With another season coming to a close in slightly disappointing fashion at the City Ground and another new manager preparing to walk through the door it seems appropriate to take stock, look at what Stuart Pearce will inherit and consider how he might shape that inheritance into a convincing vision for the future of Nottingham Forest.
I have talked for some time about the need for Forest to take a longer term view in all aspects of their activity but especially when it comes to moulding a squad. That means setting down some foundations in terms of style of play and types of player that will determine the club’s DNA and culture. It also means integrating the processes of player development through the academy and player identification through the scouting network.
There is a great deal of work to be done here and Pearce will need to rebuild the scouting structures which have suffered a great deal of upheaval in the last couple of years with Keith Burt and Bobby Downes both being sacked from the post of Head of Recruitment. He will also need to radically change the culture of the club’s transfer activity and succession planning to support team evolution and better manage turnover of players
To think holistically about the current situation I have asked for some help from Grant Nelson, who follows the academy closely, to provide some insight into the young players who are hovering around the fringes of the first team squad. Grant and I both agree that the way forward for the club is to take a long term view of squad building incorporating the coaching, academy and scouting elements of the club into a single strategy for development and hopefully Pearce’s arrival into a structural vacuum will see that happen.
At the end of the season Forest had 34 first team squad members, defined as players who have appeared at first team level this season and remain on the club’s books, but Pearce has moved quickly to make his own mark by releasing those who are out of contract or on loan, except for Danny Fox who has signed a 3 year contract as agreed at the beginning of his loan spell. The remaining list is:
Of these it seems likely that Rafik Djebbour will not become a permanent signing after it emerged that he had only signed on loan originally, with a view to a permanent £2.5M transfer, and Forest are intending to send him back to Greece. It would not be a surprise if the club seek to sell or loan out Djebbour’s fellow Algerian international Djamel Abdoun as well as he appears to have struggled to settle.
If these moves happened it would leave a squad of 23 for Pearce to build on and of those de Vries, Evtimov, Lichaj, Halford, Harding, Collins, Cox and Henderson will be entering the final year of their existing contracts. It is likely that several of these players will not be retained beyond next season but I do believe that whilst they are here they need to be clearly part of the squad and supported by manager and fans alike. There is a tendency amongst fans to make a decision that particular players are not good enough and to turn vociferously against them but all of these players are capable of contributing to a Championship squad and should be backed to do so.
In order to build a positive squad atmosphere and also establish a culture it is important not to have a huge turnover of players every year. Ideally the club should only be looking to add 2 or 3 new players to the mix each season to lift the quality of the squad, perhaps alongside another couple from the club’s own academy ranks, players who already understand the ethos of the club and who are ready to build their experience by working with and occasionally featuring in the first team squad.
At the moment Forest are blessed with a strong core of players, assuming that all those who have suffered injuries recover fully, and have a good level of experience. I would therefore encourage Pearce to focus on young players with energy and pace to bring a finishing spark to his squad. Early indications are that Pearce will focus on up and coming talent with reports that he has watched the likes of Alex Pritchard, Britt Assombalonga, Callum Wilson and Jack Grealish. But what does he have at the club already?
The goalkeeping position is an interesting one as there is plenty available to Pearce. Karl Darlow has established himself as first choice and is also attracting a lot of attention from Premier League clubs, whilst Dorus de Vries is an experienced and capable second choice. In addition 20 year old Bulgarian Dimitar Evtimov has featured in the first team squad already and Grant suggests that he isn’t the only exciting young ‘keeper coming through the ranks.
“All the talk has been of Evtimov who has been in the academy system in the last few seasons but Jordan Smith a young goalkeeper who hails from South Normanton in Derbyshire is every bit as talented. He does the basics extremely well and a big plus is his constant awareness and communication with his defence in front of him. Under O’Driscoll he travelled with the senior squad to a few games and last season he travelled to Bournemouth.”
This leaves Pearce with his first decision to make with regard to long term planning. Should he seek to retain Darlow, who is hugely popular and has shown considerable potential, or should he sell his number one while his stock is high and use the experienced de Vries to bring through these two youngsters? A strong case could be made for either approach, but this is a clear example of how the different areas of the club need to come together to consider the best way forward and the input of the academy is crucial. Decisions are not as clear cut as they may seem from the stands.
