Almost three months since his arrival at the City Ground Mark Warburton already feels like a good fit for Nottingham Forest. But there remains much work for the former Brentford and Rangers boss to do, if the Reds are to progress and improve next season – and, here, Paul Taylor looks at the five key areas the Forest boss must work on, if his positive start to life at the helm is to be maintained.
1. Away form
Hardly a mind blowing observation, given that Nottingham Forest’s record on the road was their worst in almost 90 years, as they secured only two wins and 11 points all season.
Nobody is blaming Warburton for that, given he only took charge of four away games, after taking on the manager role – and the Reds were unfortunate not to claim victory at Preston and, to a lesser extent, Cardiff City, in two of those fixtures.
But it is still Warburton’s responsibility to ensure there is no repeat of those struggles on the road; to find a way of ensuring Forest’s progress is not hampered by another struggle away from the banks of the River Trent.
More than one Forest player played down any suggestion it had become a mental issue for them, when it came to performing away from the City Ground. But it must have become one, to some degree.
Defeat at QPR in their final away game left Forest under huge pressure in their relegation fight
Whatever the reasons behind it, Forest rarely performed with the same level of confidence and verve away from the City Ground.
Indeed, even one of their two away wins, at Barnsley, had a slight air of fortune about it, as the home side created chance after chance in a remarkable first half that saw the Reds somehow lead 3-2, despite the Tykes seemingly being able to cut them apart at will.
Henri Lansbury’s hat-trick ultimately led Forest to what looked like a comfortable 5-2 success. But had Barnsley converted a few more of their numerous openings in the first half, the outcome might have been very different.
Forest do start with a clean slate, which is a major source of hope. Last season’s struggles will count for little, when the new campaign kicks-off, with a mood of positivity amid what already feels like a bright new era.
But a few early wins would still help to lay this particular ghost to rest.
2. Defensive fragility
On the subject of that dramatic 90 minutes at Oakwell, when Barnsley were at one stage able to cut open the Forest defence at will, there is another stat that perfectly explained Forest’s struggles last season.
While relegated Rotherham United were the only side to secure fewer points away from home than Forest, they were also, unsurprisingly, the only team to concede more goals than the Reds.
Rotherham shipped 98 goals on their journey back into League One, but Forest also conceded 72 in 46 games.
And while, generally speaking, things did improve significantly under Warburton, who got Forest playing an entertaining, progressive brand of football from day one – goals were still an issue.
Forest kept only two clean sheets in their eight games under the new management duo of Warburton and David Weir – during which time they also conceded 10 goals.
Jordan Smith took his chance well in the Forest goal – making a number of vital saves as survival was secured
They conceded three goals or more on eight occasions during the campaign – and two goals or more in 22 games, representing almost half of their Championship fixtures.
Again, there was noteworthy improvement on this front under Warburton. Whether the team played with an orthodox back-four or with a three-man central defence, they generally allowed the opposition fewer sights on goal.
But that must continue if Forest are to maintain their progress under Warburton and Weir – a man who knows a thing or two about defending.
3. Simple consistency
As he has repeatedly stated himself, Warburton is not a big fan of needless change.
The former Brentford and Rangers manager understands the value of consistency in team selection; of not making changes for the sake of it.
And you can expect things to feel very different to last season, when the hugely likeable but also completely unpredictable Philippe Montanier seemed to complete his team selections via lottery.
There were normally three or four changes to his team – often even more – as he looked to make use of a squad that had more options than a Chinese takeaway menu.
Philippe Montanier had a proven track record – but his team selections were too unpredictable at Forest
This, more than anything else, was at the core of Forest’s failures.
There was little opportunity for players to forge partnerships in key areas of the pitch; to develop an understanding in the centre of defence, in central midfield or even between full-backs and midfielders.
Players could play well one week – and still find themselves out the side the next. Few, beyond Ben Osborn and Eric Lichaj, ever played more than two or three games in a row, without falling victim to the rotation policy.
So fitness suffered as a result as well.
Things will be different under Warburton, who may not exactly just pick his best XI players and stick with them, barring injury and suspension, in every game – but will be closer to that mentality than to Montanier’s Saturday shuffling of the pack.
We wait to see where the ‘four or five’ new additions Warburton wants to bring in will fit into things.
But Forest quickly took to the mentality Warburton wanted to stamp on his side; they found their feet impressively swiftly, when it came to the passing football he demanded.
There is a bravery required to such an approach, with courage demanded on the ball.
But it is also a brand of football that will only get stronger with familiarity; as relationships are honed.
Every successful side needs consistency – consistency in performance levels and in results. But one of the simplest and most vital foundations for that are consistency in team selection.
Lica made only two Championship starts for Forest following his arrival from Portugal
4. Squad size
Forest used 38 players last season – a statistic that further emphasises the point made above.
Newcastle and Brighton both used 30 on their way to promotion, while play-off winners Huddersfield utilised only 26 players, throughout the campaign.
Only relegated Wigan (40) used more players than Forest, who wasted significant sums of money signing players like Lica, Nicolao Dumitru, Joao Teixeira and Nicklas Bendtner, among others.
The finances involved in maintaining a needlessly bloated squad of players last season will have a longer lasting influence, as Evangelos Marinakis and the new Forest hierarchy look to move forward and progress, without risking falling foul of Financial Fair Play regulations again.
Warburton has made his views clear, when it comes to the benefits of a smaller squad, which will leave every player in the dressing room believing they have a chance of being involved; of playing a part on Saturday afternoon.
But there is a financial aspect to consider as well.
Bendtner, Matty Fryatt and Dani Pinillos have all departed, as have loan signings Hildeberto Pereira, Dumitru, Teixeira, Ross McCormack, Pajtim Kasami and Aaron Tshibola.
Vladimir Stojkovic is likely to be allowed to leave Forest this summer
Vladimir Stojkovic and Lica are almost certain to follow out of the City Ground exit, while Damien Perquis and possibly even Thomas Lam could be allowed to move on, if there is interest in them.
There are plenty of financial and motivational reasons for needing to trim the Forest squad, but the most significant one of all is not having as many players earning a wage sitting in the stands on a Saturday afternoon as there are out on the pitch.
Of all the numerous positive noises to have come out of the City Ground since the takeover was completed – and particularly within the open letter from Nicholas Randall – is the very real desire to give Forest some identity.
More specifically, as the new chairman stated, the club are keen to get back to doing things ‘the Forest way’.
They could hardly have picked a better manager when it comes to achieving that goal.
Warburton had the courage to demand Forest play the style of football he believes in from day one, even amid the most high pressure circumstances.
And while success is still more important than style – success, in this case, being a season of progress, rather than a promotion push – there are many benefits to playing football the ‘right’ way.
Mark Warburton has already begun to give Forest an identity since his appointment
Following five years where disharmony and chaos off the pitch damaged relations between the club and it’s fanbase, the start of a new era under new owners who seem to have a plan in place could hardly have been more timely.
But nothing matters more than what happens on the pitch on a Saturday afternoon between 3pm and 5pm.
And if Forest do play an entertaining, easy on the eye brand of football, it will only help the team to reengage with their supporters; to bring the feelgood factor back to the City Ground.
The club’s new hierarchy, along with Warburton, do have lofty aspirations in the long-term.
But next season has to be about repairing the damage of the last few years; about taking small steps forward, rather than giant strides.
Having the kind of identity and ethos that fans and players alike can take some pride in, would be a fine starting point to achieving exactly that.
Thanks to the Nottingham Post for this story – Original Story
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