After going two goals up against Millwall, Nottingham Forest conceded late goals to draw the game — denying the Reds a top six spot. Scott Eley was at the City Ground
A one-word summary of an eventful evening at the City Ground? Pants.
While the manner of the result felt like a loss, one defeat in 14 is pretty good going so far this season. I’m sure most fans would’ve taken that at this stage with a new look team. However, the frustrating thing for me is how we continue to feel our way into games and don’t start on the front foot despite the amount of talent we have going forwards.
The level of performance hasn’t changed a great deal in pretty much all of our league home games so far — 6/10 at best. We aren’t firing on all cylinders and we’re not starting well enough. We are very much playing in second and third gear and reliant on those single moments of quality to win games. Maybe I’m being impatient, unrealistic or even greedy but we can do so much better.
At home, we have an unbelievable backing but the crowd need to be lifted. With our slow starts, it gives the opposition every chance to keep the crowd quiet. We need to make the most of the bums on seats — 25,000 for a midweek game is awesome. My only criticism of the support last night was the new Karanka song to the tune of Nick Berry’s Heartbeat. Nick Berry. Nick f**kig Berry. I was so traumatised, that when the lights went out, I quickly Googled who’d written the song. Thankfully it was a Buddy Holly song from the 50s but even so, no more Nick Berry please. While Millwall sing about nobody liking them, we serenade our manager. I couldn’t bring myself to sing it due to my feelings toward the little cockney whelk. If you see a man wearing ear defenders in coming weeks, that will be me. We really are too nice. Let’s get back to the Lampard one. Let’s have a bit of venom.
Back to the game, containing the opposition is the priority first and foremost under Aitor Karanka but it’s a dangerous game and we got exactly what we deserved from last night’s game. Millwall were well worth a point on the whole.
Their game plan was plain to see from the off. They are a giant of a team and, in all fairness, they played to their strengths and we just didn’t get to grips with them. We didn’t seem that interested in getting to grips with them either. We gave them all the encouragement they needed. They played to their strengths, we didn’t play to ours.
For a keeper of his size, we really needed Pantilimon to make the most of his stature and command his area. He didn’t seem himself all night and it felt from early on he had a mistake in him. There was a bizarre moment in the first-half where he appeared to want to throw the ball out, he got caught in two minds and ended up tossing the ball up into the air for him to then double back and volley the ball upfield. The ironic thing is that despite his size, dealing with crosses is probably Pantilimon’s biggest flaw.
I can’t say that his team mates helped him out too much though. We seemed to be really naïve in terms of how many set-pieces we readily conceded. It was one after another. Cross, corner, free-kick, our back pair struggled with the physicality of both strikers. Danny Fox’s limitations at centre-half were exploited, up against a mountain of a centre-forward and a bigger performance was needed from Michael Hefele alongside him. Conceding from a ball into the box was inevitable all night long. We seemed content to ride our luck and it was almost as if the players were initially wanting to go a goal behind to raise their motivation levels. We needed Lewis Grabban to get hold of the ball up top, but it was a thankless task for him in many respects up against two huge centre-backs. João Carvalho, apart from his goal, had a disappointing evening and the game was probably a real eye-opener for him. I doubt he’s ever come up against such a direct team back home in Portugal.
It’s frustrating that when we do play with some intensity, we look really good. Joe Lolley was the first to go up a gear after 25 minutes and, low and behold, we score! A great goal it was too. Ain’t nobody; like Joe Lolley. He’s the one player at the moment who looks intent on making a difference with his direct play. I’m hoping his injury isn’t too bad. He’ll be a huge loss if it is.
Adlene Guedioura didn’t seem to recognise what game he was competing in either for the first 45 minutes. His first four passes of the game were sloppy and easily conceded possession. There were a number of misplaced ‘Hollywood’ passes. I wish he would stick to the simple things and do what he’s best at. I’ve been a bit critical of him recently. His injury against Wigan seems to have curtailed his impressive early season form. He’s playing too deep for me, when his game is much more suited to driving forwards from midfield. That’s when Adlene makes the difference in our team and it’s an important difference that he can make. Unsurprisingly, a driving run from him in the second-half (the first for a while) ended in him being hauled down for a free-kick. Carvalho’s beautiful execution will deservedly get the plaudits, but don’t play down Guediora’s influence. Get Adlene further up the pitch please Karanka.
The second goal should have put Millwall to the sword and we seemed to be dealing better with their attack for the first time in the game. However, what followed next was pretty inexplicable from Pantilimon; which I can best describe as a brain fart of a moment. The crowd were baying for him to throw the ball out early after stemming a Millwall attack. There was no need for any urgency. It was all about game management and while he didn’t initially bow to the crowds demands, he seemed to get caught in two minds once again and got it all wrong in giving the ball away from his throw out. It was a poor error from such an experienced pro.
When the resulting cross came back in, he got caught well short in coming for the cross, akin to pegging his washing out, and gifted Millwall a really soft equaliser. It was the game’s pivotal moment. Lee Gregory not only scored, he then decided to celebrate in front of the Lower Bridgford and really rub it in. With no discouragement from the referee, their full-back also decided to antagonise the home fans. Millwall were on the front foot and they looked right up for it.
Now with the scent of Forest blood, Millwall were relentless in launching the ball into our box at every given opportunity. I’ve not seen such direct play for a long, long time. It was like a Millwall team from the 80s. I was half-expecting Terry Hurlock to pop up. It was far from subtle but really effective. They were landing blow after blow. Michael Dawson’s introduction wasn’t enough as reinforcement and we were simply bullied into submission.
Steve Morrison plays the villain role these days and he was up to no good with his off-the-ball antics when introduced. The officials continued to provide encouragement. There were some suspect decisions going against us. We did have a let-off with a disallowed Millwall goal moments earlier before the inevitable happened. That should have been the final warning call for us. Another ball into the box wasn’t dealt with again and resulted in another poorly conceded goal. So frustrating.
The manner of the capitulation is a real setback. The defence had started to look like a much more compact unit with Janko and Robinson key additions. However, poor goals conceded against Blackburn and poor ones again last night, it wouldn’t surprise me to see changes on Saturday. There is strength in depth at least.
I’d imagine Tony Pulis would’ve been texting Stewart Downing at midnight to get himself on the training ground nice and early for set-piece practice in preparation for Forest’s visit on Saturday. With Robert Ayala and Aiden Flint in Boro’s armoury, it’ll be interesting to see if Dawson gets his first start in the league since the opening day.
Hopefully, Karanka will have sent out a similar message on the players’ Whatsapp group at about 3am this morning. I bet he didn’t sleep well. Set-pieces is our Achilles heel but it’s nothing new of course. They are a real weakness, both defending and attacking. Our skill set is right up there with mine on newly acquired FIFA 19. In my defence, I’ve only had it four days…
That said, I’ve got faith in the manager to sort it and let’s hope that a test against better opposition on Saturday will bring out the best in us.