From scoring late goals to playing with a back three, Nottingham Forest aren’t doing what they normally do this season. But nobody can argue with the effect Steve Cooper has had at the City Ground since he arrived
Nottingham Forest have never comfortably played with three at the back. Now the pedants might dig out the odd game, or even run of games, when we pulled it off at some point in the past 50 years, but in general we’ve looked completely at sea… Alex McLeish a prime example back in January 2013. Fans aren’t always the best barometer of tactical advice, but the clamour for three at the back before Steve Cooper even arrived meant it was a very simple transition for Steven Reid and we haven’t looked back since.
2. Play to win
This sounds simple. Surely all football teams play to win? Well, you don’t need to watch much football, or indeed many Forest matches, to know the truth. Maybe some managers have simply played the cards they’ve been dealt, deciding that setting up defensively and hoping to catch a goal on the break is playing to win. Some managers have simply sought not to lose games at times. From the outset, Cooper has played to win and has said as much in every interview. It’s frighteningly refreshing.
3. Play the same home and away
At times we’ve had an awful away record and a decent home record, at times it’s been the opposite. Sometimes it’s been because there’s more pressure at home and we’re more defensive away, at times it’s been the opposite. Whatever the truth of each scenario, Forest have often adapted the way they play depending on whether it’s the City Ground or somewhere else. Not this Forest side, they just go out and carry on where they left off — at times we overwhelm, at times it’s backs-against-the-wall and play on the break, but either way it’s the same approach.
4. Play in the opposition half
There have been some games this season when the ball appears to be in one half of the pitch for 90% of the time, with red shirts camped out at the other end. This isn’t how Forest play. We don’t do this. It’s high risk, or at least it should be. But Cooper seems to have coached them (very quickly) to find this sort of play comfortable. We pass the ball around, probing for weaknesses, keeping possession until there appears to be a chink in the defence’s armour. It’s wholly unnatural, and I can’t get enough of it.
5. Keep attacking
This can’t be stressed enough. How many Forest sides have only woken up in the last 10 minutes of a game? How many Forest sides have scored a goal and then simply sat back and let the inevitable equaliser come? Steve Cooper’s solution? Attack from the start and keep on going… attack is the best form of defence, and haven’t we seen it this season? It doesn’t matter whether we’ve scored two or three goals, it doesn’t matter if there’s only seconds left in the game, Cooper’s side keeps attacking and scoring until the 90 minutes are up.
6. Fight until the end
Think back to that glorious game against Norwich City in December 2018 — three goals up, with 15 minutes to go… and then a consolation. And then two goals conceded in injury time, meaning a 3-3 draw felt like a horrible loss. That’s an extreme case, but how often have we lost or drawn games in the dying minutes as we forgot how to close games down or committed hara-kiri for no particular reason. Now we chase down every ball, and run and run like tired legs are a thing of the past.
7. Score goals in added time
Lyle Taylor’s brace of goals against Bristol City in October was a sign of what was to come — a determination to keep going, to play to the final whistle, to stick to the plan… Now we are masters of scoring after the 90th minute — Jack Colback against QPR, Lewis Grabban against Millwall, Brennan Johnson against Blackburn Rovers, and Ryan Yates against Sheffield United and Stoke City. Many of these late goals have been crucial in keeping momentum and helping us up the table. And it’s a key part of the team’s identity.
8. Avoid banana skins
A midweek game against Barnsley, after beating Derby at the weekend. A Saturday afternoon against Reading, a few days after reaching the quarter-final of the FA Cup. We know how these games go… lacklustre performance, concede a late goal, go home and wonder why you believed it would be any different. Except we avoided those banana skins, we won the games that normally trip us up. We even scored three goals at Barnsley. Granted, there have been a few games where we just haven’t shown up (Middlesbrough, Cardiff City) but they’ve been few and far between.
9. Dominate Premier League sides
We didn’t know what to expect when Arsenal turned up at the City Ground in January. We had a better idea when Leicester City arrived, and by the time of Liverpool’s visit it was fairly clear things could go either way. The FA Cup can often be a distraction, but this season it was key to the belief that now runs through the fans, players and manager — knowing that we can play our way against anyone, that not only can we hold our own but we can compete (literally) on a level playing field.
10. Reach the play-offs in form
Back in 2003 there were just two wins in our final seven games as we finished sixth. In 2010 we also had just two wins in our final seven games, but still finished third. In 2011 we did win our final four games to finish sixth, but that followed a run of just two wins in 14 matches. And even in League One, having been top of the table for months, we only managed three wins in seven to end the season in fourth. Having secured a place in the play-offs this season — I don’t need to remind you of our recent form — there are still three games to go.
Nottingham Forest aren’t doing things the normal way this season.