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Some thoughts: Rochdale 1-0 Forest

Angry, disappointed but above all, worried.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

I’m not angry, just disappointed. Very disappointed.

Actually, I am a bit angry, to be honest.

*The team is functioning a lot like a squeezy stress ball: just when you think you’ve successfully grabbed, contained and addressed one part of the damned thing, another part unceremoniously squidges out, looking ugly and unmanageable in its elongated form. Just when the defence looks more solid, at least on paper, with the return of Jack Hobbs, the midfield and attack goes all squidgy; frustratingly so, especially in the case of the midfield with David Vaughan given the nod to partner Robert Tesche. This pairing looks like a decent footballing partnership: both players never happier than when dinking it around on the deck. However, it was rare that they got the opportunity to do so given that (a) Dale harassed, pressed and badgered them all afternoon and (b) the ball often went long from back to front, bypassing the middle two. If you are going to play two such players in tandem, surely they need to be allowed to play to their strengths.

*Hopes have been pinned on the return of key players from injury for a while now. In Forest’s defence, the loss of Chris Cohen, Andy Reid and Jack Hobbs has been hard to take and would damage most teams in the Championship. Hobbs’ return should have brought some much-needed leadership to the team and to be fair, we looked solid for the first thirteen minutes, until Michail Antonio dozed off in his own area and was robbed by a more eager, enthusiastic Dale player, promptly tripping him up after being robbed of the ball. There were few complaints from the men in red. Penalty duly dispatched, Forest reverted to panic mode and on more than one occasion, hit underweighted back passes and invited pressure. Hobbs’ return made little difference.

*Indeed, Hobbs looked a little dazed and confused all afternoon. At one point, he received the ball at the back under little pressure and looked up for an outlet. There was none. He dithered, dallied, turned this way and that and eventually conceded a throw-in as predictably, he came under increasing pressure. Maybe he was waiting for Vaughan or Tesche to show for him. Maybe they didn’t and weren’t doing their jobs. Maybe they were under the impression that the ball would go long anyway since, you know, that's what we do. All of which suggested a chronic breakdown in communication and coherence. Hobbs looked like a broken man, the visage seemed to be asking himself ‘what kind of disjointed fine mess have I walked into?’

*Tactically Forest looked fragmented and utterly lacking in coherence. Danny Fox has, perhaps rightly, come in for the brunt of the criticism in recent weeks given his predisposition to hoof the ball forward given the slightest opportunity. But one has to question the reasons for this. Like on so many occasions, he found himself with the ball in the left back position and he looked up. At this stage, four players raced away from him, not one towards him. Predictably, a long-ish pass to Antonio was delivered which faltered upon the rocks of the Dale defence. This was not an uncommon occurrence, one that made us look like we were operating a 4-2-4 formation – all well and good in some situations but in this one, it smacked of desperation and lack of a coherent plan to move forward. Dorus de Vries and Hobbs, relative newcomers to this struggling team, seemed to want to play out from the back but this is a problem when the rest of the team doesn’t want to play, ahem, ball. All of which amounted to a patchwork quilt of a performance, looking more disjointed than an airfix aircraft effort attempted by a Haribo intoxicated child.

*But tactics can overcomplicate things. The eternal question of whether the blame should be placed at the manager’s door or with those damned lazy, overpaid players often raises its thorny head in such circumstances. Let’s cut the management team some slack for a moment: Antonio had another petulant strop after Dale and an increasing number of other Championship defenders realised that if you stop him getting up a head of steam after knocking it past you and pegging it, you nullify him significantly, and in doing so, severely blunt Forest as an attacking force. Eric Lichaj battles tenaciously in defence but offers as much threat as a marauding Chris Gunter going forward. Chris Burke had one of his days, again. Britt Assombalonga cut an increasingly frustrated figure and chose to tickle the ball delicately when a big old fashioned welly would have been more fruitful with a late chance falling to him around the six yard line. Lars Veldwijk achieved the notable and much underrated skill of managing to look smaller when he ‘jumps’ to contest a header. These players should be putting their foot in, getting stuck in, running around more, doing better.

*Perhaps most alarmingly, it doesn't seem to matter which players Pearce puts on the park; the results are the same. The malaise seems deeper. As fans, we’ve all called for various permutations and given the degree of tinkering employed by Pearce, we’ve all, at some stage, got what we wanted. As the players trudged back on for the second half, it seemed a big 45 minutes of football for Forest’s season and for Pearce. Sure there was some reaction and sure, a sense of urgency was found. But the quality remained poor, the performance incoherent. Prior to the game, Pearce had spoken of the need for some of the players to ‘grow a pair’. Rochdale fielded two 17 year olds here and frankly, I couldn’t tell you which ones they were, which is a compliment to them since none of the Dale players looked nervous, hesitant or lacking in the ‘ball’ department. Whatever Pearce’s motivational tactics are, they don’t seem to be having the desired effect.

*Although divided, support amongst the fans for Pearce does remain strong in some quarters. ‘Psycho’ was chanted early on (should a lack of acknowledgement from Pearce be read into?) and the ire was directed mostly at the players, achieving a crescendo at the denouement with a rousing rendition of, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ in scenes all too reminiscent of those Leeds United fans letting rip at their players in this very same stand exactly a year ago. In general terms, this is refreshingly pleasing since it hints at a rejection of a revolving door approach to management and the acknowledgement of a need for stability. But stability is a much less desired commodity in the nether regions of League One. As it stands, Forest are closer to relegation than the play-off places. Alarmist? Not really, not if you check out the form table or have witnessed some of the dejected performances of late or have noted the alarming tendency to collapse like one of those wooden animal collapse toys available from all good tat shops when the going gets slightly tricky. It would be a sad state of affairs if a man of Pearce’s standing were denied the time to see a job through. But, and here’s the rub, should that same man be afforded such time if it is quite simply not working out and we are being lead down a dark and murky dead end?

*So how to get out of this particularly pickly pickle? After all, the transfer embargo, even if it does fall short of banning Forest entirely from any transfer activity, does rather restrict the club’s options when the window slams open. Besides, new players aren’t necessarily the answer here since few would argue that Forest lack quality in the ranks after their substantial activity in the summer. And you can get that ridiculous Tony Pulis idea right out of your head once and for all. Different formation? Tried that, and then some. Player rotation? Gone through all the permutations by now. Maybe a more settled side for a few games might help to develop a sense of coherence and instill confidence in the players. Perhaps a call to a mate on Pearce’s part to offer them a chance to top up on their coaching hours for the logbook. As it stands, that upcoming Derby game looks like achieving a hat–trick of managerial casualties – surely some sort of record?

Disappointed. Angry. And worried. Very worried.