The evolution of Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest

As Steve Cooper tinkers with his tactics and set-up, are Nottingham Forest heading in the right direction with their new style of play? George Edwards takes a look at the City Ground evolution

Last season was about survival for Nottingham Forest. Promoted unexpectedly on the back of multiple loans expiring and players moving on, finishing 17th on goal difference would have been a stark achievement. As it was, Cooper’s Reds were able to get the job done with a game to spare and will be hoping this season is a little more comfortable. So, as the club looks to establish itself as a Premier League side, it seems that must come with a change to its identity.

It got to a point last year that going to Forest was like paying for a ticket to watch the opposition. The Reds averaged the lowest average possession last term — just 37.6% of the ball each game — and only managed one away win all season. This had to evolve as Forest settled in the league, something picked up and acknowledged by Cooper.

They weren’t given the best start either this season, visiting the Emirates, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad in four of their first six games, so they had to stick to their more defensive laurels in order to compete in those games. There was promise when Forest saw the ball — narrowly losing three of those games and beating Chelsea — in a run of performances that would breathe confidence into the heart of Forest’s squad. But Cooper was adamant in pre-season that Forest would play with more of the ball this season, something we have begun to see over recent games…

Counter attacking might have suited them when they had Brennan Johnson bombing down the right but with his departure, coupled with some stellar midfield signings, the change of style to become a more progressive and possession-based team seems a logical choice. Forest’s core group now have a year’s experience of football at the highest level shown by the evolution of Orel Mangala this season — a player who has emerged from the shadows and shone through.

Having more possession suits his game as it does many others, with Nico Dominguez and Ibrahim Sangaré alongside him, the trio at the core of the revamp. They look confident in possession, understand how to keep the ball in tight areas and are always looking to pass forwards and progress. Morgan Gibbs-White has also seen more of the ball which, after a questionable start to the season, has seen him get more involved in games and look back to his best.

And while last campaign Forest consistently looked second best, recent games have been a lot closer with there being not much to separate the two sides. Forest aren’t going to start dominating teams overnight but at least they are beginning to take the game to the opposition, look to cause them issues and have confidence in the way they are playing. Confidence has looked at a record high for those in the Garibaldi right now, showing that the team will only flourish playing this way.

But with all new things, it’s not perfect straight away. There have been times over the past couple of games where Forest have turned down a forward chance to play the safe option and keep possession. This is where patience must be had. With time will come understanding of when to go over the top or in behind and when to keep hold of it and work something better. Because, after all, Forest don’t want to lose the threat they have with the pace of Taiwo Awoniyi, Callum Hudson Odoi and Anthony Elanga.

Overall, however, it does look like Forest are taking steps in the right direction. Progress is all you can ask for and they certainly look more solidified in the league now. Plus, the fact Cooper thinks they are in a position to make these changes shows that they aren’t in the dire position they were for much of last season. Currently, it seems like the only way is up for Nottingham Forest at the moment.

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