In reality Evtimov and Smith are still very young and it makes sense to give them more experience before elevating them too far, so keeping Darlow would be preferable and allowing de Vries to both support him and help bring through the youngsters. Loaning out Evtimov and Smith for half a year each could be a logical step, with one player out on loan whilst the other works with the first team ‘keepers and then swapping over in mid-season.
In defence the problem has been injuries with several players being out with long term problems. There has to be a worry here about recovery as Cohen has now had two major injuries, as has Hobbs and Wilson seems to be developing ongoing issues. If fully fit, however, Lichaj, Hobbs, Wilson, Lascelles and Cohen are all very strong Championship players and in a normal season Halford, Harding and Collins are reasonable squad players for the level too. Fox has also been added and although he did not hugely impress on loan he does have a strong pedigree at Championship level.
Again the different specialists at the club need to work together to assess the injury problems and it is heartening to hear that the club plans to investigate the issues from the season just past to try to identify what caused such a damaging injury list to form. If there are concerns about the long term fitness of some of those key first choice players it may be necessary to think about adding a little extra strength as the academy is less strong in these positions with only U21 skipper Kieran Fenton pushing for promotion to the first team squad in Grant’s opinion.
“The left-sided centre-back is capable of playing left-back and hails from Alrewas in Staffordshire. He has been involved in pre-season training with the first team for the last 2 seasons and impressed in games against Notts County and Mansfield. Under O’Driscoll he was involved in matchday squads at the City Ground. A classy player on the ball who at 6ft3 can compete in the air as well. Last season he captained the u21s and spent a successful loan period at Tamworth until injury struck.”
It may be that Fenton’s development is best served with a loan at a club higher up the pyramid than Tamworth, as a spell at Stevenage certainly helped Lascelles push on. Retaining Lascelles and fully rehabilitating the injured players are the immediate priorities at first team level but the club also needs to be thinking ahead to next summer when Lichaj, Halford, Collins and Harding will all be out of contract.
The midfield has also had significant problems with injuries but again assuming that they can return to full fitness the first choice trio of Vaughan, Lansbury and Reid has outstanding quality for the Championship and a lot of experience. There is no doubt that the loss of these three players was a major factor in the deterioration of Forest’s season. In addition Ben Osborn has made a very impressive start to his first team career in the last few games and although Majewski has been largely disappointing he does have quality which Pearce can hopefully re-inspire.
It is also an area of the field where the club is well served in the U21 squad. Stephen McLaughlin is now 23 and it might be considered that he has not developed enough in his time at Forest, but he did prove capable of filling in when required with a couple of solid performances at the end of the season. Josh Rees, who made his debut as a substitute on the final day of the season, and Jack Blake are perhaps more likely to push on though in the future and according to Grant will be looking to catch the new manager’s eye this summer.
“Josh Rees, the former Arsenal man, enjoyed a good first full season at Forest and even captained the u21s when Fenton and Osborn weren’t available. He is an industrious midfield player with excellent timing of runs into the box and at Arsenal had a goal scoring reputation – don’t think that his header at the back post was a co-incidence on his debut. He will be hoping to build on his first 15 minutes v Brighton.
Jack Blake, or ‘JJ’ as he is nicknamed, has good set piece ability just like we have seen with Ben Osborn but he would be the right foot version. He is capable of dictating play from deeper positions with good One-Two ability. That doesn’t stop him from getting up-and-down and contributing with goals too as he has shown that ability right through the academy levels. He spent a bit of time on loan at Mansfield last season and the local lad from Nottingham will be hoping to impress Stuart Peace and his coaches in pre-season.”
And so, it will be no surprise to regular spectators, that the area which needs most attention is the forwards. I think that our resources at the moment suit a 4-3-3 formation which means we need a selection of forward players across that frontline with one central figure and two wide forwards who can play flexibly across the line.
Jamie Paterson has had a very good 2014, scoring 12 goals in 24 appearances this calendar year. At 22 he looks to have a bright future ahead of him and he is an ideal fit as one of those wide forwards coming in off the wing and breaking with pace. Jamie Mackie is a very different proposition, more about determination and work-rate than flair, but despite lacking subtlety can be a big part of a promotion push.
Pearce has also been linked with some exciting young players in these positions such as Alex Pritchard, a Tottenham player who was on loan at Swindon last year, and Jack Grealish, who returned from a loan at Notts County to appear for Aston Villa’s first team at the very end of the season. A couple of signings of that calibre, either permanently or on loan, to compete with Paterson and Mackie would be an exciting proposition and provide genuine attacking options.
