A dominant display saw Nottingham Forest beat Bolton Wanderers 4-1, as Dougie Freedman kept up the Reds’ unbeaten run with 10 points from 12 since he became manager. Steve Wright offers a fan’s eye view from the City Ground…
You had to have some sympathy for the travelling Bolton fans. A goalkeeper and a central defender stretchered off, and another central defender sent off, left Emile Heskey as a makeshift defender within just two minutes of coming on as a substitute at the start of the second period. Any hopes they had of a comeback, after a late first-half penalty had brought them back to 2-1 at half-time, were quickly dispersed as Heskey flailed in his unexpected role.
Having said that, they should never have had any such hopes in the first place such was the quality and dominance of Forest’s first-half performance. This was possibly the best the team have played all season. Even when top of the league at the start of the season they did not control the ball so completely. Right from the off they took the game to Bolton with Burke and Antonio rampant on the wings and Blackstock sharp and energetic at the top of a 4-1-2-2-1 formation.
On eight minutes Burke put Forest ahead. Even this early it was clear that he had the measure of his full-back and he latched onto a mistake to burst clear. His first effort was saved but he kept going and put away the rebound for that crucial first goal. There was no let up as attacks kept coming and 10 minutes later Antonio scored a candidate for goal of the season. Powering forward with the ball, he shook off challenges that would have brought other men down before smashing his shot past the Bolton ‘keeper.
Still Forest kept driving forward and should have had more goals before the first disruption came with a serious looking injury to Tim Ream which called the stretchers into their first duty, halted the game for 10 minutes and unfortunately broke Forest’s flow. When the game restarted there were two key events. First Matt Mills was booked and then a couple of minutes later Zack Clough made his only real contribution to the game as he dribbled through Forest’s defence before being halted by Danny Fox’s challenge and winning a penalty.
I have seen Lennon lauded for giving Clough his chance — and Freedman, as a result, being criticised for not doing — but although he clearly has talent he looked like a kid playing against men today. Le Fondre put the penalty away and as the referee blew for the end of the half it felt like the score poorly reflected the game and Forest would need to maintain the pressure in the second-half to secure points that were there for the taking.
They did exactly that, straight out of the blocks again, and just two minutes after the restart Mills hauled down the irrepressible Antonio and received his second booking. Heskey stepped back into the back four and it was only a matter of time before Forest took advantage. Sharp reactions from Blackstock saw him reach a poor backward header just ahead of Andy Lonergan who, arriving late, fouled him before collapsing in a heap, presumably from a clash of heads. Hopefully he is okay but it didn’t look good as another man was stretchered from the field.
Lansbury, captain for the day and rejuvenated under Freedman, despatched the penalty before holding aloft Assobalonga’s number 9 shirt. And within a couple of minutes Burke wrapped it all up with a left-foot strike to give his side an unassailable 4-1 lead. Despite all the problems Bolton were suffering this was a commanding performance of genuine quality from Forest. It is clear that Freedman’s coaching credentials are playing a big part and he has brought new life to a group of players that had previously looked lost, even uninterested in some cases.
I am a big fan of the 4-1-2-2-1 formation that we saw today. It helps us get control of the midfield and also brings the best out of key players in Antonio and Burke. With Gardner happy to do the less glamorous but much needed work sitting deep, Lansbury and Osborn, who continues to improve and delight, are free to get forward and support the attacking play. The midfield is balanced and energetic and Blackstock slotted in very well at the top of the formation. He’s a different sort of player to Assombalonga but can play a similar role to Chris Martin at Derby, holding the ball and bringing others in so that the play flows around him.
Clearly there will be a much tougher test on Wednesday when Bournemouth visit the City Ground but Freedman has made an impressive start and continues to inspire confidence with his assured post-match comments. I agree with him that to expect a play-off charge is too much at this stage and, to be honest, I am quite happy to simply enjoy watching my team put on a quality display of attacking football. It’s been a while if we’re honest and it feels good to concentrate solely on the football today. The bigger issue is really making sure we keep important players like Antonio at the club for another go next season, but then again Bournemouth and one or two others have slipped up recently so maybe…
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