Allegri shown the door, Wagner returns to Shalke and Potter is off to Brighton

As another captivating year of football in Europe sizzles to a close, board members from around the continent hold integral meetings, assess the season a whole, pinpoint what went well or what went wrong, and identify ‘tweaks to the current roster’ – sackings . Sadly, at this time of year, they are as ripe as ever. And I say sadly because I mean sadly. Too often in football do we act with such flippancy on managers losing their jobs, jeering “you’re getting sacked in the morning”, betting on who will be the next to get the chop, and telling them to “f*** off” on social media after a couple of poor results . Yes, we let our passion get the better of us sometimes but it is no real excuse. What you forget is that in modern day professional football, managers devote their entire lives to the club. It takes hour after hour of training ground drills, opposition research and tactical preparation. It takes travelling all across the continent. It takes the rollercoaster of the pain of the lows, and the thrills of the highs. And then it’s all gone. You’re a failure. “I remember that sense of hopelessness, having to go home and tell my kids I’ve lost my job,” Gareth Southgate powerfully recalled in the new BBC show: ‘A Royal Team Talk’, a mental health awareness-raiser. Harsh, sackings can be, but nonetheless necessary at times.

Make no bones about it, Massimiliano Allegri is, and will forever be, a legend of Juventus Football Club. Five consecutive Scudetti, four consecutive Italian league cups and two Champions League Finals. The old lady have been relentless under his guidance. When a club wins a league almost effortlessly for a sustained period, as Juventus have done over the past eight seasons, it undermines the achievement- rather than adorns it. PSG make Ligue 1 look like farmer’s league, the Bundesliga is becoming a foregone conclusion before it even starts, and it’s pretty telling that Allegri was given the boot after securing his 5th consecutive Scudetti. Though, as much as we malign these clubs for their embarrassment of riches, warding off renewed, hungry competition year in year out is no mean feat. Napoli pushed Juve right to the wire last season, Bayern were 7 points behind Dortmund in November and the likes of Lyon and Monaco have given PSG a good run for their money in recent years- the latter actually winning the title in 2017. It is in Europe though, where seasons are defined for these ‘superclubs’. And Juve have fallen short too often.

Allegri isn’t exactly your modern, charismatic aesthete. His Juventus team revolves around defensive solidity, and a high energy midfield providing freedom to the frontmen. It’s a reactive system, and one that relies on individual brilliance in attack. Over the past 5 European seasons, The Old Lady have never “bottled it”, or “chocked”, despite being one of the favourites every year. This season, the vibrant youngsters of Ajax just edged them with that extra pace in the quarter-final second leg; last season, again in the quarters, a dubious penalty decision in the 97th minute handed Real Madrid the tie. And then there were two finals. Barça in 2015, Madrid in 2017. Outclassed both times. Juve can’t seem to break the glass ceiling, even after brining in arguably the greatest Champions League performer of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo. It signified urgent change, and that starts from the top. Allegri departs with his head held high, with chairman, best friend and flat-mate Andrea Agnelli bidding an emotional farewell in an emotional final press-conference. But they desperately- and urgently considering their humongous expenditure on the wages of Ronaldo, Ramsey etc. – need something new, an injection of freshness, to retain their place at the summit of Europe for the first time since 96.

In terms of replacements for Allegri, options aren’t too plentiful. Sarri stands out as an obvious candidate, considering his stylistic brand of football and high regard held among the Italian media. Ronaldo and Sarri together though ? Come on, that’s never going to work. Sarrismo requires players willing to put the team before themselves, for every player to contribute to the passing moves, which Ronaldo doesn’t necessarily bring to the table. And there’s not a chance in hell Juve will clear out Ronaldo to make way for a manager. He is, as is described in NFL, The Old Lady’s ‘franchise cornerstone’. Guardiola or Pochettino ?- far too much money to prise away from their respective clubs and then fund their hefty wages. Simone Inzaghi, though, is a realistic proposition. The young Italian manager guided Lazio to within a hairs width of the top four last year on limited resources, and also won the Italian Cup on Wednesday. He improves players, brings a positive brand of football, and has shown he is tactically astute in his flexibility of systems and judicious substitutions.

Graham Potter- once labelled the ‘English Guardiola’. Although maybe a slightly outlandish comparison, his footballing philosophy does emulate that of the two-time Champions League winning Spaniard. Potter’s Swansea love to control possession, move defences around and then pounce into gaps. The Swans played some of the best football in the Championship last season, and finished a respectable 10th on low resources, while often finding themselves on the wrong side of luck. They even showed up Manchester City themselves in the FA cup, going 2-0 up after a wonderful, free-flowing passing move for the second. City eventually clawed it back, though it proved to be their toughest challenge of the whole competition.

There’s something about Brighton that seems like an ideal destination for Potter. For a Premier League club that reels in around 30,000 fans every week, The Seagulls go under the radar. They get limited media attention, limited televised matches and rarely spark heated debates or discussion. They kind of just sit there. Potter is free to experiment with his new squad, try out new players in new positions, abandon this ‘safety first’ culture developed by Chris Hughton. There are bound to be cracks in the system at first, it is a given when switching from two managers almost the antithesis of each other. Hughton was an ultra-conservative, and Potter’s ethos is all about being positive on the ball, taking risks and playing on the front-foot. For starters, the outstanding yet traditional centre-back pairing of Dunk and Duffy are going to need to get more comfortable on the ball. Glenn Murray, well, won’t be able to do what Glenn Murray does best. Namely, knock down long balls and finish scraps in the six yard box. Potter needs a striker willing to link play, as Oliver McBurnie did for him at Swansea. In truth, should the fixture list present a daunting start for Brighton, it could all go horribly wrong for Potter- it will take time for him to mould this Swansea side to his will. You can envisage The Seagulls going the first 5 or 6 matches without a win. A huge gamble for boring Brighton, but what’s life without a few risks, eh ?

Few outside of Germany recognise the sheer size of FC Schalke 04. The 7x German Champions rack up around 60,000 fans every week, and hold one of the most revered academies in the country, most recently producing stars such as Julian Draxler, Leroy Sané, Mesut Özil and Manuel Neuer. The Veltins-Arena has been a hostile environment of late, with fans growing frustrated at the levels of underperformance in the past five years. The general expectation at Schalke is consistent Champions League football, which they’ve only been able to meet once in the past five seasons, while also registering some particularly insipid finishes of 10th in 2017 and 14th this year. Schalke appointed Domenico Tedesco at the end of their underwhelming 2016/17 season- a controversial decision. The chronically inexperienced 33 year-old had never played football professionally, his CV solely consisting of an 11 match spell at German second divison side FC Erzgebirge Aue, whom Tedesco clawed from the depths of relegation to 14th. His inaugural season (2017/18) at the Veltins-arena sparked cautious hope, as Schalke soared to 2nd place. Yet this season it all fell to pieces. 14th, Schalke ended up. Poor recruitment played it’s part, so did a 7-0 mauling at Manchester City- bringing an abrupt end to what was a bright Champions League campaign, reaching the round of 16. But, at times- and this is what really pushed the Schalke faithful over the edge- the players, bar one or two, cut uninterested figures. Fans need players willing to do anything for the badge, willing to put their bodies on the line, willing to chase down every ball. Fans need players who know what it means to wear the shirt. It lights this fire within us. And, unfortunately, too many Schalke players didn’t understand what it means to play for the shirt. David Wagner does.

Remember him ? The guy you just wanted to cuddle up and put in your pocket. David Wagner, ladies and gents, he’s back. The German just about managed to leave Huddersfield in time with his reputation intact, and will take a massive step up next season as he becomes the manager of Schalke. A bizarre appointment, no ? That is, until you get some context behind it. Wagner played for two years at Schalke, winning the UEFA Cup in 1997. He knows what it means to be a Schalke player- he understands the club, the responsibility, the expectations- something which very few have been able to do in recent years. Let’s be realistic. Wagner is not going to be a steaming sensation, he’s not going to play beautiful, free-flowing football (think Huddersfield), or attract the big-name players to Gelsenkirchen. But what he will do- being the likable, amiable human being that he is- is rekindle the bond between fans and players. And that is what it is most important right now.

