After seven games unbeaten, including four clean sheets and three wins in a row, it was inevitable the run would come to an end. It was probably inevitable that it would end with Neil Warnock. And it was undoubtedly inevitable that it would end in a typically Forest fashion.
After giving everyone a wave of euphoria on Saturday, with three goals for the first time this season, the only brain-related metaphor last night was Yuri Ribeiro’s rush of the blood to the head as he was sent off in the dying seconds.
We can hope it was a mere aberration, a one-off reset of everything Chris Hughton has sought to correct, but it was a capitulation that adds cause to concern as this season continues to drag on. With just 25 points from 25 games — although 12 points were from those six unbeaten league games — it’s still an uphill climb, especially as the teams below us have games in hand.
Middlesbrough had the better of the early play… and that continued throughout the match. The unchanged Forest side looked nothing like the one that defeated Millwall on Saturday so comfortably, and seemed unable to get a grip on the game.
On 14 minutes former Red Britt Assombalonga waltzed past the defence, who seemingly assumed he was offside, and scored from the impressive Jonny Howson’s low cross. Joe Worrall had actually stepped up, despite playing Assombalonga onside when the ball was played.
Forest raised their game somewhat, continuing to play down the wings but to little avail. After 22 minutes some clever skill from Sammy Ameobi and Lewis Grabban saw a cross flash across goal, but nobody was on the end of it.
The visitors came close to scoring again on the half-hour mark: Brice Samba saved with his head after Boro hit the post, although it’s unlikely he knew much about it, and then they followed up with a near-post effort from the corner.
The Reds had some pressure five minutes before half-time, but they struggled to make any impact in the area. Warnock’s side were quicker to everything, more inventive and typically difficult to break down; notably niggly in both tackles and fouls.
Forest, in contrast, were sloppy in possession and sloppy out of possession, conceding seemingly endless free-kicks. Samba Sow’s predictable yellow card saw him replaced for Lyle Taylor at the half-time break, with the formation remaining 4-2-3-1.
Within minutes Forest were caught out in an attacking position and Middlesbrough broke quickly, Marcus Tavernier releasing George Saville who finished past Samba from the edge of the box. It was a move that looked as easy as the first goal, and showed how brittle Forest can still be.
Boro could’ve scored more, and it wasn’t until the late introduction of Joe Lolley and Loic Mbe Soh that the Reds finally scored. The former whipped in a cross attacked by the latter with his head on the edge of the six-yard box.
And the final minutes of the game saw Anthony Knockaert lucky to escape with a yellow after handling the ball, while Ribeiro received a straight red card after losing his head. Both incidents emblematic of the lack of discipline across the pitch.
Forest were lethargic and completely outdone by Warnock. Saturday’s FA Cup game against Swansea will no doubt give other players a chance, and over a week to prepare for the next league match.
There remains a lot of focus on the full-backs — although nobody particularly excelled last night. But given that they’re expected to play as wing-backs — with the ‘wingers’ in narrower, inverted positions — they are our immediate outlet when we’re under pressure, and it evidently doesn’t work in some matches. At the moment, if you’re not Matty Cash — swashbuckling tackles and inch-perfect crosses — you’re horribly exposed trying to do both. But ‘inaccurate’ crosses are no surprise when we rarely have numbers in the box.
With a fairly settled 15 or 16 players regularly making the match day squad, Hughton has made progress — especially with a fit Worrall and Scott McKenna in central defence, and a fit Sow and Ryan Yates in central midfield. But if Cafu isn’t making an impact, the wingers nullified, and the full-backs lacking penetration… you’d hope the remaining days of the transfer window will solve at least one problem.
Hopefully we’ll put one terrible game behind us and move on. Playing the current top six again in February and March isn’t going to be pretty, but it will focus minds on the final eight games of the season.
Hughton added: “We never really got going against a team that play a certain way, man-for-man all over the park. We needed to impose ourselves more on them, which we weren’t able to do.
“I can’t say we deserved to get a result from the game. I thought we were up against a tough team today, they play to their strengths, but they’ve got quality in the side and I thought in the moments they needed too, they showed that.”