After a completely bizarre 2012/13 season, I am, as always when unoccupied on a Saturday in the close season, yearning for the new season to start down at the City Ground. Forest went through 4 ‘permanent’ managers last season, if we include Mr Cotterill, and you could throw in an extra one for the games Rob Kelly took charge of. It was a season that never quite got going, every time it looked like we had turned a corner, thrashing Leeds on Boxing Day, Billy’s unbeaten run then struggle to turn draws into wins, circumstances such as injuries, sackings made us take two steps backwards. Whilst not completely enamoured with the re-appointment of Billy Davies, I can say that he is a solid Championship manager whose teams have always been in the top half either in or just missing out on the play offs. Given the right tools I think he could achieve promotion with Forest at the third (fourth if you count last season) of asking. But what tools does he need?
Look at any Forest forum and the fans are all crying out for width and pace. Pace I would say is a necessity as we had absolutely no pace anywhere at all in the team last season. We have powerful runners like Guedioura, Lansbury and Cox but nobody who will petrify a flat defensive line. Width I would say is less important. The typical ‘number nine’ is falling out of popularity in the modern game. What teams are looking for more and more is a player who can contribute to build up and a teams overall style of play rather than hanging around on the six yard box. If you look at the top ten goalscorers for the Premier League last season none could be classified as Lineker esque number nines. Van Persie, Suarez, Bale, Benteke, Michu, Berbatov Lambert et al all contribute far more to the team than merely hanging around the oppositions goal. As teams become seemingly more competitive and flood their midfield areas, the luxury of having a poacher seem to be all but disappearing. Bent has fallen out of favour with Villa, Defoe had an unremarkable season, Hernandez played only a bit part at United, Owen never really did anything at Stoke, and at my own club, Billy Sharp quickly appeared to fall out of favour with Davies. As much as I like Sharp as a person and acknowledge he is an accomplished finisher, he did not really contribute in terms of build up or style of play for Forest. Davies quite clearly preferred to use Cox and another. Cox pops up everywhere on the pitch and is a willing runner and grafter and has a little more creativity about him compared to Sharp yet his goal tally was disappointing for a player who cost a fair bit.
Of course, Spain have famously played without forwards at all. Fabregas occupying the ‘false nine’ position up front backed up by the likes of Iniesta, Silva and Xavi. Of Course, I could not imagine Forest playing say Majewski up front with Reid, Lansbury and Guedioura behind him and having nearly as much as success but Del Bosques revolutionary tactic gives us pause for thought especially in the English game which is dominated by a flat 4-4-2 system with pacey wingers whipping in crosses for 6 foot plus strikers. Was Davies use of three central midfielders behind a front two and without a proven ‘finisher’ a decision borne out by circumstances, i.e having no players at the time who are recognised wingers, or a tactical decision he made about how he wants his teams to play in the future?
In his first stint as manager, he often played McGugan drifting in from the right and Cohen on the left despite having at the time recognised wingers in McCleary and Anderson. Indeed McGugan displayed his form for Forest whilst in this position under Davies. Anderson, McCleary and to some extent Tyson were more often than not used as impact substitutions, their pace used to frighten tired opposition in the last 20 minutes or so. Reid in his second spell at the club is a completely different player. He used to hug the touchline whereas now he is much more of a central player perhaps no longer having the legs to track back and get forward in wide areas. The evolution of Reid is one we see now in many wide players. Bale started out as a full back and became a true winger whereas now he seems to play more centrally drifting in from the left. Ronaldo tormented full backs but again now appears to adopt a more central position. Giggs in his thirties has also, more often than not adopted a more central role at United and Young has followed suit. Chelsea play without wingers yet have three very creative players in Oscar, Mata and Hazard. What we are now seeing is the utilisation of the pardoxical term ‘central wingers’ . Forest have history in this. John Robertson, the playmaker at the time, would often pick the ball up in a wide area and drift inside with O Neill on the other flank keeping the width. What this demonstrates is the increased importance of movement rather than the old mantra of ‘sticking to your position’. In Lansbury, Reid, Majewski, Cohen and Guedioura, we have a very fluid looking midfield with players who are comfortable with the ball anywhere on the pitch and have excellent movement. In most other teams, Navas would be a sure starter yet for Spain, they rely on a fluid midfield with the likes of Silva, Iniesta, Fabregas and Mata drifting and utilising movement rather than depending on a player getting to the touchline and whipping in a cross. Bayern have Ribery and Robben supposedly as wide players yet, again, these players are more likely to drift in and contribute more than touchline sprints and far post crosses.
