. Credit to the boss- Lucian Favre- who has injected belief, impetus and youth into a dejected dressing room after a disappointing 4th place finish last season. There couldn’t be a better place for Jadon Sancho to be developing. Tottenham will be no pushovers, though. Liverpool, meanwhile, face an ageing Bayern Munich squad- largely consisting of the German World Cup clowns, who haven’t shaken off their summer woes. As for Man United… (piece coming soon).

 

 

Football reaches its lowest: The Europa League 2

The game is changing. Money-fuelled projects constantly threaten to penetrate ancient football folklore and rob fans and players of their basic rights. The European Super League, the Uefa Super Cup, Richard Scudamore’s 39th game and La Liga’s supposed deal to begin to stage regular games in the USA all spring to mind. Add that to half scarves, double manager interviews, country-owned clubs and you can safely say that football has reached it’s rock bottom. Rather conveniently, this ‘rock bottom’ is now tangible: The Europa League 2. Oh dear, Oh dear, Oh dear.

As if Thursday nights in Romania weren’t bad enough. That is the story of the Europa League 2. To give some context, Uefa are currently organising a new European competition that is set to start in 2021. It will be called the Europa League 2 (an inventive name) and it’s introduction bases around giving smaller European countries’ teams  a chance (San Marino, Lichenstein and Andorra will all be sending teams to the play-off rounds) and to provide teams who aren’t part of the inner elite circle with a platform to prove their worth against the best of the rest.

Europa League

Arsenal in the Europa League against FC Vorskla

18 teams who don’t make it through the Europa League qualifying rounds will also be given the chance to qualify for the Europa League 2. The winner of the competition will be guaranteed a place in the following year’s Europa League. In terms of Europe’s top 5 leagues, 8th place in England, Germany, Spain, Italy would secure a place in the play-off rounds with 7th place in France confirming the same.

If it’s not another Uefa greed affair then it’s just an awful, dreadful, ludicrous idea. Yes, lower ranked country coefficients have been marginalised in recent years- but to drag elite clubs ,who may be already competing in 3 competitions, to make them feel special is  wrong. Take Burnley, who had they finished 8th not 7th last season would have qualified for the Europa League 2 play-offs and would have most likely qualified. However such is the competitiveness off the Premier League- The Clarets now sit in 17th with a relegation dogfight on their hands, and having to travel to Liechtenstein every other Thursday would be an unimaginable burden. In fact, forget Burnley.

Chelsea breeze past Burnley at Turf Moor

Any Premier League club outside the top 6 (possibly with the exception of Everton) simply don’t have the money and squad depth to compete on four fronts at once. That is, the Premier League (where a bad run of games can destroy your entire season), the League Cup, The FA cup and the European competitions. Fixtures become preposterously congested, particularly from November to January, and teams will simply not be able to cope.

The Premier League and Liechtenstein are two extremes of the Europa League. Teams from Switzerland that aren’t FC Basel , Young Boys or FC Zurich, teams from Turkey that aren’t Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe or Besiktas and even teams from Scotland that aren’t Celtic or Rangers have constantly been living in the shadow of their glamorous neighbours. Wouldn’t the Europa League 2 be the perfect platform to prove themselves to the world and initiate their domestic ascendance ? Look at Manchester City. They were never an elite English club and although their rise was down to a new lucrative ownership, a European title of any sort would surely attract interest from sponsors and businesses who are looking for new investments. So, yes, there has clearly been a few wise eyes facilitating this new proposal- but many lazy eyes also. What day will the games be played on ? Why name the competition after the biggest joke in football ? The Europa League 2: milking the cash cow or shearing the pig ?

 

 

10 goal thriller highlights a fabulous month for Forest.

