An air of positivity continues to build at Nottingham Forest as new owners enter their second year of stewardship. Manager Aitor Karanka will be looking forward to his first pre-season preparations with the Reds ahead of their first full campaign together. The boss will need to show elements of his January ruthlessness if he he is to build a sustainable top six challenge, and fans will need to be watching a handful of new additions, as well as the return of some loan-favourites, if they are to see a squad that pushes on from mid-table towards the promotion places. How vital is it that Jack Colback’s services return? What role can Ben Osborn hope to pin down; and how much of our hopes should we continue to burden the young shoulders of Ben Brereton with if we are to see the goals that drag Forest up the table?
The giant Romanian hopes to continue his career with Reds after proving a fully capable keeper for them since arriving in January on loan. Watford are likely to deem him surplus to requirements, and at the City Ground, Pantillimon appears to have finally found a home where he might nail down the number one spot. Forest won’t be desperate for quality in the goalkeeping ranks should Pantillimon not stay, however. They will be left with Kapino and Smith, but Pantillimon clearly is of the level that will be important to a serious top six challenge.
The bit-part Greek international has not yet had the chance to fully demonstrate his much talked about potential, but created no cause for concern during his four appearances at the end of the season with Pantillimon unavailable. Kapino was released by Olympiacos after falling out of favour late last year, but stayed under Evangelos Marinakis’ governance by signing for his other football outfit in Forest. If he is to begin realising his rumoured potential, Kapino will have to battle stiff competition if Pantillimon stays, but looks to to be up to the job of providing a selection headache for Karanka in the new season.
In the first half of 2017/18 Smith made fantastic progress in improving his footwork. His repeatedly impressive shot-stopping would continually secure points for Forest, whilst Mark Warburton’s heavy emphasis on playing out from the back invited incredible pressure that an uneasy defence often couldn’t balance. Smith kept improving until his footwork became a non-issue, but upon Karanka’s arrival he disappeared from the match day scene. His displacement by Pantillimon makes sense given the Romanian’s defence-marshalling experience and ability, whilst it still seems slightly harsh that Karanka deemed both him and Kapino so ready to push the young Smith out of the squad. If Pantillimon signs it’s unlikely to get easier for the academy graduate, but Smith would provide a quality option if ever needed.
Lichaj is one of those that wouldn’t look too out of place in either a mid-table or top end Championship side. He is an ever reliable figure but perhaps doesn’t have some of the cutting-edge provided by Darikwa when he’s playing well. There is no reason to want to move him on, but Forest should certainly look to keep the options at the right-back spot competitive and varied.
Darikwa can help provide that by continuing as a powerful and forward thinking option at the back, but he needs to add more defensive reliability. It would be no shock to see Karanka opt for additions and a reshuffle on the right side of defence, given his ruthlessness in other areas, but he will certainly get by with his two current outlets there.
In Joe Worrall, Danny Fox and Tobias Figueiredo Forest have a positive and averagely young centre of defence. With Figueiredo signing on a permanent deal at the season’s end, fans will be excited to see the Portuguese combine with academy product Worrall in what could be an exciting, young, but reassuringly tough pairing – both play with maturity well beyond their years. That will require Worrall regaining his place by pushing out Danny Fox, who is proving more reliable with each game he plays in the new role since his shift from left-back, where he had earnt himself less popularity. Karanka now has good options at the centre of defence, and can add Michael Mancienne to that mix too, who will hopefully refresh himself with a summer and pre-season.
“His football is doing the talking for him”
With Tobias Figueiredo now ‘more or less’ a permanent #NFFC player, hear from fellow defender Tendayi Darikwa on how the Forest players are helping the Portuguese to settle in. pic.twitter.com/0EzqxfRxE2
— Impact Sport (@ImpactSport) April 16, 2018
Mancienne is a frustrating case, because man-for-man he likely still possesses the most ability in that position, and certainly the most experience. Mancienne is technically capable, but has become emblematic of Forest’s defensive woes of the past two-three seasons. His qualities have been overshadowed by the pressure Forest’s defence has faced, exposing his weaknesses and leaving the team crying out for tougher more ‘no nonsense’ centre-halfs like Tobias. If Karanka can settle the defensive frailties in the new season, he can bring Mancienne back to his best.
