So here we are. September 2020 on Championship Eve. During these unprecedented times, it’s been a little harder to get motivated this summer about the upcoming season with the usual full anticipation. With a preseason consisting of just two behind closed door games against Oldham and West Brom; strangely, we haven’t had the gradual build-up and excitement to the season’s league opener.
Usually culminating in a game at The City Ground to whet the appetite; the penultimate preseason friendly certainly provides the home from home experience and ultimate sense of belonging to those following Forest. There’s no better sight as a Red than seeing the pristine-looking pitch for the first time in months, the whiff of burger and onions walking up Pavillion Road, the seasons new colours in the Megastore window, and of course the fresh faces sporting them. The dress rehearsal rendition of Mull of Kintyre is in many ways biblical; a rite of passage for the new but unequivocal ceremony for the hardened amongst us. All this in shorts and flip-flops too. It’s been a big miss and we’ve certainly been robbed this summer by COVID-19. That’s not to say that we can’t still get excited…
With regards to preparation for the new season, there hasn’t been a shorter one on record ever has there? I can think of disruptive ones; the ill-fated 2004 ‘We’re serious about promotion, are you? ‘ campaign and the disastrous preseason coach trip across the US that followed. It wasn’t a surprise that we got relegated that particular time and in hindsight, it wasn’t the best use of my student loan that’s for sure.
Alas, with the COVID-19 implications, every other team in The Championship will be in the same boat this summer. There hasn’t been much time for the players to recover let alone get fully recharged for the 46 game slog that is almost upon them. It promises to be a more bonkers season than usual in the second tier.
Ultimately, the feeling from the Stoke game still very much bites and it’s helping to keep my feet on the ground with this season’s expectations. Alka-Seltzer, a full English breakfast, and plenty of water would have surely been on the player’s daily fitness itinerary before reporting back for preseason.
We find ourselves in uncharted waters to a degree under the current ownership; I’m almost surprised that Sabri is still in charge given the ultimate failure of last season. Has the mold been broken with Maranakis’ extended patience? We’ll have to wait and see.
The manager must certainly be doing something right. Not only has he had continued backing, he’s also been able to bring in players in that he wants which is quite the shift from previous summer’s recruitment. A bonus is that he’s brought in his backroom team to support him through what promises to be a very unusual season. You could see the physical toll on the manager towards the end of the season as things started to ebb away; the runaway train couldn’t be stopped and he looked helpless in his final post past match interview of the campaign. Fingers crossed with his men in to support, it will pay dividends for all concerned.
As a half-full kind of guy, I’ll start with the worries. Despite a positive summer at Forest, there are concerns; has the manager and squad fully got last season’s calamity out of their system? It must have been some hangover to shift and mentally, the players will be tested particularly in pressure moments as the season unfolds. Fatigue is another worry, even with the lockdown break, the players soon quickly tired and injuries occurred after a couple of games. Having gotten through the season almost injury-free, injuries to key players, and most significantly Joe Lolley had a big impact. Post lockdown, with a high-intensity mini-league and three week preseason, it will be interesting to see how Sabri uses his squad in the early games. Can he afford to be even more conservative than we were at the back end of last?
The poor run of performances will be the overriding concern for Forest fans and I can’t see it continuing for much longer. Devoid of any rhythm and fluidity in our play, the telltale signs were sadly looming once more against Barnsley in the seasons ‘opener’ in the Carabao Cup. Sabri’s style of play isn’t going to change overnight. With the shortened preseason, it could take a fair run of games to see any true evolution. With this in mind, the Barnsley performance should be taken with a pinch of salt to a degree.
Momentarily casting my mind back, the pretty much disastrous January transfer window arguably weakened the squad; with the departures of Chema, Jack Robinson, and latterly Artur Muric. Despite being fringe players, their departures had an adverse effect on the first XI. Whilst the jury is still out on Nuno Da Costa, Adama Diakhaby has returned to Huddersfield to salvage his career and it speaks volumes that Gaetlen Bong has not even been given a squad number after a woeful 70-minute debut in February. The special ingredient of peer pressure had sadly evaporated within the group. Despite the buck ultimately resting with the manager; scrutiny has rightly rested on the shoulders of Jose Anigo and Francois Modesto to firm up recruitment this summer.
Thankfully the call seems to have been heeded. With Championship seasoned additions in Jack Colback, Lyle Taylor, Tyler Blackett, and Luke Freeman; Forest appear to be ‘oven-ready’ in terms of recruitment. As a quartet, they all should be in the reckoning for a starting place each week. I very much doubt that Lyle Taylor has come to sit on the bench. Having seen him in action for Charlton in the League 1 Play-offs in 2019, he looks a quality player who should be a great investment for Forest; this lad can play.
With an air of arrogance about him (check his penalty-taking style below), Taylor is a player that can mix it. He put in a sublime performance against Forest in the ill-fated 0-1 loss to Charlton back in February 2020. Hard-working, aggressive, and with quality to grab a goal, he could be a perfect fit to our forward line and lead the cavalry to help Lewis Grabban in scoring the goals. Given the manner in which he left Charlton, Taylor has finally got the kind of move he wanted to a perceived ‘big club’ after spending his time in the lower leagues. I’ve everything crossed that he’ll be a massive hit at Forest.
