A month ago, I wrote a piece detailing the rise of the Championship‘s sleeping giants. These were the teams who had tasted glory in the top flight and even on the continent in the past, but who had fallen on hard times since relegation from the Premier League and had been straggling in the second tier for a number of seasons. I argued that whilst English football had enjoyed relative diversity in recent years with regard to the clubs which had gained promotion to the top division, the signs of this campaign were pointing towards a return of the big clubs to the big time. At the time of writing Nottingham Forest – two-time European Cup winners – were flying high after an unbeaten start to the season, whilst Derby County and Ipswich Town – both of whom enjoyed success in the 1970s and 1980s – were sitting pretty in the play-off places.
Another month has since passed, and the Championship landscape looks markedly different. Derby and Ipswich are still lodged in the play-off places, but while Forest once sat proudly in second place, they now find themselves in 10th position. With a third of the season gone, Bournemouth and Middlesbrough are ruling the roost. Forest have gone eight league games without a win, and Saturday’s miserable 3-0 defeat to Huddersfield saw the pressure increase on manager Stuart Pearce. So what is to blame for Forest’s alarming slide down the table?
Unsurprisingly, Forest’s problems seem most pronounced in attack and defence. Seven games into the campaign, and their star striker Britt Assombalonga had netted eight times, including a hat-trick against Fulham in mid-September. The 21-year-old was being hailed as the signing of the season, yet there was always a sense that Forest were perhaps over-dependent on him for goals, and that their promotion credentials would be tested once Assombalonga hit a bad run of form or could not make the starting eleven through injury or suspension.
Luckily for Forest, the Congolese-born forward has remained fit throughout the season, and has behaved impeccably on the pitch. Unfortunately, the goals have indeed dried up. Since his spree against the Cottagers, Assombalonga has scored just once in nine games, and that goal was nothing but a last-minute consolation against Cardiff City. Pearce has recently tinkered with his system by playing a front two of Assombalonga and Matty Fryatt, but this has not led to an improvement in results, nor a return to goalscoring ways for their number nine. Tom Ince has since been signed on a short-term loan, and Pearce will be hoping that the attacker can add some incision to the front line. It seems that if Assombalonga doesn’t score, Forest don’t win, and unless they can put an end to this harmful symbiosis, promotion is highly unlikely.
Initially, Assombalonga’s drought was counterbalanced by a parsimony in defence, as three successive 0-0 draws in the league after their victory over Fulham at least meant that clean sheets were compensating for the side’s attacking impotence. Since this trio of goalless draws, however, the back line has conceded twelve times in five games. In the aftermath of their defeat to Huddersfield, Pearce bemoaned the cheap goals Forest had given away, adding that it was eroding the team’s confidence. For a side that had let in just seven league goals all season before October, the rapidity with which Forest’s defensive competence has decreased is worrying, and the fact that Michael Mancienne has been the only permanent fixture in the back four since their last clean sheet will not have helped matters. Pearce needs to decide on his favoured quartet, as constantly shuffling the defence around is bound to have a destabilising effect on the team.
The Al Hasawi family who own Nottingham Forest are not a patient bunch. Stuart Pearce is the club’s fifth manager since they took charge in July 2012, and his successful start to the season has long been forgotten. He must address his side’s problems – and urgently – if he is to avoid becoming the latest managerial casualty.
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