Analysis: Hello positivity, my old friend
With the first few matches played, the squad starting to settle and a good result against Middlesbrough in the bag, our correspondent Steven Toplis analyses the season so far:
As the Nottingham Forest players took to the City Ground pitch for the first time this season in a competitive sense, to open up the new campaign against Millwall, a tangible sense of anticipation was in the air.
The beginning of a new season usually breeds excitement and hope among a team’s fanbase - however true or misguided that proves to be - but from a Forest point of view, the departure of a certain Kuwaiti, the arrival of a far more professional ownership, plus some shrewd summer transfer business gave cause for genuine optimism before a ball was kicked that warm Friday evening. So far, that optimism has been justified.
Now, it’s far too early to start making bold statements about promotion or claiming that we’re sending out warnings to the rest of the Championship, but the first four games suggest that we won’t be seeing a repeat of last season’s relegation scrap.
Forest have played some superb football so far, with the team making quick progress in adopting Mark Warburton’s style, which will certainly stand us in good stead for the future. On top of that, though, there have been many other pleasing aspects.
Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough saw Forest come up against genuine promotion candidates for the first time this season and in the first half, they outplayed Garry Monk’s side with a display of confident, fluid football, with David Vaughan pivotal in midfield before his early exit through injury.
Barrie McKay’s well taken goal saw Forest deservedly in front at the break but one of the most pleasing aspects of this performance was to come as Middlesbrough rallied. Forest got into Boro’s faces, challenging for every ball, closing down, hassling away - they wanted it more. And the City Ground reacted to it too. For all the style Warburton demands, there is grit, energy and determination to back it up.
One other positive, of sorts, was Britt Assombalonga’s return to the City Ground following his £15m move to Boro during the summer. The striker spurned a number of chances much to the delight of the Forest faithful and was greeted with the kind of reception not seen on Trentside since Stan Collymore’s return with Liverpool. Not that we’re complaining.
There have been some concerns so far, most notably in defence. Forest are still conceding their fair share of goals, a problem which existed all of last season and for now is making their task that little bit harder.
The opening night victory over Millwall was far from convincing, with the Londoners carving out a host of chances but spurning them, allowing a fine strike from McKay to give the Reds three points, while the away trips to Brentford and Barnsley that followed showed the good and bad side of this Forest team in equal measure.
At Brentford – a place Forest have found points hard to come by in recent years - they came from a goal behind to take a 3-1 lead after the break, two superb strikes from Andreas Bouchalakis on his league debut giving them a cushion, but the team’s defensive fragilities surfaced again as Brentford scored either side of Kieran Dowell’s deflected strike, making Forest sweat as they held on for a 4-3 win.
The away trip at Barnsley three days later saw Forest create 27 goalscoring attempts at Oakwell in a dominant attacking display. However, they were to be punished as a combination of wayward finishing, staunch Barnsley defending and clinical finishing saw the Tykes register a 2-1 win.
Even against Middlesbrough, having gone 2-0 up thanks to Daryl Murphy’s penalty with 11 minutes to go, Ben Gibson was allowed to pull one back for the visitors and set up a nervous finish.
There have been a fair number of fans venting their frustration regarding the team’s fragility at the back, claiming that more players need to be brought in and demanding to know why this hasn’t been done. Now, none of us are privy to what goes on behind the scenes, but I’m confident that Warburton, David Weir, Frank McParland et al. are not blind as to what’s happening on the pitch.
Patience is needed. We can’t and won’t have the entire squad nailed down in one transfer window. We’re showing signs of a team that is a work in progress and the fans need to trust the manager and his staff and, more importantly, give them time to address the side’s flaws.
On paper at least, Forest have a solid defence. The likes of Matt Mills, Michael Mancienne, Armand Traore, Tendayi Darikwa all have Championship experience and have been strong performers in this league previously, but they need more protection from the midfield.
Bouchalakis already looks like he could be a fine addition in this regard, combining his eye for goal with good passing ability and athleticism, while the arrival of Liam Bridcutt from Leeds United could give the team exactly what it needs – a combative defensive midfielder who will screen in front of the defence – a role not properly filled since Paul McKenna left the club.
It’s hard to pick fault with Warburton’s dealings in the transfer market so far, with McKay looking like he could be a steal for £500,000 from Rangers, Darikwa and Bouchalakis performing well, Dowell showing his talent following his loan from Everton and Jason Cummings looking promising in the short spells he’s had in the side.
The manager has made it clear he wants a smaller squad to work with and has begun to reduce his number, shipping out Vladimir Stoijkovic and Damien Perquis, while the sale of Assombalonga raised a significant amount of money that was simply too good to turn down.
Warburton moved to bring in Murphy for £2m from Newcastle shortly after Britt’s departure, and so far the 34-year-old has not disappointed, playing the lone frontman role expertly, leading the line and bringing others into play while already netting three goals from four league games.
There have been question marks over Jordan Smith and his distribution, but it’s easy to forget he’s a young, inexperienced goalkeeper still learning his trade, although his honest and grounded comments following the Middlesbrough victory did show a level of maturity beyond his 22 years.
Forest have been linked with a number of goalkeepers, including Adam Federici and Tomasz Kuszczak, although it remains to be seen if a more experienced shot-stopper joins the club before the transfer window closes.
After the tumultuous and largely forgettable last five years supporting Forest, there are plenty of reasons to feel positive again. Since purchasing the club, Evangelos Marinakis has assembled an experienced team to run it day to day, with chairman Nicholas Randall in particular overseeing a more professional approach and delivering clear, open dialogue with the fans, which is refreshing to see.
The fans, too, have responded, with over 16,000 season cards sold and attendances in excess of 26,000 for both home games so far. Forza Garibaldi organised their "Rise of the Garibaldi" display in the Trent End prior to the Millwall match, Jonny Owen produced a Forest greatest hits video shown before the Middlesbrough match while at Brentford, the away end broke into a stirring chorus of “We’ve got our Forest back.”
For the first time in a long time, it feels good to be a Forest supporter. Long may it continue.