Sunday, 29 November 2015

Freedman the Glasgow Guardiola? No, but all hail his pragmatism

'Who does he think he is, Pep Guardiola?' - wondered no-one ever about Dougie Freedman. Yet there we were, yesterday, ending the game with no strikers on the field.

However, this wasn't a nuanced false-nine led hipster formation, it was a pragmatic home boss shutting up shop against a limp Royals outfit. A false back nine, if you will.

The Glasgow Guardiola (that definitely won't stick will it?) removed the attacking trio of Ryan Mendes, Chris O'Grady and Nelson Oliveira - bulking up his defensive shield with Michael Mancienne, Liam Trotter and Kelvin Wilson. The latter plugged a Jack Hobbs shaped gap in the back four after the Lincolnshire-born centre half received his marching orders but you saw what Dougie was up to. After countless games of performing well and missing out on the points, he wasn't about to throw any away when his side had finally found the net.

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't exactly calm about all this during the game. It felt a dangerous game to play, ceding ground to a team that - inept as they looked yesterday - are mounting a play-off push. Still I, unlike Dougie, was wrapped up in the nerves and the emotion of a vital three points in the race to push clear of a relegation dogfight.

Freedman continues to do his own thing, unafraid of the consequences of it all going wrong and that, in a strange way, is admirable. When previous Forest bosses have feared the sack they have often made odd decisions or taken big gambles that have cost them their jobs. Hart, Megson, Kinnear and Pearce all allowed the pressure of the situation to lead them to big errors. Freedman remains level headed and reaped the rewards of not getting caught up in the moment yesterday.

He started the game with the nearest we'd played to a 442 for a while. But, before his haters claimed a moral victory, this was far from a standard 442. Osborn constantly came in from the left, Oliveira dropped deep and Vaughan and Lansbury continued to anchor the midfield. It was a line up that shows how flat formations and numbers are a folly really. Any manager that sets up a team 'by numbers' is probably doing it wrong.

Oliveira, as many of us have predicted, thrived in being able to get involved in the game a little deeper. He benefitted from O'Grady just as much as his strike partner relished having him to knock the ball too. It's perhaps an unlikely couple - one played with Ronaldo, one for Rochdale - but it was more than enough to get the better of Reading, a team we've now inexplicably put 10 goals past in our last 3 encounters. If we're being fair, you imagine they must've missed Stephen Quinn's midfield energy and Steve 'Mr Loyal Royal' Clarke's men are probably the sort of side that are difficult to stop when Sa, Vydra and Blackman all click.

O'Grady finally opened his account with 'the sort of goal you need' to break a drought, dribbling meekly over the line after an Al-Habsi fumble. He grew in confidence, completely bullied Chelsea loanee Michael Hector from start to finish and set up the third for his Portuguese partner. That goal was Nelson's second and showed new-found predatory instinct after a first goal that was fabulously curled in from outside the area.

Credit too should go to Ryan Mendes. The Cape Verde winger switched flanks for this game and, after struggling initially, came into his own to set up both first half goals from the right. He did still remind us of his inconsistency though with a bizarre miss just before Hobbs' red card, a 'head in hands' moment that thankfully didn't prove too costly. Like him or not - and many do find him frustrating - Mendes' pace and dribbling do cause defenders problems and adds a dimension to our attacking play that we'd lack without him.

Freedman will have been pleased by the cutting edge and second half solidity. You get the impression he won't always play this formation or line-up, but he found a combination that worked and won't be afraid to tweak it again for the visit of Fulham. With our injury list and embargo - and the nature of the Championship - we are in need of a pragmatic leader who can handle the task in hand. The 3-1 win over Reading was more evidence that, given our circumstances right now, Freedman is the right fit. He may not be the Messiah, but he's a very pragmatic boy.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Griffin Park groundhog day as Forest reverted to type in Brentford

Losing to a 96th minute goal is always pretty crushing. Yet, in some respects there was something of a grim inevitability about the Bees' late, late winner on Saturday.

