New Nottingham Forest manager Martin O’Neill has wasted little time in bolstering his ranks after he completed the signing of Leicester City defender Yohan Benalouane, as confirmed on the club’s official website.
The 31-year-old penned terms on an 18-month contract and will go straight into O’Neill’s squad for tomorrow’s game with Bristol City.
The central defender’s arrival has split the Forest fanbase with some wary of the lack of first-team football he has played of late, whilst others are just delighted to see the Reds squad enhanced with another defensive addition.
Forest will be without Michael Dawson, Michael Hefele and Danny Fox tomorrow, with Tobias Figueiredo rated as doubtful as the Reds begin life under O’Neill.
Ahead of tomorrow’s game, Seat Pitch caught up with Mail on Sunday journalist – and Leicester City supporter, James Sharpe.
In an exclusive telephone interview, the Foxes fanatic offered Forest supporters an insight into what to expect from their latest recruit.
Seat Pitch: Leicester paid £5 million for Benalouane in 2015, yet only played 15 games in four years. What went wrong for the Tunisian?
James Sharpe: Yohan Benalouane was originally bought by Claudio Ranieri as a bargaining chip to allow the former head of recruitment Steve Walsh to get N’Golo Kante.
Walsh wanted Kante, Ranieri wanted Benalouane. Walsh didn’t really fancy Benalouane, Ranieri didn’t really fancy Kante. Ranieri said that Walsh could have his man as long as he was allowed to sign Benalouane. So both got their wish.
Benalouane then had to wait 19 months to make his first Premier League start.
The first season he didn’t get a look-in because, well, Forest legend Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were far too consistent and Marcin Wasilewski was the first-choice back-up. He didn’t even make the initial 25-man Premier League squad the season after but was brought back into it in January with Morgan having some injury problems.
After that, it was just a case of managers not thinking he was consistent enough, or a bit too risky to trust at the highest level game after game.
Since then, they have signed Harry Maguire, Jonny Evans, Caglar Soyuncu, Filip Benkovic (on loan at Celtic) and have strong youngsters in that position too. There’s just no room for 31-year-0ld Benalouane.
SP: What the central defender’s main attributes?
JS: Other than being a complete maverick? Just look at his Instagram page to see that.
He became a bit of a cult figure among the Leicester fans. He loves his fashion and his art. He kind of thinks he’s the reincarnation of Pablo Picasso. I did a piece with a local artist who Benalouane had commissioned to paint portraits of him – one in which he was depicted as video-game assassin Hitman.
He carries that on to the pitch too. I’ve seen him win tackles and then Cruyff turn away from attackers inside his own box. Then chip balls over a striker’s head, bring it down and play it out. He’s big and strong. Pretty quick as well. And technically, he’s excellent.
SP: Does the defender have any real weaknesses?
JS: He can be spectacular for 85 minutes but then have a complete rush of blood to the head and either get himself sent off or give a goal away. The famous example was in a pre-season friendly at Burton where he took out Stephen Warnock at the knee cap right in front of the dugout. Shakespeare took him off and threatened never to play him again.
SP: Was there a standout performance in particular during his time at the King Power?
JS: He was absolutely superb in the first leg of Leicester’s Champions League quarter-final at Atletico Madrid.
Morgan was injured so Benalouane had to start. The idea of Benalouane v Antoine Griezmann was a scary one. But he was superb.
Yes, Leicester lost 1-0 (to a penalty for a foul outside the box – I’m not bitter) but Benalouane was outstanding. Strong, focused. Griezmann and Fernando Torres hardly had a sniff.
SP: Should Forest fans be concerned by his lack of game time or will he prove a decent acquisition at Championship level?
JS: I think he will do well. He’s played in quite a few under-23s games. I know that’s not the same as Championship but at least he’s been getting some minutes under his belt.
He was with Tunisia at the World Cup, too. He refused to play for them previously, despite having gone through the rigmarole of changing his international allegiance from France. But that’s another story.
I think he will be decent for Forest. As I say, 90 percent of the time he can be a top-class defender. It’s just the other 10 percent you have to be worried about. Hopefully, at Championship level, any howlers might not go as severely punished. One thing is for certain, though: it will be interesting. Sit back and enjoy.
SP: Finally, Benalouane has spoken of his eagerness to work with Martin O’Neill. Do you think the ex-Leicester boss is a good appointment for Forest?
JS: t took me by surprise, mainly because it felt from the outside as a bit of a backward step for a club who had appeared to make it clear that they wanted a progressive style of football.
As a Leicester fan, I love O’Neill. He’s a legend over here. And I hope he is a huge success at Forest. But his reputation at Ireland was awful for the style of football. Granted, they are not blessed with the most technical of players and O’Neill still managed to get them to the last-16 of a major tournament.
If there is one thing he will do, it is that he will get the most of out what he’s got. There are few better man managers and motivators. My only worry is that, again as an outsider looking in, Forest want more than that.