On the right direction but patience is essential

Quite frankly, the last decade has been a torrid time for Forest fans. It has had it’s highlights : Andy Reid bouncing about the City Ground, a ‘so nearly’ Billy Davies spell, that special Lewis Mcgugan free-kick and the briefly magnificent Stuart Pierce renaissance- where Benny Osborn slammed the ball into the back of Derby’s net. Yet the legitimate narrative is failing to make the play-offs for the past eight years, narrowly avoiding relegation 2 years ago and finishing above The Rams only once in the past 8 seasons.Colback.jpg All of which came of the back of a dark, depressing 3 year League One maelstrom, where average attendances have since dropped below 20,000 for league games.

However, after 11 months in charge, Karanka has finally given Forest their identity back and struck some purpose into this sleeping giant of a club. We are on the right direction, regardless of whether we are promoted or not this year. The latter being the more realistic, despite Marinakis’ lofty ambitions, the likelier (due to the colossal competition this year) and perhaps the healthier as I still fear that this team does not have what it takes to compete in the Premier League yet. Patience is essential.

Month overview

Forest headed into November 2 points adrift of the play-offs, on the back off a lacklustre performance against Burton and in serious need of a win to not be left behind by the 6 frontrunners. League leaders Sheffield United travelled to The City Ground on the 3rd, hoping to extend their lead. A daunting task for Forest ? They made it look easy. Or, perhaps, it really was fairly easy: The Blades were considerably average, failing to find that passing tempo and fluidity that saw them storm to the top of the table. Take nothing away from Forest, though, who hassled and harried Sheffield tirelessly. The goal eventually came in the 69th minute when Carvalho produced one of his moments of magic which saw his whipped, inch-perfect cross skim of Grabban’s old reliable scalp into the bottom corner. The City Ground erupted- it had been a great performance, not perfect by a long shot, but our pace and power in the final third was underpinned by an impermeable defence. A very ‘Karanka’ style performance.

After our impressive Sheffield United victory we had sneaked into the play-offs, but with West Brom and Blackburn only a point behind us we needed to maintain momentum and nip back down to earth for a gutsy Midlands clash against struggling Stoke. However,  football was not the only thing on peoples minds at the City Ground. It was Remembrance Weekend, marking the centenary of WW1. As the whistle blew, all thoughts returned to the match. 90 minutes later we went home with a mediocre mood after watching two mediocre teams, one of which was from a very mediocre city. I think it’s fair to say it was a mediocre affair. Admittedly, there was some sparse entertainment, abusing James McClean for not wearing the poppy, Lewis Grabban’s horrible miss and a serious Stoke penalty appeal. But it was not, as the BBC Radio Nottingham Forest commentary team bizarrely described it, “as good a 0-0 as you’ll ever see”. Stokes Premier League quality was evident as both sides enjoyed bright spells in possession- but neither could capitalise on their chances. As for Forest, we were impermeable defensively but just couldn’t click in the final third that day. An occasion to forget for everybody, especially Forest who ended the day back outside the top 6.

The introduction of The Nations League means that, somehow, we are returning to club football annoyed that the international season is being interrupted. Oh how the tables have turned. Ok, we haven’t reached that level yet, but I was slightly underwhelmed at the idea of moving from England-Croatia, relegation and promotion on the line, to a drab visit to a just over half full KCOM stadium. A Forest win would lift them to only 1 point off the play-offs and a response was apt after an average performance against Stoke before the International break. Indeed, Karanka’s men did respond with a superb performance against The feeble, lifeless, toothless Lions. The Kittens, shall we say. The Reds controlled the game away from home and their 2-0 victory increased their unbeaten run to 5 matches- a time in which they have only conceded one goal (Kemar Roofe’s wrongly awarded goal at that).

What followed in midweek was really quite remarkable. A 10 goal thriller where, if watching on Sky’s red button feature, you found yourself raging at the inability to rewind. You could barely blink in the fear of missing the next plot twist. Forest were 2-0 up in side 6 minutes, in cruise control. TamOut of nowhere, Villa won a penalty, which Tammy Abraham calmly tucked a way and 3 minutes later the ex-Chelsea man was on the scoresheet again. Forest had relinquished their lead. The next 75 minutes was pinball chaos until Grabban salvaged a point for Forest in the 82nd minute. Performance wise, Karanka focused on the great character shown by his players and doggedness. The scoreline never lies, though, and this was a tale of incisive, terrorising counter-attacks and abhorrent set-piece defending.

