Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Hoping for happier Huddersfield visit as Dougie looks to play his aces

Huddersfield away last season was, in essence, where the Psycho-bubble burst for me last season. The John Smith's Stadium, on November 1, was the first time I'd actually seen us lose in person, having missed the Cardiff away and Blackburn home losses.

The Pearce honeymoon - with 11 unbeaten league games before that first defeat in Cardiff - was already over, yet the loan signing of Tom Ince threatened, we hoped, to get things back on track.

The positive frame of mind with which we went into this game disappeared within a minute. One swift long throw and Joel Lynch header exposed a brittle back line. Chris Powell's men then attacked with the bit between their teeth and messrs Lichaj, Fox and particularly Lascelles and Mancienne floundered badly as two more goals flew in for a resounding 3-0 thumping.

Ince was presumably man of the match, in his own head at least, as the remaining embers of early season enthusiasm were drained from attacking players who had lit up the league in the early couple of months. Just three more victories followed for Pearce (although one was a good un) before the end of January and the axe was wielded.

Fast forward to this season and current boss Dougie Freedman is in distinct danger of building his own bubble of optimism as the John Smith's Stadium beckons again. Post Michail Antonio, the Scot has shuffled his pack and impressed during three tough tests.

Back to back away games at QPR and Birmingham yielded an impressive 6 points and although Middlesbrough at home ended in defeat it was arguably the best performance of the lot, against a side destined to challenge for the title.

Having eloquently spoken about the need for a sensible, long-term approach to squad building in the past, this week Freedman spoke wisely about the tactical battle of modern day Championship football.

In the last three games he's relished having the ability to mix things up across his 'front six', shuffling the pack wisely so not to expose those returning from injury or acclimatising to English football. The points tally - and performances - should be seen as a triumph for the manager.

Contrary to stereotype, he's also been bold. He took off Kyle Ebecilio at QPR having previously sent him on as a sub, started Ward and Blackstock ahead of QPR-slayers O'Grady and Mendes for the Birmingham game and opted for an attacking line-up with two strikers to take the game to Boro. Each of those decisions was not a safe option, but each showed a manager relishing the chance to use his squad to match the occasion.

Of course such moves are only ever looked at favourably if you win or play well - if Dougie tinkers and loses then similar moves could easily be held against him. But QPR and Birmingham were largely subdued and while it may have been risky to cede so much midfield ground to Boro, enough chances were created to at least get the point his side's efforts deserved.

Dougie is now, by his own admission, thinking two or three games ahead and formulating plans and line-ups accordingly. I don't know if he likes chess but he seems the sort (in a nice way). It'll be fascinating to see what he does to try to overcome a Huddersfield side that has had its own recent upsurge, winning their last two games.

The hosts may not be the league's most fancied side but they are not to be under-estimated and are more than capable of swatting aside a team that under-performs. They showed that by battering Bolton, a timely warning for our side if last season's fixture wasn't fresh enough in the memory.

Freedman is a man who had the Midas touch when he first came to the City Ground. Like Pearce, he enjoyed a honeymoon period when it came to results, followed by a period of struggle. Unlike Pearce, he's now trying to build a second surge of results and has shown positive signs that he can do just that.

I won't be there to witness it, sadly. Football aside, Huddersfield was actually a decent day out last year and a trip I'd earmarked as an away fixture to take in this season. Sadly, Sky's trigger-happy schedulers have opted to put us before the cameras for a third time in September, moving the game to tomorrow night. Moving this and the Bristol City games have proved frustrating - creating a stop-start schedule of annoying kick off times. If Dougie shuffles his pack and plays his cards right I'm sure I'll soon stop grumbling...

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Mancienne Conundrum looms as 'Sky month' kicks off at QPR

It seems a fair while now since we limped to a disappointing defeat at home to Cardiff doesn't it? That game left many questions to ponder, not least how the transfer window would pan out.

