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. 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.
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. Out 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.
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. I 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.