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When manager Steve Cooper took over the club last September, Forest were bottom of the Championship. Their rise, beginning almost immediately and culminating in the play-off final victory over Huddersfield Town at Wembley in May, has guaranteed that Cooper is the most popular manager in these parts since Brian Clough.
Cooper is the gem. It has been a summer of necessary overhaul at the City Ground, but Cooper can be the glue that makes everything stick together. He is tactically savvy, excels in the development of young players and persuaded a group of players – and club – that recent and ancient history need weigh them down no longer.
Forest’s purchases are the headline (no club has been busier), but just as important was that the crown jewels stayed put. Brennan Johnson signed a new contract and the combination between him and Neco Williams will be vital. Joe Worrall, Scott McKenna and Steve Cook became the most reliable back three in the Championship from January onwards and Moussa Niakhate looks a smart signing to improve that further. Ryan Yates has the chance to prove he can cope as a holding midfielder at top-flight level; he will have greater support around him.
Forest’s style may well help them after promotion. They averaged exactly 50 percent possession in the Championship, while Bournemouth and Fulham ranked in the top two. Teams that dominated possession but must get used to having considerably less in the Premier League can struggle, but Cooper has built Forest to be effective on the counter attack and they will probably stay true to that ideal this season.
Their other notable strength last season was late goals: Forest scored a frankly remarkable 20 times (28 percent of their league goals) after the 80th minute. If there’s one thing we can guarantee, it’s that Forest are fit enough to fight until the end.
The sheer number of players Forest have bought could well be an issue. They had very little choice – five starters from last season were loanees who have returned to parent clubs or been sold on since and Brice Samba left for Lens. But it does create a potential issue with unfamiliarity leading to disorganization in the early season that would leave Forest playing catch-up. With Yates currently injured, it’s likely that of those who were at the club in May only Johnson, Worrall and McKenna start.
The most recent comparison of a team doing this (losing loanees and having to rebuild a squad) is Aston Villa, who signed 15 new players in summer 2019 after promotion. Villa did stay up by a point that season, but a) they only got 35 points (Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich were all weak that year), and b) they had Jack Grealish.
There might also be an issue with scoring goals. While Fulham have Aleksandar Mitrovic and Bournemouth have Dominic Solanke, Forest did not have a natural centre-forward. Johnson was last season’s top scorer from wide right, Lewis Grabban has left and Yates, a defensive midfielder, was their third-highest league goalscorer. Taiwo Awoniyi has arrived from Union Berlin for a club-record fee, but that is nothing more than a calculated gamble. Another striker may yet arrive later in the window, but Forest are going to have to be defensively sound to win games.
Beyond late goals, Forest’s greatest strength last season was defending leads. Those figures: if you score late the opposition have less time to respond, but Forest won 19 of their 24 matches after taking a lead. Their strategy of sitting back and trying to repel pressure is going to be severely tested. They won only four of the 19 matches they conceded a lead in; comfortably fewer points per game in those circumstances than Bournemouth and Fulham. That too will have to improve.
Take a deep breath. With the squad decimated by the loss of loanees, Forest have been remarkably busy but did at least get a fair chunk of their business done early.
Defensively, Dean Henderson is a brilliant signing (albeit only on loan) and Niakhate could well be a high-class central defender. Williams is a coup – if an expensive one – and fits the new Forest model of buying young players who will have excellent sell-on value and should dovetail well with international team-mate Johnson. Giulian Biancone joins from Troyes and will probably be back-up in two positions. Harry Toffolo will be the first-choice left-back until Omar Richards recovers from a hairline fracture in his leg.
Lewis O’Brien and Orel Mangala are so far the only new midfielders through the door, leaving Forest shorter in numbers than they were last season (although Jack Colback will now be a midfielder rather than left-back; there’s work to do there. Further forward, Awoniyi is a gamble and Forest are going to have to get players close to him to avoid him being left isolated.
But Jesse Lingard is the standout arrival. He’s got an awful lot of stick for choosing Forest, but for Cooper it’s a no-brainer. The high wages are offset by the lack of transfer fee, and the hope is that Lingard is motivated to prove doubters wrong, push again for an England call-up and be the bridge between attack and defense that this side desperately needed.
Any reasonable outsider would conclude that Cooper is the safest manager in the league, having masterminded an unthinkable promotion way ahead of schedule. Forest have bought with one eye on the future, creating a squad in which the core would fuel a second promotion campaign if the worst happens. And what better manager to oversee that – Daniel Farke style – said Cooper.
To those people I say: you have not been keeping a close enough eye on Evangelos Marinakis and Nottingham Forest. They have appointed a new manager in every single calendar year since 2011. If all goes well and Cooper and the board are seeing eye to eye on transfers, fine. If not, don’t rule out an implosion. It’s what they want.
Forest had little choice but to buy big, but acclimatising so many new players in the top flight is so, so hard. 18th
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