Saturday, February 24, 2024

Forest can’t keep conceding like this and hope to stay in the Premier League

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Last season the City Ground roared Nottingham Forest towards Premier League safety. A wall of intense noise helped drive Steve Cooper’s side over the finishing line.

Forest claimed 30 of their 38 points on the bank of the River Trent. Victories over Liverpool, Brighton, Southampton and Arsenal will linger long in the memory.

On Saturday, the atmosphere had hardly diminished. The partisan crowd did their part, from the moment the first deafening chorus of Mull of Kintyre echoed around the stadium. But, somehow, the City Ground is no longer the fortress it once was.

And, amid it all, Forest are being undone by the fact that they have evolved — or devolved —into a side of incredible contrasts.

Forest have lost six of their last seven home games in the Premier League. They sit bottom of the home form table in the top flight, having taken three points from six games. Only Burnley (five), Sheffield United (eight) and Luton (11) have taken fewer home points than the 12 points from 12 games Forest have secured in Nottingham.

What will be most frustrating to Nuno Espirito Santo is that, amid the chaos and drama, his Forest side were so close to getting things right.

There are so many things to be positive about and so many things that Forest do well. There was also a sense of injustice over a handful of vital refereeing decisions. But, ultimately, Forest were also the masters of their own downfall. Again.

And that is the significant challenge facing Nuno. Like Cooper before him, he must find calm amid the chaos.

Forest will not plot a course to survival by trying to emulate Newcastle’s famous ‘Entertainers’ who were managed by Kevin Keegan. Forest cannot leave themselves needing to score four goals to have any chance of winning.

Nuno has given Forest more attacking threat than they had under Cooper when they averaged precisely a goal per game. They have scored 13 goals in the seven league games Nuno has taken charge of. Unfortunately, they have also conceded 14. They are yet to keep a Premier League clean sheet under the Portuguese coach.

(Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Anthony Elanga’s slotted finish, following a sublime pass from Morgan Gibbs-White and a burst of pace, was the eighth goal Forest have scored from a quick break this season. That is the most in the Premier League. Forest’s second equaliser saw Callum Hudson-Odoi score with another long-range finish — albeit with the aid of a deflection. No other Premier League player has scored more goals from outside the box this season than him (three).

Gibbs-White impressed, but he also fired wide the kind of chance that he usually buries. Elanga, an electric presence down the right, where he frequently troubled Newcastle’s Dan Burn, might have had another goal, but was denied by a strong save from Martin Dubravka. He also played a part in Newcastle’s winner, playing a sloppy pass on the edge of his box that gifted them possession.

Forest had 13 efforts on goal. There were periods where they were a joy to watch, with full-backs Neco Williams and Nuno Tavares frequently pushing forward with pace and purpose to add to the attacking width. Tavares created two chances for himself with his quick footwork — and was twice wildly off target.

But this was also the sixth time this season that Forest have suffered a 3-2 defeat. It is normally a rare scoreline. In the five seasons before this one, Forest had lost 3-2 on just four occasions.  Now it is seemingly becoming an unusual, costly habit. Luton (45), Burnley (50) and Sheffield United (60) are the only teams to have conceded more goals than Forest’s 44.

And set pieces were again Forest’s Achilles’ heel. Amid the City Ground roar, there were also too many sighs of frustration. Forest have conceded 15 times from corners and free kicks, more than any other team. Burnley have conceded 12.

Nuno felt that the first Newcastle goal — which came after a short-corner routine gave Kieran Trippier the chance to whip the perfect ball for Bruno Guimaraes to apply an exquisite finish — owed more to the visitors’ quality than his side’s frailty. But the second Newcastle goal, which saw Sven Botman head a free kick across the penalty area for Fabian Schar to convert did frustrate the head coach.

“The second one is a lack of commitment from us to solve the situation. We cannot allow the ball to bounce twice in our own box and not solve it,” said Nuno. “We work and work (on set pieces). We don’t ignore, we are aware. We work, we repeat, we insist to try to find solutions. But at the end of the day, with all the respect, it has to be yourself. You don’t wait for anyone to solve it — you have to solve it.”

(Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Forest also felt a sense of injustice over a penalty that was not given when the game was level at 2-2. Replays showed that Dubravka’s outstretched right arm did make contact with Awoniyi before the Forest striker tumbled — even Newcastle legend Alan Shearer conceded that it should have been a penalty, speaking on Match of the Day.

But a VAR review opted not to overturn the on-pitch decision by referee Anthony Taylor. Forest are, at the time of writing, still debating whether to make another complaint to the PGMOL. It would be a waste of an email. Even if they do receive an apology, it would not change the outcome.

And, in the meantime, they must work to address the things that are within their power to change.

West Ham, who visit next weekend, have scored a comparatively modest six set-piece goals this season at the time of writing. But they did score twice from James Ward-Prowse corners against Forest at the London Stadium, as they secured a — you guessed it — 3-2 win in the capital in November.

On Saturday, the City Ground will roar again. If they are to survive, Forest must find a way to give them something to cheer about.

(Top photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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