Kit review: Buriram United, Thailand’s finest

Buriram United. Thailand’s most decorated football team, winning 7 of the 22 championships since the Thai League 1 began in 1996. They currently preside in 2nd place after 10 games, with a game in hand on the leaders, Port F.C. Managed by the Montenegrin, Božidar Bandović (former Olympiacos manager), Buriram share a vicious rivalry with Muangthong, their closest competitors for the title in recent years. The Thai League runs from February to October and Buriram sported this gem of a kit in their resounding 2018 title win, when The Thunder Castles won the league by a whopping 16 points. In terms of aesthetics, it’s not bad at all to say it was only £15 from a grubby corner shop in Phuket. Although maybe slightly over-sponsored, the Thai tag brings some much-needed eccentricity to the shirt, history lives on in the star studded sleeves while the old reliable collar adds a bit off class. Not the sort you’d casually wear – but a nice one to add to the collection.

Comfort: 6.5

Aesthetics: 8

Uniqueness: 7

Rarity: 8

Retro factor: 1

Overall rating: 8

Liverpool and Spurs remind us why we all love football

As Lucas Moura nipped in between De Ligt and Tagliafico, and a rasping corner from Trent Alexander-Arnold connected with the inside of Divock Origi’s right foot, there was an eerie, somewhat elemental inevitability of the outcome. Or- as it is universally regarded- it was the magic of that crazy game we call football. It is when something simply has no right to happen, when every stat on the face of the earth is contradicting, when the odds aren’t merely stacked against it- but they tower over it. Yet somehow, somehow the impossible weaves it’s way through. The forces of nature spontaneously synchronise and in those moments no expected goals stat, 1-7-2 formation, or isotonic drink can have it’s say. Football takes over.

Liverpool progressing to Madrid was such a ludicrous proposition that Barcelona’s Chilean midfielder, Arturo Vidal, said he would donate his left testicle should it come true. On top of the ridiculous goal turnover required, Liverpool had two key men- Salah and Firmino- out injured and had just ground out an exhausting 3-2 victory away to Newcastle. La Blaugrana meanwhile, had the luxury of a fully rested 11 having wrapped up the title early. It was Origi, Shaqiri and Mane against a back four and goalkeeper with a combined total of 56 major trophies. Liverpool battled, dug deep, and dared to dream.

Fight, belief and passion. Three Victorian sporting virtues in many ways levelled as criticism at English sides in the past, thought to be partnered by a technical incompetence. In the glory years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, a period where Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston villa shared 7 European titles in 8 seasons, English football was all about physicality and directness with a pinch of finesse on the side. The likes of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton and Tony Pulis’ Stoke have stretched that stereotype far beyond its best before date as since Cantona, Bergkamp and Zola revolutionised their respective clubs, the Premier League has undergone a total foreign overhaul, with the archetypal English ideology only remaining in increments.

‘Direct’, and ‘physical’ have become, rather unfairly, derogative terms, words used to describe those technically restricted. Yet, many forget, that Klopp- a man lauded for the thrilling football he brings to his sides- and his Liverpool side epitomise this philosophy. And it was coined in that special night on Wednesday. We all love those moving underdog stories. The pumped, pressure-free outsiders making it ever so awkward for the off-colour favourites- it never gets old. The way Barcelona spluttered in possession, the way they couldn’t handle Liverpool’s energy, the way Trent Alexander Arnold mystified the whole defence with one pass. Anfield had it’s part to play too. The Kop was sucking the ball into the net in that second half, as Klopp and Liverpool proved the English philosophy of attitude over ability still reigns supreme.

At the Johan Cruyff Arena, a different, more freakish narrative unfolded. The young lions of Ajax were in cruise control for 135 minutes of this tie, until the magic of football struck once more. 3-0 down on aggregate, outwitted, outran, outclassed by Ajax, Spurs were all but out. A hairdryer treatment from Harry Kane at half-time and Spurs, with nothing left to play for, came to terms with the fact that this was the defining moment in their season. 45 minutes later, De Ligt, De Jong et al were slumping to the ground in sheer despair. Tottenham had done it.

