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What has gone wrong for Chris Hughton at Nottingham Forest?

Is the clock ticking on Chris Hughton's Nottingham Forest tenure?
Is the clock ticking on Chris Hughton's Nottingham Forest tenure?

In the previous two campaigns, Nottingham Forest’s season – at least in terms of challenging towards the top – has been over before it has truly begun.

After a late capitulation in 2019/20 saw them miss out on the Play-Offs under Sabri Lamouchi, the Reds lost their first four games of the following term.

Half that squad was still burdened by the overwhelming sense of shock from July, while the other half were adjusting to English football having signed with a short turnaround to the opener.

Defeat to Bristol City in 2020/21 saw Lamouchi lose his job and while replacement Chris Hughton did the one required of him, keeping the East Midlanders up comfortably, the two-time Championship promotion winner has been unable to continue the progress.

In fact, Forest have regressed significantly with just one point accrued from their opening six games: a worse start to the season than the one under Lamouchi last season, and the Frenchman had arguably more credit in the bank.

So, what has gone wrong for Hughton? We attempt to address the issues at the City Ground.

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No coherent identity

There is no one way to be successful in football.

Not every team has to try to play an expansive, possession-based game, in fact there is an art to being defensively organised, while sides that are direct can be fun to watch.

The one theme that underpins almost all winning teams at any level, though, is that they pick a defined playing identity, recruit a coach who fits that philosophy and sign players accordingly.

Some will argue that flexibility and adaptability is required, and this can be true, but those qualities should always complement rather than undermine an existing identity, baring extreme circumstances.

That means, if there is a tactical issue within a game, a manager should have the pragmatism to make a formational tweak or a substitution to solve it, without changing the fundamental plan.

Recruitment, meanwhile, should be made from a starting point of pre-defined roles within an overall strategy: each player signed should possess the core set of attributes that are required from a player in each position.

Once the fundamental style is established, the next phase of recruitment should be about addressing weaknesses by finding players who fit into the above criteria, but are slightly better than an existing player in their position in one area that is not relevant to the core identity.

For example, if one’s team likes to play out from the back but finds centre-backs are getting dominated in the air, the aim should not be to sign a 36-year-old, no-nonsense brute, but rather search for ball-playing centre-backs who are slightly more aerially imposing - or slightly more powerful - than the existing crop.

That way, a team can problem solve from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, so that any enhancements do not compromise the overall strategy.

The problem at Forest is that there is no overall strategy, which feeds into the below issues.

Championship Relegation Odds

Nottingham Forest
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Misuse of Taylor and Grabban

If Nottingham Forest had a tall, mobile, aerially accomplished striker with great hold-up play like Cardiff’s Kieffer Moore, playing direct would be a great way to go.

In fact, they could probably hoof the ball forward in the way they have at times this season when under pressure and still be reasonably effective.

Without a Moore figure, though, long balls are a senseless waste.

When Lyle Taylor has been at his best, it has been when playing alongside a target man in Tom Elliott with AFC Wimbledon. Alternatively, when using his clever movement to latch onto Conor Gallagher’s through balls in the first half of the 2019/20 campaign at Charlton.

Taylor might be 6’2”, but he is not a target man and it seems incomprehensible that Hughton, having achieved what he has in management, cannot recognize that.

Similarly, Lewis Grabban has never relished dealing with long balls.

The strong work rate the Croydon-born forward displayed earlier in his career – in his first spell at Bournemouth, for example – has dwindled with age and the 33-year-old now looks languid and pedestrian.

That does not mean that Grabban is not still capable of finishing off incisive, transitional moves after a teammate stole the ball high up, but converting clear cut chances is the bulk of his skillset.

Taylor and Grabban might be competent Championship players if the setup maximized their strengths and minimized the significance of their weaknesses. If those designing Forest’s tactical structure did so with a clear idea of what the two forwards can and cannot do, wholeheartedly accepting their limitations to benefit from their strengths.

That is not the case. Taylor and Grabban are being asked to play a game they have never successfully played in the past and, at 31 and 33 respectively, are unlikely to learn to play.

Hughton’s successful sides have all had target men, be that Andy Carroll at Newcastle, Nikola Zigic at Birmingham and Tomer Hemed at Brighton, but neither Taylor nor Grabban will ever fit that description.

They are not the ones that should be blamed. They have long established what their respective skillsets are. Hughton is to blame for assuming that skillset will change.

Sitting back on leads

The first 45 minutes of Forest’s season held so much promise.

The Reds held a compact setup in the first half at Coventry, they stole the ball in the opposing half numerous times, using the pace of Brennan Johnson and Alex Mighten to transition quickly and create several clear cut chances.

One of them, Lyle Taylor took after Johnson’s cut-backs from the right and, at that point, the Tricky Trees had the look of a well-oiled machine.

