Right now, it’s hard to be positive as a Nottingham Forest fan. Their unbeaten home run has come to an end, their atrocious away record continues, the injuries keep piling up and the teams around them are picking up points. The next few weeks present an opportunity to salvage their season and move away from the bottom three – here’s how they can do it.
You’ll be hard pushed to find a side with more injury problems this season than Nottingham Forest; Dean Henderson, Omar Richards, Moussa Niakhate, Willy Boly, Scott Mckenna, Giulian Biancone, Cheikhou Kouyate, Jesse Lingard, Orel Mangala, Ryan Yates, Taiwo Awoniyi and Chris Wood have all struggled with long-term injuries, whilst star duo Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson have struggled with their own fitness.
That’s 14 key first-team players sidelined for a portion of the season. Any side in a similar situation would be struggling to meet expectations, and unfortunately for Forest, that expectation is to stay in the Premier League.
It could go from bad to worse, as summer signing Serge Aurier has just picked up a knock on international duty, Steve Cooper will be crossing his fingers that the Ivorian has avoided any serious issues. Aside from Aurier’s knock, the international break has come at the ideal time for Forest to recuperate some of their injured personnel.
Cheikhou Kouyate and Taiwo Awoniyi have both recently returned to training, with Scott Mckenna and Willy Boly not too far behind. For the past couple of months, Nottingham Forest have been poor without a number of their key players, this has seen them lose their grasp on mid-table and free fall into touching distance of the bottom-three – but with the return of Boly, Kouyate and Awoniyi, Cooper has the opportunity to rebuild the core of a team that has looked spineless in recent weeks.
One of Forest’s biggest issues is how easy they’ve been to breakdown. Their midfield has been near enough nonexistent, with opposing teams bypassing the midfield three with ease, and with no creativity to unlock Forest’s attacking talents. Ryan Yates has been the difference maker in the middle, with the determination to stop attacks but also the desire to get forward when in possession, and will hopefully be back fully fit after the international break.
Issues still continue across the middle, with Remo Freuler and Jonjo Shelvey often looking like bystanders when on the pitch – although the latter’s passing range could become crucial in supporting Cooper’s attacking style of play. After the international break, both Yates and Kouyate should be ready to be reintroduced in the first team, and their additions could be exactly what Nottingham Forest needs to release Shelvey of his defensive duties and get more out of a disjointed attack.
After 30 new arrivals over the last two windows, Cooper still doesn’t know who his best 11 are. Team sheets have often left fans confused, and his persistence to play the likes of Freuler and Shelvey together in midfield, or Chris Wood in attack often shoots himself in the foot. The return of so many first-team players, Cooper’s selection headaches are only going to get worse, but it is for the better. The team that Cooper will have at his disposal for the remainder of the season should give him enough quality to steer his side clear of the bottom three, he just has to use it correctly.
Ideally, going into the next fixture at Wolves, Cooper needs to go all out, start his best 11 and do what he can to get three points – with no disrespect to Wolves, this will be one of the easier opportunities for the Reds to grab three points in their final 11 games. For too long we’ve seen Nottingham Forest sit deep in most games and look for defensive mistakes or half chances to get forward. It doesn’t work. I can’t remember the last time Forest looked convincing when going forward, that has to change against Wolves and Leeds.
The Reds need to play on the front foot, and create as many chances as possible – with what we’ve seen from Emmanuel Dennis and Brennan Johnson, if they get chances, they will take them.
Forest’s backline is tough, especially Felipe and Keylor Navas, but if you continue to hit them you’ll find a way past, as many teams have shown. The midfield needs to take some of the pressure of the defence and offer an outlet to Johnson, Gibbs-White and Dennis who we know can punish opposing keepers.
The next two fixtures see Forest going up against two other relegation candidates, two fixtures Forest have to take at least four points from. It won’t get easier after either, with a run seeing them face Aston Villa, Manchester United, Liverpool, Brighton and Brentford. Assuming Forest don’t get much from those five fixtures, the next two games against Leeds and Wolves are season defining – take points off them and Forest will be in a good situation to navigate the tough weeks to come and looking at both Wolves and Leeds’ recent games, I think they have the quality to do so.
When the international break ends, Steve Cooper’s side will be well rested, rejuvenated and full of quality with the return of a number of key players – yet there is still one big factor at play.
Let’s be honest, Nottingham Forest have been bad, really bad, but so has everyone else around them. Leicester have lost four of their last five, West Ham have only won twice this year, and Bournemouth can’t find the back of the net – and that’s just me unfairly singling out three teams. There are nine teams in this relegation battle; obviously, Forest only have to be better than three of them to stay up and they’ve currently got four teams below them – they still have their heads above the water.
Games against Wolves and Leeds are massive relegation six-pointers. If Forest can come out of them with three or more points you’ll fancy their chances of remaining in the Premier League.
There is a long way to go, but the power is in their hands. If Cooper can reintegrate the returning players, get his team firing on all cylinders and stop getting his team to sit back, then Forest could have enough to finish as high as 12th. I mean at this point I’ll snap your hands off for 17th, I don’t fancy spending £650 to watch Forest play in the Championship. Let’s not lose faith, we’re above the bottom three and there is still so much to play for. The season starts today.