For Ajax, it was a lack of experience (along with some awful luck), and you can only imagine how it must have felt. There were myriad opportunities where they could have lumped it to the corners in the last five minutes but they were not pragmatic enough. It is a match that this young squad will learn from. For Barcelona, however, there is no excuse. They let a three-goal lead slip last year against Roma and should have learned their lesson. There are many experienced heads in that Barcelona side, and Valverde’s position in charge- no matter how convincingly they have been in Europe this year- will come under scrutiny. For ‘superclubs’ like Barcelona, your season will be judged on how you perform in the Champions League. And for two seasons in a row, Valverde’s man-management over two legs has not been adequate. Fans of both teams must remember this feeling, the shock, the despondence, the anger. Their team will rise again, and the glory will taste even sweeter. For now though, the world of football must celebrate the momentous achievements of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. Particularly the former. Only a couple of months ago did I write a blog titled “Has the Champions league lost it’s magic”, criticising UEFA over their unfair financial distribution. With a net spend of £0, Spurs have taken on Europe’s big boys, and staked their place in Champions League history. Pochettino breaking down in his post-match interview, Harry Kane’s ‘ankle injury’ vanishing, Moura in tears as he watches back commentary. I love football.

3-4-2-1 system and why Carvalho is so key.

Well, this feels weird. Not only have Forest finally won a match away, but it is the first time all season that we have won at home and then followed it up on the road. We had our fair share of luck against QPR with the penalty save and stifling pressure late on, but it has been a completely different Forest to the one that we have seen throughout most of April, coinciding with a drastic yet logical change in system.

3-4-2-1 system- the pros and cons

It is impossible for a team to move seamlessly into a back three, especially when the back four has been a staple all season. It takes time and work on the training ground for the left and right centre-backs and their respective wing-backs to develop a bond and understanding of position, or the gap between the two is exploited easily. It happened countless times at Loftus Road on Saturday, with QPR getting in behind with simple through balls while Osborn was the wrong side of his man. We scrambled our way out of it in the end, but the threat was constant.

In attack, though, the transformation is stark. With Osborn and Byram always offering an option out wide, our ball-retention has been much better – something O’Neill said he wanted to work on. The 4-1-4-1, a formation Pep Guardiola favoured at Bayern, with the midfield diamond keeping possession between them, was too narrow and tight for Forest and a lack of quality in midfield meant that keeping the ball in that area was just not possible. The 3-4-2-1 is more expansive, and our full backs and centre-halfs: Wague, Robinson and Milosevic, are all comfortable on the ball.

The system also gives freedom to our two most dangerous players- Lolley and Carvalho. With those two liberated, we are more penetrative and unpredictable, creating more chances for the striker, whether it be Ansarifard, Grabban or, god forbid, Murphy. This was epitomised in Ansarifard’s winner on Saturday, which involved some beautiful link up play on the edge of the box before an assured finish from the Iranian. However, as with everything in life, the system has it’s downfalls. A common 4-3-3 always counters a 3-4-2-1, with bombarding full-backs and wingers creating overloads on the flanks while the 4-3-3 also has an extra man in middle of the park. Two key areas on the pitch where the 3-4-2-1 can be overran.

Carvalho steps up

Carvalho vs Middllesbrough was perhaps the greatest individual performance in the past four or five years on Trentside. Forest’s record-breaking signing has been sidelined since O’Neill came in, but returned to the side with the Midas touch. He looked every penny of that 13 millions pounds- we saw travela passes; unstoppable twists, mesmerising turns, arrogant flicks and illegal nutmegs. In fact, when he left two baffled Middlesbrough players in his wake with a nutmeg and drop of the shoulder, there were legitimate groans of joy reverberating around Main Stand. It was jaw-dropping. Yet, inevitably, the eulogising didn’t last long- it was soon followed by the uproar. Why in the name of God has this man not been starting ? And then we were back to where we were at the start of the match- fingers pointed at O’Neill, the fantastic result an irrelevance. Although you can’t defend O’Neill here ( he has been making an awful error leaving Carvalho out, simple), it’s naïve to perceive his omission from the starting XI as the sole reason for Forest’s turgid run of 4 losses on the bounce. The rest of the team have been so dreadful that it’s highly unlikely that had he been playing, we would still be in contention for a play-off spot. And let’s not forget- Carvalho hasn’t been putting these performances in all season. He often cut a lethargic figure under Karanka, and was not by any means consistent. Indeed, there were flashes of real quality- but he never really dictated a game like he did against Middlesbrough. Rested and regathered, and with another bright performance under his belt at Loftus Road, it is safe to say he has got his mojo back. It is essential Forest hold on to him in the summer. After a year of adjustment to the English game, the young Portuguese wizard will be chomping at the bit for the dawn of the 2019-2020 season, doubtless a significant one in the path of his career.