The endemic defensive problems could very much rear its head again, and it would make sense to bring in further additions to give more reassurance. The extent to which Forest have literally looked like they could concede with every attack faced in recent seasons cannot be understated, and the addition of Figueiredo should really not be expected to prevent the issue for the whole of a new campaign. Forest still conceded twelve goals in as many games after Karanka’s got the team to ‘click’ away to QPR. Figueredo had come into the fold two games before the trip to Loftus Road. It would be dangerous to assume that the problems will be completely ironed out with a full pre-season, as the defensive issues are clearly deep-rooted. Hence, it looks likely that Karanka will secure the signing of Michael Dawson at the second attempt this summer. With the only question mark perhaps being his age, Dawson’s return to the City Ground would bring the leadership, promotion knowhow and defensive strength needed to make Forest sturdy at the back again.
Ben Osborn and Juan Fuentes
It has become a constant position on the City Ground summer shopping list: Forest need a left-back. Fans were hopeful that Karanka had found the right man in Juan Rafael Fuentes, but the former Cordoba man had his Forest career put on the line with a serious leg injury not long into his debut, for which he had to wait until Karanka gave him the chance ahead of Ben Osborn. Osborn has seen his explorative positional career take him to the left side of defence under Karanka, and whilst his location on the pitch has varied, Osborn has maintained his consistency and quality wherever he plays. He needs to avoid becoming a utility player, however, as his quality and energy is too valuable for it to be used for gap filling over nailing down a position.
The quality offered by Ben Watson, Liam Bridcutt and loanee Jack Colback in midfield made it difficult to see a starting place for Osborn in the middle of the park, but the new season could see that change again. Osborn can be useful on the wing too, especially in away games where his consistency would be invaluable. Assuming Forest keep Colback at the City Ground and add further wide quality to Cash and Lolley, the left-back spot seems the most likely position for Osborn as it stands. The Reds need to bring in a new man there whilst Fuentes recovers, however, and Osborn will have to work on competing across the pitch to hold onto to his starting place, wherever that might be.
Watson and Colback proved a high quality and commanding partnership after both were brought in around January, whilst Bridcutt offered extra energy and edge when he regained his starting place in the final games of the season. Colback is almost certain to be pushing for a move away from parent club Newcastle, given an openly unhappy relationship there, but Forest will face a big challenge from clubs across both the Premier League and Championship to keep him on board. If they are unsuccessful, it will be difficult to secure a replacement of similar quality, but Osborn could step back into the midfield fold and continue to develop there. With Watson, Bridcutt and Osborn essentially the best three (non-attacking) midfield players that will almost definitely be on Trentside after the summer, that trio would have healthy competition for Karanka’s preferred two-man holding midfield. Add to that the assumptions that Andreas Bouchalakis stays on, and that Adlene Guedioara improves on his showings, and the absence of Colback’s quality would be noticed but of no reason to panic.
In terms of the midfield’s more forward thinking players, Forest face another set of loan-based headaches. If half-season awards existed instead of full-season ones, Kieran Dowell and Lee Tomlin would probably take the accolades for their work under Mark Warburton and Aitor Karanka respectively. Both are returning to their Premier League parent clubs, however. While Forest – and possibly even Everton – are unlikely to have the Reds pursue Dowell’s signature again, Karanka is keen to help Tomlin leave promoted Cardiff. The deal would suit all three parties, with the clubs and the player seemingly delighted with how Tomlin has settled. A pre-season and fresh campaign could see Karanka get the midfielder back to his best fitness and attacking threat once again.
"I’d stopped smiling playing football. That should never happen. Now I feel like I’ve been smiling since I’ve been here, that’s what he does."
