Flaws begin to resurface as Forest suffer blows to play-off hopes

This blog must start by mentioning the magnificent stadium redevelopments. The blueprint looks fantastic, extending the Peter Taylor stand (brining the overall capacity to a whopping 38,000) and housing a mini-museum while drastically improving facilities across the board.

Photo credit to https://www.bbc.co.uk

It’s a credit to the powers that be for modernising the stadium, preparing for a prosperous future, while at the same time managing to sustain the historic aura about the place. Driving along Trent Bridge and gazing at the Trent End rising out of the water like some mythical beast never ceases to marvel you. The sleeping giant is waking up.

It was a month that Forest had to collect nine points out of to sustain a play-off push, but could only manage four. It leaves us in 11th, three points off the top six with eight games to go. What awaits us now is a hefty task, but by no means an insurmountable one. The mood around the City Ground, naturally, is veering towards the downbeat end, down in the dumps with the ‘if only’s’ and the ‘what could have been’s’. After all, had we picked up the three points at Ipswich and managed to beat either Stoke or Villa we would be sitting pretty in 5th on 59 points. But, taking a panoramic perspective, is this not what we, as fans, expected when O’Neill returned ? It was always going to be a bumpy road, peaks and troughs galore, up and down like a rollercoaster. That is what you get in the championship, especially with a new manager and especially with one that has such close affiliations to the club. Just like we were with Karanka, we have to be patient with O’Neill and stop racing in with these ‘dinosaur’ and ‘old-school’ accusations. At the start of the season top ten was the goal, with reaching the play-offs being a very good season. So to be on our 2nd manager and only four points off the play-offs isn’t bad going. As regular readers will know, I was skeptical upon the potential of O’Neill in the modern game, but that won’t stop me, and thousands of other fans, from supporting him and Forest until the very last match.

Month overview

The month kicked off with a trip to Stoke, not exactly the date everyone was counting down their sleeps to. Nobody likes Stoke, not even the residents. The football club have earned this gutsy, physical, long-ball reputation over the past decade but part of the reason they have slid from consistent mid-table Premier League seasons to 15th in the Championship is because they’ve stopped doing what Stoke are good at. They’ve been exposed at the back and have generally lacked the fight and spirit that characterised the Tony Pulis sides of 2008-2010. Nathan Jones is not particularly a manager famed for his ability to organise defences but he is a charismatic man that knows how to motivate a group of talented players like the team at Stoke. And that was the fate that befell Forest. Stoke were up for it, and Forest matched their fight. But ultimately, the Premier League quality of Stoke shone through in what was a dull,drab affair in dull,drab Stoke. Forest had some poor performances at the back, relied heavily on Lolley for creativity and looked a bit leggy, but needed to move on in what was Stoke’s day.

With accusations of resting on their laurels after the EM derby, Forest were determined to show that they mean business in this play-off race. O’Neill went for the 4-1-2-1-2 against Hull with Murphy (much to the dismay of Forest fans) and Bonatini up front and Lolley in the no.10 role while Pelé was also granted his debut. 29,400 turned up, strangely yet delightfully eclipsing the attendance of the Derby match. The first half was poor, we struggled to keep possession but when Carvalho and Ansarifard came on for Murphy and Bonatini the game changed. Suddenly, we were keeping the ball on the floor, feeding it in behind the lines to Lolley and Carvalho who was just peeling off the main striker. This was when we really began to see the benefits of he 4-1-2-1-2. We had lots of options in midfield and in between the lines, the full backs were bombing forward to provide width and feed the ball into the strikers, who were bouncing off each other very nicely. Murphy’s presence in the first half just initiated long, direct balls and when it did get to his feet, he wasn’t good enough. And the fact that Carvalho scored a screamer, after 10 minutes of begging for his unleash, made the victory all the more sweet for Forest fans.

Two points off the play-offs in 8th place, the idea of a shot at the top six was beginning to look more and more plausible. The game on Wednesday night, against play-off rivals Aston Villa, was unanimously perceived as the biggest game of the season. Win and we move into 6th. Lose and The Villa leapfrog us into 8th. Nobody wanted another 5-5, but the 29,200 fans in attendance were ready for a firecracker.

