Picture the scene: Stuart Pearce spends hours rigging up the plastic fiddly constructions required to play Mousetrap: everyone’s favourite childhood board game. He quickly grows tired and in a fit of controlled pique, the apparatus are sent flying across the room by a tattooed bicep. No more. It is decided that a more suitable game for this moment is Jenga. This starts well: smiles aplenty are derived from the careful and guarded approach that such a game requires. Inevitably though, the blocks, on which are magically inscribed the names of various Forest players, collapse in a heap. From this unholy mess, he randomly selects 11 and just for good measure, throws them up in the air, allowing them to scatter in a more random fashion than a scatter graph. From this gargantuan hodgepodge of a salmagundi, he arranges the 11 bricks. This, he proudly proclaims, will be the team selection for the visit of Leeds United.
Eyebrows are raised higher than those of Carlo Ancelotti in the midst of a quizzical glance at an assistant referee holding aloft a luminous flag against some celestial being to whom the offside rule is meaningless. Thoughts drift to the night that Brentford came to town and Pearce’s Team-O-Matic-Randomiser went into overdrive, resulting in a 3-1 reverse despite a flurry of substitutions. Stomachs lurch, groans are emitted and buzzes are killed.
But this time it is different. The scattering of the Jenga bricks is maybe not as random as first thought: bored of conceding soft goals, the smooth slabs of wood are shaped in a way so as to minimise the possibility of conceding early – or indeed, at any time, which is generally speaking, considered a good plan. No more would the opposition be allowed to waltz through the heart of this defence unchallenged. This plan seemed to be working and Leeds had to work hard to create any openings, despite a back three comprising of Danny Fox, Kelvin Wilson and Eric Lichaj with Michael Mancienne also lurking closely by. All well and good but there was a moment in the first half when Michail Antonio – he of the goal threat – was doing the job required of a winger on the left of a midfield five and found himself in the left back area during a period of pressure. He hoofed the ball clear down the left channel – a sound choice since the Forest left winger who has posed a significant and consistent goal threat would be stationed there in order to terrorise the poor whelk of a right back. Of course, there was a flaw in this plan as Antonio himself tried to latch onto his own clearance but was unable to do so since the space/time continuum, rules of time travel and epistemology all collapsed on him and he faded from existence like in Back to the Future when Marty McFly’s family fade from polaroids before his eyes. Weird stuff.
Fear not. On the stroke of half time, Mancienne rose like some oily fish or other to meet a rejuvenated Henri Lansbury corner to nod down for Matty Fryatt to poach a goal. Everything was going to be alright.
But then Leeds went and did that thing that Leeds generally do and went and spoiled things by being Leeds. Sam Byram jinked hither and thither dangerously close to the Forest goal. But lessons had been learned: rather than stand back and admire the fancy footwork, Fox and Wilson took the recommended course of action in making a challenge – somewhat of a novelty in recent weeks. Unfortunately, in doing so Fox tripped Byram and a penalty was awarded. Frustrating but still an improvement on the previous strategy, which seemed to be to take a step back and allow the opposition guy to do their thing. Billy Sharp slammed the ball down the middle to equalise in front of the Trent End – an event easier to predict than someone falling over on You’ve Been Framed.
Despite some decent chances carved from the home team, an onslaught failed to materialise. Of course, there was the brouhaha regarding Matty Fryatt’s two wrongly disallowed goals for offside. But rather than working ourselves up into a twisted fury about this, we should take Pearce’s stance and simply express our ‘disappointment’ with this. There are countless other managers who would rant, rave and indulge in a sustained period of feather spitting. But not Pearce. This is a good thing. It is particularly disappointing that the nature of these two ghost goals were what might be deemed to be typical Forest goals under Pearce’s leadership, especially the first one: Antonio out left, cross into the six yard area (or as I like to call it, Kenny Logins’ ‘Danger Zone’) and either Britt Assombalonga or Fryatt on hand to tap the ball in. Classic cut-out and keep Forest goal thus far this season. When it works, it works well and if it ain’t broke, don’t get a locally recommended tradesman to come in and fix it. But there were other times when it appeared that our sole tactic going forward consisted of knocking a wide diagonal ball from the back out to Antonio and getting into the box. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this since it has been effective more often than not, but it’s always nice to have alternative plans.
In the ‘addition’ column though, Lansbury got through a game without a booking and started to look a little like the Henri of old, Robert Tesche did what he does and even Kelvin Wilson managed to play the ball out from the back without necessitating the use of defibrillator too many times. A pass completion of 67% possibly tells the story of what is seemingly missing though – perhaps the hoofed/arrowed (delete as appropriate) long balls goes some way to accounting for this statistic.
But this was a significant improvement on the performance at Rotherham United and on another night, we’d be sat smugly basking in the glow of a Matty Fryatt hat-trick whilst quietly wondering what might happen were Britt to locate his shooting boots again and speculating how good we would be once the holy trinity of Andy Reid, Jack Hobbs and Chris Cohen return in the new year. That and a few officiating decisions going our way. Besides, maybe those Jenga pieces weren’t so indiscriminate after all.
*Obligatory concluding paragraph in support for Pearce in a match report is absent from this piece – NOT due to a withdrawal of support but due to not wanting to make the ‘Pearce-right-man-for-the-job?’ a thing. You know, one of those ‘things’. Enough already.