Though it is highly unlikely that it happened by design, Forest managed to time their heaviest home defeat since they retained their Championship status very well. While Spurs managed to go one better (or worse) by losing 5-1 at home to Manchester City, Arsenal took the biscuit by going down 8-2 to Manchester United.
Whilst that ensures that much of the neutral attention is directed elsewhere, it doesn’t make such a heavy home defeat easier to bear. The scoreline wasn’t truly reflective of the match but did reveal Forest’s lack of organisation in defence, something of a surprise given that a strong back line has been the foundation of the last two seasons’ play-off campaigns.
Individually, the defenders didn’t have particularly bad games, though Luke Chambers did score an own goal, and Lee Camp looked less confident than usual, but as a unit they looked like five strangers thrown together at the last minute; worrying as they have all been at the club for a minimum of three seasons.
Lack of Balance
One of the things that has been worrying me the most over the last few months – since before the end of last season in fact – is the lack of balance in the squad. With Kelvin Wilson’s imminent departure an open secret, it was fair to say that Forest’s squad consisted of two goalkeepers, two right-backs, three centre-backs (one of whom could play at left-back), one left-back (who was only on loan), two defensive midfielders, two wingers, three attacking midfielders, and eight strikers (one of whom was often deployed as a winger). In other words, while some players were virtually guaranteed a place, others weren’t even making the bench and so represented wasted wage expenditure, and key areas of the team were desperately short of cover in the event of a medium- to long-term injury.
As the summer progressed, and various players left, the squad seemed to be balancing slightly. Four of the strikers left, as did one of the defensive midfielders, and the on-loan left-back returned to Liverpool. New manager Steve McClaren then added a replacement defensive midfielder (George Boateng) an extra winger (Andy Reid) and a further central midfielder in Jonathan Greening. However, early struggles to score prompted Forest back into the transfer market, and another couple of million pounds were spent on Matt Derbyshire and Ismael Miller. Along with the return of Joe Garner from loan, this means Forest now have seven strikers fighting it out for a maximum of two places. As the Football League have voted to reduce the number of substitutes to five from this season onwards, this again means that Forest are extremely top-heavy and are wasting wages on players who aren’t even going to make the bench.
As Jonathan Wilson (my football journalist hero) has suggested for several years, 4-4-2 is becoming an outdated formation. When Steve McClaren was appointed manager, one of my main hopes was that he would drag Forest into the 21st century tactically by employing the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 he had used when winning the Dutch Eredivisie with FC Twente. My hopes were realised when Forest started the season at home to Barnsley with David McGoldrick as a lone frontman, but since then the Reds have gone back to 4-4-2, much to my disappointment.
At this juncture, I should point out that I am well aware that my desire for a non-4-4-2 formation is based largely on a kind of tactical elitism, an intellectual snobbery, rather than a deep understanding of formations and systems on my part. However, there is some logic behind it. In recent years, many of the clubs in the Premier League have moved towards playing five men in midfield, and as that is our intended destination, it would seem wise to prepare for it in advance. Secondly, the likes of West Brom and Swansea have been promoted in recent years playing an attractive, attacking brand of football based around a 4-3-3 system, and thirdly, in both of Forest’s unsuccessful play-off campaigns, they have lost to teams playing 4-3-3 in the semi-finals. While much of this could be dismissed as a series of coincidences, it could also be seen as the beginning of a trend which points Forest away from employing a 4-4-2 for much longer.
There is also a small element of financial sense in moving away from a 4-4-2. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book ‘Soccernomics’ shows, strikers are generally over-valued in the transfer market, and so a system with fewer strikers means fewer are needed in the squad, and so less money is needed to build a squad, or a larger, better squad can be constructed using the same funds.
That talk of money brings us on to the next, and in many ways most important area, even if it is one which can’t be analysed by watching the game. Forest’s finances are not in great shape. As this article shows, our chairman has been supporting the club financially for the last few years, and investing in excess of £10m each year. In fact, our current wage bill exceeds our turnover. As the article points out, Forest current spend “£2 for every £1 [they generate]”. He then goes on to say “to give an idea of the magnitude of Forest’s challenge, if they wanted to get in line with the 60% salary cap employed in League One, they would have to either increase their revenue by 77% (£11.3 million) to £26 million or cut their wage bill by 43% (£6.8 million) to £8.8 million, neither of which seems very realistic”.
This makes reference to the fact that the Football League clubs have voted to implement their own Financial Fair Play regulations from next season. Championship clubs will be restricted to spending what they earn, while those lower down in Leagues One and Two will have their wage budgets capped at a percentage of their revenue. It seems that there won’t be quite such a specific restriction on Championship clubs, but the point makes stark reading. Forest are overspending badly, and will have to drastically reduce their outgoings by this time next season. It all points to the fact that this year is make or break: if they don’t secure promotion, it could trigger an exodus of the more valuable players (Lewis McGugan, Chris Gunter, Lee Camp to name just a few) for purely financial reasons, and then trigger a drop in the quality of the squad and consequently the results leaving the club firmly rooted in mid-table Championship territory. The only small ray of light comes from the news that Deloitte announced this summer that more than one in three clubs is spending more on wages than it brings in, so Forest clearly aren’t alone.