No matter that we had more shots on and off target than the home side. No matter that we'd played the brighter football in an albeit lacklustre first half. No matter that Brentford went down to 10 men after Harlee Dean momentarily lost his head.

Given the story of our season so far, you still worried that this wasn't going to end well. Those fears proved well-founded when Philipp Hofmann's injury time strike took the spoils. It seemed to travel in slow motion, pinballing past the despairing dives of Dorus De Vries and his defence - catching a couple of them before settling in the net. It was messy, scrappy, preventable and, ultimately, enough to send us to an eighth defeat of the season.

The red card of Dean, who, to borrow the cliche, gave the referee no choice, initially looked to have offered a way back into the game for the away side. Henri Lansbury swiftly cancelled out Sergi Canos' earlier strike (the sort of finish we need to see more from the captain) to restore parity and we really should have pushed on from there. But, once again, we showed a distinct lack of ability to turn the screw, leaving an opportunity for the depleted hosts who had been spurred on by the dismissal.

It was some grim irony that the winner came during the injury time that had been added on due to the lengthy fuss caused after the card - those minutes should have been an opportunity for us to gobble up, not one for Lee Carsley to end his short stint in charge with a success.

The spurned opportunity to defeat 10 men only mirrored a game of spurned opportunities, let alone a season that has broadly followed a similar pattern.

A combination of decent pressing from Forest and wasteful possession from the hosts led to the likes of Ryan Mendes, Jamie Ward and Nelson Oliveira regularly getting the ball in dangerous areas inside their opponents' half. The sad fact is that on too many of those we either failed to create a chance or resorted to a tame effort from the sort of distance that will rarely trouble a Championship goalkeeper.

But, how many more times can this happen? We can't keep looking lively, playing alright, firing in lots of efforts on goal but continuing a run of form that now reads P10 W1 D3 L6 F6 A12.

Managers that ultimately get the chop make the wrong decisions at moments like this. Stuart Pearce, for example, started leaving Britt Assombalonga on the bench in favour of pushing Michail Antonio out of position. Gary Megson packed his midfield with defenders to 'win the battle' and Paul Hart tried to revert to a formation that had worked with Riccy Scimeca despite the fact he had left.

Dougie seems to be lining up a change of tactics, telling the Post:

"The shape will have to tighten up again, we will go back to basics and make us tight again. It is as simple as that."
That appears to mean the return of Michael Mancienne in a deep-lying midfield role and, perhaps, a more physical striker up front than Nelson Oliveira. If it goes right and we tough out a couple of wins then Freedman will be able to get some welcome distance from the relegation zone which is now just two points below us in the table. If it goes wrong, however, and we don't pick up points while playing a more dour, defensive, basic game then it could prove fatal - we won't even have the 'well, we played alright' line to fall back on.

My instinct is that we shouldn't do anything that would cause the chances and shots to dry up - it doesn't feel like that will help add to the goals column. I'd like to see whether the likes of the Burkes might be due a run to see if they can add more end product when presented with the ball in the positions our attacking trio found themselves in on Saturday. I might be wrong - it wouldn't be the first time - and not conceding would, at least, be a start if we're to start getting results.

You also felt that swapping Jonny Williams for Liam Trotter - the one change from the Derby game - made us a poorer side at Brentford. Trotter might have the physical attributes to give us a 'presence' in the opponents' half but he looked lost and contributed little. If the issue with Williams is fitness then you'd have to question the worth of loaning in a man who can't manage two games in two weeks.

It's stick or twist time for Dougie. What he does next will determine whether Fawaz sticks with him or twists the metaphorical knife to call time on his tenure. Reading awaits for Freedman - he passed his last test at the City Ground with flying colours, let's hope he follows suit on Saturday and builds on that, rather than the Brentford, blueprint.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Derby result made for a joyous break...but Brentford can't be this year's Fulham

Well, that was a nice international break wasn't it? Two whole weeks to dwell on a win against D*rby, relisten to Colin Fray's goal commentary, watch Nelson Oliveira's strike a few times and laugh at this screen shot on Facebook of Tom Ince.

