Nottingham Forest fought tooth and nail to keep hold of Brennan Johnson during the summer – and nights like Wednesday evening are exactly why.
It is perhaps testament to Johnson’s ability that a club like Brentford – renowned for spotting young talent, developing them and turning them into stars – were so keen to lure the Wales international to West London, having multiple bids turned down for the 20-year-old over the course of the summer.
The Bees nurtured players like Ollie Watkins, for instance, who was an out-and-out wide player upon his arrival from Exeter City before being converted into a striker to fill Neal Maupay’s void following his move to Brighton and Hove Albion.
It is evident to see characteristics in Johnson’s game which makes him similar to Watkins in that respect, but he is his own man and he is creating his own legacy on Trentside.
Johnson dazzled on Wednesday night, as Forest claimed their first win under Steve Cooper’s tutelage with a 3-1 victory at Barnsley.
With Lewis Grabban a doubt heading into the clash, Forest’s new head coach chose to deploy a fluid front three. Philip Zinckernagel was the central figure, with Joe Lolley and Johnson – “Cole and Yorke” as described by the latter on Instagram – playing either side and slightly beyond him.
Johnson was never cemented to his right-sided position, however. Nor was Zinckernagel, with the pair often interchanging and using their pace and guile to cause Barnsley problems throughout the contest.
Forest fans will tell you it is no secret that Johnson is undoubtedly one of, if not the quickest player in the Championship.
He has been able to show his pace on numerous occasions this season, embarking on driving runs down the right channel which led to goals at Coventry and Huddersfield. Cooper looked to utilise that to full effect last night, insisting that he knew the speed of his attacking line would cause their opposition problems inside their wing-backs and down the flanks.
Johnson made his first key contribution of the night on the hour mark. The attacker timed his run, beat the offside trap and latched onto Lewis Grabban’s through ball, bearing down on goal before squaring for Philip Zinckernagel to roll into an empty net.
His father, David, was watching on from the away end, and was quick to send out a tweet saying that he “would never have passed that” once through on goal. Johnson must have sensed that message, as he helped turn the game on its head seven minutes later.
— David Johnson (@DavidJo05034174) September 29, 2021
It was Zinckernagel’s turn to provide for Johnson, this time, with the latter once again timing his run to perfection, enough so to deceive the linesman, who initially flagged in the build-up.
Like any good forward, Johnson played on, perhaps motoring forward far too quickly to notice any flag be raised, before firing across goal and into the bottom corner. He didn’t pass that one, despite Grabban waiting patiently to his left.
Forest ended up making it 3-1 through Grabban late on, on a night where Cooper’s willingness to change formation midway through the game and go for the win paid off, with Johnson at the heart of it.
As our graphic shows, in 97 minutes, Johnson netted a goal and notched an assist. Those are the stats which will stand out the most come the end of the campaign, but what about his underlying numbers?
As we have touched on, Johnson’s runs in behind caused the Tykes no end of problems. Four progressive runs were made throughout the contest, and it took an excellent bit of defending by Liam Kitching to deny him one-on-one before they eventually ended up making a breakthrough.
Johnson was clinical inside the area, with two of his three touches inside the box leading to goals. His intent and effort to run in behind and stretch the defence paid dividends, and he got his just rewards.
But if Johnson is to lead the line and play perhaps more centrally going forward, he also showed that he can cope with the physical side of the game. The youngster won over half of his offensive duels, coping with the rough and tumble of the contest.
But the truth is, once in full flight, it is extremely hard to stop the attacker from producing what he showed he can do last night. It is now about producing that on a consistent basis, and it is down to Cooper to keep on picking a formula which gets the best out of him.
If he manages to do that, then the phone could be ringing a lot more come January.