With the end of the Championship season in sight, the competitiveness of the division has come to the fore. 14 points separate the play-offs from the relegation places and teams have begun to experience ‘squeaky bum time.’ Just ask Nottingham Forest.
A month ago, Forest occupied fifth place in the table having secured an impressive 2-1 win away to Hull City, which was their sixth win in a row. That run hauled them up from mid-table into the play-off places and it seemed that they could go on and cement their place in the top six.
However, after a run of three draws and two defeats since that win at the KC Stadium, Billy Davies’ men have slipped to eighth, one point adrift of sixth-placed Leicester City. It has been a frustrating few weeks for all connected with the club. After the Hull game, some fans were dreaming of automatic promotion, even if back then that seemed a tall order. The season is hanging in the balance and the aim is to reclaim a top six place.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Forest’s form has dipped recently. Perhaps they have been sussed out by other teams, maybe a bit of complacency has set in or the players could be feeling fatigued. Billy Davies believes that the latter is playing a part. This week he claimed that the players are mentally fatigued, following a season of upheaval at The City Ground which has seen three different managers at the helm.
Davies, through working with the players several days a week, is certainly the best judge of how they are both mentally and physically. What is important though, is that the manager can get a final push from the squad and guide them back to winning ways, starting with Saturday’s home game against Barnsley.
There has been a spark missing from Forest’s recent performances when compared to the displays they were putting in during the run of six consecutive victories. The personnel and formation have largely been the same throughout, but the results have changed. The Reds have developed a habit of conceding goals first, putting themselves in a position where they have to come from behind to take something from games.
Against Brighton & Hove Albion, Forest were the better side in the first half but allowed the visitors to take the lead early in the second period. After equalising through substitute Lewis McGugan with seven minutes remaining, Will Buckley went straight down the other end to put Brighton back ahead, but thanks to an injury-time error from Seagulls goalkeeper Casper Ankergren, when he allowed Henri Lansbury’s shot to go through his legs, Forest salvaged a dramatic late point and kept their unbeaten record under Davies intact.
It was a similar story on Easter Monday against Burnley at Turf Moor, a place Forest struggle to get anything from. The Reds looked certain to lose following Junior Stanisalas’ 68th minute goal, but with the final kick of the game McGugan slotted home a 96th minute penalty to snatch a point from the jaws of defeat.
After the international break, Forest hosted Blackpool at The City Ground and again they had to come from behind to take a point. The visitors set up to frustrate Forest and get men behind the ball, which worked as Ludovic Sylvestre put them 1-0 ahead against the run of play in the first half. Despite continued pressure throughout the game, Forest needed another penalty from super sub McGugan to secure a 1-1 draw, the sixth game in a row in which he scored, most of them after coming off the bench.
That draw extended Forest’s unbeaten run to ten matches since Billy Davies’ return as boss, but it would eventually come to an end a week later against Cardiff City.
Forest travelled to South Wales feeling confident that they could upset the league leaders and they more than held their own in the first half, causing the home side problems. However the Reds couldn’t capitalise, with Darius Henderson missing a good opportunity from six yards out and Lewis McGugan’s effort being ruled out for offside.
Before the break, Forest found themselves harshly reduced to ten men after Henderson was shown a red card for a stray arm on Cardiff’s Heidar Helguson. Replays showed that an arm was out, but there was no intent from the Forest striker and the offence was a yellow card at worst. Cardiff capitalised on their extra man advantage in the second half to win the game 3-0. They have since gone on to secure promotion into the Premier League and look odds on to win the division, so on reflection there’s no shame in losing to the best side in the league.
On Tuesday evening Forest travelled to Middlesbrough, a side who have seen their promotion hopes fade after a terrible run of form since the New Year. However, Forest put in a lacklustre display and were beaten 1-0, dropping down to eighth place in the table. Despite a late fightback, which saw Chris Cohen nearly score an equaliser, the Reds came away with nothing and as a result, are a point adrift of the play-offs with three games remaining.
Luckily for Forest, other sides chasing top six places have faltered in recent weeks, hence why they find themselves just a point off the top six and three points adrift of fourth place. Crystal Palace have failed to win any of their last six games, Brighton have won one in five, while Leicester have just begun to get themselves out of a slump which saw them go nine games without victory.
Bolton Wanderers in seventh have embarked on a great run of form, at a similar time to Forest’s ten-game unbeaten streak, to become serious contenders for a play-off berth. They are currently ahead of Forest in the table by virtue of a better goal difference, which shows how tight the race for the play-offs has become.
All Forest can do now is focus on themselves and ensure that they take enough points from their final three games to secure a top six place. After Saturday’s game against Barnsley, they face a tricky trip to Millwall before hosting Leicester on the final day of the season, in what could potentially be a winner takes all clash.
Forest’s squad is lacking out-and-out wingers, which is why Davies has favoured a 4-4-2 diamond formation, which gets the best out of Andy Reid, Henri Lansbury, Radoslaw Majewski and Adlene Guedioura in the middle of the park. However this formation has seen goals dry up for the strikers, with Darius Henderson the only frontman to score since Davies’ return to the club.
The way Forest are set up to play allows their attacking midfielders to push on and have goalscoring chances. The strikers are required to work hard to create space and play the ball into them, which goes some way to explaining why the club’s frontmen are not hitting the back of the net regularly, whether it is Henderson, Dexter Blackstock, Simon Cox or Billy Sharp playing up front.
Up until recently Forest were not short of goals or an attacking threat, but it is difficult for them to change things without proper wingers playing down either flank. Had there been quick wide players in the squad, then the strikers would have scored more goals by now. At the moment, Forest have to make the best of the players they possess, which they did well during their unbeaten run
Despite the disappointment of dropping out of the top six, Forest’s current position is far from disastrous. The pressure is now on the teams above them to stay in the play-off places, while the pressure has been taken off Forest. Now they are one of the chasing pack, Forest can hopefully play with a bit more freedom and regain the kind of form which had taken them into the promotion picture in the first place.
Saturday’s game against Barnsley has taken on a greater significance as it presents a good opportunity to claim three points. The Tykes are fighting to avoid relegation and will provide tough opposition, but any side with serious hopes of reaching the play-offs have to beat struggling sides on their home turf. The playoff places have changed hands so often in recent weeks, so a victory may be enough to take Forest back into them.
I believe that Forest will overhaul the teams above them and finish in the top six, but what happens beyond that is harder to predict. There is a lot of quality in the squad, but I fear that their shortcomings may be found out in the pressure cooker of play-off football.
When you consider that the club was fighting relegation 12 months ago, or that it was languishing in mid-table when Davies took over, to be in with a shout of the play-offs with three games remaining is an excellent achievement. There is of course some disappointment at seeing them drop out of the top six in the past week, but there is still much to play for.
If Nottingham Forest do secure themselves a play-off spot, it will no doubt add further drama to an already eventful season.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up’s Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis