Sunday, 28 December 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 3 Birmingham City

Let me start by wishing everybody who reads my blog a very Merry Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed my irreverent take on (mainly) the trials and tribulations of Nottingham Forest in 2014. 

Forest themselves decided to be a bit different this Christmas. Rather than treating their supporters to a feast of festive football, they instead chose to give the gift of goals to their opponents: six of them in fact, in two Yuletide matches. 

The human mind has the ability to block out unpleasent memories, therefore I can't recall the minutiae of the Reds' most recent capitulation to report on it properly. In summary though, it went something like this:

- We started badly
- We got a bit better
- We made some chances
- We missed them
- We gave away a shit goal
- We gave away an even shitter goal
- We gave away another goal, but should not have been penalised for the free kick that led to it
- We got booed off at half time
- We started the second half quite well
- We made some chances
- We missed them
- The referee made some shit decisions
- The linesman near me didn't make *any* decisions
- We scored an irrelevant consolation goal

Until David Cotterill's dreadful (from our perspective) brace, I didn't think we were playing too badly. Certainly the team selection made sense this time and we (mostly) seemed to be trying to play it on the deck, but the double blow of conceding two really, really poor goals was too much to recover from. So, where do we go from here? Let's start from the top:

I feel some sympathy for Fawaz al Hasawi at the moment. I get the impression (and it is just an impression and not based on any inside knowledge) that he really wants Stuart Pearce to succeed here. With John McGovern and Paul Faulkner to advise him, he may decide to be more patient with Pearce than he has with his previous managers. 

However, in a way he's painted himself into a corner with Pearce. If he were to sack Stuart then it could prove difficult to attract any decent replacement, as prospective candidates will see how quickly he dispensed with the services of Cotterill, O' Driscoll, McLeish and Davies and would understandably be wary. Not to mention the embargo. Sacking Pearce would also mean another compensation payment and another period of instability and upheval, as the backroom staff would likely go too, and that's the last thing the club needs right now. For all the current poor run of results, for the first time since al Hasawi took over the structure of the club is starting to fall into shape, and a lot of credit for that has to go to Pearce. 

For his part though, Pearce just has to get results to improve. In his defence, the triple injury blows of losing Chris Cohen, Andy Reid and Jack Hobbs were always going to hurt, but the squad at Pearce's disposal is good enough to be performing better than it currently is. So why isn't it?

The constant changes in personnel and formation can't be helping, nor can some frankly baffling team selections. It may not be the football hipsters' setup of choice, but the players we've got are suited to 4-4-2, so, in my opinion, we should play to their strengths, pick a formation and stick with it - injuries permitting of course. 

Still, no matter what team the manager chooses or how he sends them out, he can't do much about some of the awful individual errors or shocking derelictions of duty we've seen from various players this season. Short back-passes, backing off too much, aimless diagonal balls, stupid fouls and fluffed chances; we've seen them all. 

As for the players, there's no doubt that, in the majority of cases, they're underperforming. Simple as that. Starting at the back, Karl Darlow has fluctuated between great and gormless. He's pulled off some great saves and is generally strong at claiming crosses, but in a few cases he's been beaten by shots that have seemed eminently saveable. 

Eric Lichaj looks shaky and Jack Hunt's early promise has fizzled away, not that it looks like we'll be seeing him in the Garibaldi again anyway. At left back I'm not sure what's happened to Dan Harding but surely he deserves a chance ahead of Danny Fox now. I can't recall Harding having done too much wrong when picked this season, whereas Fox has looked as shaky as Lichaj, with the added annoyance of the Aimless Diagonal Ball. Neither Lichaj nor Fox has looked comfortable when playing as one of the back three in Pearce's occassional flirtation with 3-5-2. 

Michael Mancienne looks a shadow of the player who started the season so imperiously. Having to play alongside the inconsistent duo of Kelvin Wilson and Jamaal Lascelles may be to blame for this. Mancienne needs to stay at centre half though; he's looked a fish out of water in the matches he's played in midfield. The sooner Jack Hobbs is fit the better. Maybe Louis Laing should get a run-out against Rochdale?

In central midfield, Henri Lansbury has yet to achieve the heights of early last season, apart from in his number of yellow cards, which is truly spectacular. Ben Osborn, Robert Tesche and David Vaughan have all looked encouraging in certain matches, just not for enough of them. I'd certainly tie Tesche down to a longer contract if possible though, as a free transfer he's proved a shrewd acquisition. 

On the flanks we have the one major success story of the season so far: Michail Antonio. At times the former Sheffield Wednesday wide man has been unplayable. Pace, strength, a good cross and a strong finish - Antonio has them all. Just not always. Though if he did, he'd be Cristiano Ronaldo and he wouldn't be playing for Forest. His goals, assists and performances more than make up for his occassional klutz moments and there's never a dull moment when he gets the ball. 

The other wing hasn't been so good though. Chris Burke has yet to consistently show the form which always seemed to torment Forest when he played against us. Tom Ince just didn't work out and, in the matches he's started, Jamie Paterson has failed to justify the almost embarrassing clamour for him to play. 

In attack, Britt Assombalonga started like a train but seems to be short of confidence and a yard of pace at the moment. His goal tally is still impressive though and, considering he's playing at a level higher than he's ever played before, he's doing pretty well. I really like Matt Fryatt's industry and commitment and he's chipped in with a few goals too. As with Tesche, as a free transfer he was a smart signing. 

Dexter Blackstock will probably never recapture the form of a few seasons ago and, if his latest knee injury is serious, one has to fear for his future. Lars Veldwijk's not played enough to show us what he can do yet, and he may be one for seasons to come anyway. It'd be asking a lot of him to drag us out of our current hole. 

How the rest of this season will pan out is anybody's guess. It's only December. There's plenty of points to play for yet. A run of form could see us back into the playoffs, but one has to be honest a say it doesn't look likely at the moment. Will Fawaz stick or twist? Who knows? Probably not even him. Personally I'm torn. I desperately want Pearce to succeed at Forest and, for all the work he's doing in rebuilding the club, I think he deserves a little patience. Results have to improve though or Fawaz will have a big decision to make, and we all know he's not shy of making them. 

Whatever happens, I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2015. Come on you Reds!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 1 Leeds United

When they weren't boring us senseless with their almost endless renditions of 'Marching on Together,' Leeds United's fans were tunelessly informing us that 'now you're gonna believe us, the Football League's corrupt.' Presumably, this was in reference to the League's rather clunky handling of Leeds' owner Massimo Cellino. The Football League may not be corrupt. They are, however, totally remiss in their commitment and obligation to provide a decent set of match officials each week. Yes, you've guessed it, once again Nottingham Forest were denied victory due to appalling refereeing decisions.

Following the 0-0 draw away at Rotherham United - in which Dexter Blackstock had a perfectly fair looking goal chalked off - it was back to the City Ground for the visit of the aforementioned Leeds. They, as Forest, are enduring an inconsistent run of form at the moment, beating Derby County one week before being thumped by Ipswich Town the next. Thus the omens for a wonderful match of free-flowing football weren't good.

As I was later to the ground than usual my first glimpse of the team selection was on the giant scoreboards and, to be honest, I was immediately baffled by it. It took until the second half for me to figure it out, and I'd be lying if I said I liked it. As it transpires, it was a five man defence with Michail Antonio (!) and the returning Jack Hunt as wing-backs. Kelvin Wilson, Danny Fox and Eric Lichaj were the centre-backs and Michael Mancienne was just ahead of them as the spare man (because THAT worked last time we tried it). Robert Tesche and Henri Lansbury completed the midfield with Dexter Blackstock and Matt Fryatt up front, meaning that leading scorer Britt Assombalonga was surprisingly left on the bench.