It still leaves a big hole down the middle though. Cox and Henderson are both capable of scoring goals but neither feels like a candidate to lead the line if we are genuinely seeking promotion next season, whilst Blackstock may never return from serious injury, so it seems unlikely that the club will not add to its striking resources.
Callum Wilson who scored 22 goals for Coventry last season has been the strongest link so far and perhaps confirms Pearce’s desire to work with players on an upward career curve but any recognised goalscorer will come at a price and will be hard to prise from their existing club. We may need to be patient when the transfer window opens but I would like to see a striker with pace and power added to the squad. At the same time I hope that Cox in particular can be lifted by the new manager and accepted by the fans.
Cox perhaps gives us a good opportunity to talk about formations. Pearce might be expected to play either a 433 or a 4231 formation given his background at England Under-21 level and the prevalence of these formations in the modern game. Cox simply isn’t suited to the 433 setup as he has neither the pace to run at defenders nor the strength to lead the line. In a 4231 though he could fill the number 10 role behind the main striker, especially if we can add pace in wide areas and power down the middle.
Interestingly, at the end of last season the U-18 and U-21 teams both made a switch to playing in a 433 formation which perhaps implies that the club will move towards an overriding ethos and style of play when Pearce takes over so that young players can move easily between the levels as they progress. As Sean O’Driscoll said during his brief time at the club establishing a DNA is important for long term development and such a move would be a positive step and focus the club’s recruitment efforts.
In our youth ranks Grant advises that: “James Demetriou is a hard working centre-forward with an imposing presence who joined us from Sydney FC at the beginning of the season. On trial he impressed with goals against Fulham and other teams and subsequently spent time in the u21s where he scored 3 goals until injury struck.”
In addition to those players who have made a mark already at U21 level and are now pushing for consideration as part of the first team squad when needed, there are also others who are now making a similar progression from youth football to the U21 team. Grant’s top 3 to watch out for in the development squad are:
“Joe Worrall: Tall right-footed centre-back with good ability with the ball at his feet and strong in the air. Had pretty much a full season with the u21s despite only being a first year scholar and the lad from Hucknall will be hoping to keep progressing as a young defender and with the likes of Pearce around that can only help. His season was so impressive because despite his young age he showed a great maturity in dealing with the challenge of u21 football despite minimal u18 football under his belt. He should lead the u18s out in the FA Youth Cup next season.
Oliver Burke: Despite an injury plagued first season with the academy Ollie made as much progress as he could have and there is still plenty more to come from him. A tall imposing wide-player with blistering pace and the ability to take players on is a rare talent and we have that with Oliver. He has more goals in his locker than he showed last season but with his type of player he will create many goals for his team mates too. He will be encouraged by the carrot dangled at the end of the season with 3 u21 appearances showing how much potential the coaching staff believe he has.
Tyler Walker: There was a big buzz around before the last senior game of the season with the talk that a former legend’s son might make his senior debut. It didn’t happen but if he shows as much progression this season coming as he did last season it will only be a matter of time. The Nottingham-born forward has pace to burn and likes to play off the shoulder of the last defender. If you combine that with goal scoring ability in the box as well as good strikes from outside those are his strengths. If he impresses in pre-season who knows what next season could hold.”
Hopefully the disappointment of the season past is starting to dwindle for most fans and is being replaced by anticipation for the arrival of Stuart Pearce. He has talked a lot about his desire to develop players and to put the academy at the heart of the club. With a large number of players released there is plenty of scope for Pearce to bring in some of his own and leave room for our own academy graduates to stake a claim.
If he can re-build the club on those principles of identifying and developing talent it could be a very exciting time to be a Forest fan, but there are some large holes in the structure of the club that need filling to achieve that. In many ways that blank slate is an opportunity and hopefully Pearce will be given the time and support to mould some strong foundations on which to build a successful future. A crucial factor in his chances of success could be a supportive atmosphere for players to develop in and we fans are a key part of that. Let’s unite behind this Nottingham Forest legend and put a smile back on our club.
I would like to thank Grant for his input into this article not just in the parts where I have quoted him directly but also in the general discussion about how to take the club forwards, something we hope will get people thinking in a more long term way and spark further debate amongst fans. If you have any interest in the development side of the club I strongly recommend that you follow him on Twitter @Grantnffc1.