A first defeat of the season for Aitor Karanka’s ‘Big Spending Nottingham Forest’, going down 2-1 away to Brentford, means we go into the international break with a few questions. Scott Eley pulls no punches in his assessment of the performance at Griffin Park
There are two words to describe yesterday’s game. Crap and Desire.
To expand a little further: Big Spending Nottingham Forest™ were given a lesson in football by thrifty Brentford.
Now I know that Big Spending Nottingham Forest is being rammed down our throats from certain sections of the media quarters. But big spending has been required to make a long-standing, poorly-performing and poorly-ran, lower-half football club, competitive again. Not promotion-chasing but competitive. The way I see it is that we are in phase two of the rebuild.
However, despite the significant investment, we were still far from competitive on the pitch against Brentford on Saturday afternoon. The amount of yellow cards issued may suggest that we were in a contest. It couldn’t be further from the truth. It felt like a pre-season game, such was our casual approach. The performance, to be just about publishable, was, in essence, crap.
I was alarmed at our performance against Birmingham last Saturday. In fact, I was in shell shock for much of half-time. My new season optimism bubble had been rudely popped. Surely not I thought? The Newcastle game in the League Cup did more than restore some faith. It felt like a pivotal moment. Sadly, the performance Saturday was miles apart.
Here’s another word: desire. Not for the first time, watching Karanka’s teams, the performances have been incredibly flat. Whilst they’ve not necessarily been dreadful, it’s been poor viewing. Saturday’s performance will be confined to Karanka’s Room 101. Desire was desperately lacking for a club with ambitions to do much better this season.
That’s not to say that we haven’t seen desire in patches. There is no doubt that when we have showed it in parts this season, we’ve looked very good. However, as a collective, it’s been too few and far between the West Brom and Newcastle games. I appreciate that we’re only five games in but considering the investment and undoubted quality now in the squad, the ingredient of desire to be better than your opponents and win a game of football has been sadly lacking. It has to pick up.
Adlene Guedioura showed the desire at Bristol and at West Brom. He has been a big miss in recent games. Hilal Soudani showed the same desire to come off the bench and make the difference against Reading and Wigan. Joe Lolley did it against Birmingham. Bridcutt and Hefele were the epitome of it against Newcastle. This is what we want to see. Not fleetingly either. Every game counts and after a slow start, it’s going to be key in playing catch up.
We are crying out for somebody in the middle of the park to grab games by the scruff of the neck. We were crying out for some energy in there Saturday. We had none of the above.
Simply put, we didn’t get started. We didn’t compete properly. Yes, of course, we did the bare minimum of running-about-a-bit but there was no real intent to put pressure on the ball and disrupt Brentford’s blueprint game. No real desire to say, ‘Yes, we’re Big Spending Nottingham Forest and we are here to beat you in your own back yard in front of our, sell out, away crowd’. I am going to exclude the back four, Matty Cash and Ben Osborn from the criticism to some degree. Whilst they weren’t great by any margins, they put a shift in what was, almost, a damage limitation exercise from start to finish.
Forest’s midfielders were spectators. They might as well have been added to the home crowd attendance. Romaine Sawyer ran the show for the Bees. He dictated the game with ease and at no point did the message get across that we needed to stop him. It felt like, watching from the terrace, that this was a complete waste of my time, ticket price and train fair. A massive disappointment on what was otherwise a most enjoyable outing.
Win your headers and tackles and if you don’t you win the first one, you get up and win the second one. Trying wasn’t going to cut it. We had to be at the races and we didn’t turn up. Talk about getting the basics wrong. Jack Colback and Ben Watson didn’t get going. For me, the game was lost in the middle of the park. And in saying ‘lost’, that’s actually quite misleading. ‘Lost’ would suggest that we were in the game for it to be ‘lost’. We weren’t. Liam Bridcutt has to seize his next opportunity because, on this showing, it won’t be too far away.
There is no doubt that we are relying heavily on the individual talent of Lolley, Carvalho and Dias. It’s going to take time for the Portuguese lads to adapt given the demands of the Championship’s Saturday-Tuesday schedule. I was laughed at a few weeks ago when I suggested we could do with Lee Tomlin back. To me, we need a proven performer in the creative area if we want to be competitive. He’d earnt his move from his loan spell from Cardiff and when Carvalho isn’t quite at it, we need a player with similar mindset on the pitch. Karanka’s team has to have a creative spark because it makes a mockery of his set-up without it. There’s not much point in playing a counter-attacking game if you can’t hurt the opposition. It’s a very dangerous game to be playing if you’re going to give the ball to your opponents and encouraging them to do their best without a sucker punch.
Carvalho is a young lad, new to the country and he is essentially our future. There is no doubt that he is a very gifted footballer. He’s not quite ready to hit the ground running yet and this season is going to be a learning curve for him. We need to be careful with him, as you would with any investment.
The most frustrating thing about Saturday was, despite not being in the game, we conceded at vital times. It’s criminal at any level in a game of football. We could have rescued a point. It wouldn’t have been deserved but the error from Dan Bentley warranted that punishment. It was an inexplicable mistake from Matty Cash’s tame effort.
