Steve Cooper has finally found a system and approach that works for Nottingham Forest
Only four Premier League clubs (Chelsea, Manchester United, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur) spent more in last summer’s transfer window than Nottingham Forest. The City Ground outfit demonstrated raw ambition following their promotion from the Championship last season, but this didn’t immediately translate into impressive performances on the pitch. Now, though, things are starting to change. Indeed, Forest have won three of their last five Premier League fixtures, drawing one against Chelsea and losing one away to Manchester United, with belief growing that Steve Cooper’s team can avoid an instant return to the second tier of English football.
Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Leicester City lifted Forest up to 13th in the Premier League table and there are signs that Cooper has found the right system and approach to get the best out of his squad. It has taken nearly half a season, but Nottingham Forest are benefiting from the business they did last summer.
Cooper has used a back five with wing backs to give Forest width while also deploying a midfield three to ensure control in the centre of the pitch. But the real difference in recent weeks can be found in the way Nottingham Forest have started to get the best out of the talented individuals they have in the attacking third.
The precedent was set with the performance in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea when Forest were lightning quick in transition and could have scored more than just once. Cooper cleared the supply line into Brennan Johnson and Taiwo Awoniyi and set up his team to stretch the pitch as quickly as they could on the break.
“We have been doing a lot of work,” Cooper said, explaining how Nottingham Forest have devised a system to get the best out of their best players, including Johnson who scored both goals in the win over Leicester. “Brennan has so much more to come, even if he is performing at a really good level.”
Morgan Gibbs-White has also started to demonstrate the sort of form that persuaded Forest to pay £25m for him in the first place last summer, forging a particularly strong understanding with Johnson. This connection has given Cooper something to build around. Nottingham Forest’s game is simple, but increasingly effective. Leicester won’t be the last team to be sliced through by their attack.
“When you talk about things like that, it sounds like we are at the end of something — and we are at the start,” said Cooper, talking about the improvements made. “We have to have a complete obsession and paranoia about improving every day. This club has great status, it has history, it has great values – it has a football soul. We can build on that, because it is not something that every club has. We have to represent that. We did that against Leicester, but now we have to do it again.”
Nottingham Forest are far from safe, but they are trending in the right direction to stay in the Premier League for next season. Cooper and his players also have a Carabao Cup semi-final against Manchester United to look forward to, with Forest close to making their first appearance in the final of a domestic cup competition since 1992.
There is a growing sense that Cooper is building something special at the City Ground, but Forest must consolidate the progress they have made in recent weeks. Nothing can be taken for granted, despite their upturn in form, yet the foundation is clearly there for further development to be made. Cooper might be right – Nottingham Forest might only be getting started.