Alas, Hughton’s side went on to lose 2-1 due to dropping off in the second half, which has since become an unfortunate theme for their campaign overall.

In fact, having conceded just two first half goals in six games this season, Forest have shipped eight in the second halves.

This suggests that while the East Midlanders can keep the correct distances and maintain pressure against the ball before the interval, this deteriorates when energy levels drop, which feeds into their manager’s passive in-game management.

Slow substitutions

In half of Forest’s six league games, Hughton has not used his maximum number of substitutions.

In two of the three matches in which he has, one of the changes was forced through injury: Mbe Soh at Coventry and Jordan Osei-Tutu against Blackburn.

Of the 13 unforced substitutions, just one has come before the 64th minute: that was when Alex Mighten replaced Joao Carvalho at half-time in the 1-1 draw at Derby.

The homegrown youngster gave the Reds an injection of pace and thrust which sparked an improved second half, culminating in Brennan Johnson’s late equaliser and the only point Forest have attained so far this season.

In the following game against Cardiff, though, Mighten stayed on the bench and was not added to the fray until the 81st minute, which raises two questions.

Firstly, whether his in-game management is strong enough.

Birmingham, for example, played brilliantly against Derby last Friday and deservedly won 2-0, yet there was a 5-minute period in the second half when the Rams appeared to be gaining a numerical advantage in midfield, thus getting shots away with ease.

Noticing this, Lee Bowyer switched from 3-4-1-2 to 4-3-3, moving Kristian Pedersen to left-back, Maxime Colin to right-back and Jeremie Bela to the left of the attack, replacing poacher Scott Hogan – who had scored in the first half – with midfielder Gary Gardner.

This switch worked perfectly, because not only did Gardner aid Ivan Sunjic and Ryan Woods in securing the midfield, but Bela benefited from operating further up and scored the goal that sealed the game: when has Hughton shown this type of tactical diligence?

The other question, meanwhile, is whether the 62-year-old places enough faith in Mighten.

Who are the ball-carriers?

Hughton’s sides do not hold onto the ball for long spells and that, in itself, is not an evil: Newcastle, Birmingham and Brighton have all been successful under the former full-back without playing tiki-taka.

With the two midfielders in his 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 systems tending to be positionally disciplined, though, running power and ball-carrying ability becomes essential in at least one of the wide men and one of the two central forwards.

The Irishman’s Championship title winning Newcastle side in 2009/10 had Jonas Gutierrez beating opponents on the wing, Play-Off Semi-Finalists and Europa League competitors Birmingham had Chris Burke, Andros Townsend Nathan Redmond in 2011/12. 

After that, his Brighton promotion winners in 2016/17 had Jamie Murphy or Solly March and Anthony Knockaert carrying the ball forward with Sam Baldock running the channels relentlessly.

Mighten may not be the finished product, but he can carry the ball over long distances which is essential to quickly getting Forest from a defensive posture to an attacking one.

Why, then, has the 19-year-old played just 305 out of a possible 540 minutes of league football? Perhaps there is an argument for Hughton not wanting to bombard the youngster with starts at this stage of his career, which would be more understandable were his qualities not unique to the squad.

Forest need Mighten’s ability to utilize his pace over long distances, because while Zinckernagel can carry the ball, that is more down to his control of it which is not as big an advantage when the Dane likely to spend long spells of games stuck in his own half.

Is it all on Hughton?

Forest’s poor start is a chaotic mix of problems.

Firstly, Hughton takes a huge proportion of the blame for such a dismal return and, given the ambition of the ownership regime, it would not be a huge surprise to see another change in the dugout.

Are the issues exclusively down to the management, though? That is not yet entirely clear.

The well-documented high turnover of managers means, naturally, that Forest have had a high turnover of players who fit different playing identities.

A partial defence of Hughton would be that he came in shortly after a splurge on numerous signings in 2020, with very few of the players who came in that summer proving themselves worthy of taking the team forward.

With those financial commitments already made, Forest are left with a squad that is bloated yet short on players capable of being part of a top six first XI: Joe Worrall, Scott McKenna and James Garner being the arguable exceptions.

The signings have not only come late in the window, but also do not fit the natural Hughton profile.

Given the choice, the former Norwich boss would opt for solid, reliable full-backs with strong professionalism, physical, destructive midfielders, wide players who can carry the ball over long distances, a target man and a forward who can run the channels.

Only a select few of Forest’s existing squad meet that criteria, so there is an argument to say that Hughton is being judged on a template that is not his own.

Then again, managers are paid to work with what they have available and get results – something that, this season, the current incumbent of the City Ground hotseat is failing at quite spectacularly.

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Odds correct as of 2021-09-26 07:40 Odds subject to change.
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