Player ratings: April

Costel Pantilimon- 5/10: Distribution is hopeless and just can’t get down quick enough. Saved a penalty though at QPR.

Yohan Benalouane- 4/10: Starting to see the rash, hot-headed side of the Tunisian now. Sent off against Sheffield United in an erratic month.

Molla Wague- 7/10: Comfortable with the ball at his feet, brilliant in the air and very quick. The perfect modern day centre-back. Forest need this man on a permanent deal.

Ben Osborn- 7/10: Settled in very well to the wing-back role. If he’s going to sneak into the side anywhere, it’s here. Got good stamina, pace, and a decent football brain. Valuable asset to the squad.

Alex Milosevic- 8/10

Jack Robinson-6/10

Saidy Janko- 6/10

Sam Byram- 8/10: Nice to see Byram return from a terrible injury. Definitely our most accomplished right-back. Need to sign him on a permanent deal.

Jack Colback- 5/10: A disappointing end to a very positive loan spell with the Reds. Was suspended for the last 3 games of the season with too many yellow cards.

Ryan Yates- 5/10: A limited footballer. Picks up the pieces well and is a physical presence, but needs quality beside him.

Pele- 7/10: Possesses an abundance of quality and skill on the ball, but just needs to adjust to the pace of the Championship. Gets caught dawdling far too often.

Lolley- 8/10

Cash- 6/10

Grabban- 5/10: Seems to be fading a bit, looking very leggy and not sharp enough.

Murphy- 5/10

Carvalho- 9/10

Appiah- 7/10: Great to see academy products being given chances. Had a few bright touches but just needs to get on the ball a bit more.

Short-termists rear their ugly heads towards O’Neill.

I know, I know. Telling a Forest fan to be more patient is like asking a blind man to try harder to see, or nagging at Messi to improve his dribbling. Insensitive, arrogant and barely possible. The Reds faithful will forever be renowned for its unstinting support, the visceral connection to the club even through the dark days of Platt and Fawaz, and even after twenty long, fatiguing years outside England’s elite tier, the fans stand up to be counted. However, I think it’s fair to say this season has, despite being on course for a highest league finish in 5 years, been one of the most dispiriting of them all. True, it’s had it’s peaks: reclaiming the Brian Clough trophy, doing the double over Middlesbrough; some mesmerising displays and goals from our record signing Joao Carvalho and Joe Lolley; a memorable New Years Day victory over Leeds and an enthralling 5-5 draw with Aston Villa.

But, regardless, the underlying feeling on Trentside is one of disappointment. Promises have been broken, loved ones have left and club legends have been vilified. The latter absolutely despicable, and our fanbase should be embarrassed. On myriad occasions I have been scrolling through twitter only to see “F*** Off O’Neill” or “Dinosaur out” from idiots that choose to call themselves Forest fans. Martin O’Neill has won two European Cups with this club and is an integral figure in the clubs history. It is vile, disrespectful, and some of the criticism undermining his managerial prowess is downright untrue. The man is a serial winner, succeeding at pretty much everywhere he has been as manager. Two League Cups at Leicester; three-time SPFL champion with Celtic; guided Villa to three 6th place finishes on the trot and and even lead ROI to the Euro 2016 round of 16. Substance over style and diligence in his players have been the overarching factors, but that’s not say to say it has been Allardyce-esque long-ball stuff and if you listen to his recent interviews, he is determined to implement a positive footballing philosophy into this Forest side. What we’ve seen for the last 3 months is him doing all he can to try and get the necessary results – which, admittedly, he failed to do so. Yet, and some don’t realise this, he was not in a situation whereby he could walk into a dressing room somewhat bereft from Karanka’s departure, outline this attacking, proactive, front-foot football on a squad that was built around a reactive system.

