Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Project Freedman needs a plan B next

I was worried about that Huddersfield game. Not just because of the memory of 'that match' under Pl*** either. With the clarity of a pre-match pint, I'd been involved in a discussion that later looked prescient. The question was 'what happens if we concede first?'. Sadly, the answer came with Huddersfield's 2-0 victory.

Dougie's fantastic unbeaten run - since October 3 at home and November 21 home or away - has been built on solidity and organisation. We've had a sound shape and a defensive resolve that has made us tough to beat.

It has been a sensible way to address a slide in results that took us to within two points of the drop zone and it's a reasonable 'plan A'. It's harsh to be too critical following the first defeat in a long while but you do think that the next stage in this side's development must be to have an effective 'plan B' too.

Forest huffed and puffed on Saturday but could never string together a decent spell of pressure. Not one player had a good game and, to be fair to Dougie, no matter what formation you choose you're not going to get far if you suffer from such a collection of below-par displays.

Credit must go to Huddersfield though. They ensured we never had the time or space to settle with an energetic and disciplined display. They 'out Dougied Dougie' to some respects - with the shape, nous and performance to see the game out once in front. I've often been impressed by the Terriers (they must just underperform when I'm not looking) and David Wagner's XI was littered with enough talent to suggest they could surprise a few next year if they learn some lessons from this campaign.

Joe Lolley looks a real talent and Philip Billing's thunderous winner was far from his only bit of impressive play.

Dougie does now have a free weekend to work with the players and he may well shuffle the pack for the daunting trip to Burnley. It's easy to forget that, through injury and transfers, Vaughan, Gardner and Tesche are all players without much experience of long run of games in recent times. Jamie Ward seems much less effective when he's not playing centrally and able to be as much of a pest as possible.

Irrespective of personnel changes though, finding that plan B is pretty important going forward. Turf Moor is the sort of ground where we could well come under a lot of early pressure and have to be able to bounce back if the defence is breached.

This isn't anything new to Dougie. Here's what he said to the BBC after the Hull City defeat in October:
"We were disappointed with the goal, it was a bad goal to give away, with Maloney taking a quick corner to catch us out, the first goal was so, so crucial. That has never been as important in football as it is now. It changed the whole course of the game."
We've conceded the first goal in almost half of our games this season. Of those 15 games we've come back to win 3 - Rotherham at home, QPR away and Reading at home - and drew against Ipswich at home, Wolves away and Birmingham at home. We've lost the other nine.

Conversely - and whisper this quietly for fear of jinxing it - we've never lost in the 13 games in which we've scored first. It's pretty stark proof of the importance of that first goal.

Since we can't always guarantee getting on the scoresheet first, getting victories from behind will be vital in the long term if we want to challenge at the top. That might need better options from the bench but it might also mean the ability to be flexible enough to deploy the players on the pitch in another permutation. On Saturday you feel that sacrificing the ineffectual Tesche for Burke and shifting Ward inside behind Oliveira would've added a great deal of threat with a fairly subtle attacking shift in the shape.

The building process is going well and only a fool would say otherwise after one setback. Saturday was just the second time in 11 games we'd conceded first so we had become accustomed to only needing a plan A. If Dougie can find an effective plan B, he'll be on to a real winner going forward.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Huddersfield: A warning from the Nottingham Forest history books

Dougie Freedman's 13-match unbeaten run has certainly deserved the praise it has received this week. Yet praise has been followed by dangerous talk of another 'p' - promotion.

I don't know about you but that sort of thing instantly makes me nervous. In some ways it's natural to look up. We're on a great run, we're in the top 10 and we've got a points tally that would've secured safety after 46 games last season.

Yet I'm always worried of getting carried away and that fear is especially true when it comes to tomorrow's opponents. Huddersfield, more than anyone, stick in the back of my mind as a side that epitomises the way a bubble can very easily burst.

The reason for that was a disastrous defeat to the Terriers on Wednesday December 13 2000.

Picture the scene. After a farcical start and that business with the dodgy Italian signings, David Pl*** was finally starting to deliver results. Having seen his side win 7 of their last 9 games, hope of a promotion challenge was building. The crowds - which dipped as low as 14k in the previous season - were starting to return. In total 28, 372 turned out on that Wednesday night, desperate to see wht the fuss was all about for the sixth placed Reds.

In front of Forest stood Huddersfield. The away side had done the double over us under Steve Bruce the previous season but after one win - and 13 defeats -  in their first 19 games of the 2000/01 campaign Bruce was axed and replaced by Lou Macari. They came to Forest a few games later, still bottom of the league.

A big crowd, then, and a big chance to hammer home that promotion push.

Only it went spectacularly wrong. In just eight second half minutes, Huddersfield scored three goals - one from on-loan Peter Ndlovu and two from veteran marksman Kevin Gallen - that burst Pl***'s bubble. Andy Reid scored his second senior goal but it was a mere consolation on a humiliating night for the manager and his team.

We never really regained our momentum from that night on, winning just eight of the remaining 24 games, losing 11 and slipping meekly to an 11th placed finish. In short, it knocked the stuffing out of us. It's a cruel lesson that I've sworn to try not to forget.

It's probably harsh to bring that game up now. Freedman is a far better manager than Pla***, he's more astute, more calm and more experienced in the job. But it does show why I worry about taking teams lightly. Yes the Huddersfield of 2015/16 have lost their last three, but before that David Wagner seemed to have got them performing well. We were wrong to presume we'd steamroller Macari's basement battlers back then so we'd definitely be wrong to rule out a defeat tomorrow.

