It’s now five defeats in the Premier League and four losses in a row for Nottingham Forest. The Reds started the season brightly, but have fallen off track in recent weeks, which leaves just one question on everyone’s mind – where has it gone wrong for Steve Cooper’s side?
We’re in mid-September and Nottingham Forest currently sits second bottom in the Premier League, rewind a month, and they had just picked up four points from the opening three games. Defeats against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were expected – and despite the 2-0 scoreline, positives could still be taken from the loss against Spurs. Fixtures against newly promoted Bournemouth and Fulham followed, presenting a fantastic opportunity to turn their form around – despite the latter’s impressive start to the new campaign.
With a two-goal lead at half-time, Forest looked like they were on the way to a routine victory against the Cherries but a second-half capitulation saw them concede three goals in 35-minutes, ending the game in defeat. Last Friday’s result started in a similar fashion, Cooper’s side started the game poorly but a Taiwo Awoniyi goal saw them in the lead after 45 minutes. Fulham equalised less than 10-minutes into the second half, and by the hour mark, the visitors were 3-1 up. Lewis O’Brien pulled one back, but Forest couldn’t find a way to level the game.
In isolation, neither fixture is deeply concerning. Yes, it’s an embarrassment to lose either fixture in the manner they did, but it could be put down to a lapse in concentration or poor performance. However, both results against the opposition Forest should fancy themselves against, suggest there are a lot of issues which need ironing out if the Reds are to survive in the top-flight.
Looking back at the opening seven games of the season, there are a handful of areas of concern which all need addressing if Nottingham Forest wants to extend their stay in the Premier League. With an internal break upon us, Steve Cooper has the chance to rectify these issues before a bottom of the table clash against fellow midlands side, Leicester City.
THE OLD GUARD
Following their promotion to the Premier League, Nottingham Forest signed a staggering 22 new players – a British record in a single window. It’s not like these players were signed randomly either, the vast majority have either: succeeded playing at the highest level in Europe, have a track record of performing in the Premier League or looked ready to make the step-up to a better division. Looking at two players, in particular, Remo Freuler has joined from Italian side Atalanta – where he featured for them in the Champions League. Another player, Emmanuel Dennis picked up 16 goals and assists for Watford as they were relegated from the Premier League – both have struggled for minutes so far this campaign.
Most of the team that helped Nottingham Forest get promoted from the Championship have moved on to pastures new, those who remain still have a role to play but it’s becoming increasingly hard to defend their places in the starting lineup. Joe Worrall, Steve Cook, Scott Mckenna, Brennan Johnson, Jack Colback and Ryan Yates – who I believe is being overly criticised – have all struggled in the top flight after being crucial players for Forest last season.
All of this ‘old guard’ have something to offer and were all some of the best in their positions last season, but after so many poor performances between them, and the quality on the bench, it’s time to give them a break and give some of the new players game time.
Should all of these players be dropped? Absolutely not, but something needs to change. The back three of Mckenna, Cook and Worrall, doesn’t have the quality or the pace to compete in the Premier League – Moussa Niakhate would start if he was fit, but there is still Giulian Biancone, Loic Bade and Willy Boly sitting in the wings – although the latter started in the defeat against Fulham. Individually Worrall, Mckenna and Cook could all still feature, but not as a collective. Switching to a back four, or bringing in Bade and Biancone would make Forest’s backline more resilient to the pace and physicality of the English top flight.
In midfield, Yates still finds a way to start whilst the likes of O’Brien and Cheikhou Kouyate sit on the bench. Yates is more then capable of playing at this level, but not when utilised in the midfield two of Steve Cooper’s 3-5-2, a formation which often sees him being outplayed – we’ll touch on this later. O’Brien has been one of, if not the stand out player in the Garibaldi this season, which makes his absence from the last two starting 11’s even more questionable.
Brennan Johnson is the player we need to be talking about. The 21-year-old has started every game so far this season, but given the distinct lack of attacking momentum, has struggled to get in on the action. Johnson has so far shown no desire to chase downplay, or get on the ball, he instead waits for the opportunities to come to him – if he wants to remain in this team he has to offer so much more. When he is on the ball, he’s able to get in behind and create chances but unfortunately, he isn’t in those positions enough to warrant a starting spot. Look at Dennis, the second he came on against Spurs he was chasing down Richarlison to win the ball back in midfield, wanting to regain possession back as soon as possible. Awoniyi is starting to look like the sides best forward, and even Sam Surridge looks a threat when he comes on – you could argue all should be above Johnson in the pecking order.
Poor performances aside, Cooper keeps on sticking with the old guard, hoping they will deliver soon. After four straight defeats, he has to bite the bullet, forget sentimental value and start dropping players from last season. Leicester is another opportunity to get back on track, let’s not use it to see if players can find form – let’s use it to give Dennis 90 minutes, play to Awoniyi’s strengths, try a midfield three, switch to four at the back or start one of Biancone or Bade, rip up the team sheet and see what the new players and a new system could offer against a team that already looks down and out.
