Given Nottingham Forest’s away record this season, home advantage might not count for much when the Championship resumes on 20 June. Andrew Brookes considers the Reds’ potential to play behind-closed-doors football
I’m acutely aware that football makes me a bit of a hypocrite. Being a fan often means donning the Garibaldi-tinted spectacles and defending, forgiving and promoting actions from our club that I wouldn’t for others. The same is true for ‘Project Restart’ – or whatever daft name football’s return is adopting now. The sensible part of my brain feels we might be considering a return to football too early. Is it really safe for our footballers to train again when the death rate is still pretty high? Am I comfortable with tests being in ready supply for footballers when they aren’t for medical professionals, carers and teachers? How fair is it to take the sport ‘behind closed doors’ when people have spent hard-earned cash on season tickets? This and countless other questions persist.
Yet, there’s Sabri marshalling the troops in training, somehow making even a face mask look like part of his stylish wardrobe and you can’t help but be a little excited too, right? I haven’t spent the lockdown pining – in fact the early weekends without football didn’t seem too bad – but I did get swept up in Bundesliga fever and have watched a few German top-flight games. Perhaps this is just another hypocritical impulse. Maybe it’s wrong, but if it’s on I’ll be interested.
So, if football is going to return on 20 June I might as well return to my natural state of affairs – fretting about the on-field fortunes of Forest. It’s here, though, where I wonder if the experience of Germany might offer some semblance of hope for Lamouchi and co.
The Germans, of course, have a cool name for the behind closed doors fan-less footballing fixtures – Geisterspiele or ‘ghost games’. In these eerie encounters, the early evidence is pointing towards home advantage being less significant. With no chance for the hosts to create an intimidating atmosphere, the first 27 games since the resumption of the German top flight have seen just five wins for the home side. Granted, it’s a smallish sample size – but comparing this win percentage (18.5%) to the pre-lockdown level in Germany (42.8%) suggests it’s at least a factor that bears further inspection.
So what? Well, maybe that suits Sabri’s Reds just fine. Let’s not forget that Forest have the third best away record in the league this season – with just three defeats away from the City Ground. We’ve lost twice as many fixtures at home. Were the table only made up of the 18 fixtures we’ve played on the banks of the Trent, we’d currently be sitting in a bang average 12th in the table. Perhaps a sterile environment where the context of the setting is less relevant suits our team?
The source of our home troubles needs a deeper analysis, but it’s definitely not a new thing. I’ve written before about how Aitor Karanka felt his side was unable to cope with pressure and froze under the weight of expectation that arose from being favourites to win a game. Clearly there have been personnel changes since then, but you do wonder if Karanka’s analysis is still correct? If we’re expected to go out and dominate, take the game to the opposition and win comfortably, that’s when I start to worry.
I suspect this might well be an issue of time. When a new manager is building a side they surely have to start by organising their shape (hipster speak for ‘build from the back’ I guess). It takes time to develop a team that can confidently play with more than one style and can find more than one way to break down robust opposition.
Sabri has adapted incredibly impressively to the hustle and bustle of the Championship – it’s far too early to expect him to conjure up a multi-faceted plan overnight. He’s imbued an impressive spirit among his squad – a closely-knit band of players who know exactly what to do when they can play how they want. Will they put less pressure on themselves without a nervy home crowd? It’s not guaranteed of course – and it’s a tough one to admit given how we’d all dearly love to be there to see the action unfold – but the players might well be better off without us biting our nails, tearing our hair out, groaning at misplaced passes and generally raising the stakes by turning up in droves.
The corona-enforced break might have also come at a good time for the club. We had, after all, won just one of the last six games and suffered a 3-0 home humiliation at the hands of Millwall in the final fixture pre-lockdown. That run and that game are both now surely too long ago to be weighing too heavily on the players.
There’s been much talk about injured players such as Samba Sow having time to recover from their knocks – but the likes of Joe Lolley, Ben Watson, Matty Cash and Lewis Grabban must have been feeling the ill-effects of the Championship’s unforgiving schedule. Yes, other clubs will also have had a break too but it’s certainly my view that we’ve been given a reprieve from a run where we could have been badly running out of steam. Plus, Sabri’s last pre-season with the team seemed a positive experience – having another one now might well prove productive.
My overriding feeling this season has always been that we’re not quite ready for the top flight – and that other teams will ultimately pip us to the promotion spots. Yet, with a fitter, fresher squad and the chance to play fixtures games free from some of the outside pressures they’d normally attract, there are reasons to think these Geisterspiele might just suit Sabri’s side.