Monday, 23 February 2015

Antonio and Burke - the best Forest wing combo since Stone and Woan?

I don't know about you but I love watching a good winger. Nothing beats the attacking danger of a marauding wide man dancing in and out of tackles and providing that killer shot or pass. And it was wing wizardry that put Bolton Wanderers to the sword at the City Ground on Saturday.

Yes Tim Ream was a makeshift right back and had a nightmare (capped by being stretchered off in what appears, thankfully, not to be too serious an injury) and yes the rest of the Trotters defence looked more like the Peckham brothers of that name than a coherent Bolton back line. But you can't take away just how good Michail Antonio and Chris Burke were.

For the first 20-30 minutes especially the pair tormented their opponents. The strength, for me, is that they can operate as a pair. If Burke, rejuvenated since Dougie Freedman's arrival, doesn't get you with his nifty footwork, clever touches and accurate crosses and shots then, from the other side, Antonio offers something completely different.

Michail is one of those mercurial talents who gives off the air off not always quite knowing himself what he's going to do. I don't mean that in a bad way either, he's unpredictable and, when relying on instinct on Saturday, his raw pace, power and direct running simply blew Bolton away. His goal, the second, was breathtaking. Teams may be tempted to 'double up' on him to try to nullify that explosive talent. but they know they leave open the risk of the wily Burke weaving his magic on the other flank.

It's a combination that is not only refreshingly exhilarating to watch but shows why Freedman has managed to get off to such a strong start. At the beginning of the season, during the unbeaten run (it seems so long ago), the threat from the flanks ensured that won games even when we didn't dominate or play particularly well. Good, strong width can give a side the tools for deadly counter attacks or - when on top - stretch teams to unlock defence. Dougie has realised that is where the talent lies in this squad - especially considering who is missing - and it's a strength that should be played to as much as possible.

Freedman's 4231/41221 not only frees up Chris and Michail but gets Henri Lansbury further forward, where he can become involved while making sure we have the numbers around him so that we aren't so easily overrun in the centre of the park.

The Freedman formation change fixed three key problems Pearce encountered after that early season run. He had often moved Lansbury to a deeper role to mitigate the loss of Reid and Cohen - the two players he put at the heart of his side at the beginning of the campaign. That role didn't suit Henri or the team as a whole - he didn't win the ball too well and wasn't in a position to contribute the sorts of passes and shots that are a big part of his game. Gardner and Osborn provide the poise and the tenacity respectively that make for a more balanced engine room and the springboard for those further forward.

But, returning to the theme of this blog, it is in the wide positions that Pearce allowed himself to get outflanked.

He, quite rightly, wanted to use the loan market to add a splash of Premier League quality to the squad, especially in light of Reid's continued absence. Sadly, he opted for Tom Ince who didn't seem 'up for the fight' when the going got tough and only served to sideline Burke - whose experience and guile were then sadly missed.

Worst of all, Antonio's early season threat was lost. Michail, the clear player of the season for me, was probably a victim of his own success. Colin Fray describes his blistering run and finish on Saturday as Collymore-esque. Praise indeed in these parts and he's right - it's the sort of explosive goal rarely seen since Stanley in his pomp. But the fact he has pace, power, direct running and - on top of that - is good in the air, meant the temptation was too strong for Pearce to move him up front.

That, however, meant he was too far forward for his movement, running and dribbling to have any impact and he got bogged down battling centre halves from a standing start, rather than running at them with purpose. It killed his best assets stone dead

Now restored, the unlikely dynamic duo of Antonio and Burke makes us a far better prospect. They're scoring, creating and generally terrorising defences at will and Freedman needs to do all he can to keep that going. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed watching a pair of wingers at the City Ground.

The obvious duo would perhaps be Stone and Woan. They operated at a higher level in a different formation but, similarly, offered variety on the flanks. If Antonio and Burke go on to have half the success of those two we'll be lucky.

Then again, we've been fairly lucky to have the odd decent winger grace the flanks of the City Ground turf to light up poor teams. In the post-Premier League era* two shine out. Andy Reid mark one was a Burke-esque twinkled toed magician. Over time he drifted inside and now, in his second spell, his quality on the ball means he has to play in the middle to try to dictate a game.

After Reid departed for White Hart Lane we had Kris Commons. It may be tough to admit it now but we could've done with hanging on to someone of his quality instead of facing the galling prospect of him turning out for them lot down the road. Yet Commons, like Reid over his career, has drifted inside and was a more central attacking midfielder for a lot of his stay on Trentside.

Garath McCleary left just as he was hitting his stride but showed glimpses of the explosiveness Antonio has shown - and was probably the key part of Steve Cotterill's relegation saving rescue effort. Let's hope he doesn't come back to haunt us at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday.

But those three have been bright lights in some pretty dark days. We've never been able to field a pair of top performers in both of the wide positions with the likes of Nicky Southall (good at set pieces but less of an impact in open play) and Paul Anderson (good tactically for Billy but not enough of a creative force) not having the quality of the current pair.

