Recent weeks have revealed a lot at the City Ground. Forest’s gazillionth ‘fresh start’ of the decade has allowed their players to show what they are truly capable of in the last two games, softening the blow that many fans felt when the club showed Mark Warburton the door. The decision faces questions in terms of the long-term future of the club, and how Forest now must act to ensure that it pays off – starting with the man they see spearheading the new era, Aitor Karanka.
A similar proportion of fans were also delighted by the sacking of Warburton, a manager that divided opinion throughout this current season. The job he was doing was defined by the sense that it was a long term ‘project’, not somebody who had come in to provide a quick fix. This convinced many, whilst others were unwilling to grant him the patience to build something when Forest had tallied up the second most defeats in the Championship season.
The game at Elland Road, and Forest’s third round toying with Arsenal has shown that this side has a lot more to give than Warburton was getting out.
The ironic reality is that Forest will almost certainly now achieve the exact same result that Warburton would have managed come the end of the season. Mid-table. The difference is that Forest will probably be more consistent, play to their strengths and perhaps finish slightly better on paper. In the Championship, mid-table is mid-table. The individual positions don’t matter as they do in the Premier League, so if you’re going to finish there you might as well do it with purpose; something to take to next level in the subsequent campaign. Forest have chosen to press reset yet again.
? Mark Warburton: "We made a tactical change to get more men forward but the second half was unacceptable. We looked nervous, we looked hesitant and we lacked quality in the final third to take anything from the game." #NFFC
— Nottingham Forest FC (@NFFC) December 30, 2017
That doesn’t mean to say Karanka will not build something, even this season. Forest have one of the most qualified men to attempt to finally drag them out of this division. Whether it was necessary to make a change, with Warburton having set good foundations in past months, is another question.
Suggestions that Warburton was taking the club in the wrong direction, let alone towards relegation, are fairly baseless. He had made massive advances with this side since he took over. This issue was this idea of ‘playing to your strengths.’ He made the team play, or try to play, a brand of football that the players often struggled with. At times Forest would be fluid and dominate stats, but their lack of end product or defensive rigour produced results that reflected poorly on them. A couple more transfer windows, and many could imagine what he would be capable of.
Warburton developed Forest massively, however, in ways that stats don’t show. Jordan Smith is the key example of how he improved players technically. At the start of the season, Warburton persisted to drag the young goalkeeper through a mire of mistakes and ridicule, seemingly going down a dead end. Now, Forest have a player who hasn’t made a distribution mistake in months, equipped with the attributes to compete at the highest level in the modern game. Karanka inherits a squad that is more capable in ball retention, vision and passing than they were sixth months ago, despite the exit of Warburton.
In some ways, he was his own victim, stubbornly pursuing a style that improved the team in the long term, but did not achieve the gains that a more practical short term approach might have. Neil Warnock, for example, is a man who has mastered the latter approach, embarrassing the likes of Forest, but are Cardiff really in a sustainable position to achieve promotion to the Premier League and stay there?
Perhaps Warburton wouldn’t have achieved this either – but all you can do in football in have faith, and believe in the man and project that you appointed in the first place – or else you’ll find yourself in a predicament akin to Forest’s of late. Now, in Karanka, Forest have man who could truly deliver with persistence and support amid any setbacks.
The club need this to be the final ‘fresh start’
Warburton’s sacking might have been a mistake, it might turn out to be the right decision. It is important to remember, however, that it’s happened under a new regime. Evangelos Marinakis, who acquired the club in the summer of 2017, has only impressed thus far. If other rumours are to be believed regarding the sacking of his Director of Football (supposedly axed before Warburton managed his final game), then Marinakis is continuing to hold the club in safe hands.
— Nottingham Forest FC (@NFFC) January 7, 2018
Gary Brazil moved closer into the frame to become the new permanent boss after masterminding an emphatic victory over the FA Cup holders. In his press conference prior to the third round tie, he was keen to stress that he was in the dugout until the owners found somebody to come in – something he reiterated after the game. Whilst not forgetting the major defensive improvements he made in a very short period, it was important to consider his overall record.
Had this been Brazil’s first spell in charge, he would almost certainly remain in the technical area for a while longer. This was his third time caretaking Forest though, and past tenures have demonstrated that he was not the man to take full charge of Forest’s first team affairs in the long-term. He is a reliable man to bring in and add some fight to suffering players that he knows well, but in his previous spells we also saw form dip significantly, leading to none other than the appointment of Warburton. More to the point, he does an amazing job managing the academy, with six of his ‘babies’ embarrassing a more experienced Arsenal.
Despite entering his third spell as caretaker, Gary Brazil takes charge of his first cup match for the Reds today. One of his many academy graduates,@JordanGKSmith, speaks highly of the man who handed him his debut as they prepare for today's clash with @Arsenal. #NFFC #NFFCvAFC pic.twitter.com/t9ZDRPYAcT
— Impact Sport (@ImpactSport) January 7, 2018
Forest fans will quickly lose their renewed sense of patience with the new owners if they don’t start getting appointments right and backing them. There are lessons to be learnt from Warburton and the less recent tenure of Dougie Freedman. Both came in with months left in a season and rejuvenated the squad to deliver some emphatic performances, for the their first full season to prove more difficult. Assuming Forest don’t go backwards, the new boss must be given patience, even if and when it seems progress is slow.
Karanka’s first task
The Spaniard is being thrown straight into a transfer window amid another season where fans have been crying out for solidity at the back. Individually, Forest do have good defenders, they just don’t seem to form a strong enough back line together. Michael Mancienne used to be one of the best centre-backs in the division, and with the right colleagues at the back is capable of finding his mojo again. That is not to say that Joe Worrall is not also a worthy first choice centre-back, but the pair clearly don’t consistently work well together.
The perfect fit for #NFFC?@Karanka produced an almost immediate turnaround when appointed at #Boro, making their defence statistically twice as good – whilst slightly reducing their potency at the other end.
— Impact Sport (@ImpactSport) January 8, 2018
Karanka does need to sign two new centre-backs in the near future, barring his defensive coaching reputation transforming an often nervous backline. They need a big man to compliment the relatively light Mancienne and young Worrall. With another solid addition at this level, the manager should be able to find combinations that work. Danny Fox has transformed into a solid defensive option, and would be useful to call upon when needed, but Matt Mills and Jack Hobbs should now be finally moved on.
The mention of Fox would also highlight another position where Forest are lacking. Both Fox and currently left-back option Armand Traore have put in their best performances playing in a trio of centre backs. Ideally, two left backs should be brought in over the course of the next two windows to ensure quality in this area. Traore can occasionally put in high class performances in that position, most recently against Arsenal – but unless he can prove consistent, Karanka, who enjoyed so many heroics from George Friend at Middlesborough, will not want to rely on the former Arsenal boy too often.
Forest shouldn’t rush into their recruitment, however. It is so unlikely that they are going to finish in either ‘zone’ at the two ends of the table this season that it would make sense to only bring in players now if they are the perfect fit. Otherwise, it would make sense to get through to the summer and build a promotion project with confidence and belief; the two things that Forest are going to need the most.
Featured image: Impact Magazine