O’Neill, wisely, started with the same side that won us the game in 10 minutes against Hull, which meant a first start for Ansarifard. Evaluating the game before kick-off, it looked as though Forest’s midfield diamond would be too physical for the Villa trio of Grealish, Hourihane and Mcginn- all fairly diminutive, skilful attacking midfielders. However, logic did not prevail as all three shone in a magnificent Villa performance. Hourihane dropped into a regista role, while Grealish and Mcginn were afforded too much time on the edge of the box to work their magic, the latter scoring two beautiful goals. Forest were perplexingly deep.

Photo credit to https://www.birminghammail.co.uk

As Villa fought their way back to 2-1 up after a flukey Jack Colback opener it was now a case of seeing the win out and counter-attacking football, a seamless shift for this quality side. Tammy Abraham began to stretch the slow Forest defence while Tyrone Mings and Kortney Haust defended stoically. Villa’s fluidity shed light upon the lack of meaningful passing, impetus and penetration from Forest, with too much sideways football from Yates and Colback. Too often have we witnessed this under O’Neill. And as Forest couldn’t manage a goal from open play against bottom of the table Ipswich 3 days later, alarm bells started ringing.

Talking points

The answer to Forest’s lack of creativity lies outside not within

It’s easy, too easy, to point the finger at O’Neill for Forest’s lack of creativity and struggle to break down resolute defences with. True, his lengthy managerial career hasn’t exactly developed a godlike status among the aesthetes- the core values of O’Neill’s sides are hard work, fight, organisation and aggressive yet competent defending. And it’s far from the expansive, free-flowing, eulogised football credited to media-darlings Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino. But Forest’s predicament- a lack of forward passing and impetus from midfield- goes beyond O’Neill’s debatably inhibiting tactics. When Guediora is taken out of the equation, Forest possess only defensive-minded midfielders, most suited to breaking up play, and keeping it simple. Pelé, Colback, Watson, Yacob, Bridcutt and even Yates are all natural no.10’s. And this doubtless translates into our clunky possession play, the reluctance to go forward and take risks, increasing the creativity burden upon the likes of Carvalho and Lolley. It was unmistakably evident against Villa when tasked with chasing the game, and similarly against Preston who were content to sit back in two blocks of four. The answer perhaps lies in the transfer market- a common theme these days, but a necessity for Forest right now. We need a box-to-box midfielder capable to drive with the ball and make those penetrative passes, but one that can also get stuck in. And then, the final, crucial question is whether our favourite Irish duo have the nous to stop starting Ben Watson.

Fantastic fans

Statistics don’t really do Forest’s support this year justice. I’m sure that if your a Forest fan you’ll have heard the “third highest Championship attendance” stat, or “highest average percentage of ground filled in Championship”. Oh, and how could I forget. This one rolls of the tongue ever so sweetly: “higher attendance than Derby”. However one must also consider the levels of disappointment Forest fans have had to deal with this year. Karanka’s departure and the subsequent on-pitch failings could have easily knocked the wind out of our sails, a sour taste lingering for the next man willing to take the baton. But we have gotten behind O’Neill, and although it helps when he is a club legend, there are still not many clubs that would reel in those sorts of numbers.

Player ratings

Costel Pantilimon- 6/10: Could have done better with all three goals against Villa. For a man of his size, he has to command his area better. Made some important saves against Ipswich though.

Jack Robinson- 5/10: Picked up a silly booking against Stoke, ruling him out for two matches. Been a bit rash recently and needs to relax into his old form. Perhaps trying too hard to impress Martin’n’Keano.

Ben Osborn- 8/10: MOTM against Hull at left-back. Got down the wing menacingly, eager to be involved in the attack like any good full-back is. If he wants to gain a regular place in this Forest side, he needs to focus his efforts on left back.

Alexander Milosevic- 6/10: Part of a poor defensive performance against Stoke but generally had another solid month.

Yohan Benaloaune- 6/10: Continues to exceed expectations at the City Ground. Along with Milosevic, he struggled against Stoke but apart from that the partnership remains a formidable one.

Photo credit to https://www.birminghammail.co.uk

You can tell he understands what it means to sport the Garibaldi as well- the Tunisian rock is always praising the fans in his interviews, elaborating over the high ambitions of this club and is even getting involved in some community work. What a man.

