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Steve Cooper’s Tentative Tactical Tinkering

As Steve Cooper tinkers with his tactics and setup, are Nottingham Forest heading in the right direction with their seemingly new style of play?

Last season was about survival for Nottingham Forest. Promoted unexpectedly on the back of multiple loans expiring and players moving on, finishing 17th on goal difference would have been a stark achievement. As it were, Cooper’s Reds were able to get the job done with a game to spare and will be hoping this season is a little more comfortable. So, as the club looks to establish itself as a Premier League side, it seems that stability must come with a change to the club's identity.

It got to a point last year that going to Forest was like paying for a ticket to watch the opposition. The Reds had the lowest average possession last term—just 37.6% of the ball each game—and only managed one away win all season. This just had to evolve as Forest settle into the league, something picked up and acknowledged by Cooper.

They weren’t given the best start either, visiting the Emirates, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, and the Etihad in four of their first six games, sticking to their more defensive laurels in order to compete in those ties. There was promise when Forest saw the ball, narrowly losing three of those games and beating Chelsea—a run of performances to breathe confidence into the heart of Forest’s squad. But Cooper was adamant in pre-season that Forest would play with more of the ball this season, something we have begun to see over recent games…

Counterattacking might have suited them when they had Brennan Johnson bombing down the right, but with his departure, coupled with some stellar midfield signings, the change of style to become a more progressive and possession-based team seems like a logical choice. Forest’s core group have a years’ experience of football at the highest level under their belt, as shown by the evolution of Orel Mangala this season—a player who has emerged from the shadows and shone through.

Having more possession suits his game as it does many others, with Nico Dominguez and Ibrahim Sangaré alongside him, the trio at the core of the revamp. They look confident in possession, understand how to keep the ball in tight areas, and are always looking to pass forward and progress. Morgan Gibbs-White has also seen more of the ball, which, after a questionable start to the season, has seen him get more involved in games and begin to look back to his best.

And while last campaign Forest consistently looked second best, recent games have been a lot closer, with not much to separate the two sides. Forest aren’t going to start dominating teams overnight, but at least they are beginning to take the game to the opposition, look to cause them issues, and have confidence in their own way of playing. Confidence has reached a record high for those in the Garibaldi right now, showing that the team will only flourish playing this way.

Their performance against Luton backed up what we had seen before, and Reds fans must not let the disappointment of the closing 10 minutes overshadow the positives. They created so many chances to kill off the game, and, in the absence of two tepid mistakes, it would have been a convincing win for Forest.

With all new things, it’s not perfect right away. There have been times over the past couple of games where Forest have turned down a forward chance in favour of the safe option and to keep possession. This is where patience must be had. With time will come an understanding of when to go over the top or in behind and when to keep hold of it and craft a better opening. After all, Forest don’t want to lose the threat they have in the pace of Taiwo Awoniyi, Callum Hudson Odoi, and Anthony Elanga.

Overall, however, it does look like Forest are taking steps in the right direction. Progress is all you can ask for and they certainly look more solidified in the league now. Plus, the fact that Cooper thinks they can make these changes shows that they aren’t in the dire position they were for much of last season, which is a good sign. It seems like the only way is up for Nottingham Forest at the moment.

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