Davies is a known student of the game, a revealing interview about what he did when he left Forest is interesting in that he looked at every aspect of what he and his coaching team had done whilst at Forest. Perhaps he is moving towards this more developed and tactical form of football. It is difficult to know whether Cox is a midfielder or a forward but he is used in a more wide position by Trappatoni for Ireland and was played in a similar position whilst at West Brom underlying the potential for him being more of a false number nine. Of Course a plan B is needed and we have that in Blackstock and Henderson just like Spain have it in Fernando Llorente. Of course I am not comparing Forest to Spain in terms of ability, (that would be ridiculous) but in terms of tactics they could be heading in that direction under Davies. In terms of width this leaves a large emphasis on the full back. In Lihaj a cracking and under rated signing to me, and Jara, we have players who can get forward and we saw a lot of this from Jara last season. If Cohen remains at full back he was also pushing forward a lot last season and is obviously comfortable in the final third of the pitch. With a holding midfielder in Guedioura or Gillett (criminally under-used in the second half of the season) we have a player who will cover the full backs forays into the opposition half also and this seemed to be the system and method that Davies was using last season.
What is certainly needed in the side is pace. The pace can really be anywhere in the side. If we are to be reliant on the full backs pushing on, it could be there to stretch teams or it could come up front in the form of a better Nathan Tyson. We could not really stretch teams last season as there was no outlet ball. Occasionally the ball does have to go long and hitting into space for a pacey player to run onto gives the whole team a little breathing space and makes the opposition think twice about committing too many men forward. We had this in McCleary last season and prior to that Tyson and Anderson but, over the last decade or so I would say we have had only a handful of genuinely pacey footballers. This is something I am sure Davies will be looking at and would be welcomed by all Forest fans.
At the back I do not think too many changes need to be made. Halford is solid, Darlow looked good and I thought Collins got a lot f unfair stick from Forest fans last season. We never seem to take well to incoming captains at Forest and I recall Breckin and Gareth Taylor getting similar abuse and ever McKenna was not universally liked. There is talk of a return for Wes Morgan but I do not know if he is really what we are looking for. I would argue we need more of a Kelvin Wilson type player, someone who can bring the ball out from the back. Forest fans are quick to chastise the goalkeeper if the ball is not rolled out quickly. This often results in the ball being played short to our centre halves then launched long by them instead of the keeper, something I have never quite understand. Its all well and good throwing the ball out early if it is likely to start an attack ala Schmeichel say, but we very rarely do this probably due to our distinct lack of pace. But if we are to carry on trying to build from the back, we need someone who is comfortable on the ball and I do not think Collins or Halford and certainly not Morgan on his previous form are capable of this. Perhaps I am just stung by the return of Alan Rogers under Joe Kinnear on this one though. I do not know enough about Lascelles to judge him but in the youth games andd few senior appearances I have seen I would say he still has a long way to go before he is a first team starter.
Whatever happens it will be an interesting season. Billy has made promises of ‘unfinished business’ and it is unlike him to speak like this historically downplaying Forests chances in the past. I personally feel its a weaker league and with introduction of FFP, am impressed that Forest so far have looked for value in the market with free transfers. Room could certainly made on the wage bill by transferring the disappointing Greening and Moussi but I just have a sneaky feeling that Billy will be able to get something out of both Derbyshire and Miller which, if he could, with give us a pretty potent looking forward line and one thing Miller does have in abundance is pace and power. I feel a top six finish is certainly achievable and if we manage to start well, I do not see why we cant challenge for automatic promotion as none of the teams coming down or up are really frightening and the ones still there from last season looked mediocre at best.
As always in the Championship it will be exciting and I just hope the relationship between board and manager continues to be as harmonious as it has been portrayed by Natalie Jackson. This, in my eyes, was Billys’ downfall from his last reign in charge.