At the very least, Karanka’s substitutions improved things a little for the second-half. The manager can take some credit for that and it’s not been the first time this season either. Question is though: if the subs are making such an impact, then why aren’t these players starting? Karanka doesn’t seem to know our best XI that’s for sure, and I’m not sure I do either. We don’t appear to have an identity yet under Karanka. As an alleged Jose Mourinho disciple, it seems like he’s getting to grips with a change in his own philosophy. How does a defensive coach find the balance with so many new attacking options? This is the challenge ahead.
Back to the game. We struggled to mount any serious pattern of attacking play and Daryl Murphy had little to go on. A shadow of Wednesday’s night’s player. Ineffective. Lewis Grabban came on and literally sauntered around the pitch. He was no improvement on Murphy when he really should have been. Now this next paragraph may seem harsh and certainly my view may have been hampered by the ales consumed pre-match but here goes…
I’ve defended Grabban’s performances so far this season but his casual style of play is certainly rubbing me up the wrong way. I acknowledge that he has returned from injury and didn’t get much game time on Saturday.
However, his penalty at Wigan was poor the other week when I wanted to see him smash it and run a full lap in celebration. At the moment, Grabban’s not looking like a player who wants to enamour himself to his new supporters. There is no doubt a quality player in there but he’s got to start showing a lot more than he did on Saturday. That word again I’m afraid. Desire. I want to see an angry Lewis Grabban in a Forest shirt. Lewis Grabban with a point to prove. Take the chewing gum out, son.
We certainly don’t seem to be playing to his strengths though. Get the ball in the box. Get the ball in behind. It will take time for his teammates to develop the understanding but pre-season started a few months ago. Another challenge laying ahead at the manager’s door. It’s his problem to solve when you’ve a proven goal scorer in the team and he isn’t scoring. In Grabban’s defence, how many chances has he had created by teammates so far? He’s certainly not been missing them. I’m going to say he’s had one half-chance (that I’ve seen against West Brom) in the four games he’s appeared in. Early days I know, but we’ve just sold Ben Brereton as basically the manager wasn’t prepared to play to his strengths. Something is going to have to give.
Karanka has got to get the intensity into his players if we’re going to push for a top 10 finish. We need to find the consistency. We can’t just turn up one in five games or in front of the cameras. It won’t be good enough with the expectation levels raised.
The Championship is an unforgiving league and that’s why I love it. However, Forest or any other team simply can’t coast into matches and expect anything other than, at best, dropped points. Any successful team has to be at it. You can only ride your luck for so long, and we’ve been pushing it.
The players have to show the desire. And whilst Karanka is getting flak, the players are the ones that dictate the mood. And the mood Saturday was one of voyeur. We simply stood and watched Brentford play at times. It was embarrassingly one-sided for large periods of the game.
The manager has had investment. He’s been backed to the hilt like no other Forest manager before. Seemingly, 4-4-2 has been consigned to footballing past. Automatically, you’re limited on striking options in a 4-5-1 under Karanka. Two holding centre midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 make us even more conservative as an attacking threat. The most alarming part from Saturday was that the Forest fans carried our most dangerous attacking threat, baiting their keeper for a good 30 minutes to ‘give us a goal’ after his error. It was gamesmanship at its very best from the Forest faithful.
The previous unbeaten run now counts for nothing going into the international break. The excuses can’t continue and they’ll be wearing thin if things don’t improve by the next break. This is modern day football whether we like it or not.
Karanka has to get this right moving forwards and, essentially, we won’t be far off when the missing ingredient is found. I know what it is. Desire. It’s a bit like leaving yeast out of a loaf of bread. It won’t work without it so let’s put it in the mix.
We’ve seen the potential. It exists. It just needs to come together but obviously sooner rather than later. The consistency has to be found but patience is required. For now. But make no mistake, the wolves have picked up the scent and they are on the move.
On a final note, it’s taken me all day to muster a round-up and it’s been difficult thinking about the positives. The true positive in the wider sense from Saturday is Brentford Football Club.
Last season’s 4-3 win was quite fitting of the match day experience at Griffin Park and it’s easily my favourite away ground. It’s a marvellous place for the purist. A top, quality day out. It will be a shame when they move grounds. Griffin Park is a rough diamond in the modern-day stadia age. Take your kids whilst you can.
The philosophy at Brentford is brilliant. The club, the set-up around the ground (pubs!) and their support is brilliant. They are confident in their brand, confident that even in defeat they will have played the right way. Humble in approach.
I made an appearance on the Brentford fans radio slot at the back end of last season and riled presenters when I mentioned that I’d find it hard to name their starting XI bar one or two. My comments were taken in offence rather than the back-handed compliment I was trying to pay them. It’s not a miracle what’s happening down there. It’s precision planning with a brand achieved on a budget. Some scouting network they have there which has saved millions and allowed them to compete well. They are the benchmark for any other considered smaller club. It just goes to show that football doesn’t always have to be win at all costs. I’d expect them to be up there again towards the end of the season. I sincerely wish them well.