I still think promotion is beyond this side. It'd probably need 10 wins from the last 16 games at least to make the top 6 - a big ask with the strike force at Freedman's disposal. Sheffield Wednesday's surge and Brighton's revival should also mean that that top is impenetrable (surely even Wassall can't fail to get that lot in the top 6?).

While it's nice to dream, however unlikely, we shouldn't allow it to let us get carried away or complacent. That night in December 2000 against Huddersfield should prove that.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Watford, window, Welshman, tenure, tickets and targets

The FA Cup dream is over, Dougie has made it to a year in charge and the transfer window has, as cliché would have it, slammed shut. Here's my two penneth on events on Trentside..
  • Saturday's defeat at home to Watford felt cruel. While we might have ceded territory to the Premier League visitors for periods of the game, we actually held our own pretty well against a side that had made fewer changes in personnel than us. Two moments in the game - one at the end of each half - proved decisive. Jamie Ward missed a golden chance on the stroke of half time and Kelvin Wilson - otherwise pretty solid considering he's our 4th choice centre half these days - gifted a goal to one of the top flight's most prolific marksmen as the final whistle approached. Both moments formed one harsh lesson in the need to be clinical in both boxes against quality opposition.
  • The 24,000-plus crowd was pleasing to see, especially after sluggish home attendances this season. It's a testament to the club's pricing policy for this game, which is in marked contrast to some of the extortionate figures rip-off merchants try to fleece fans for when it comes to league games. Leeds United, for example, should be thoroughly ashamed for asking for a whopping £37 from the travelling Trickies on Saturday.
  • No mention of the Watford game could be complete without some praise for David Vaughan. For me he was the stand out player on the whole pitch. Whether it was his physical battle with Troy Deeney or his calm, controlled passing in the middle of the park, the Welshman oozed class and continued his case for the player of the season crown.
  • You have to wonder, too, whether Dougie would've wanted a replay. If a trip to Vicarage Road had been sandwiched in between the Leeds away and Huddersfield home games then it's likely that we'd have fielded a pretty weak side and taken a beating.

  • Why do people allow themselves to get sucked into the transfer deadline day hype? Especially when the club is in an embargo and too far from the top six to realistically be thinking of promotion. Yes we could do with a better striker on the books while Britt is out but it would have been tough to get in a high-class addition who could come in and hit the ground running.
  • The biggest issue yesterday was not that we didn't get a striker but that, once again, the club appeared to be in administrative chaos. Someone ought to have spotted the issue over the termination of Kyle Ebecilio's loan deal before the window even opened, not at the last minute when it seriously hampered Freedman's purchasing power. It appears that even though he has now gone we might be left paying part of his wages. Paying a player to be at one club on loan from another is a stupid situation to be in at the best of times, let alone when every penny counts under an embargo. It's this sort of mis-management that has to be stamped out before we emerge from the embargo and try to start spending again.
  • Not only that but yesterday we also found out that the club is still paying Billy Davies, roughly two years after he was sacked. Couple that with the fact that we had to come to agreements with Djamel Abdoun and Radi Majewski to leave earlier this year and there's been an awful lot of money spent this season on people who aren't even offering the club any service.
  • To be honest, if missing out on a striker leaves Tyler Walker more chance to develop and offers other youth teamers a window of opportunity to get on the bench then I'll be happy. Dexter's performance on Saturday showed that he struggles to lead the line for 90 minutes, it's just a shame Tyler wasn't brought on to replace him. Why train up other teams' kids when we can hone the skills of our own? Especially if loanees end up being as disappointing as Chuba Akpom last season.
  • We shouldn't forget that this January window has seen the arrival of Bojan Jokic and Gary Gardner. Both were excellent bits of business for the manager and plug two gaps in the squad left by injuries - one known in Daniel Pinillos and one unknown in Henri Lansbury. Thank goodness we got those two signed up.
  • Monday's transfer window fell on the one-year anniversary of Dougie Freedman's appointment in the City Ground hotseat. Not many would've thought he'd have lasted 12 months given the way we have wielded the axe in recent seasons. In tough times, he's done a decent job, weathering the dual storms of a transfer embargo and long-term injuries to his best players. He's sensibly built from the back to set in place some solid foundations while showing the sort of business brain that is badly needed in a club otherwise bereft of strategy. He's the right man for these times and has earned some praise. If he's still here this time next year then you feel that will be a good sign that we're moving forward.
  • Dougie's tenure made it to the one-year mark at the same time as reaching the 50 game milestone. Of those 50 games, he's won 17, drawn 16 and lost 17. Double all of those numbers and you get his record with Bolton. Spooky. 32 wins in 91 games at Palace is pretty much the same win percentage too. I'm never a fan of judging a manager on the win percentage alone as this stat lacks meaning without context but the similarity across all three clubs is worth noting.
  • So, where does this leave the season? On Dougie's current win/loss/draw ratio we could expect roughly 6 wins, 5 draws and 6 defeats. I make that 62 points, which would be 3 more than last season and would have earned us an 11th place finish last time around. The play offs? Taking an average of the points total of the last five seasons, achieving sixth place would need an unlikely 74 points. That would mean 35 points from the last 17 games, meaning we'd need 10/11 wins and could afford a maximum of 2/3 losses. Given that Hull, Burnley, Ipswich and D**by all await on the road, it looks a long way of what we're capable of at this stage of our side's development.
  • It'd be nice to aim higher than 6 wins, but I think it's more important that, irrespective of the points tally, we finish the season in a positive manner. If we end up with the foundations of a good side (De Vries, Lichaj, Pinillos, Mills, Mancienne, Vaughan, Lansbury, Osborn, Burke, Assombalonga, Ward from what we should have available so far) and experience for our young players then it'll be job done for this campaign, with just 2/3 key signings to find if/when the embargo is lifted.