With relegation avoided, Nottingham Forest can look ahead to next season now. But what does that look like? What change can we expect? And, more importantly, what next for Chris Hughton?
The predictable waves of joy and fury greet every high and low of a Forest season. And while it’s perfectly normal to react to a good/bad/indifferent result or performance — nothing is ever quite as it seems at Forest.
You can’t fix Nottingham Forest in a season. I’ve said it before, and it feels like a broken record at times. A manager needs three transfer windows and a full season in charge to be judged properly. (And that’s just at a normal club — if there is such a thing.) There is no short cut. Progress doesn’t come quickly. Patience. Etcetera.
After last summer’s wild transfer window — 13 new signings — and the impossible hangover from The End Of Season We’d All Rather Forget, Chris Hughton was dealt a tricky hand. Embedding new players, instilling confidence, implementing his methods… these things take time without the awful mess that we were — and are still — in.
Occasional performances — Swansea away, QPR at home — have proved that, on our day, there are enough signs to be positive for next season. Other games — Birmingham away, Middlesbrough at home — prove that there is still a mountain to climb for Hughton.
Yes, at times it’s been horrible. Yes, it’s been defensive rather than expansive football. And yes, we’ve quite clearly struggled to score. But just take a look at the past few seasons… under Marinakis, after Mark Warburton was despatched, it’s been a series of defensively minded coaches. Forget Fawaz Al Hasawi — if you can — and the past three years have seen Aitor Karanka, Martin O’Neill and Sabri Lamouchi. While they were also dealt bad hands, we’ve been appointing managers known for their functionality rather than their fluid football.
Hughton might follow this lineage, but look at his record so far. The first thing — and Brian Clough would agree — is to focus on the defence. And in that respect, only the top four clubs have conceded fewer goals than us. That is testament to Brice Samba, Joe Worrall, Scott McKenna and Cyrus Christie as well as the revived careers of Tobias Figueiredo, Yuri Ribeiro and Tyler Blackett. Admittedly, some of them had periods when you wondered what they were doing on the pitch. But that comes from lack of confidence, and smacks of a club in crisis.
Hughton’s only transfer window brought in James Garner — and if that wasn’t a masterstroke than I don’t what is. Brought straight into the team, his immediate impact showed a player who will no doubt be in Manchester United’s first team within a couple of years. It also filled the huge hole left by Ben Watson, who was so intrinsic to last season’s successes.
The arrival of Filip Krovinović also addressed the main problem we had of retaining the ball, linking defence and attack, and lack of creativity. Luke Freeman struggled from the start with a hernia problem that hadn’t been dealt with. Glenn Murray looked promising early on, and his two goals against Wycombe lifted the team at an important time; a short-term contract was wise business. Meanwhile, Anthony Knockaert has flattered to deceive, and surely the fee will be too much to keep him?
Evidently scoring goals is our weakness. And we’d be a lot higher up the table if we’d figured out how to get the ball in the net more frequently. This will be Hughton’s summer project — addressing the balance in midfield. Can the full-backs advance and not concede goals? Does Yates drop back between the two centre-backs? Do we play with wingers, inverted wingers, or wide midfielders? And what of the strikers?
Lewis Grabban has struggled with injuries and confidence, but the way we play has stymied his tally. Balls played into his feet in the box, or turning the last defender, give him the best opportunity to score — swift counter-attacking moves play to his strengths. Running the line, and then hoping to get the ball in a laboured build-up is what he’s dealt with this season. Playing with more pace, being more direct, will surely improve us after the summer.
The success — albeit limited by the end — of Lamouchi was the counter-attacking game which meant many of our best goals came from a quick transition from defence to attack. This season we’ve rarely looked quick — it’s a laboured attack, often giving the opposition time to organise, and, while crosses into the box have been frequent, they’ve not been matched by bodies getting into the box.
Chopping and changing personnel so frequently doesn’t give you a solid base to build upon. And while the attacking additions of Garner, Krovinović and Knockaert improved our situation, basing most of your attack on loan signings isn’t a sustainable future.
Bringing back Garner for a second season will be key. Is Krovinović good enough? The return of Brennan Johnson from a hugely successful season on loan at Lincoln will be a blessing. The return of Nuno da Costa, João Carvalho and Nicholas Ioannou will present conundrums. And then there’s the likes of Tyrese Fornah, Jordan Gabriel, and Jayden Richardson to consider.
And the number of signings must be quality over quantity. There remain serious questions over recruitment at the club. Bringing in ‘proven, experienced’ players — Harry Arter, Jack Colback, Carl Jenkinson — has been disastrous. Our scouting is surely better than this? Taking risks on young, upcoming players is surely the way forward?
It’s not all terrible. But Scott McKenna’s statistics looked solid — and he’s lived up to them. Loïc Mbe Soh is undoubtedly one for the future, surely? A handful of significant signings this summer will give Hughton a squad he knows, and a platform to work upon.
Moving on players is never easy but what future for Fouad Bachirou? Abdoulaye Diallo? Gaëtan Bong? And the aforementioned Arter, Colback and Jenkinson? There’s still a big squad to address — not considering out-of-contract players such as Sammy Ameobi, Samba Sow and Ribeiro.
We can’t expect a repeat of Hughton’s time at Brighton. But it’s worth reiterating. He arrived in December 2014, when Brighton were 21st. They finished in 20th place on just 47 points. It was difficult to see the progress. And then the next two seasons they finished third and then second.
Next season will be an improvement. We can keep goals out, we just need to find them at the other end of the pitch. But the job at Forest isn’t simple, and there is no silver bullet. Top six is always the aim, but as things stand we have to trust in Hughton and hope the club’s machinery around him starts to fall into sync.
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