Oh, and to enjoy this cracking little picture too...

As the international break unfolded it dawned on me just how horrible it would've been to have lost that game. We'd have had two weeks to reflect on a grim result and, you fear, maybe even yet another period of managerial uncertainty - joining the clutch of Championship clubs in search of a new boss.

We'd have had to fight Blackburn for Paul Lambert and, if unsuccessful, might have begged Nigels Pearson and Clough. And, when that stubborn pair spurned us, who next? Nigel Havers? Nigel Farage? 

Ok, I'm being facetious, but a defeat followed by a deeply unsatisfying search for a manager no better than what we've got could have been pretty dismal.

So, having sidestepped one tricky situation, it now befalls on Dougie Freedman to try to steer clear of repeating a mistake of last season.

Stuart Pearce's great against-all-odds triumph over the Sheep was followed by a limp first half at Fulham - which ultimately led to a 3-2 defeat - and a tepid 1-0 defeat at home to Millwall. The passion and the emotion that helped conjure that superb win down the A52 soon fizzed away.

This time you'd like to think that the breathing space of a two-week break should help - a luxury Pearce didn't have. The dust has settled and the game last Friday is now a joyous memory. Pearce's win proved his solitary victory in his last 10 games in charge, as things stand it's Dougie's only win in his last nine. 

It was some effort to beat Clement's men. Setting aside who they are, this was a win against a side that had only lost once before all season and are title contenders. It was, even with Garibaldi Red-tinted specs on, thoroughly deserved too, with Freedman's men winning the battle physically and tactically and being driven on by a phenomenal performance from David Vaughan. The Welshman's showing was surely one of the best individual displays in Red in that fixture for some time?

Let's not forget, though, that Freedman has pulled off similar victories before - toppling Bournemouth and Middlesbrough at the City Ground when the odds suggested he didn't stand much of a chance. Say what you like about him, but he does have a plan for such occasions and it worked to a treat again against the overwhelmed Rams.

There were bucket loads of positives for Freedman to take into tomorrow's clash with Brentford at Griffin Park but he has to make sure the Derby win becomes the start of a run - not a flash in the pan. If his side can show the same work rate, solidity, physical strength, tenacity and neat use of the ball then he won't be going far wrong. 

It won't be easy. Lee Carsley's men had mustered four wins on the spin before stuttering in their final two games and they do pose a threat in front of goal. Freedman followed up his Bournemouth and Boro wins up with a win against Reading and draw against Leeds respectively and it's that sort of momentum he needs to find in West London, rather than a parallel with Pearce's failure at nearby Fulham.


Tomorrow will be my second visit to Brentford, the last being almost ten years ago - a 1-1 draw on a Tuesday night in January 2006.

A quick look back at the starting line up that day does at least show offer comfort that things aren't all bad these days:

Gerrard, Thompson, Bennett, Morgan, Breckin, Perch, Gary Holt, Friio, Southall, Commons, Tyson. Subs: Gardner, Bastians, Bopp, Pedersen, Lester.

Still, while I remember little of the game - barring the odd trademark Bennett challenge and the thought that it was a decent point (Brentford made the play-offs that year) - my memory is slightly different to that of Sky Sports. Surely I'd have remembered if this were the formation Megson had sent out?!

James Perch's goalkeeping career completely passed me by it seems!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Is history repeating itself at Forest? If so, which bit?

They say history repeats itself. But the trouble with trying to learn the lessons of history is that you never know which bits are relevant until it’s too late.

Today, Paul Taylor pointed out in the Post in black and white how patience was required when Brian Clough first walked through the door at the City Ground. I’ve written for Seat Pitch before on how these days – and with our current owner – you doubt Clough would have been given the chance to make his miracle come true.