WE ARE BEING SERIOUSLY OVERRUN IN MIDFIELD
The famous Football Manager cliché has become a reality so far this season for Nottingham Forest. The opening day defeat against Newcastle United saw Jack Colback and Lewis O’Brien played out of the game by Eddie Howe’s midfield three. Since then, regardless of who Steve Cooper has selected in midfield Forest have struggled to dominate in the middle of the park. The best midfield performance came when O’Brien and Mangala both started together, but it hasn’t been the same since Mangala’s injury.
O’Brien has been sensational since arriving from Huddersfield, he whizzes around the pitch, always aims to get on the ball and loves to move the play forward – he offers something different to the other midfielders and is sorely missed when out of the side. The same can be said about Mangala who’s absence has been noticed since his injury against Everton.
The other midfielders, Freuler, Kouyate and Yates have all been in-and-out of the side and struggled for consistency when on the pitch. A lot of fans have criticised Yates for his overall performances and whilst he could have done better in the build-up to the Fulham goals, there has been a lot of overreaction about the 24-year-olds contribution. Looking back at his cameo performance against Everton shows Yates can deliver at this level, he just needs the time to adjust – time which is quickly running out.
So, with all of these inconsistencies and midfield battering, what’s the solution? When Mangala returns to fitness, him and O’Brien should both be chucked back into the starting squad, which should toughen up the midfield. Switching to a three-man midfield could be far more beneficial, but would sacrifice either a central defender or an attacker. Having the likes of Yates and Kouyate playing alongside Lewis O’Brien would add two players who have the capability win back possession from deep, and another who can easily play the ball forward – but more importantly add an extra body to combat other physical midfielders in the Premier League.
Freuler still puzzles me, the 30-year-old was recently playing in the Champions League but hasn’t added any value in his two starts this season. I’m not doubting the Swiss’ quality, on paper he’s the best midfielder in this team, but I struggle to see the immediate benefits he can add to this side. If I was to pick the side to play Leicester, I don’t think he would be in it.
The next couple of weeks should give Cooper enough time to try new formations out on the training pitch, whether he uses a similar formation to that against Man City (5-3-2), or switch to the 4-3-3 which is often rotated to mid-game.
Jesse Lingard and Morgan Gibbs-White are two players who will miss out if we switch to a midfield three, as the number 10 role would become obsolete in my opinion. Forest needs to have a deeper midfield three than they usually use, which would likely see Forest switch to three attackers. Both could potentially start either side of a nine, or one could drop to the bench in-place of another attacker, but I don’t think either should continue playing as a 10 in the current system.
CHANGE IN MENTALITY
If there is one thing we learned over the past two games, it’s that this squad doesn’t have the bottle to hold onto a lead. The collapse against Bournemouth was one thing, but the complete loss of concentration to concede three goals in six minutes was another entirely.
Last season, when Forest were bouncing back from a defeat, Steve Cooper would make them approach it like it was the biggest game of the season, almost like they had no choice but to win. This season, however, the mentality has been missing and the performances show it. There is none of that fighting spirit which saw them pick up so many points from losing positions in the Championship, quite the opposite. They had just nine minutes to hang on against Everton, they conceded; they had a two-goal lead against Bournemouth, they lost, after 50 minutes they were 1-0 up against Fulham, by the 60th minute they were 3-1 down. All of this has shown one thing, that never say die mentality and leadership which was there last season is now a distant memory.
None of this is helped by the fact the sides two captains, Worrall and Yates have both struggled to adjust to the Premier League and have both been in and out of the side. You can only imagine as the new players get used to their new surroundings, this on the pitch mentality will change, but until then leaders need to step up and get the team in shape – whether that is Cooper, Worrall, Yates or another experienced figure in the dressing room.
There is two weeks until the next game, two weeks to reset, adjust and go again against one of the most underperforming sides in the league. This hiatus will give Cooper and co the chance to iron out all of these issues, but it will start to feel like the Welshman’s days are numbered if his side loses against Leicester. It will be interesting to see who Cooper brings in to try and turn round their poor form, will he stick to his guts and his trusted formation and personnel, or will he take a roll of the dice?
Let’s talk about some positives now, the squad is good – on paper at least. Looking back where it was four months ago, there is no doubt that if this squad clicks it can compete in the Premier League and it’s just a matter of time before Cooper finds his best eleven and gets them singing from the same hymn sheet. We’ve seen players like Neco Williams, Dean Henderson, Harry Toffolo, Niakhate, Mangala, O’Brien, Gibbs-White and Awoniyi all impress since arriving, once the others start finding form, the results will follow.
From an attacking perspective, the side is performing well, scoring four in their last two games and have found a way to find the net even when they’re not playing well. If Nottingham Forest can find some stability in midfield and create more chances for the attackers, they’re going to fare better.
It’s a long season, and whilst Nottingham Forest are struggling currently, there is still reason to believe this will be a season to remember. Things might not be great right now, but it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet. Cooper and the team need time to adjust to the harsh environment of the Premier League and when they do, results will pick up – let’s not give up hope just yet.