Never ones to take the easy path, our transfer window business eventually came to end yesterday - a full nine days after the deadline. But, as promised, the paperwork seems to have been sorted on time and Jonny 'Joniesta' Williams joined from Crystal Palace to complete a quartet of additions.

The number of signings means that the return to league action against QPR feels like even more of a fresh start than normal. It's a case of 'over to you Dougie' as Freedman tries to forge a workable - and hopefully successful - starting XI from his new-look squad.

In some respects he faces a tough task. Of the new recruits, Nelson Oliveira and Ryan Mendes will need time to settle in. Oliveira's stint at Swansea last season should help but the new pair join a side that already includes Daniel Pinillos and Kyle Ebecilio who are new to English football. It's not as if we're slotting one piece into a near-finished jigsaw. Dougie has, in fact, barely emptied all the pieces out of the box.

Williams is returning to fitness while O'Grady needs to shake off the splinters from warming the Brighton bench - both in need of the sharpness needed to deal with three games in a week.

The other issue is that there's a tough looking set of fixtures on the horizon. Tomorrow's lunch time game is an extremely awkward looking away day at Loftus Road. The Rs hung on to Charlie Austin and Leroy Fer to ensure their new-look squad has a touch of Premier League class and a strong chance of challenging for promotion. Birmingham and Middlesbrough follow and both, like QPR, are among the top seven of the fledgling table.

There's also the television hex. It's probably only a perception that we struggle under the glare of the cameras, but you can't help feeling that Dougie would've preferred to have been left alone for a while to try to find some form away from the Sky screens. He has no such luck with tomorrow's game, the Middlesbrough home clash and the next game, away at Huddersfield, all on TV (I'm still smarting about the fact I'll now miss out on a trip to Huddersfield).

Expect to hear this song, used by Sky on Championship coverage, a lot over the next month:

We have to be honest and expect that things will take time. The next three fixtures would've been tough even without big changes in personnel so with them it'll be even harder to pick up points - although the element of surprise might prove useful.

One thing I'm fascinated to see - Ok, I'm sad - is what now happens to Michael Mancienne now that we've turned down the advances from Fulham to keep him on the books. The former Chelsea and Hamburg man has been forced to play as a defensive midfielder under Freedman as well as the dreaded left back berth. Whilst he may have managed the odd bit of defensive 'tidying up' he clearly struggles to impose himself on a game in that position, never dominating enough to snuff out an opposition and never offering enough on the ball in times when we are in the ascendancy.

Dougie could call on David Vaughan - who has started to look the player we hoped he could be in recent weeks - the fit again Henri Lansbury, Kyle Ebecilio, Ben Osborn, Jonny Williams or Jorge Grant in central midfield.

In essence, he doesn't need Mancienne there any more but I wonder if he still feels that none of the above names are defensive enough to play deep.

I'd like to see us be bold and find a way of playing that makes use of the talents of that six (I refuse to get my hopes up over Reid and Cohen). In many respects our midfield dilemma mirrors the tactical decisions Roy Hodgson is weighing up with England.

In an excellent piece this week, Jonathan Wilson highlighted how England veered from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 ahead of the World Cup, partly in a bid to get more attacking options on the field. The 'two' at the base of the midfield were Gerrard and Henderson - neither natural holding players. Post-World Cup - and post-Gerrard - Roy has reverted to his 4-3-3 and reaped the rewards in an undefeated qualifying campaign. As Wilson puts it:

England still have no out and out holder, but they can play a passer flanked by two scufflers, and weight of numbers and organisation can do the rest.

There's no reason why Dougie shouldn't look to this 'passer and scufflers' formula in his Forest side - making use of the talents of Lansbury and Williams, while also tapping into the energy of Osborn and Ebecilio. If we get this part of the team right you feel like there might be enough exciting talent with Mendes, Oliveira, Ward, young Burke and Walker - combined with experience and know-how of O'Grady, old Burke and Blackstock - to make a viable attacking force.