The Tractor Boys would be no pushover, warned Karanka. Yet, with Lolley, Carvalho and Grabban at their scintillating best Forest rang rings around Paul Lambert’s men. Karanka is renowned for his reactive style he imposes on his teams so it was a big test- would Forest have the creativity and passing tempo to break down a side who were most likely going to sit deep and try and nick a point ? Indeed they would. It was a complete performance, with Darikwa starring at full back providing defensive solidity and attacking solutions. With Guediora back in the midfield, Forest played some liquid passing football, carving their way through the Ipswich defence on myriad occasions. It should have been 5 or 6 : 4 of which should have been for Grabban. This fixture vindicated Forest’s ability do adapt to different types of matches.

Karanka settles on system 

Bar one or two positions, we can now correctly guess every starting 11. And the continuity is beginning to show. 4-2-3-1, pressing from the front, winning the ball in high areas, using our pace and power in the attacking quartet to hurt opposition defence, Carvalho linking the play and a tight, compact defence protected by Yacob or Colback who are also expected to release the ball quickly and initiate counter-attacks. Almost a mixture of Liverpool and Man Utd’s systems.

Midfield selection was a conundrum at the start of the month, after Yacob’s impressive start against The Blades. Guediora and Yacob ? Guediora and Colback ? Col back and Jacob ? Karanka has it down to a tee now. Yacob and Colback will generally play together way from home and against more attack-minded opposition to protect the defence while Guediora will come in when we need that spark of spontaneity to break down deep-lying back defences. This tactical tweak proved vital against Ipswich, where we proved that we could alternate our style of play and be patient in possession. It also dispelled the myth that Karanka is solely a ‘defensive manager’.

January transfer window

A time which brought many ins last year, but speculation focuses this January on the outs. An already bulky squad continued to get bigger during the Autumn period, rather unnecessarily, perhaps. Karanka seems to have discarded a few names completely: Watson, Bridcutt, Yates. While others become frustrated at a lack of consistent game time: Murphy, Gonçalves, Osborn, Soudani, Steele. Some new arrivals haven’t even started a match yet this season : Tachtsidis, Ansarifard. Not to mention the myriad players on loan- Forest’s squad is obese, with a considerable amount of loose weight. Squad depth is healthy but we need a January spruce. For starts, there is no longer a place for Jamie Ward or Zach Clough. Both continue to struggle on loan at Charlton and Rochdale, the latter’s career having significantly petered out. Speaking of lost causes, Liam Bridcutt and Ben Watson are due a move out of Nottingham- which may ultimately give opportunities to young stars like Ryan Yates and Arvin Appiah. Defensively, Danny Fox and Sam Byram are yet to return from injury while Joe Worrall is starring on loan at Rangers. Worrall is a favourite among Forest fans due to his Hucknall roots- but whether he can break into an already highly competitive defence is another matter entirely. Another year on loan would be the shrewder option.

Player reviews

Costel Pantilimon- 4/10: The Romanian giant has been Forest’s worst performer of the season. It sounds too cliché, but all he really has going for him is his size. His distribution is wayward, he is slow to react, obviously he is not the most agile and slows the game down when we need to start counter-attacks. Pantilimon hasn’t necessarily degraded over the course of Karanka’s reign- only last year were we labelling him a definite fix to Jordan Smith’s woes- but the squad around him has improved so his antics are more noticeable. Besides, it is not that difficult to look good when replacing Jordan Smith.

Tendayi Darikwa- 9/10: If there is anything I have been wrong about this season it is Tendayi Darikwa. “Forest need a replacement for Darikwa this summer”, “Darikwa isn’t Championship quality, never mind Premier League”, “unreliable defensively, not enough quality attacking-wise” were some previous atrocities of mine. Darikwa.jpgI take it all back- Darikwa could put Messi in his back pocket in this form and he might do so to Hazard in the FA cup. He has been incredible this month. While a part of the mini-invincible defence of November, he particularly showed his attacking prowess in the 2-0 victory over Ipswich where every pass or cross he made was inch-perfect, also getting himself a wonderful assist. He has played well this season- but has really kicked on as of late and looks a fine, fine right-back now who Byram will struggle to wrestle his position back off. What an advocate for improvement and growth.