That’s not to say he hasn’t made mistakes at Forest. Ostracising Carvalho, banking on goals and performances from Murphy and mistaking Yates for a No.10. But, and this is an enticing prospect for any Forest fan, with time and acceptance from fans, we just might see a little less of old Daryl as O’Neill wipes his glasses and begins to fathom his incompetence. We find ourselves back at the buzzword of patience. Hard to ask for more of it from fans, yet entirely necessary if O’Neill really is going to really get to grips with this squad and fulfil his project here at the City Ground.

Why San Siro is the most magical stadium on the planet

Your hungry eyes are first greeted by the protruding, maroon, metal slabs, positioned at each corner of San Siro like wings on some interstellar orb. Star-struck, and gaining closer to the place you’ve been dreaming of for the past month, you’re instantly drawn to the iconic coiled columns, engines, poised to shoot off into a distant galaxy. And as the undulating roof, the tunnelling facade and the razor teeth of the upper-tier come flooding into view you really are half-expecting some green, one-eyed, eight-handed creatures to stumble across the car park. But don’t let the futuristic looks fool you. The stadium hasn’t been fully renovated for 30 years. And this is where the magic lies. San Siro manages to marry old and new, authenticity and freshness. It is, for FTT, having also visited the Camp Nou (it’s only other feasible rival), the greatest stadium on the planet.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to visit Milan, have a tour of the San Siro and also watch an Inter Milan game there. If anyone knows anything about the San Siro, it is that it is one of the few stadiums in Europe shared by two clubs- two giants, at that. How they manage it, is somewhat fascinating. AC Milan and Inter Milan have long shared a fierce, bitter local rivalry, dating back to the years of Giuseppe Meazza- arguably the greatest Italian footballer of all time who made the controversial switch from Inter to Milan (and whom the stadium is formally named after). The contrasting philosophies between the two sides is most starkly portrayed in, well, quite an unlikely place: the changing rooms. Milan’s holds 23 leather-decked thrones, reminding each individual their privilege and importance of playing for the club, valuing the talent and power of an individual very highly. When you think of Milan, you think of Rijkarrd, Van Basten, Baresi, Maldini, Gullet, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Cafu. Inter, though, opt for the simple bench, emitting teamwork, squad chemistry and bonding.

And the Nerazurri were doubtless the more successful club in the start of the 19th century, winning 3 Serie A’s and 1 Coppa Italia in the 1930’s but over time the honours have evened themselves out, with both clubs now tied on 30 domestic trophies, and a few memorable spells of pure dominance. For Milan it was their back-to-back European cup wins in the late 80’s under the legendary Arrigo Sacchi, while Inter fans will never forget winning four league titles on the trot between 2006 and 2010, polished off with an emphatic treble under Mourinho in the final year.

It seems ludicrous that these two heavyweights don’t hold a stadium of their own, which they used to, in fact. Inter used to play their home matches at a ground called Arena Civica while Milan were at the San Siro. In 1935, though, Milan sold the stadium to the city council, who felt it necessary to bolster the size of the ground and improve the facilities as football became a real fashion, and was beginning to globalise. Inter played their first game in the San Siro in 1945, and although the stadium has gone under multiple renovations, they still share it to this day. Indeed, there is much hassle.

Inter ultras at the San Siro.

Decorations are completely changed weekly, fixture lists have to be meticulously planned (one team home, the other away), and then you have to go about satisfyng both sets of ‘ultras’ (groups of hardcore, Italian fans), which is by no means a simple task. Yet, after 30 years of practice, the transition is seamless and, for me anyway, San Siro is somewhat otherworldly in the way that such a gigantic monument can morph into it’s polar opposite so frequently.

You sometimes forget how different football can be just 800 miles away. I was dismayed by the smoking permitted at matches, taken aback by the noise and passion of the ultras (which makes the Lower Bridgford End at the City Ground look like a family stand), and having played against an Italian side and also having watched two youth Inter matches (one of which being a feisty Milan derby), noticing the pre-match clapping for the parents who have brought them there was admirable to say the least. The visit to Milan reminded FTT of the sheer beauty of football, the way it brings all corners of life together, the contrasting cultures, the diversity- a game where everyone can find their place. Oh, and by the way, Pepperoni pizza is really not what you think it is in Italy.

Yes, Pepperoni pizza is red peppers on pizza.

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.