The first twenty minutes were as poor as I can remember at the City Ground all season. Forest seemed unable to string any passes together and the visitors were only marginally better. Then, out of the blue, it seemed that Forest had made the breakthrough, as an Antonio cross-shot was turned in by the knee of Fryatt. The assistant referee thought otherwise however and raised his flag for offside. From my lower Trent End vantage point I didn't have the angle to see if this was correct, but people in the stand soon said - presumably having been told by others watching at home - that the goal should have stood. Looking at Twitter in the half time interval confirmed that.

Things didn't improve for the Reds as Blackstock leapt to challenge for a high ball, landed, and immediately clutched his knee. Despite struggling on for a few minutes the luckless striker was replaced before half time. If he's suffered another knee injury then you have to worry about the rest of his season, and Forest's, as his absence would leave us very short of options up front.

There was one high point before half time though, as a little Christmas miracle arrived in the form of a Forest goal. Lansbury's corner from the right was headed on by Mancienne and Fryatt was able to put his previous disappointment behind him by turning it in at the far post. A proper poacher's goal this, and one that sent the Reds into the interval ahead.

Alas, parity was restored soon after the break as a Sam Byram run was unceremoniously halted in the area by the yellow-bearded Danny Fox. There was no disputing this decision - it was definitely a foul - and ex-Forest loanee Billy Sharp stepped up and smashed the ball straight down the middle. No subdued celebration from Sharp returning to a former club, though as he was only here for a (somewhat difficult) season, there was no real reason for him to be muted.

The equaliser spurred Forest on and Leeds keeper Marco Silvestri was forced into a couple of saves in quick succession; first from Hunt's rather scuffed effort and then from Antonio's excellent curler. Barely minutes later and the second moment of controversy arose as Fryatt had an effort disallowed for offside for the second time in the match. Perhaps foolishly, the replay was shown on the big screens and, once again, this suggested that Fryatt was level when he tucked the ball home. Cue righteous indignation from the home fans and chants of 'you don't know what you're doing' directed at referee Kevin Friend and his assistants. Cue fourth official informing the referee of his mistake...? Fat chance.

Silvestri was called into action a couple more times, repelling efforts from Tesche and Lansbury, and Karl Darlow was forced to bundle a Billy Sharp volley wide of the post, but the life seemed to have gone out of the game and it was no real surprise that it finished 1-1.

Where to begin analysing this one? After the debacle at home to Brentford I hoped that Stuart Pearce would never pick a five man defence again, and this performance didn't change my mind one bit. Antonio was wasted in having to track back, but still looked our most dangerous player, and Hunt never seemed to get to grips with the role, even though it should be suited to his style of play. Mancienne is a shadow of his centre-half persona in midfield and Lichaj and Fox both looked nervy, with the latter resorting far too often to aimless diagonal punts.

Lansbury wasn't bad and, for once, avoided a booking, whilst Tesche was industrious and found his man more often than not. He was our best player in my opinion. Blackstock offered little, though I feel really bad for him if his injury does turn out to be a serious one. Fryatt was impressive and deserved more than his solitary goal, but Assombalonga seemed out of sorts. Perhaps he was carrying a minor knock, which would have explained his original omission.

However, and as happens far too often, the last word goes to the officials. Yes it must be hard to keep track of things but there are elementary mistakes being made seemingly every game. The linesman nearest my seat seemed incapable of making any decisions for himself, looking to Friend for guidance even when an incident happened right in front of him - apart from when he wrongly disallowed Fryatt's 'goal' in the first half of course.

