“Sentimentality has overruled sense,” I wrote on O’Neill’s return to the City Ground. It is indisputable that tedious football, outdated tactics and a lack of charisma cost him his Ireland job while it is similarly indisputable that these facets of O’Neill’s have plagued his return to Forest -bar the latter. It’s true, there has been no purer sight than the 66 year old darting about the technical area, sleeves rolled up in -32 degrees, ferociously analysing his stomping ground. Yet neither has there been more of an eyesore than Carvalho and Grabban sitting on the bench while Watson and Murphy fight over who can give the ball away most times.
Nevertheless, we have to keep on backing the boss as unless something goes horribly wrong, O’Neill will see out the end of the season and it will be next year where we really see whether he can still cut the mustard as a manager. Interesting to see how Keano’s return unfolds…
One thing you can see about the appointment of O’Neill is that in a time of great anguish, the fans have a smile back on their faces. It was prevalent none more so than the 29,000-fan strong Mull O’Kintyre prior to kick-off, a sharp reminder to O’Neill of the grandeur of this club. Support couldn’t translate into a performance though, as Forest slumped to a 1-0 defeat to Bristol City. It wasn’t a surprise to see O’Neill set up in a traditional 4-4-2 with Grabban and Murphy up top yet the system was disastrous. We had nobody to link midfield and attack, nobody in-between the lines. It was simply a case of work the ball to the wings, cross it in and feed off the scraps. Carvalho was on the bench while Yacob and Colback served as an incredibly defensive midfield partnership. Bristol deserved the 3 points, attacking with fluidity, verve, and zest while our ball movement was slow, clunky and disjointed. We slipped to 12th- Hull, do you remember them ? Yes, the side we sent into 23rd in November- they had overtaken us.
It couldn’t get much worse against Wigan, really. Forest simply had to bounce back, they had to repay the fans for another 28k+ turn out. O’Neill opted for the 4-1-4-1 and it worked a treat. Fans were initially horrified at the return of Watson- he rightly slipped into no man’s land under Karanka but the ginger ninja put in a star performance to carry Forest to their first victory under O’Neill. Murphy started up front again and was (no surprise here) utterly awful. In fact, the performance was barely better than last week, the major difference being that we came up against a Wigan side lacking any real philosophy or style of football. 3-1 was flattering for a dull, dull affair- moments of magic from Lolley and Guediora decided the contest.
Whispers of a play-off push could only materialise if Forest went on a ruthless winning streak, particularly against sides like Birmingham who, with no disrespect, aren’t one of the big 7 of the championship this year. However Forest sincerely let down the 3100-strong fan support with a poor first half performance that couldn’t be repaired in the second. Robinson was giving the ball away needlessly in stupid areas, Watson just lashed it up field whenever he got the chance- we seemed nervy and fidgety on the ball. The introduction of Grabban, Carvalho and Bonatini saw Forest grow into the game and brought some much needed composure but we couldn’t make any late pressure count. Che Adams and Jota made our defence look like a pub side in that first half.
Ludicrous transfer window leaves no room for youth development
The January transfer window had to focus on the outs and not more ins. Appiah and Yates, two young prospects, have found it difficult to break into the first team due to the obesity of the squad. We now have five strikers expecting regular game time : Grabban, Murphy, Bonatini, Soudani, Ansarifard; myriad players on loan : Worrall, Dias, Tachtisidis, Walker while Bridcutt, Gonçalves, Figueiredo and Byram are all quality players that are either injured or have just been lost in the bowels of the club. To then go and add another average defensive midfielder on loan in Pelé (when we already have Colback, Watson, Yates, Yacob or Osborn to play there), three defenders (Milosevic and Wagué on loan, Benalouane on a permanent deal) and another out-of-form striker is nothing short of absurd.
Excluding players on loan, Forest have a 32 man first team squad- that is not what you call squad depth, that is what you call deadwood. Compare that to the great Man City who have 26 players in their first team while Birmingham, our opponents on Saturday have only 22. Yes, our defence needed bolstering for the rest of the season due to a few injuries but Benalouane would have been enough…Some players need to have a long think about whether their future lies at this club and hopefully when the congestion of our 7 loan deals are over in the summer, O’Neill can look towards integrating Appiah and Yates into the team.
