Hillsborough has been a very happy hunting ground with Forest chalking up three consecutive 1-0 wins prior to this clash. Wednesday came into this game after hitching Arsene Wenger’s pants down and giving him a rather public and painful wedgie and so a repeat result would have been gleefully scooped up and smuggled away while muttering "my precious" repeatedly. This didn’t come to pass.
A defeat to the highflying Owls is not reason to purchase a sandwich of anguish and fill your face but the manner of the defeat was rather dispiriting.
Dougie Freedman deployed a throwback 4-4-2, featuring Dexter Blackstock and Nelson Oliveira up front. Matt Mills was deployed at right back with Liam Trotter partnering David Vaughan in the engine room and Jamie Ward and Chris Burke positioned on the wings. The biggest surprise though was the debut for young goalkeeper Dimitar Evtimov, owing to a slight injury picked up in midweek by Dorus De Vires. This all pointed to a very burly and strapping Forest team with Vaughan, Daniel Pinillos and Jamie Ward conspicuous by their shortness.
The first half passed by largely uneventfully, brightened only by a brief moment of creativity stemming from a scrumptious Pinillos nutmeg on the left wing, followed by a beautifully swirling cross from which Ward headed just wide. Wednesday occasionally flickered into life and Evtimov was called upon but he looked composed. A goalless first half was about right and from a Forest perspective, it was reassuring to hear the odd murmuring of anguish emanating from the home fans. Nonetheless, there was a feeling that Carlos Carvalhal would ensure his team raised their game after the interval.
Indeed he did. But the frustrating thing here is that all it took to wear this Forest side down was a slight change of gear from the home team for around ten minutes. Once the deadlock was broken, there was no way back as Forest collectively rolled over and allowed their tummies to be tickled. Of course, Evtimov will be annoyed with himself as to how the goal came to pass but he and the fans are entitled to ask how it was that the team carved only one chance throughout the game. From then on, Wednesday should have made the game much more comfortable than the score line suggests.
Despite some promising performances and a few slices of bad luck here and there, Freedman’s record as manager has been slipping and sliding towards the red zone for a while now. The concern is whether he is able to arrest the decline and be the beneficiary of some much-needed luck but today’s performance raises doubts about his ability to do such a thing.
The partnership of Blackstock and Olivieira up front points towards a desire to capitalise from inviting crosses from the wings for either of the two to nod home but the team rarely got into any sort of position to sustain such a threat. Besides, such a partnership belies a chronic lack of pace up top and invites only long raking balls from the back on the frequent occasion that there was no outlet on the wing. Although clearly frustrated towards the end of the game, Matt Mills' actions in demanding the ball from Kelvin Wilson at the back in an effort to get the team on the offensive only to smash it long straight onto a Wednesday defender’s chest speaks volumes about either the game plan or Mills’ ability to play out from the back – or both.
Blackstock has sadly shown us time and again his ineffectiveness in holding the ball up. Throw in his lack of goals and mobility and apart from the regular concession of petty free kicks, it is difficult to see what he currently brings to the team. The mismatch of this partnership was gloriously illustrated when Oliveira received the ball in a promising position in the centre circle and turned with a view to passing forward, only to see a very static Blackstock. Correctly, he turned back and played the ball back to whence it came. Offensively, such a set up simply didn’t work and the Ward header in the first half remained the team’s only effort on goal.
(Picture courtesy of Ben Mayhew @experimental361)
To put faith in youth is a dangerous and brave move but one that can buy a manager a little more patience. Tyler Walker and Jorge Grant would surely have asked more questions of this Wednesday defence. Ben Osborn – admittedly returning from injury – was again given a run out on the right wing. Liam Trotter provided little in the middle alongside the industrious David Vaughan.
All of this might seem a tad unreasonable given the very respectable away record up to now but the previous away performance at Bristol City and the second half here at Hillsborough suggests a side that is losing its way away from home.
Would a better striker solve all of this? After all, Freedman has been denied the use of a very deadly one for a while in the shape of Britt Assombalonga. Nonetheless, he has Tyler Walker at his disposal and the very experienced and talented Olvieira. It’s simple to assert but football is increasingly about maximizing the assets you have at your disposal – something that Chris Hughton and Gary Rowett at Brighton and Birmingham respectably seem to be doing impressively well.
(Incidentally, Brighton currently top the table unbeaten with their top scorer being Tommer Hemed with an unremarkable five goals. Strikers are helpful but do not necessarily make a team).
For what it’s worth, the home view was that their side was there for the taking in the first half after the Owls turned in a hangover of a performance. It seemed to them that we came with two solid lines of four and sat back to defend and not win. Were we to have stolen a point and a clean sheet, this would have looked like an expert away performance but it wasn’t – it was just a very insipid and uninspired one.
Up to now, Freedman has generally spoken well in post match interviews but his frustrations seem to be simmering and frothing away, ready to spill over onto the hob and make that annoying sizzle sound. He was careful to praise Evtimov for his performance but at the same time, managed to point a giant finger at him for the result:
Consequently, it’s very easy to point the finger of blame directly at Freedman himself but he inherited a mess – one which lingers on and on and on and on….
t;Unfortunately I'm clearing up other people's mess, the chairman understands that. It was never going to be easy." - Dougie Freedman. #NFFC— BBC Nottingham Sport (@BBCRNS) October 31, 2015
Early November looks like a defining time for the club and the many predictions that the Derby game would claim the P45 of either Freedman or Paul Clement look to be informed ones. The Derby boss will be a little more relaxed about his prospects than Freedman as it stands. Rarely has a midweek fixture at Preston looked as crucial as it currently does.