Steve Cooper and NFFC, a love affair on the brink? - Alex Jeffery

 Is the Forest-Cooper fairytale coming to an end? Nottingham Forest fan Alex Jeffery reveals all in this deep dive into Nottingham Forest: what’s going wrong, what’s to come and why Cooper is still the one!

‘If they’re looking for a reason to change it, now would be the time’: Steve Cooper and NFFC, a love affair on the brink?

1 win in 10 and 3 defeats in a row, two of which have been consecutive home losses, has naturally created mounting speculation over the future of current Nottingham Forest manager, Steve Cooper. Sky Sports’ post-match dissection of the miserable 0-1 loss to Everton led pundit Jamie Redknapp to claim: ‘if they’re looking for a reason to change it, now would be the time’. Given the current run – during which Forest’s only win came at the beginning of November against Aston Villa – it seems that NFFC owner, Evangelos Marinakis, faces a simple decision, as Redknapp suggests. But is it that simple? This article will seek to explore the issues that have surfaced this season and examine some of the factors that have contributed to Forest’s difficulties.

 

Home discomforts

Speculation over Cooper’s position at Forest is nothing new. Throughout last season’s successful survival as a Premier League side there were multiple occasions when the Welshman’s time as Forest manager looked to be over. Even this season the Aston Villa game was earmarked by sections of the NFFC fanbase as “must win”. Cooper’s ability to calmly navigate these pressurized situations had earned him a reputation for being able to deliver results when they were most needed.

However, the fixture against Everton – the latest game to be billed as “must win” – did not follow previous patterns. The limp defeat, following last week’s 2-3 home defeat at the hands of injury-hit Brighton, suggests that the City Ground is showing signs of brittleness. This, arguably more than any other factor, is the major cause for concern. Indeed, Forest’s survival last season came down to being able to deliver at home (30 out of 38 points came at the City Ground). The defeat to Brighton last week was the first time Forest had lost in the Premier League at home since Manchester United came away with all 3 points last April. Alarmingly, the recent consecutive losses on the banks of the Trent suggest Cooper’s ability to deliver under pressure and win at home are showing signs of vulnerability.

 

Playing Style

Nevertheless, Cooper is adored by most Forest fans. This, along with the other factors outlined above, has previously helped to stave off calls for change. But is sentimentality and emotion enough to keep him in a job this time round? The current run, when contemplated in the cold light of day, speaks for itself, and implies that this current campaign is slowly sliding into a repeat of last season’s relegation scrap. The persistent dropping of points from winning positions and brittleness when it comes to defending set pieces suggests there is a soft under-belly to this Forest side, which teams including Luton Town and West Ham have exploited. As Forest currently sit 6 points clear of the drop, you’d be forgiven for questioning what all the fuss is about, especially considering the precarious situation they found themselves in this time last year. However, the poor starts of the three promoted sides this season has masked Forest’s lackluster form. This current situation will certainly not be pleasing for the ambitious Marinakis, nor for sections of the Forest fan base which are becoming increasingly restless with the lack of points.

But it isn’t the lack of results, alone, that accounts for this restlessness. Forest’s current squad is, undoubtedly, better than the one that saw out the 22/23 campaign. The frenzy of deadline day signings during the most recent transfer window not only raised expectations over what could be achieved this season, but created hope that improvements in style of play would follow. Though last season’s counter-attacking approach proved effective in keeping the Reds up, the summer additions of central midfielders, Ibrahim Sangare and Nicolas Dominguez, suggested that fans could hope to see the Reds have more of a foothold in the middle of the park and, therefore, more of the ball.

However, Dominguez, after an impressive start to his Forest career, has lost his place in the side whilst Sangare, who missed the defeat to Brighton with a virus, was hooked after 65 minutes against Everton. Moreover, Forest, despite having 68% possession against Everton, did not look comfortable on the ball. Cooper, himself, referenced this in his post-match interview on Saturday night, stating that ‘there’s no question of spirit, attitude or work rate, just sometimes quality on the ball’. Indeed, multiple phases of play against Everton culminated in hopeful balls being pumped up field to the isolated Chris Wood, as the Reds struggled to cope with Everton’s combative approach.

On the ball struggles have been a feature of several of Forest’s performances this season. Misplaced passes, sloppy turnovers, and a lack of precision when in possession have marked several matches in which the Reds have struggled to dictate the play. It is clear to see that Forest are a better side when they have less of the ball and are able to use the pace at their disposal to counter on the opposition. Against Everton this pattern of play didn’t materialize, as Sean Dyche’s side were happy to sit in and let Forest have the ball.

Of course, fans want to see Forest dictate games and be comfortable in possession. However, the idea of transitioning from a counter-attacking team to a ball playing side in the space of one transfer window was, arguably, always highly optimistic. It takes time to implement such changes and arguments relating to this issue in debates over Cooper’s future should not, at this moment in time, carry as much weight as other factors.

 

Faltering Forwards

Despite Brennan Johnson departing in the summer, the expectation was that Forest would be fine with Taiwo Awoniyi leading the line. Nobody, however, had planned for Awoniyi to be sidelined for ‘months’ and for Forest to have to turn to their plan B, Chris Wood, who has been something of a scapegoat since arriving at Forest last January. Wood does not bring the same presence to the side as the talismanic Awoniyi, nor the same goal return. The Nigerian’s absence is glaringly obvious when Forest play without him. In fact, Forest last won a league game without Awoniyi in the side in February against relegated Leeds United. This is a crucial point. Will a new manager be able to turn things around without Awoniyi? A January move for a striker looks certain regardless of who is in the home dugout at the City Ground. However, picking up a player to fill Awoniyi’s boots at that point in the season is an incredibly difficult prospect, but something the club must, nevertheless, address.

Playing Morgan Gibbs-White centrally as a false forward is one avenue that could be worth exploring whilst Awoniyi remains sidelined. Gibbs-White, an undoubted talent, has not managed to reproduce last season’s form in recent performances. There have been several theories proposed by NFFC fans as to why Gibbs-White isn’t performing (Brennan Johnson leaving, becoming a father, fatigue from playing over the summer for England U21’s) but the positional change that has seen the midfielder moved to the right from the no.10 spot seems to be the reason most fans believe he is struggling this season. Getting Gibbs-White central and firing on all cylinders has been identified by supporters as a must if Forest are to get out of this slump. Cooper demonstrated tactical flexibility throughout last season and must utilize this now to find a way of returning Gibbs-White to a more central position so the Forest talisman can begin thriving again.

 

Conclusions

The complexity of the decision facing Marinakis is not as simple as Redknapp’s quote at the beginning of this piece suggests. Cooper is, undoubtedly, very popular among the players and fans. He has demonstrated an ability to get Forest out of difficult situations before. This ability is being tested again this season when many expected a relatively serene season. The City Ground, a fortress for so much of Forest’s time in the Premier League, has now been breached on consecutive occasions, with key players misfiring and injury issues again hampering matters.

Is getting rid of Cooper the way to address the current situation? There is certainly a case to suggest that the existing slump warrants a managerial change. Julen Lopetegui or Graham Potter are candidates that should certainly be considered should Cooper be moved on. However, the Welshman’s standing among the Forest fanbase is massive. Would either of the out-of-work managers referenced above be able to fill his shoes and do much better with the current crop of players?

So much of last season depended on the bond between Cooper and the fan base. This axis may well prove to be key again this season, but the performances must improve to give the fans something to get behind. Patience is needed, as is a recognition of the fact that Forest need to recapture the spirit and togetherness of last season to pull themselves away from danger. Cooper has done this once before and deserves the chance to do so again. 

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