What's most frustrating is that there seems to be no accountability or responsibility taken after mistakes are made. Managers and players are expected to explain their decisions to the media, but the officials just slink off quietly and are back ruining another match the following week. I realise this sounds like sour grapes and if I'm honest it is, but mistakes like this don't just influence single moments or matches, they can shape whole seasons. Of course in an ideal world Forest would be playing so well that refereeing cock-ups wouldn't matter, but at the moment that's not the case. Inconsistency and ineptitude infuriates the fans but, in the Championship at least, we see it match after match. Is it going to take a drunken fan thumping an official before anything changes? It's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

Anyway, the busy Christmas period continues with a difficult looking trip to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day, followed quickly after by the visit of resurgent Birmingham City two days later. If Forest want to have any involvement at the top end of the table then they need to start winning again - and fast. The season isn't over yet of course, but every dropped point makes the gap to the playoffs harder to bridge. Many more games without victory and it could become insurmountable.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 1 Charlton Athletic

Nottingham Forest's draw against Charlton Athletic was, as they say in the business, a contest of more than one but less than three equal portions of 50%. To be honest. Forest's performance in the first of these portions was poor; poor enough that the second half improvement wasn't, in my opinion, enough to say that Forest deserved to win. A draw was probably the fair result, but it still feels like a disappointing one. 

Following the controversial loss to Birmingham City, the Reds were forced into one change due to Britt Assombalonga's suspension. Thomas Ince was recalled to the starting lineup to replace him. Stuart Pearce also chose to make another alteration in the form of Chris Burke dropping to the bench, with Jamie Paterson stepping up.

Sluggish starts seem to have become an unwelcome recurring theme of Forest's season and, with less than ten minutes on the clock, so it proved again. A lovely crossfield ball picked out Jordan Cousins, who in turn found Callum Harriot. His long-range shot crept past Karl Darlow - apparently with the aid of a deflection - to give the Addicks the lead. 

Forest's response came in the form of missed chances from Michail Antonio and Paterson, the latter of which followed a wonderful piece of skill. Ben Osborn saw an effort deflected wide as Forest tried to crank up the pressure, but without ever troubling tangerine-attired visiting stopper Nick Pope. At the other end, the dangerous Igor Vetokele turned sharply and ran at the retreating Forest rearguard before finding Lawrie Wilson out wide. Wilson's cross was met firmly by Vetokele but parried away well by Darlow and the rebound blocked by Eric Lichaj. This save proved important. A two goal deficit may have proved insurmountable. 

Shortly before half time, a foul on Henri Lansbury saw him poleaxed and clutching his back. Though he carried on playing, he seemed to be troubled again after taking a weak shot at goal and it looked like his afternoon was over. This proved to be the case as he was replaced right after the interval by Robert Tesche. 

The new half saw new impetus from Forest as Antonio rampaged down the flank a couple of times and sent over dangerous crosses which narrowly evaded Matt Fryatt. Thomas Ince blazed a great opportunity over the bar and Paterson appeared to be pulled back in the penalty area. However, nothing was given and, unsurprisingly, there was no benevolent fourth official to be seen. The sense of injustice which hung in the air was soon dissipated though. 

A Paterson cross was half-cleared and fell to Tesche outside the penalty area. The German midfielder took a touch to control the ball and slammed an unstoppable shot past the despairing dive of Pope. The subsequent extravagant cartwheel celebration nearly matched the quality of the strike - it really was a corker. 

Unfortunately, before Forest could build up a head of steam, the visitors had a spell of possession which took the sting out of the home side's efforts. Indeed, Darlow was forced into another good stop to deny Harriot a second. Dexter Blackstock replaced Ince and won a great header to find Fryatt, who couldn't quite bring the ball under control. Then Blackstock himself aimed a header toward goal but Pope saved it easily. Tesche had another shot blocked and Fryatt looped another header over and that turned out to be that. 

The second half improvement was impressive and meant we deserved a point, but we need to be starting matches better. In fact I can't remember the last time we scored in the first half. As numerous people said on Twitter, Pearce needs to deliver his half time team talk before we kick off each contest. But, for all the inconsistency we're still just three points off the playoffs. If we can begin to start matches in the manner that we end them, we'll soon start turning these draws into wins. We certainly need to.