Tendayi Darikwa- 7/10: O’Neill’s decision to omit Darikwa from the starting 11 upon his arrival was clearly an unjustified one, but the Zimbabwean international has forced his way back into the side with some great performances. The development of this man is unbelievable. Struggling to make the bench under Warburton, Darikwa became the centre of criticism as fans were disgusted with another potential relegation battle on the cards. But he kept his head down, perfected his game on the training ground and Karanka managed to harness this spirit and translate it into stellar performances. He looks like a player that can take us into the Premier League and Janko will be rivalling him for the spot all the way.

Molla Wague- 7/10: Made it 2 goals in 3 games against Ipswich in a decent all round performance.

Jack Colback- 6/10: No doubt, Colback is at his most effective in the defensive midfield role, but his tireless work has still been creditable. Him, Yates and Pelé are far too defensive minded for a midfield trio, non of them really possessing the attributes of driving with the ball and penetrative passing.

Pelé- 6/10: An outstanding performance on his debut against Hull was followed by two error-laden matches against Ipswich and Villa. He is a physical presence and composed on the ball, looking to go forward. That composure, admittedly, can sometimes veer into laxity and he loses the ball often. But that could just be him adjusting to the rapid, intense nature of the Championship.

Ryan Yates- 5/10: Has a mediocre month after a breakout February.

Joe Lolley- 8/10: Carries this Forest side sometimes. He is one of the only players constantly looking to go forward and dribble past players, which he does with such ease and proficiency. We have to hold on to him in the summer.

Joao Carvalho- 8/10: Came on and completely changed the game against Hull but like Lolley, is one of the only creative presences in this side. O’Neill has deployed him in almost a 4-1-2-2-1, partnering the aforementioned Lolley behind the striker. Against Villa, however, he had to come short to collect the ball as there was nothing getting fed through to him, which subsequently isolated Ansarifard. Only will we reap the real benefits of Carvalho when we have people capable to play off him. He has had a great first season of English football but there is so much more to come.

Daryl Murphy- 6/10: Started against Stoke and Ipswich but was isolated both times, with his presence just initiating long balls. It may seem harsh, but I wake up every morning and check my phone to see if he has retired.

Karim Ansarifard- 6/10: Was average when started against Villa, but didn’t get sufficient service.

Leo Bonatini- 6/10: Probably best as a lone striker, Bonatini and Murphy didn’t combine very well together in the first half against Hull.

English football back to it’s best

As Damir Skomina blew the full time whistle in Nice, it felt like English football had smacked rock bottom. The Three Lions, or the three kittens as it was, had just been embarrassingly overturned by Iceland. Yes, Iceland. The country whose population is roughly a third of that of. Birmingham. The country to have never qualified for a major tournament. The team made up of dentists and plumbers. They had outplayed England. And as we forlornly packed our scarves, flags and retro kits away for another two years , it felt like we were settling into a new normal. Mediocrity. But not just with the national side.

Courtesy of SkySports.com

From the 2009/10 Champions League to the 2015/16 there had been only four English semi-finalists compared to Spain’s thirteen. A very poor record. Gone were the days of English semi-finals, Benitez and Mourinho outwitting opposition coaches and teams actually fearing Man Utd. Dare we say that the tide has turned ? For the first team since 2008/09, four English clubs have qualified for the quarter-finals and there is a feasible chance that one of them could bring the trophy home. It seems a little hasty to claim that English clubs are back at the helm in Europe, but the fact of the matter is that this isn’t a freak season, rather a continuation of the gradual resurgence of English football.

We hear the same old slogans and platitudes time and time again in the Premier League. ‘The best league in the world’, it is marketed. Indeed, it is often the most competitive- no other league has 6 sides gunning for the title in such relentless manners. But you would have to stretch back to the Benitez, Fergie, Mourinho era of 2005-2009 for when the Premier League actually had the best teams in Europe.

