OPINION: Midfield selection key to Nottingham Forest's Championship survival
Last season, Nottingham Forest beat the drop into League One thanks to a solid defence and an excellent goalkeeper. This time around, it may come down to the performance of the midfield.
I’ve been impressed by the majority of squad selections by Gary Brazil and Jack Lester so far, but the centre of midfield seems to be their Achilles heel. The last two matches in particular highlighted the need to address the issues in the middle of the park.
I found it strange that David Vaughan was partnered by Ben Osborn for the second week running. In my opinion they are too similar. Vaughan is natural holding midfielder who breaks things up and gets moves started, while Osborn is lively and industrious without too much of an attacking prowess.
Despite young Zach Clough being more of a left-sided attacker, I’d like to see him in the middle of the park alongside Vaughan. He is just as adept with either his right or left foot and has a natural attacker’s instinct.
Although similar in size to both Vaughan and Osborn, he’s a feisty character at times and can look after himself. Watch him off the ball when you next see him play, he has some mannerisms that wouldn’t be lost on the likes of Robbie Savage and Karl Henry.
Clough is certainly capable of a defence splitting pass, like the beauty he laid on for Ross McCormack against Norwich, but is it the right time to gamble for the manager? With 12 games left and just four points separating Forest from the drop zone, you’d be a brave man to road test such theories.
Supporters have quite rightly pointed out that we are a little toothless in the midfield but when you weigh up the alternatives, there’s not a great deal from which to pick.
Pajtim Kasami certainly looked the part when he burst onto the City Ground scene but has flattered to deceive for large portions of his Forest career. Thomas Lam, although technically gifted, is far too slight for the Championship in general.
Aaron Tshibola is more of a defensive midfielder but again too similar to Vaughan, his acquisition was a strange one to be honest and I can see him returning to Villa without many games under his belt come the summer.
Matty Cash did very well in his brief midfield spell but seems to have gone off the boil somewhat since filling in at full back and wing duties. Our best hope of a midfield presence will therefore lie at the feet of Chris Cohen, who is yet again returning from injury.
Cohen has literally been pulled from pillar to post when it comes to positional roles. Barring another injury, he could well be the answer for the remainder of the campaign but even this is something of a gamble.
Whatever Brazil and Lester decide, they must implement it quickly because the pressure is on and the games are running out fast.
People always refer to this time of the season as ‘the business end’, but I disagree. The start and finish of any league season usually throw up some unorthodox results, for several reasons.
In August and September, you usually incur the settling period of new players at any given club. Whereas at season’s end there are numerous lost causes and dead rubbers for sides who have achieved nothing more than mid-table obscurity.
That’s why I strongly believe that the winter months are the most important, the games come thick and fast and managerial pressure is still in the second-class mail box. Unfortunately for Nottingham Forest, Philippe Montanier was at the helm during this period and has passed on the debris to Gary and Jack.
With the likes of Michael Mancienne and Jack Hobbs available for selection again, coupled with the consistency of Eric Lichaj and Jordan Smith in goal, we should be competent enough defensively. Dani Pinillos hasn’t yet found the outstanding form that we’ve become accustom to, but you must consider the severity of his recent injury.
The forward line speaks for itself, Britt Assombalonga and Ben Brereton seem to be the pairing of choice whilst McCormack is one of the deadliest strikers to have on anybody’s bench right now.
So, the obvious area of concern is indeed the midfield; the bridge between defence and attack. If Gary Brazil can address this issue, I’ve no doubts that we will avoid relegation this time around.
It’s without doubt the biggest challenge that the caretaker management team have faced since they took the reins and the stakes are very high. Only time will tell but scenarios such as this will either be the making or the breaking of a manager.