Tomlin elaborated on the frustrations of his career, and how his relationship with Aitor Karanka will get the best out of him and #NFFC pic.twitter.com/trhb3kqcSS
— Impact Sport (@ImpactSport) February 10, 2018
Moreover, Zach Clough’s January loan at Bolton will come to an end. Karanka might have already made his final decision on the future of the 23-year-old, but he could have the chance to convince him in pre-season. Clough offers goal threat and a playing style that suits the manager’s and the fans’ expectations, but needs to be capable of stepping up to the plate against strong teams consistently on match days.
Out wide, Forest’s two stars next season look set to be Joe Lolley and Matty Cash, who have both underpinned any success enjoyed by Aitor Karanka thus far. The maintaining of their quality and progress is in little doubt, but their competition is. With Ashkan Dejagah’s Forest career set to be even shorter than any possible run for his Iranian home country in the World Cup, the sole first team alternative to Cash and Lolley comes in the form of Barrie McKay, who’s Forest career has seen a dramatic decline since the opening month’s of last season. I would argue that McKay is still the most talented footballer in the squad, and Karanka should focus as much energy into bringing out his attributes as he does towards securing new transfers. For whatever reason, McKay has gone from piercing defenses with ease and dazzling footwork to offering very little at all on the pitch. Forest need to bring in new men to make him and Lolley and Cash fight for their places on the flanks. They will need more of a focal point if their attacking threat is to bear fruit, however.
In Ben Brereton, Forest have the most exciting young attacker in the league now that Fulham’s Sessegnon has since entered the scene and left via promotion. Brereton needs to further develop his goal scoring threat, but his all round progress sets him up perfectly to burst onto the scene next season. His hold up and passing strength makes him as good as most of the experienced front men in the league, with his power symbolised by how he effectively ended Per Mertesacker’s Arsenal career and even Arsene Wenger’s final chance of securing silverware when he led the dismantling of the London club in the FA Cup third round. Forest cannot put all their hopes on a brilliant 19-year-old suddenly becoming prolific, however, and need at the very least one new addition up front. Daryl Murphy certainly has a role to play next season, and scored frequently prior to injury at the turn of the year, but would still not reflect the quality seen throughout the rest of the side. Transfer funds depending, Forest should focus on securing someone who can drag them higher up the table with prolific goal-scoring. The situation would be by no means bad if they find themselves still relying on Brereton next term, but their ability to afford a prized goalscorer is likely to have a great bearing on whether they will be pursuing the playoffs on a confident or peripheral basis, or not at all.
Apostolos Vellios has finally had the chance he deserved this season under Karanka, but produced relatively little in his time on the pitch compared to his first campaign, and realistically his place in the squad would not be too hard to replace this summer should he be moved on. Forest will also get to review the readiness of Tyler Walker, Ryan Yates and Jorge Grant to provide their needed services when they return from loan. Walker had already started to show his worth in the Championship when Warburton gave him a run of successful appearances and when he joined Clough on loan at Bolton. Despite Grant making League 2 Team of the Season and starring in Notts County’s promotion push, Yates looks the more likely to make a breakthrough into the Forest ranks, after switching his loan with the Magpies to League 1 Scunthorpe, and showing no lapses in his quality and contribution to the team.
Thomas Lam might also get the chance to show his worth to the new manager. His apparent technical nous was trumped by his light-weightedness in the intensity of the EFL. The manager is unlikely to change his mind on Jason Cummings, Stephen Henderson, Jamie Ward and Armand Traore, who return from loans after Karanka shipped them out shortly after his arrival. As opposed to transfer incomings and a couple of bit-part squad players, the only potential additions Karanka might have to worry about are those upcoming from the academy.
Forest’s summer will be defined by their capacity to achieve their ambition. They have an exciting manager to go with the naturally appealing stature of the club, and now they need the sharpness and the backing in the transfer market to pursue those ambitions. Maintaining the quality of the goalkeeper, further strengthening the defence and adding a spark to the attack can transform them from mid-table to full-on top six challengers.
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