Mancienne, meanwhile, is surely a man who deserves a shot in defence. The fact that he was there in our impressive start to 2014/15 has been overstated a little - he was still there and awful when I saw us defeated 3-0 at Huddersfield last year - but it is true that he showed himself capable of being part of a solid Championship back line.

I can understand the logic of trying him in midfield in the first place. He's a defensive player who is comfortable on the ball and is probably someone who looks to have the talent to be flexible. Positional flexibility is popular too, it's a very Guardiola thing to do isn't it? His Bayern side romped to victory with Xabi Alonso at centre half recently and you get the impression that Pep basically wants to play football with 11 midfielders. Spellbinding as that might be to watch, it's on a different planet to us and, with the greatest respect, involves players of a much higher class.

Not only would we hopefully get the best out of Mancienne in defence but if, say, paired with Freedman favourite Matt Mills, we could try to play the ball from the back with these two - again bringing the midfield into the game a little more.

It was noticeable at Bolton, for example, that with Tyler Walker up front on his own De Vries started the game by bowling the ball out to Mills in an attempt to play more football. The plan deteriorated slightly when the hosts got on top but it was there - and could be enhanced by having Mancienne there too.

Whether Dougie is convinced or not remains to be seen. It'd be a positive symbol of a more progressive future if Mancienne isn't in the midfield in West London tomorrow. Equally, if he is then we still need to support him and Dougie. I don't see that he'll flourish there in the long run but if Freedman disagrees then he's the boss and we need rally round and give it all time to gel.

My grandad used to say that 'patience is a virtue', we'd all do well to heed his sage words over the course of the season...

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Glimmer of light as transfer window slowly creaks shut

Oh Forest, look what you've done to us now. Not content with putting us through a rollercoaster transfer window under an embargo, the club has now delivered news of signings three days after the window was supposed to have, as cliche would have it, slammed shut. From now on we're not even going to be able to relax once a transfer window closes - there will be the thought in the back of our minds 'What if we're going to announce it in a few days like Nelson Oliveira?'.

In all seriousness though, the announcements at the end of the week - which seemed to be delayed out of an understandable post-Hamer caution - were at least a welcome end to the window and were a welcome shot in the arm after losing our most potent (fit) attacking threat when Michail Antonio finally made his move to West Ham.

I can't find it within myself to be too tough on Michail. He's a London lad who came up from non league and has earned his shot at the big time. We've made a tidy profit on him and can't really stand in the way of his Premier League ambitions.

Still, you can't argue he won't be missed. His pace, power, goals and assists have been a potent threat ever since he made the switch from Sheffield Wednesday. He regularly came up with 'lift you from your seat' moments of explosive play (I do worry slightly for sanity of those who yearned him to tame this side of his game and instead 'track back').

There's a theory that we were too one dimensional with Michail in the line-up - and there may be some truth in that. The trouble is that this happened because whenever we ran out of ideas or struggled to get a foothold in a game we knew that we could give him something to run on to - or could rely on his strength to battle and hold on to a ball. Our play will probably need to be more precise now but we will also need to try to find other ways of hurting teams with pace and power too.

Which brings us on to the new signings. First in the door was Chris O'Grady. Slightly boringly we actually conformed with tradition and announced this on deadline day.

O'Grady has had something of a journeyman existence throughout his career and his time on the south coast with Brighton hasn't gone well. But, he had been an awkward customer for Barnsley in the Championship and, let's face it, Brighton fans didn't really like Gary Gardner did they? (Ok, that's maybe clutching at straws).

Yes, O'Grady isn't another Assombalonga but he's a Nottingham lad and returns to his homeland with a point to prove after his Seagulls move turned sour. He can be an attacking focal point that holds the ball up and brings our midfielders and wingers in to the game and probably suits Dougie's formation. With Blackstock continually struggling for fitness O'Grady could well be a useful member of the squad and adds some of that power we're otherwise lacking without Antonio. He certainly deserves a chance if nothing else.

Then came the tantalising tweet that kept us all in suspense - and hitting refresh - for the rest of the week.