Forest’s overseas recruitment seems a little more solid also; and whilst Miguel Angel Guerrero comes from our sister club Olympiacos (not too many of those transitions have worked out previously); he looks the type of option that we need up top to complement Grabban, Taylor, and the emerging Alex Mighten. Fouad Bachirou can offer another pressing option in midfield as a back up to the injury-prone Samba Sow. Sow was the major force in last season’s promotion push and his absence left the revitalized Ben Watson with too much to do in keeping that momentum up by himself. Both new arrivals come with good reports from their departing club’s fanbase. Loic Mbe Soh has also arrived with a good reputation from Paris Saint Germain as an athletic defender. Whilst I won’t get too carried away at this point and with very limited knowledge about him; he looks to be a defender that will be vying for a first-team spot rather than sitting in Chris Cohen’s Under 23 development squad.
Overall, Forest seemed to have brought in players that are hungry for success; good characters. You can never have too many of them at a football club.
With his chosen backroom staff in place and his signings brought into the club, there can’t be many more excuses left for Sabri to get Forest into the promotion reckoning this season. Whether the owner will have patience given these unprecedented times remains to be seen but Sabri now has the tools that he desperately wanted in January. With his own personnel, the element of trust should encourage more squad rotation in what promises to be a season that’s going to rely more so on group quality than any previous season before.
One to watch
Luke Freeman should be an excellent addition to the squad and he’s the signing I’m most excited about. Freeman is a busy type of player that always looks to make things happen in the final third, whether that’s creating chances or scoring goals himself. He could be the perfect complement to Joe Lolley and Sammi Ameobi on the flanks next to him. He’s served his apprenticeship through the lower leagues despite being on the books of Arsenal as a younger man and he knows exactly what is needed from his position in The Championship. This includes the uglier side of the game which ultimately cost Tiago Silva and Joao Carvalho more time in the No.10 role. I’m hoping that Freeman will be the missing piece of the jigsaw. He could be the icing on the cake to Lamouchi’s defensive set up away from home but also be the kind of player that will take the game to the opposition at home, an ingredient so desperately lacking at The City Ground last season.
I’m pleased to see that Joao Carvalho has knuckled down in preseason and earned himself another chance under the manager when it looked like he was well and truly out of the door. For those that are familiar with my writing, Carvalho is a talent to be reckoned with; if he performs and gets the breaks he’s not had since arriving in the summer of 2018 from Benfica, it would not surprise me one iota to see him tear the league up. It’s a big if, but we are talking about a £13m investment here. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that he’s still a Forest player; we just need him to show the manager what he’s all about; a match-winner in a league of ‘fine margins’. In theory, Joao should be one of the freshest players in the squad along with Tendayi Dariwkwa.
Tendayi was one of the brighter points of Martin O’Neill’s reign and enjoyed his best season at full-back during the 2018/2019 campaign. He capped his season off with appearances for Zimbabwe in the African Cup of Nations that summer and having had a good tournament; a cruciate knee ligament in preseason training was a disaster, as he looked to get started under Sabri Lamouchi as first choice right back. Having returned to training during the lockdown period, Tendayi’s extended recovery period should hopefully give him every chance of picking up where he left off. Whilst Matty Cash’s loss is a huge blow, Tendayi is a local boy who will be desperate to do well. With Premier League experience under his belt at Burnley, he could turn out to be a dark horse for a strong performance this season.
Brennan Johnson’s inclusion in the Wales squad for the Nation’s League fixtures will do wonder for his confidence and after a taste of first-team football last season; I’m sure he’ll be absolutely chomping at the bit to impress. Alex Mighten has shown his potential in flashes and having been moved up the ranks over Tyler Walker (scoring freely in League 1 at the time) , he’s another that is winning Sabri’s trust. I’ve still got it etched on my brain; the manager’s reaction to the appalling tackle on the Forest youngster by Kyle Naughton in the 2-2 draw against Swansea. I’m convinced if that had been a Sunday morning fixture, Sabri would’ve had his gloves off!
With the added quality to the squad, there should be absolutely no reason why Forest can’t challenge for the top spots as they did for large periods of last season. A Play-off place has to be the minimum for Sabri given his backing and if we can get off to a good start, it will keep the wolves at bay. It will certainly be interesting to see how things pan out if Forest are still struggling performance-wise after five or six games; my hunch is that the owners will look for a sharpish change of direction. I’m desperate for Sabri to do well of course and other than a full pre-season preparation; the recruitment side of things couldn’t have gone much better.
The romanticist in me says Sabri will nudge us a few points better to secure a top 6 finish but I fancy there will be a contingency plan in place to avoid a Karanka style club meltdown if the manager has to depart. With the squad potential; I think we’ll achieve the season’s ultimate aim come next May. You heard it here first….