Yet, while the Clough example might show the benefit that could be had from a little patience no-one is suggesting Freedman could pull off anything remotely close to the heroics of Old Big ‘Ead. There’s a reason for the word ‘miracle’ in the film title after all.

I’m torn between two more recent – and perhaps more relevant – chapters in Forest’s past when searching for evidence of what should be done next.

Is this season reminiscent of Paul Hart’s first campaign in charge in 2001/02? Dogged by financial problems (FFP may be different but is also restrictive in the transfer market) Hart tried to rebuild after the failure of David Pl**.

Hart’s side struggled for goals with just 12 wins, 18 draws and 16 defeats. The struggle was particularly marked after the turn of the year when, thanks to a ridiculous bonus structure in Stern John’s contract, Hart was forced to offload the 14-goal frontman.

The difference now is that Dougie Freedman is robbed of his top scorer – a better player in Britt Assombalonga – through injury. But, he’s without him nevertheless.

In fact, after the start of 2002, Hart’s men won just 3 of 20 league and cup games, scoring just 19 goals and losing nine times. Sound like a familiar run of form? Dougie has 3 wins in his last 22 league games.

Through circumstance Hart was forced to turn to youth, a policy that it appeared our embargo might cause in 2015/16. The blossoming talents of David Prutton, Michael Dawson, Andy Reid and Gareth Williams brought hope amid the gloom. They learned from the experience and came back stronger to form the backbone of the 2002/3 play-off push.

But what was the lesson of that season? Well, this was a case of patience being the order of the day. Such was the financial situation – and the very real threat of administration had Jermaine Jenas not been offloaded to Newcastle – that Hart did well to steady the ship and bring his kids through. After the storm was weathered we went on to turn on the style in a memorable campaign.

So, if we are to follow this blueprint, you might draw two lessons: stick with Freedman but do more to integrate and develop the kids at the expense of loan rangers.

To be fair to Freedman, this current crop of youngsters aren’t as good as those of 14 years ago – but if we’re being blunt the likes of Walker, Osborn, Grant and Oliver Burke might as well be used ahead of O’Grady, Trotter etc.

But, what of another side from the not-too-distant past? When Colin Calderwood brought us back to the Championship in 2008 there was a great deal of excitement after the grim struggles in League One.

Yet Calderwood’s charges displayed a worrying resemblance to Freedman’s current crop in a couple of respects: they continually ‘played well and lost’ and were often outdone by more streetwise sides with a greater degree of Championship ‘nous’.

That lack of ‘nous’ was arguably what cost us better results against Hull, Middlesbrough, Ipswich, Bolton and Huddersfield as Freedman’s ‘nearly but not quite’ narrative played out all too often.

Calderwood won four of 25 games and lost 12, including a Boxing Day battering by Doncaster that cost the Scot his job.

If Calderwood’s side is the better parallel with this season then we all know what the remedy was that time.

Now, before you think I’ve lost it completely don’t worry. I’m not calling for the return of Billy Davies. I’m really not. But it’s hard to deny that the change of management worked on that occasion. Davies dragged us up to the standard required for Championship football, adding a harder edge and that much-needed ‘nous’.

Perhaps, if this is the analogy you prefer then we do need a leader who can add that quality to the current line-up?

Of course, no two teams or eras are exactly the same. I think the Hart and Calderwood sides were similar but there are clearly differences.

Maybe the lesson comes not from within the club but from others in the division? Chris Hughton’s Brighton, Steve Clarke’s Reading (in the league at least) and Russell Slade’s Cardiff all struggled last term but are thriving now that their managers have had time to build their sides.

The problem with looking backwards is that is allows us the one thing we don’t have in the present – hindsight. Whether Hart’s side, Calderwood’s team, the early days of Clough or another club enitely offers us a salient lesson or two probably depends on how you view Freedman and the current set up.

One thing is for certain – Freedman will soon need a result or two to avoid this being the end of yet another managerial chapter at the City Ground.