Michael Dawson- 8/10: Heartbreaking to see Nottingham-blooded Dawson limp off against Ipswich after another valiant performance at the heart of the Forest defence. He led the defence that went 5 games without conceding a legal goal with his infectious heart and experienced head. A true leader that doesn’t have many years left in his tank.(Let’s not mention the 5 goals conceded at Villa as it ruins the Dawson narrative).

Tobias Figueiredo- 7/10: Figueiredo has been fantastic this month, once again, alongside Dawson whom he is forming a formidable partnership with. The 24 year-old has the composure and quality on the ball to play at any level in my opinion. Although, his red card against Villa did cost us 2 points.

Michael Hefele- 6/10: Featured only against Ipswich and slotted in comfortably, keeping a clean sheet and being only denied a goal by the post. A useful squad player.

Jack Robinson- 9/10: Robinson has maintained his excellent form from the start of the season and is one of the first names on the team sheet nowadays. Perhaps his physicality, composure on the ball and defensive awareness will mould him into a centre-back as the years go by.  Wherever he plays in the future, it will be at a high level- I can assure you that at least.

Claudio Yacob- 8/10: A brilliant bit of business from Forest to secure the signature of free-agent Yacob from West Brom. He has slotted seamlessly into the midfield, adding composure and protection. What’s more is that he can adapt when playing alongside Watson or Guediora, as previously mentioned. With the former he must inherit some more forward-thinking responsibilities while with the latter he does the dirty work- breaking up play then passing the ball simply.

Jack Colback- 8/10: “It’s Colback, you know, could have believed it’s Paul Scholes,” sang the Forest fans against Ipswich. True in the sense that they are both very underrated players, but false in terms of their contrasting rolls. Scholes would hog the limelight with his 40 yard passes and long-range volleys while Colback so often goes under the radar for his industrious job in front of the defence. It sounds easy to merely offer protection for the defence and start simple moves but, in fact, it takes a positionally, tactically aware, fit, ferocious machine to play his role in Karanka’s system.

Adlène Guediora- 7/10: Gueddy hasn’t been hitting the height of August and September since he came back from his injury, but is still an integral part of Karanka’s team. His vision and flair can scythe through any defence in this league while we all know about his rocket of a right foot.

Joao Carvalho- 7/10: He is still only showing his quality in spits and spurts but is adapting impressively to English football for his age, as Karanka pointed out pre-Ipswich. His potential is frightening.

Matty Cash- 7/10: A brilliant finish against Villa highlighted a fantastic month for Cash. He terrorises defenders with his pace and power.

Joe Lolley- 9/10: Bargain of the decade ? Best Forest player in the past decade ? Best Championship player this season ? You could argue Joe Lolley ticks all of those boxes after another scintillating month for the former-Huddersfield man. He is not the quickest, but can dribble as fast as he can run making him unstoppable for defenders. Add that to a wand of a left foot and you have some player. Newcastle and Watford are sniffing around, but Forest will do their upmost to keep him at the city Ground.

Gil Dias- 5/10: Has only really featured as a sub apart from from when he started against Ipswich. He looks half the player we saw in pre-season- gives away possession far too easily. I think he is lacking a bit of confidence and a couple of goals will get him firing again.

Ben Osborn- 6/10: Benny hasn’t had too many minutes either in December but, in contrast to Dias, hasn’t really put a foot wrong when coming off the bench. Injuries are common around this time of year so he shouldn’t get agitated- his time will come.

Lewis Grabban- 9/10: You can’t really ask for much more from Grabban. The £6m pound man has flown to the top of the goalscoring charts but also holds the ball up very well. He has that natural striker’s instinct that simply can’t be taught.