It is now a month into Steve Cotterill’s tenure as Nottingham Forest manager and on the whole it has been a positive one. Three wins, two defeats and nine points from fifteen represents a good start for the new boss, moving the club out of the drop zone and up to 20th in the Championship.
The reaction was mixed amongst Forest supporters upon hearing Cotterill would be the man to replace Steve McClaren, but so far the appointment looks a sound one. The former Notts County and Burnley boss arrived from Portsmouth with a reputation of working on a tight budget and getting the best out of a club’s current resources. With the cost-cutting and financial changes taking place at Forest, it is those qualities which made Cotterill the right man for the job in new Chairman Frank Clark’s eyes.
Forest still have many of the squad in place which secured back-to-back play-off finishes in the last two seasons, so it was surprising and equally frustrating to see the club languishing in the bottom three, leading to McClaren’s exit and Cotterill’s arrival.
In the early stages of the new man’s tenure Forest are more energetic in their play, trying to attack teams, defending well and look to be responding positively to Cotterill’s motivational style. He demands great effort from his teams and patrols the technical area for the whole 90 minutes, constantly barking instructions – a stark contrast to predecessor McClaren, who would only make the occasional foray to the touchline during games.
Forest kicked off the Steve Cotterill era in style as they ended Middlesbrough’s unbeaten start to the season at the City Ground with a 2-0 success, the team looking transformed from previous matches. They then ended their Blackpool hoodoo, winning 2-1 at Bloomfield Road, the success a result of hard work and a backs-to-the-wall mentality.
Hull City brought everyone back down to earth a week later as they left the City Ground with a 1-0 win, having been on the backfoot for most of the game. However Forest defeated Reading at home by the same scoreline in a similar sort of match three days later, keeping the visitors at bay and finding a breakthrough thanks to a great shot on the turn from Marcus Tudgay.
The next game saw Cotterill return to the club he departed some twenty days earlier as Forest travelled to Fratton Park, where the Reds showed some of their good qualities, whilst allowing defensive frailties to return, which blighted their early season form. Forest enjoyed good spells of possession and had a threat going forward, but a lack of finishing prowess cost them dear as they lost 3-0. Forest carved out several opportunities and deserved something from the game, but a failure to put the ball in the back of the net, coupled with a late defensive crumble saw Portsmouth record a slightly flattering scoreline.
Prior to his arrival at the City Ground, Cotterill was labelled as a hoof-ball merchant, which struck fear into many Reds supporters. However he has encouraged Forest to get the ball down and pass it when in possession, which is a pleasing sight. At the same time Forest look stronger defensively, conceding five goals in five matches under the new boss, three of those coming in the one game at Portsmouth. In their first eleven games of the season the Reds let in 22 goals.
The manager has not been helped by injuries in key positions, most notably in the wide areas. Cotterill has opted for a 4-4-2 formation and ditched Steve McClaren’s preferred 4-3-3 system, which the Forest players struggled to adapt to. With four across midfield and two up front, Forest look a solid outfit once again and the players have performed better in a set-up they are more accustomed to. Cotterill has simplified things and made the players’ roles clear when they step onto the pitch, which some of them openly state makes their jobs a lot easier.
However with wingers Paul Anderson and Garath McCleary both missing through injury, Cotterill has been forced to play the likes of Radoslaw Majewski and Lewis McGugan on the wings, even pushing right-back Chris Gunter on into a midfield berth to add some balance in the middle of the park. Gunter has impressed as an attacking full-back in the past and he has shown good form in a more advanced role, although its unlikely he will remain there once Anderson and McCleary return.
Behind Gunter, club captain Luke Chambers has covered at right-back – where he struggled under Colin Calderwood’s management in the Championship three seasons ago – but has not put a foot wrong. Wes Morgan has been as dependable as ever at centre-back, partnered by the impressive Joel Lynch, the former Brighton man excelling in the middle of defence recently. His form has certainly provided the manager with a selection dilemma if, as expected, Gunter returns to his customary right back slot – it would be a shame to see Lynch dropped whilst playing so well.
Andy Reid has also shown improvement in his performances since Cotterill’s arrival. The Irishman has often been the target of criticism due to his weight and particularly for some sluggish displays earlier in the season. However he has lost weight in recent weeks and looks more energised on the field of play under the new boss. When on loan to Sheffield United in the Championship last season, Reid was arguably the Blades best player and his return to Blackpool was one of the reasons their form declined rapidly, resulting in relegation. Perhaps he will now show his quality and be more consistent in his second Forest spell.
Queen’s Park Rangers loanee Clint Hill started the win against Middlesbrough at left-back but was recalled by his parent club two days later. Forest moved to fill the continual problem position within days by bringing in Manchester City youngster Greg Cunningham on loan and he already looks a good acquisition. The Republic of Ireland Under-21 international makes the defence naturally balanced and has been solid defensively whilst willing to go forward to support the attack. With Lewis McGugan lining up on the left hand side of midfield, Cunningham has been a useful outlet going forward on the overlap when McGugan drifts into central positions.
Cunningham’s quick arrival is perhaps a positive indicator of the new transfer policy in place at the City Ground, with Frank Clark and Steve Cotterill having greater control over players brought into the club. All too often in recent years, Forest have stuttered in the transfer market or tried to pigeon hole players into positions where they were not best utilised. Hopefully this is now a thing of the past.
The strikers will need to take their goalscoring chances in the future to help the team avoid any more frustrating defeats. Marcus Tudgay has scored twice in the last five games and looks to be making the most of a run in the first team. Two weeks ago in the local press, he revealed he was close to leaving Forest earlier in the season when Steve McClaren made it clear he was not part of his plans, but the new manager has given the forward a second chance which Tudgay, to his credit, is making the most of.
The international break provided a chance for the squad to rest and gave an opportunity for injured players to step up their returns. Long-term absentee Dexter Blackstock made a long-awaited comeback this week in a friendly against York City, playing 45 minutes and scoring twelve months after suffering a horrific knee ligament injury against Cardiff City.
Paul Anderson and Garath McCleary both played a half each against York as they build up match fitness and when fit they will bring some much-needed width to the Forest side, whilst Blackstock adds to the striking options up front. The three will not be rushed back into first-team action but could make appearances in Saturday’s home encounter against Ipswich Town.
It is still early days in the new manager’s tenure, but already there are many positives. Forest are playing with a greater passion and commitment as they battle to pull away from the Championship drop zone. Cotterill said the players will regain their confidence once more wins are picked up and with that confidence will come better performances. Already they are beginning to play flowing, passing football in spells and hopefully as more points are accumulated, that will continue to be the case. Defensively the team look well-drilled, organised and difficult to break down under Cotterill’s tactics – perhaps the most important aspect considering the amount of goals conceded in the early stages of this campaign.
By making things simple, motivating Forest’s current players and building up a good team spirit in the dressing room again, Cotterill has helped Forest rediscover some of the qualities which made them one of the division’s best sides under Billy Davies. The Scot made his team hard to break down, kept the players on their toes and encouraged them to play good football – all of which led to success on the field.
As with any new manager it would be unfair to judge Steve Cotterill after just a handful of matches, ten to twelve games into his tenure we will be in a better position to see where things are heading.
Forest currently lie 20th in the table, four points clear of the bottom three, five adrift of Leicester City in 12th and eight off the play-off positions, so there is still much to play for. As has been so often shown in the Championship, a run of positive results can propel a side up the table quickly. In recent seasons Forest have gone on good runs around this time of year – why not do it again?
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis