Murillo and Nottingham Forest’s defensive dilemma

Despite having perhaps the best defender Nottingham Forest have seen this decade, the Reds have an underlying defensive issue that looks a long way from being solved. George Edwards hopes Murillo can be part of the long-term solution

“You’ll never beat Murillo.” And very few have.

A treasured chant saved only for the most remarkable defenders in Nottingham Forest history. First Des Walker, then Wes Morgan, onto Scott McKenna, before the Brazilian. An elite list of fine Forest servants.

Rumours have circulated that Murillo could be off to Barcelona, Real Madrid or Liverpool this summer and, based on what we have seen, he wouldn’t look out of place. The pace, confidence, strength, passing range and bullishness that he possesses are everything you’d want in a central defender.

Forest signing him for just over £10m, having played a handful of professional games, could resemble the bargain of the century; how they pulled that one off is crazy.

However, despite having Murillo at their disposal, Forest still leak goals. They have conceded 22 set-piece goals in the league (the highest by six), conceded 25 goals in 14 Premier League games in 2024 and have only kept four clean sheets this season.

For all of his attributes, Murillo is far from the tallest defender, standing at 6ft. He is unlikely to win headers on a consistent basis and a lack of height next to him has proved fatal.

Willy Boly has looked by far Murillo’s best partner but has very rarely been available, with Andrew Omobamidele the preferred choice. The Irish defender is just an inch taller than Murillo, so that partnership, whilst having pace in abundance, has struggled to dominate aerially.

This means that the only real height in the side is Ryan Yates and Chris Wood, two players who aren’t consistently back in defensive positions. Crosses into the box cause chaos and while Matz Sels has clearly been an upgrade on Matt Turner, coming for crosses is one area the American excelled at.

As we know, this has led to a terrible record at defending set pieces. Matheus Cunha’s second goal the other weekend was the fifth in six games that Forest have conceded from a set play, four of them corners. They only gave away one corner against Wolves yet couldn’t defend it.

As mentioned, they have a lack of height to head danger away, but the marking doesn’t help. Tosin Adarabioyo and Max Kilman were the two tallest players on the pitch in Forest’s last two home games. The former scored, the latter won first contact and the ball was in the net five seconds later.

The connection? Both of them were being marked by Morgan Gibbs-White. The former Wolves player is phenomenal, but one thing you can’t expect from him is to win a header against a bloke five inches taller than him. For both goals, Wood was in a zonal position but got nowhere near the ball on both occasions.

This is not a slight on either player, but the coaching staff can surely see that the current setup is not working.

The lack of certainty is also a factor in Forest’s backline issues. There have been 10 different back four combinations in Forest’s 14 Premier League games in 2024, and each of Forest’s four clean sheets have been provided by different defensive partnerships.

Murillo has been the only mainstay, with rotation everywhere else. As mentioned, Boly is head and shoulders (quite literally) ahead of any other partner to Murillo. His experience, height and know-how complement the Brazilian’s qualities marvellously, but he’s only played one game in a red shirt this year.

Omobamidele’s lack of experience was shown by Cunha’s first goal; most defenders would have taken the ball when presented the chance, as the Wolves man did on a couple of occasions. Felipe has been hit and miss: excellent against West Ham yet shaky against Palace, and the manager doesn’t appear to favour Moussa Niakhaté.

It seems the full-back position has finally settled with Ola Aina and Neco Williams starting the last four, but the return of Nuno Tavares may cast doubt over that.

Finally, Forest’s attacking style under Nuno seems to have contributed to the goals flying in at the other end. Steve Cooper was perhaps seen as a more conservative manager, with defensive resolve prioritised.

Barring the 5-0 Fulham spanking and a few 3-2 defeats, games under the Welsh manager were often tight affairs and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Forest have under five shots in a game.

That’s what Nuno has changed. He instantly took a man out of midfield, played two wingers and set Forest up to be more open, expansive and attacking. That led to incredible wins over Newcastle away and Manchester United, but also high-scoring defeats against Brentford, Newcastle at home and Aston Villa.

A series of low-scoring games followed the Villa loss, before a return to the attacking football of late, with six goals in the three games before Everton.

The balance is slowly getting there. Aside from the two conceded on Sunday, Forest don’t give that away that many chances from open play and certainly create enough to win any game. Set-piece defending will be the biggest reason for dropped points this year, already costing Forest more points than their deduction did.

If the Reds can focus on these frailties, their attacking play still offers hope. But with Manchester City this Sunday, it will most likely depend on the final three games.

We can only hope “You’ll never beat Murillo” is heard around the City Ground again next season.

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