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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.