Nottingham Forest managed back-to-back wins for new manager Dougie Freedman as the Reds beat Wigan Athletic 3-0. Roman Filipowicz offers a fan’s eye view from the City Ground…
This was a bittersweet win for the Reds. Sweet, obviously, because we won. Convincingly. And dominated the (admittedly poor) opposition in a manner that has been all too infrequent this season. Bitter because it took a change of manager to coax such a performance from the same bunch of players. And also, of course, because of the serious-looking injury suffered by Britt Assombalonga.
The welcome for Dougie Freedman’s first match in charge of Nottingham Forest at the City Ground might not have been as raucous as it was for Stuart Pearce, but it was warm and genuine nonetheless. Freedman selected the same team that notched the vital win at Brighton, perhaps surprisingly given that we were at home; but I guess the players who won probably deserved to keep their places. The only change to the squad was on the substitutes’ bench where Todd Kane replaced Robert Tesche. Wigan Athletic included Forest old-boy James Perch in their line-up, though recent loan signing Harry Maguire only made the bench.
The opening exchanges were rather scrappy, as neither side could string any meaningful moves together. Given their current form, this was not a surprise. It was Forest who created the first decent chance, with Michail Antonio heading an excellent Chris Burke cross wide. Gary Gardner let fly with a couple of progressively worse shots, while at the other end Kim Bo Kyung was more accurate, forcing Karl Darlow to palm away his stinging effort. Antonio then forced a somewhat easier save from Ali Al Habsi, with a shot that bobbled its way through to the visitors’ keeper.
It took a moment of real quality to break the deadlock and thankfully it came from Forest. Danny Fox found Burke in midfield and the midfielder was allowed to turn and carry the ball forward. His pass to Assombalonga was perfectly weighted and the striker did the rest, firing low across Al Habsi. Forest then really started to turn the screw. Henri Lansbury should’ve doubled the lead but scooped over from close range and Antonio scuffed another chance wide. Wigan steadied the ship before half-time and 1-0 was just about a fair scoreline.
A flurry of Forest corners marked the start of the second-half, one of them resulting from Al Habsi palming wide a decent Lansbury shot, but ironically Forest’s second goal came following a Latics attack. Chris Burke appeared to be fouled in midfield but Wigan’s resultant foray came to nought. Antonio then barrelled through a couple of challenges before threading an excellent pass into Burke’s path. The Scotsman steadied himself before firing home off the far post then, after celebrating the goal, he went off to harangue the linesman for not awarding the free-kick earlier! No pleasing some people.
It wasn’t much longer before the Reds were really out of sight. A Ben Osborn corner wasn’t cleared and fell to Assombalonga, who found Danny Fox. He laid off to Lansbury who curled a precise shot past Al Habsi to make it three. Suddenly the Forest mascot’s prediction of a 5-0 win didn’t seem so far-fetched. That may indeed have been the final score, but for the one massive downside of the evening.
Assombalonga was bearing down on the Wigan goal and fired off a shot before his leg crumpled under him. He immediately raised his arm, as players do when they’re *really* hurt, and when Wigan players started waving for the physio too you knew it was a bad one. It was clear that Britt’s match was over. We just have to hope we can’t say the same about his season.
This turn of events seemed to knock the stuffing out of Forest and Wigan enjoyed their best spell of the match, forcing a few scrambles clear and a good save from Darlow. The home side mustered a couple more chances too, with Antonio’s shot being blocked and substitute Dexter Blackstock flicking a header wide. But there was to be no further scoring and it ended up 3-0.
So, what of this Dougie-powered Forest then? I was slightly sceptical when seeing the team selection, but that’s because I’m always of the belief one should attack when at home. However, there’s no denying it made sense; even the recall of Danny Collins, who added experience to a back-line which has looked dreadfully dodgy at times this season. Right-backs were playing at right-back, left-backs at left-back and so on. As it turned out Forest did attack, and often. Creating several chances and taking them too.
We played with an intensity that had been absent for the last few months; pressing the opposition high, like other teams usually do to us. Playing Ben Osborn in the middle really helped with that, as he was constantly yapping at Wigan players’ heels like some kind of blond, sheep-destroying terrier. There also seemed to be a conscious effort to play the ball on the floor – almost too much at times – which led to a couple of hairy moments at the back. We were still treated to the occasional FoxHoof, but these were fewer and further between. Eric Lichaj got forward more than I’ve ever seen him and had an excellent game, and Chris Burke looked more like the player we know he can be.
With the Fifth Round coming up this weekend, FA Cup betting will be going on without the Reds as they travel to Blackpool for another game which could lift them further in the table; away from those relegation spots that Wigan seem to be hanging on to.
One has to put this decent start into context, however. Two wins is great and were certainly much needed, but the standard of opposition has not been the best. The true litmus test will come on 25 February against Bournemouth. Still, we’ve failed to beat plenty of ‘not the best’ opposition this season, so credit has to go to Freedman for the improvement. It’s been hard to criticise anything he’s done since starting his tortured sup from the poisoned chalice that is the Nottingham Forest manager’s job. Long may it continue.