As 2020 draws to an end, it was fitting for Nottingham Forest to put in a quintessentially 2020 performance. Play a half-decent match, largely contain a recently relegated side, concede in the dying seconds of the first-half, score their first goal in hours, almost immediately concede a second, and spend the final minutes of the game valiantly but unsuccessfully seeking an equaliser.
If that doesn’t sound reminiscent of the fight against coronavirus this year… well, maybe we can just hope Chris Hughton is working on a vaccine for Forest.
Despite being ravaged by injury, Daniel Farke’s Norwich City side still bore the hallmarks of the German’s style of play. Like Reading at the weekend, Norwich controlled possession, held a high line, spread play wide and pinned us back in our half — in the first-half at least.
The home side were threatening with their movement, and the Reds weren’t in the game during the early stages. However, the away side began to find space down the wings, particularly on the right where Joe Lolley was playing higher up the pitch than Sammy Ameobi on the opposite side.
There were a few chances, with the ball not falling kindly for us, but after a good spell approaching the half-hour mark, an Ameobi header went just wide. And then Lolley hit the post on 27 minutes, after cutting inside on to his left foot in a trademark move.
Norwich continued to dominate, but Forest were holding their own and looking more composed than of late. The Canaries remained quicker to the ball, closing down red shirts, and committing numbers in attack. While Forest were getting crosses in, there weren’t many bodies in the box and the movement remained poor with options limited for whoever had the ball.
Another good spell for the Reds before the break, and perhaps a sign of their growing confidence, was followed by almost the inevitable. Cyrus Christie lost Jacob Sorensen as he slotted a ball inside the box for Marco Stiepermann. Yuri Ribeiro headed the resulting cross straight back to the unmarked Sorensen, and the last kick of the half saw the home side 1-0 up.
To be fair, Forest kept their heads up in the second-half and began committing numbers to attack. With several free-kicks around the hour mark, Lolley again came close with a shot just over Michael McGovern’s goal.
Miguel Guerrero and Anthony Knockaert both came on as substitutes on 63 and 71 minutes respectively, and it took the latter just two minutes to break the Reds’ 538-minute goal drought. A looping cross from the corner of the box evaded both Guerrero and McGovern, and the Frenchman claimed his first goal in the Garibaldi.
Todd Cantwell and Alex Tettey came on for Norwich a few minutes later and the former had an instant impact playing the ball to Emi Buendia on the edge of the box. His shot on 77 minutes took a massive deflection off Joe Worrall and Forest were again behind.
And with the Reds’ momentum lost, the home side picked up where they were in the first-half for the next 10 minutes before the hopeful fightback began. Alex Mighten and Carl Jenkinson came on for the dying minutes with three corners following in quick succession. And there was a huge amount of fight in the last five minutes from the Forest players with good pressure and passing, but again it was too little, too late.
So, what’s the problem? Yes, individual errors have cost goals — conceding 21 goals in 17 games is not pretty. But equally, Reading sit pretty in 5th on 30 points having conceded 21 goals. Our problem is evidently scoring goals — just 10 is a big, big problem at this stage of the season. And it’s hard to see where they’re coming from.
The midfield are slow to transition to attack, the movement is non-existent, the striker’s left isolated and, as last tonight proved, we only start to play with intent when we’re a goal or three down. Last year’s success was based on being tight at the back, Ben Watson in the quarterback role, hunting the ball and scoring on the break… Watson’s gone and Lewis Grabban’s injured, so what is our style of play? Because it’s not evident.
Hughton needs to come up with a dynamic midfield that can hold the ball, has movement off the ball, offers options and doesn’t leave the lone striker feeding off scraps. There was promise tonight. But we’ve seen promise in many games now.
The real problem is not the manager or the players. The real problem is the mess we’ve created in the past three years. But the problem we have to deal with first is scoring goals. Otherwise, we really are doomed
Hughton added: “We can’t deny that we’re on a bad run of results but when I look at the performances against Watford and the second half of tonight’s game, it is very encouraging and it’s what I want to see. Unfortunately, those periods of really good play are still not getting us the points that we need to get.
“A relegation battle is not something I’m thinking about but I do understand where we are. We are not in a false position and the league table certainly doesn’t lie. I think our performances have been better than the results we’ve been getting and what we need to do is start picking up points.”