Nottingham Forest 3-4 Reading. Another game lost, another opportunity to look for someone to blame. With six games to go it’s not helpful for anyone at this stage of the season to call for the heads of Billy Davies, Nigel Doughty or the board for the failures of the past seven weeks. There’s still an outside chance of making the play-offs — remember that Blackpool spent most of last season outside the top six…
Two months ago I wrote on The Seventy Two blog, ‘there is a steely determination, a winning mentality and a togetherness at the club that is completely at odds with the Forest of recent years. The one that went a goal down and hung its head. Late goals in games against Barnsley and Portsmouth prove this is a team that does not know when it is beaten.’ Something cataclysmic has changed, key moments in certain games have destroyed that belief.
We always knew a key injury could derail the promotion bid and, in a total mirror of last season, the loss of a midfield enforcer has left us horribly exposed. Paul McKenna’s knee ligament injury sustained in the 1-0 win against Swansea in March last year saw our form dip. The loss of Guy Moussi, who had finally shown what he was capable of after his own knee ligament problems, and the end of our winning run both coincided proving how important midfield is — and how we’re lacking in cover. The injury to Dexter Blackstock, despite our wealth of strikers, has looked crucial ever since we lost him in the game against Cardiff in November.
3. Squad size
Billy Davies continues to complain about the strength and depth of our squad but I’m not so sure that’s as big an issue as he makes it. Much was made of the size of Reading’s squad last weekend but they have exactly the same number of players who have started a match this season — 24. QPR and Watford have used the least number of players (22) while Burnley, Norwich (both 25), Swansea (26) and Cardiff (27) have only used a few more. That said, a couple of midfielders on loan might have solved one problem.
Late goals in injury time conceded to both Preston and Reading show this team still have a lot to learn — three very crucial points lost. Chris Cohen’s sending off against Leeds wasn’t a red card but in reality we should be avoiding tackles that might look like fouls when a Premier League referee is in charge. Without Paul McKenna and Dele Adebola on the pitch it’s still a young team — although no younger than Leeds, Norwich or Swansea.
We’re not scoring any. Or enough at least. We have more strikers than any other team in the division — I don’t know that for sure but it sounds about right — and they’re not scoring. Lewis McGugan is our top scorer and has more assists than anyone and he doesn’t even start every game. Our eight strikers (not including Joe Garner who has scored six in 14 at Scunthorpe) have 26 goals between them. So either the strikers have no form or confidence or they’re not getting the service they deserve from midfield — or both.
This season, more so than last, Davies’ tactics have occasionally looked suspect. The defensive 4-5-1 formation often looks fluid when it breaks into 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 but in away games when we’re not getting the ball, keeping the ball or moving into space, we’ve looked utterly bereft of ideas. The classic 4-4-2 flatters to deceive when the striking partnership doesn’t quite work; and only Robbie Earnshaw and Blackstock seem to have developed an understanding. Are tactics stifling our creative midfielders?
Conceding late goals, not scoring enough goals, Cohen’s sending off against Leeds, referees’ decisions, injuries… Davies likes to cite Lady Luck and unless it changes dramatically between now and 7 May we’ll be pleased to be even near the top six.
Form this season just hasn’t been consistent enough — a slow start (as Forest and Davies’ teams always seem to do) followed by a short spurt of straight wins undone by a short spurt of straight losses. We’re only talking a matter of points, a win here and the odd draw there and we’d be in the play-offs and even running away with second place.
9. Away record
With the attacking options we have, and superiority in class (on paper at least) against most teams, why are we playing so conservatively away from home? Just 19 goals in 20 games. Something isn’t right, the problem being tactics as much as anything else. That late goal against Middlesbrough was luck in our favour rather than a dominant display — and that’s just one game.
10. Billy Davies
Questions have to be asked. One of our problems is not squad size but imbalance of squad — there’s a gamut of strikers and, thankfully, we haven’t suffered from injuries in defence but there’s no back-up in midfield. Worse, it appears that Davies turned down a number of midfielders on loan for reasons we don’t know — and, as I read the other day, failed to take up the option of Scott Sinclair (then Chelsea, now Swansea) on loan last summer. I’m not sure he even knows his first 11 or his favoured formation. For my money, we should pay attention to the opposition but this squad is strong enough to play its own way. On a positive note, Davies is a changed character from last season with his swipes at the board and talking down of the team no longer a feature of his, at least public, comments.