The names of the targets were fairly common knowledge but, as all Forest fans have learned, it's never best to presume that something is certain with our club. In fact, post-Hamer, it's now the case that even seeing someone in the shirt for an announcement isn't a guarantee. They like to keep us on our toes. At least it's never dull right?

Then, just when many started to be convinced by the doom-mongers that the deals weren't going to happen someone at the Football League finally found the rubber stamp down the back of the settee and signed off on the deals to bring in Nelson Oliveira and Ryan Mendes on season long loans.

The FA then conspired to lose the stamp again and is yet to clear the deal to bring in Jonny Williams from Crystal Palace. The fact the player has been training with the club at least suggests we're confident of getting him in the door.

It's hard to make a sensible judgment on just how good that late business could be for Forest. It's certainly true that the club needed to do something to fill the gap left by Antonio. In fact the departure of Jamie Paterson to Huddersfield meant that we lost our top goalscorers from the past two seasons on the same day. (Antonio shared the accolade with Assombalonga, Paterson edged out Reid in the scoring charts in 2013/14 - so injuries are also robbing us of our next most prolific players in recent times.) It also seemed, from the Cardiff display, that an injection of fresh energy might help to lift some flat displays. Tyler Walker certainly needed a little help to lead the forward line.

Given the embargo, new signings were always going to be tough to come by yet there are promising signs. As discussed, O'Grady needn't be as bad an acquisition as some might think and the remaining trio are all players with a decent pedigree. Williams, of course, has experience of this level and looks a class act but all three are players with talent who - either due to injury or lack of opportunity in their respective top flights - now have a point to prove. In all honesty they wouldn't be here if they had achieved their potential but, on the flip side, we might be able to benefit from them reaching that potential.

Oliveira has 14 Portuguese caps and was, apparently, snatched from under the noses of Valencia. Some fear his goal record isn't spectacular but t's harsh to judge him on numbers alone. For a start, how many people who looked at his Wikipedia page appreciated how many of his 'games' were actually as a sub?

Screenshot from

13 goals in 82 league games...or 13 in 26 starts. You can spin statistics if you want, the point is he's attracted interest of a fair few clubs that are at a much higher standard than we are at the moment.

Mendes follows Matthieu Louis-Jean into the small 'Forest and Le Havre' club and has the potential to inject the pace on the flanks that Michail used to good effect.

With Mendes, Oliveira and the earlier signings of Pinillos and Ebecilio we will need to be patient. They'll need time to get used to English football and, in some cases, regular adult football.

It's also important - at the other end of the excitement spectrum - that we don't get carried away with the arrivals and cast aside some existing members of the squad too readily. We would all do well to be wary of YouTube highlights after Rafik Djebbour and Lars Veldwijk.

The likes of Ben Osborn, Tyler Walker and Oliver Burke deserve the chance to prove they shouldn't be usurped by these imports. I'd certainly be reluctant to move Ben down the pecking order - his energy and midfield thrust are quickly becoming the heartbeat of this side and that should be embraced.

There's certainly promise and pedigree in the ranks - and options for Freedman to try to forge into an effective Championship side. What Dougie and the players needs now is patience. It will take time to settle on a new way of playing and a new first choice side. That might mean a few scratchy performances along the way - and maybe some defeats on the telly in tough games coming up - but hopefully there's enough raw material to work with going forward.

Freedman has got lucky in one sense. His first couple of targets when it came to new strikers - Michael Frey and Lukas Jutkiewicz - have both gone down with serious injuries since their moves fell through. Nicky Maynard also picked up an injury in his first trial game after we chose not to snap him up. Let's hope his luck now extends to those players we've actually signed...

The transfer window:

Out: Majewski, Mackie, Abdoun, McLaughlin, Paterson, Veldwijk, Harding, Collins, Halford, Antonio

In: Mills, Ward, Pinillos, Ebecilio, O'Grady, Oliveira, Mendes, Williams (hopefully)