From new signings and a change in formation to home games and playing the top four sides, it’s been a rapid adjustment for Nottingham Forest as they’ve got to grips with the Premier League. With the season just over halfway through, we take a look at what they’ve got right and where they’ve gone wrong
For all the fuss made back in October, the majority of new additions seem to be the right kind of players. Sure, some found form and then lost it; some looked off the pace before finding form; some have gained fitness and gradually improved; some are just lacking confidence; and some have had months out with injury. But there was method and thought and consideration as to the type of players we were bringing in. Some, as we know, were absolute bargains.
Steve Cooper has obviously worked his magic in instilling belief and togetherness, and this is no squad of strangers. And the January additions have been for depth and covering injuries… almost every time someone looks almost indispensable, we’ve lost them for at least a game or two. As it stands, most of the 25-man squad — plus under-21 players — are good enough to start. That may — and probably will — change by the summer, but for now there’s only one target.
The expansive 3-4-2-1 may return in the future — hugely successful as it was in the Championship — but by the time of the 4-0 drubbing by Leicester City, it was more than evident that we need quicker centre-backs and/or three in midfield. The switch to 4-3-3, or the variants that Cooper’s used, immediately made us more solid and compact and stopped the rot. It does mean that we regularly concede possession and invite pressure, but like all the great Forest sides we play quickly on the break — seeking turnovers, second balls and tactical pressing.
There will be tweaks to come, and the balance and understanding is still developing — Cooper is smart enough to pick the right XI for the opposition, and change if necessary. And, whether it be a number nine or a false nine, the forwards have to be making more of an impact — while our chances are limited, there needs to be a ruthlessness when they present themselves. Our young, dynamic forward line has been learning and improving quickly and this is where the second half of the season will hinge.
Top four sides
This sort of ruthlessness has been the difference when playing the top four sides this season. Games against Arsenal, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Manchester United are games we should’ve competed better in, but there’s no shame in losing to them — the other 15 sides are where we need to be targeting points this season. Miss your chances against the top clubs and you will be punished when you make mistakes. The fine margins everyone talks about have been highly evident in these matches.
However, while Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur might be slightly out of sorts this season, we’ve shown that at the City Ground we can compete with anyone on our day. And when we’ve shown too much respect, or simply been second-best to some of the world’s top players, it’s an uphill battle to get anything out of the game. But while we appreciate the difficulties playing away, the current top four have yet to visit the City Ground in the league this season.
Actually getting into the final third of the pitch has proved problematic in some games. But it’s making the opportunities count when we do get the ball into those positions. There are times when you’ll only get two or three chances against the top clubs, and seizing those chances makes all the difference. And there are times when we can play a high line, camp out in the opposition half and patiently probe for an opening. But the same applies.
We know we’ve been improving and — injuries allowing — the understanding is getting better. But the decision-making, the composure, the accuracy of passing and getting the shots on target is where this season will really be defined. Too often in some games we’ve looked extremely comfortable on the ball, happy to pass around and through the opposition, but when it comes to penetrating their back line we’ve been lacking.
Shape and discipline
For all the talk about the number of signings and how will Cooper know his best XI and playing as a team and making them gel… the basics were there from the first home game against West Ham. Away at Newcastle on the first day of the season was ‘welcome to reality’, but the City Ground saw how quickly the manager could ready his troops for battle. Evidently the formation had to change eventually, but the start of the season was really marred by those home losses to Bournemouth and Fulham.
From the Villa game onwards we’ve been organised and hard to beat. Everyone knows their role, players have come in and out but have done their job regardless, and with or without the ball, the shape is disciplined. Occasionally the smarter teams and players continually drag somebody out of position and that’s usually where we’re punished. But for the large part, it’s a successful approach — if not as expansive as Cooper would like.
This really is key — and clearly the difference between playing the top clubs vs the rest of the division. Some games we’ve been effective with or without the ball, taking risks when necessary but generally not giving it away in dangerous situations. Other games we’ve risked the ball in the wrong area of the pitch, been unaware of danger and repeatedly given the ball away.
You don’t even have to wonder what Cooper thinks about being sloppy in possession, and it’s been the undoing of us at times. It will be difficult against those teams with a handful of players who cost more than our whole squad, but the levels of concentration required at the top level of football are unlike anything we’ve seen at the City Ground in years. That said, it has to be reiterated that performances are improving every game.
Home and away
Nine games left at the City Ground, five wins and a couple of draws needed for safety — probably. We’re not in the must-win world yet, but you have to look at the home fixtures against Leeds, Everton, Wolves and Southampton as four of the most likely. An away win and the odd point here or there and that’ll do nicely. Home form has, of course, been dependable — the City Ground an absolute fortress. Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea have all come unstuck here this season, and who would’ve imagined that a year ago?
Away, however, is a different story. Unbeaten in the league in 2023, the win at Southampton helped turn a corner. But scoring goals on a pitch that isn’t next to the Trent is why the likes of Chris Wood, Andre Ayew and Jonjo Shelvey are here. Unlock the potential of those three, combined with the dynamism of Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson as well as the other attacking players, and we will know we truly belong.