Forest crying out for Carvalho
In his first game, O’Neill went for the 4-4-2 yet we had nobody creative enough in the midfield to get in behind the lines and link the defence and attack. He then opted for the 4-1-4-1 with Watson at the base of the midfield which he used again against Birmingham. The 4-1-4-1 is good at thwarting counter attacks as you always have 5 men behind the ball. However, if the striker can’t drop deep to link with the wingers and if you have no creative, attacking midfielders it is difficult to work the ball forward. The 4-1-4-1 also relies heavily on link ups down the wings and crosses into the box which, if you ask me, isn’t the most exciting way of playing. I can only speak on what I have seen of Forest’s use of the 4-1-4-1 so perhaps it can be adapted into a more possession-based style with the midfield triangle linking up to make space in the centre of the park.
All I can say, though, is that Forest have looked a shadow of themselves without Carvalho on the pitch. The Portuguese man offers the option in between the lines and just makes Forest that bit less predictable. Although, it is too early to criticise O’Neills tactics as he is still learning about his squad but if I see Murphy leading the line again against Brentford I will physically walk onto that pitch and drag him off.
Costel Pantilimon- 6/10: An up and down month for the Romanian. Made some important saves, particularly the double penalty save against Wigan. Distribution still suspect though and was undoubtedly at fault for Wigan’s goal.
Jack Robinson- 4/10: Level of performances have waned since the departure of Karanka. Has featured at left back and centre-back under O’Neill and has not been convincing in either. Gave the ball away too easily against Birmingham and generally seems flustered by the change of manager and change of system. Has the character and resilience to push through poor spells like these though.
Yohan Benalouane- 7/10: Has been a great addition to the squad in a period plagued by defensive injuries. A towering figure that is dominant in the air, tough in the tackle and is rarely knocked off the ball. Not necessarily a Guardiola centre-back- the Tunisian tends to launch the ball upfield instead of playing out from the back and is practically a walking red card due to his infamous disciplinary record at Leicester. Was unlucky to receive the red card against Birmingham though – he couldn’t have moved his hand.
Ben Osborn- 6/10: Average month for Osborn. Favoured by O’Neill for the left-back role against Bristol and Wigan, then moved into midfield against Birmingham. You can never fault his commitment and passion in games, he wears his heart on his sleeve and is always up for a physical battle. Yet I couldn’t tell you where his best position is which is never a particularly good thing. He isn’t particularly strong in one position or area which is why I think he will never be anything more than a utility player for Forest in the future.
Saidy Janko- 6/10: A difficult month for Janko in what was a difficult month for the whole club. Still think he is technically a more adept option at right-back and is less prone to errors than Darikwa. Hopefully we can renew his loan next season.
Ben Watson- 6/10: It pains me to say it, but on his return to the team against Wigan Ben Watson put in a fantastic performance. He swept up the mess in midfield and kept it simple, but felt the need to balance it out though with an awful display against Birmingham. His passing is just sideways and backwards while he doesn’t show for the ball enough in a position that should be the fulcrum of most attacks. I think one of the reasons Forest fans have this sour feeling towards Watson is because Forest are trying to move with modern football and break away from that traditional, intensely physical, long ball style that some may argue Watson represents.
Jack Colback- 7/10 : Always puts in a shift and has surely been our most consistent player of the season. I think his future under O’Neill lies at the base of that midfield 3 in the 4-1-4-1 formation. Injured against Birmingham where we lacked his tenacity.
Adlène Guediora- 4/10: A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. This man is the definition of mercurial. When will we see that scintillating form from the start of the season again ? He looks quite unfit at the moment and is giving the ball away too cheaply in the middle of the park- just hasn’t looked as sharp ever since he got that injury around the Autumn period. Still has a trick up his sleeve though, as we saw with that extraordinary assist and an even better finish against Wigan.
Joe Lolley- 7/10 : Had a much better month after dropping off the boil a bit recently. It’s a thing of pure beauty watching him glide last defenders and then nestle one in the bottom corner.
Matty Cash- 6/10: Hasn’t lit up the City Ground in recent weeks but nor has he been that poor. His finishing is clinical and his pace his always a threat but I don’t think he has the class on the ball to take Forest up.
Lewis Grabban- 5/10: Started against Bristol and struggled to get into the game alongside Murphy up front.
Daryl Murphy- 3/10: Very disappointing month for Murphy. Failed to live up to the lofty expectations set upon him by O’Neill and Keane – although they probably think he had a fantastic month. He can’t hold the ball up, has a poor first touch and is just too slow.