I agree with Dougie Freedman that the play offs are beyond us but as long as Antonio and Burke continue to offer the sort of entertainment we witnessed on Saturday I'll be happy regardless. For now we should try to enjoy our football without the burden of worrying about matters at the top and bottom. Exciting players shouldn't be taken for granted - let's just hope they can deliver more displays like that on Saturday. If they do, it'll certainly be worth turning up.

*It'd be massively unfair to compare any Forest winger to John Robertson so I'll go without mentioning him - save for this footnote to doff our cap to the very best!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Good luck Dougie, you'll need it

Dougie Freedman. There's two words I didn't expect to be typing tonight. Still, at the ongoing soap opera that is Nottingham Forest, little should surprise us now should it? A returning character back at the Queen Vic, cue the 'doof doofs'.

I'll be honest, I'm underwhelmed. Dougie looked to be on to good things with Crystal Palace but jumped ship to Bolton, where things didn't work out. A Bolton fan friend was, well, less than impressed with his tenure at the Trotters to put it mildly.

The people who seemed obsessed with Pearce's win percentage at City will probably be outraged now since Freedman's figure was worse at both Palace and Bolton. Still, if Danny Mills hasn't got a bad word to say about him he'll be ok, right?

I just hope the new man at the helm hasn't been set a 'get the top six this season or else' target. We're a long, long way off being ready for the big time. We shouldn't go down but we cannot be complacent and think that isn't a danger. In essence this next 18 games should be the perfect period to settle on a formation and build a side that can be the basis going forward into next season. That makes sense and would be logical but you fear that Fawaz doesn't deal in the world of slow, steady building.

But, regardless of the new man at the helm we have to now face up to some home truths.

Firstly, we aren't a big club any more. I was appalled to read some people arrogantly suggest we could pinch a manager from a top six club as new boss in that heady hour when it appeared I'd be blogging on potential replacements for Pearce. We're not a Premier League club in waiting and we've certainly got no divine right to have a place in the top flight. Especially not since we were last there in 1999, when Freedman himself wore the Garibaldi and struggled to fill the shoes of Van Hooijdonk and Campbell. Most professional players in football today probably don't even remember us being in the top flight. It's a little depressing but it's time to accept that our name alone counts for a lot less than it once did. We should, rightly, aspire to get back to where we once were, but we can't expect it. Brian Clough left a wonderful legacy at this club but we're not far away from squandering it entirely. Footballing wise we're certainly back where we were when Ol' Big 'Ead worked his miracle.

In fact, you worry that we're becoming seen as a bit of a joke, frankly. We sack a manager every few months with no plan whatsoever for the future. When Southampton lost Pochettino they knew exactly what sort of manager would fit their system and ethos. Players, managers and coaches are brought in to fit the style and structure of the club. System, ethos, style and structure are not words you can associate with Nottingham Forest at the moment. Pretty much the best thing to come from the Pearce era is the renewed emphasis on making the academy at the heart of the club's future. It's a start, but we've got an awful long way to go.

We also have to accept that it is going to take some time to get to where we want to be. Constant chopping and changing has created a mismatch of a squad forged together by bits and bobs from different managers. We must have a long term plan, with coaches, scouts and board members all buying into it. It can't go on being Fawaz playing at it like it's a computer game. He needs sound advice from trusted senior employees and, importantly, to listen to it. I've read tonight that some people at the club were as shocked as we were by the Freedman appointment. Did he weigh up all the options, speak to the chief exec etc and go for someone who shared the club's vision or did he just plump for someone who wanted a job and was available? Too many more sackings and even those out of work with a point to prove will start to say no (cough, Warnock, cough). The one constant in the 'failures' of O'Driscoll, McLeish, Davies and Pearce is the club itself.

The job of shaping a squad is even harder given that we are under a transfer embargo. Freedman can make just one signing, and even that comes with financial caveats. He must get more out of what he has at his disposal.  Some may say that's not too hard given the potential of the players at his disposal. That maybe true but he's lacking a left back worthy of the name, a tackling midfielder and anyone with confidence at the moment. He can get more out of this current set of players and he'll have to. He'll also have to integrate our next crop of young players. We can't keep getting in average players on loan to fill full back and midfield berths - we need to start to forge those players 'in house' and use our budget wisely on the rarer creative and goalscoring positions.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Fawaz means well. He's invested an awful lot of money but it's not just cold hard cash we need. It's proper management. That's from the top to the dugout and onto the field with the players themselves taking some responsibility too.

So, a club stuck in a rut with little or no strategy except a failed short termism and scant opportunity to change the squad. There's your in tray Dougie. Welcome back and best of luck. By God you'll need it.

More Maierhofer and less misery

I don't know about you but I like watching Stefan Maierhofer. The bean pole Austrian has lined up for Millwall in each of the last two seasons at the City Ground and has provided some light relief from two dismal defeats.

