It may not be pretty, anybody who thought it was going to be must be deluded, but Chris Hughton is slowly starting to turn Nottingham Forest Football Club back into a side that at least resembles something like the one of Sabri Lamouchi’s for the majority of last season and one that we remember did so well to reach the playoff zone before imploding in the final ten minutes of the 2019/20 campaign to eventually miss out on promotion opportunity and primarily cost the Frenchman his job.
Whilst Sabri had his critics too, for the style (or lack of) that went with his own philosophy on how to get results in the Championship, Hughton has had to endure similar fans frustration with the way Forest play, whilst open and expansive is often the flavour of the month, solid and hard to beat are always the fundamentals to get right first.
It’s been a challenging start to the former Newcastle and Brighton & Hove Albion Manager’s career at the City Ground. Off to a flyer at Blackburn, the players put out on the pitch each week have never lacked effort, but the quality needed to lift the Reds up the table and away from danger has often been absent, early draws with Rotherham, Derby, Luton, suggesting that progress was being made but not quickly enough to maximise points in the bag against those struggling around them, a defeat at Middlesbrough suggesting there was still plenty of work to do.
Back-to-back home wins against Coventry and Wycombe in November lifted spirits but six points against two teams recently promoted, sides that Forest should be beating at the City Ground, perhaps leading to over-enthusiasm that the blend had finally been found, losses against Barnsley, Bournemouth, Swansea, soon brought optimistic fans back down to earth with a bang.
An improved performance against Watford in December, all be it in a 0-0 home draw at the City Ground, gave Reds supporters some inspiration, many pleased with the performance above the result, a sign that some would even gladly accept failure as long as the team play the right way. But consecutive losses at Reading, at leaders Norwich and at home to Brentford soon had supporters questioning if Hughton was even the right man for the job after all? Three wins in just fourteen matches, hardly inspiring from a man that had almost unified support from fans backing the former Republic of Ireland International to get Forest out of the Championship upon his arrival.
But as League One looms much nearer than the more lucrative Premier League exit door for Forest, recent performances have suggested that Hughton is now marshalling a side to a competitive, if unspectacular outfit in the Championship. But what did we really expect from him so soon?
A win against bottom of the table Sheffield Wednesday and three commendable draws over Christmas before opening 2021 by beating Preston North End at Deepdale to go five unbeaten in the league and of course Saturday’s single goal cup victory against Cardiff, at least suggest that some areas of Hughton’s work are starting to come to fruition, although performances have often lacked a bit of special something, at least results are chalking up momentum as the Reds look to stay away from danger and perhaps enjoy a good FA Cup run too.
One issue with Forest has been lack of goals, lack of goal threat, which might not be down to the Manager but instead the players he has at his disposal. The 32 years young Lewis Grabban missed eleven straight matches with injury and still looks to be lacking sharpness five matches into his return to the fold. His replacement, Lyle Taylor has worked hard, often a frustrated lone figure, his own 12 game goal drought at least came to an end against Cardiff on Saturday. The form of Joe Lolley however has been a major concern, a player who over the last three years has produced a large number of memorable, often spectacular, moments in red, one that has failed to produce anything of significance this season, but for his fortunate late winner at Blackburn.
I like Cafu and the neatness he brings on the ball, but as a number ten he looks like no more than five goals a season material, too immobile for a deeper lying midfield role, not quite good enough to warrant a position so influential in the Reds attack? The jury’s still out for me on young Alex Mighten too.
Anthony Knockaert has huffed and puffed, my hope is, he still has time to influence the Forest attack more now that he’s agreed terms to stay on loan for the remainder of the season. An in-form Knockaert and Lolley supplying two strikers in Taylor and Grabban would even be my preference, but Sammy Ameobi, often a man that never lets Forest down, needs also to improve on one goal himself in 24 matches this season. A poor return from a talented footballer that is liked by fans for the way he plays.
Whilst the midfield often gets stick, whether it be the tenacious Ryan Yates splitting opinion, the bubble-wrapped Samba Sow frustrating those who want to see him ‘every’ week, the largely disappointing Harry Arter who signed with big reputation from Fulham, or even worse, Jack Colback (a player who universally had the fans clambering up the walls of the internet social sites to get him signed), I don’t think the two holding players are as significant as the underperforming attackers right now, but let us leave on a good note of positivity at least. In defence of the defence.
Hughton said after the win against Cardiff “The ideal scenario for any manager is that you keep clean sheets and score plenty of goals but we’re finding goalscoring difficult at this moment. We’re continuing to work hard on that but if you can’t score many goals then it’s important that you keep yourselves in games by not conceding many and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.” Hughton, like Lamouchi previously, has tactically noted what Forest are good at, and in defence the side have an abundance of quality, especially at centre half, which is where currently the side is being built from to first and foremost stop the opposition scoring.
Building on solid foundations is one that Hughton has followed since day one, trusting a centre half pairing from Joe Worrall, Scott McKenna, Toby Figueiredo and Loic Mbe Soh is the base which results will come by. On Saturday, and at Preston, the Reds central defenders were magnificent. Assisted by improved full back performances by four players who have had their own critics in recent times, the shape and game plan starts with defending and in a similar way to what Hughton did at Newcastle with Fabio Collocini and Mike Williamson or Steven Taylor when they lifted the Championship title in 2010, in a similar way to how he did things with Brighton using Shane Duffy and Nottingham born Lewis Dunk, Hughton has continued with the foundations at Forest (originally set by Lamouchi) that has also worked for him in the past.
In twenty games under Hughton, Forest have conceded 19 goals which is less than one a game, the problem is at the other end where the attack has managed just sixteen.
Next phase of development is to get the attackers firing and the strikers scoring again, it might involve one or two additions over the January window, one or two might even go, but thereafter we hope Forest will continue to rise during 2021 and beyond under a man who has proved dignified and able at the level. The Chris Hughton way, unspectacular, but efficient, tried and tested to play Championship football against testing opposition, the way has its flaws but it is certainly a way that can get results too.
I read one post on Facebook this weekend that said “give me a 3-4 defeat over this drab any day of the week” eluding to the performance against Cardiff despite the victory, I however thought totally different, defending fantastically (which is an art itself) after an early goal against a side who often beat Forest at the City Ground. A 1-0 win for me is a catalyst onto bigger and better things and tells you a lot about how the team, well drilled, are prepared to dig in for their Manager. But then again I always played in a back four, where I would have taken a 1-0 victory at the start of every match I played.
Fans wanting Hollywood Football need to remember that Forest went to Europe and won ugly (twice) by defending their goal under the great Brian Clough… Even more recently, the Billy Davies years, the side played 4-5-1 away with big Dele Adebola regularly up top on his own. Frank Clark’s Forest would often stick men behind the ball and hit on the counter-attack relying on the superb Stan Collymore, Karanka, Lamouchi, recent successes have been built on defending first, nothing wrong with it, attractive it might not be, effective however, very much so. From George Graham to Jose Mourinho, from Clough to Davies, Lamouchi to Chris Hughton, these Managers all have one thing in common. Getting results first and foremost, and with results will follow performance. Give Hughton time (a transfer window or two) and i’m sure that both will eventually go hand in hand.
*Article provided by Daniel Peacock (Editor).
*Main image @NFFC Chris Hughton has Forest solid in defence, next is to strengthen the attack.