Rafa and Mourinho were both very similar managers, joining their respective clubs in June 2004. What they both became renowned for was their reactive football and obsession with the opposition. Jose Mourinho demanded hours of research from his coaching staff and would dedicate a whole day to tactics every week. Rafa Benitez, meanwhile, once described himself as ‘a loner with a laptop’. Neither were gifted with an exceptionally gifted bunch of players, but their judicious tactics and squad versatility is what brought so much success.

And this success (a Champions league and an FA cup for Benitez, and two Premier leagues and an FA cup for Mourinho) was underpinned by three main qualities: clean sheets, defending from the front and organisation. This was epitomised most resoundingly in Mourinho’s scorning comments over Arsenal’s 5-4 win against Tottenham in 2004. “5-4 is a hockey score, not a football score,” he mocked. “In a 3v3 training match, if the score reaches 5-4 I send the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly.” They only conceded 15 goals all season.

United were a different prospect. Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2006-2009 side were not just mesmerising to watch, but were serial winners, collecting three consecutive Premier League titles and winning 9 knock-out Champions league ties in three years. Unlike Mourinho and Benitez, Ferguson had the enviable yet difficult task of trying to fit as many of his stars into one team. His system relied upon the fluid movement and interchanges of the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez on the counter-attack. United would absorb pressure in the big games, with Vidic and Ferdinand forming an impermeable defensive partnership, and then look to terrorise teams with pace and intensity on the counter-attack. It was electric.

At this point, the Premier League had the best players, best managers and were the most competitive sides in Europe. However, unlike the Spanish dynasty over the past decade, this dominance was only to be short-lived. By 2011, both Mourinho and Benitez had been sacked, Pep’s Barcelona were becoming too hot to handle ( beating Man Utd in two finals in two years ), and then in 2013 Sir Alex Ferguson saw it rational to step down as Manchester United manager after 27 glorious years. With Arsenal and Wenger also strangled with the financial wrath of moving to The Emirates, the quality of the Premier League seemed to be crumbling away. Indeed, for the next 5 years, English clubs were  outthought, outwitted, and outclassed in the Champions League. Enter Klopp, Guardiola and Pochettino…

Klopp, Pep and Poch have no doubt revolutionised English football, but it is easily forgotten that they all needed one or two seasons to perfect their system, and really stamp down their blueprint and philosophies. Klopp’s tactical imprint was immediately visible- high-pressing, high-intensity, rock and roll football. Guardiola, influenced by the tutelage of Cruyff, believes in patient possession play, moving the opponent around until gaps are created in the defence. Pochettino’s system is something of a mixture of the two, but is lauded most for his work with young players. However, all three encountered huge defensive problems in their inaugural seasons.

sANE

Image courtesy of http://www.gistmania.com

With Guardiola it was adjusting to playing out from the back, Klopp’s issue was a case of personnel while Tottenham just lacked organisation at times. Yet this year, we have seen a newfound resilience from these sides. Spurs capitulated against Juventus in the Champions League last year, City were far too open as Liverpool blew them away in 20 minutes and we all know how shaky that Liverpool defence used to be. Compare that to this season with Tottenham keeping two clean sheets against an in-form Borussia Dortmund, no Bayern Munich player scoring against Liverpool over two legs and Manchester City conceding only 21 goals all season in the Premier League then the transformation is stark. It is gaining that perfect blend of an attacking football philosophy and a strong, sturdy spine that has seen four English sides rise into the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009. English football is back. The best coaches, the best players, the most competitive. Who nows, maybe this really is the beginning of an era of pure English dominance. Even the national side aren’t doing too shabby.

Champions League predicitions

Quarter-finals

Ajax 2-1 Juventus, Juventus 3-0 Ajax (Juventus 4-2 Ajax)

Liverpool 2-0 Porto, Porto 1-0 Liverpool (Liverpool 2-1 Porto)

Tottenham 1-1 Manchester City, Manchester City 4-0 Tottenham (Man City 5-1 Spurs)

Man Utd 2-2 Barcelona, Barcelona 0-0 Man Utd (Barcelona go through on away goals)

Semi-finals

Manchester City 1-1 Juventus, Juventus 2-1 Manchester City (Juventus 3-2 Man City)

Barcelona 1-0 Liverpool, Liverpool 0-2 Barcelona ( Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool )

Final

Juventus 2-2 Barcelona (Juventus win on penalties)