Last season Ian Holloway's men were the party poopers in an odd occasion which came straight after Stuart Pearce had been announced as being on his way in the summer. This time the Lions once again did their bit to dent the enthusiasm for Psycho with a win that leaves Forest looking firmly downwards. Any faint optimistic talk of the play offs which may have lingered has to end - in this form we may be lucky to get another 13 points let alone make up a 13-point gap on the top six.

But enough of that doom and gloom for now. At least we had Maierhofer. Last season he snarled and griped and harrumphed his way through the game and was promptly hauled off before he could be hit with the red card that loomed. This season, back for a second loan spell in south London, he was at it again. Youngsters wanting to perfect the 'what, me ref?' shrug should study him. He also displays an excellent technique in running after a long punt up field with his back to the ball, often ending up bouncing face first into a centre half with no intention of winning the ball or, indeed, knowing where the thing is. He's bit like a crazed dog on an eager chase crossed with one of those street mime artists who extravagantly flail their limbs about. It's probably just me that finds the whole thing strangely fascinating and, at times, laugh out loud funny.

He also has other attributes to admire. He's one of those 6ft 7 1/2in big men who doesn't jump and doesn't really win that many headers. Nor does he run much. I like to imagine each of his actions in a game is accompanied by a comedy sound effect

Yet there's another big reason why I enjoyed Stefan Maierhofer's performance yesterday. That was because with him at the forefront of their attack Millwall looked unlikely to be able to take advantage of another pitiful display from the men in red.

When Holloway shuffled his pack we were in trouble. Yes, it took an all-too-familiar howler to let Ricardo Fuller in but you just felt it was coming. The plucked-from-non-league Lee Gregory battled with purpose and power to unsettle Wilson and Hobbs and Fuller loomed dangerously, with his experience and guile an obvious threat.

The arrival of that duo meant that some end product seemed likely to the man-of-the-match work of the on-loan Diego Fabbrini. At times the Italian threatened to take the 'comedy bad guy' crown from the marvellous Maierhofer with a couple of Bafta worthy tantrums. Yet, the odd mardy aside, Fabbrini's talent shone out in a game that was desperately devoid of it (Dorus De Vries's super save aside).

The Watford man displayed a touch, control and vision that looked a level above of anyone else and, frankly, showed up our midfield duo of Tesche and Lansbury. Both of those showed flashes of talent but, as a pair, they simply don't dominate games and didn't again here. 

Millwall, not constrained by an embargo of course, seem to have shopped sensibly this month to plug a few defensive gaps. Jos Hooiveld kept Britt Assombalonga on the fringes of the game (although there was precious little supply in fairness) and Shaun Cummings is another solid defensive addition to the ranks as the Lions look to make an escape from the bottom three. You can't help thinking that we maybe ought to have done more to plug our defensive gaps than chasing Gary Gardner and now, it seems, Jack Grealish. I'd happily let Jorge Grant or Oliver Burke have a go in midfield if we could finally become more solid at the back.

Which bring us to the other defensive addition made by Holloway. Dan Harding. He had been maligned in certain quarters while on Trentside but I can't help but feeling he deserved a longer run in Forest red. He's maybe only capable of a 6 or 7/10 performance but he looked a lot more assured than Danny Fox or Eric Lichaj in that position and obviously has a lot more experience in that berth than Stephen McLaughlin.

That was perhaps more marked yesterday by the fact that McLaughlin was at the heart of the decisive moment. I don't think we should be too harsh on him. 'Proper' defenders have made plenty of similar errors over the years to his woefully tame header back to De Vries but his showing as a whole yesterday suggests he has a little way to go if he's to be 'converted' into a full back.

The goal just put the rancid cherry on a particularly sour cake. I've tried to remain positive but it's hard not to be concerned by that showing. We're still left without a settled and solid back four - although Todd Kane seems a decent signing. Our midfield keeps shuffling about to no avail and you can't help feeling that moving Michail Antonio further forward has reduced the effectiveness he showed earlier in the season as a dangerous winger. We're also now signing or chasing players in positions that we really ought to have covered. With Lichaj on the books we shouldn't have to be using up one of our possible signings on Kane. With Burke and Paterson in the squad then Grealish shouldn't be a target. Yet failures and poor form have meant having to do just that. I'm not yet sure how good Gardner is but he certainly doesn't like the sort of player who could have the impact Fabbrini or Hooiveld had on Millwall yesterday.

In most Championship seasons 45 points would be enough to stay up but here's a sobering thought. In 2012/13 Peterborough were relegated on 54 points. 20 more points seem a long way off on that display don't they? We desperately need to finish the season on a high, playing better football with a more settled side. That way we can at least feel a lesson has been learnt from all this.

And the manager? I've backed him so far but he really does need to address our serious issues and quickly. You feel he won't survive if points cannot be plundered from four more games against struggling sides, particularly Wigan at home and Blackpool away. Fawaz's finger will be hovering over that trigger finger once again and the manager must show he can deliver progress even if promotion is beyond him.

It's all getting very gloomy at the moment. And we've not even got a comedy Maierhofer to come back and bring light relief...