It was very much seen as a match made in heaven when Anthony Knockaert arrived at Nottingham Forest on Deadline Day.
Embarking on a run of four successive league defeats and coring only one goal in that time, Chris Hughton will have been desperate to add a bit of wizardry, guile and creativity to his side’s attacking armory. Three traits that were clearly lacking, along with confidence and belief.
That looked to arrive in the form of Knockaert. A player who had previously flourished under Hughton, playing an influential role in Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion to the Premier League under the 62-year-old’s tutelage in 2016/17.
Knockaert won the Sky Bet Championship Player of the Year award after scoring 15 goals and setting up nine assists that year. Whilst he’s failed to replicate that form in regular intervals at Forest, he has still had a significant influence at times.
As the above graphic shows, Knockaert has featured 16 times in a Garibaldi shirt. All of those appearances have come in the Championship, with the winger starting 10 times and getting 1,178 minutes of football under his belt in total.
Much of his action, as it did under Hughton at Brighton and Scott Parker at Fulham, has come on the right-hand side of midfield, occupying the right flank in Hughton’s trusted 4-2-3-1 formation. With fellow Fulham loanee Cyrus Christie playing behind him at right-back, the onus is on Knockaert to cut inside, shift the ball onto his dangerous left-foot, and help to cut the opposition open.
Knockaert has lived up to those expectations somewhat. 45.7% of his 94 dribbles this season have been successful, which has seen him beat his man and enter a dangerous area of the pitch.
As has been the case on far too many occasions this season, though, Forest have looked toothless and short of ideas when in the final third. In Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Preston North End at Deepdale, only three of their 23 crosses had a Forest man on the end of them, very much typifying their lack of cutting edge in front of goal.
Knockaert, when he has done well to beat his man, has also failed to deliver the goods far too regularly. 16 of his 60 crosses have found a teammate, with the rest being cut out by the opposition. For a player who has chipped in with numerous assists at this level in the past, that is frustrating for both the winger, Hughton and fans alike.
Nevertheless, Knockaert, more often than not, has been Forest’s talisman. He has been their bright spark, a player who can pick the ball up and drive forward with it and look to create chances.
He has been fruitful when it has come to bringing others into play, accruing a pass accuracy percentage of 77.6. Of course, those passes have to effective ones, given the responsibility placed upon him to create openings, and he has fulfilled that side of the agreement, completing 78.8% of his forward passes successfully.
But again, in the final third is where it matters. Knockaert himself has had 32 touches inside the penalty area this season, with only six attempts being put on target.
On Saturday, a golden chance fell his way in the opening stages. Seven yards from goal, he lashed a wild, miscued effort over the bar following good work from Lewis Grabban to put the ball back into the danger area. On another day, and perhaps when confidence may be a little higher, Knockaert swoops the ball home and buries that chance, and Forest take a deserved lead on the road with less than six minutes on the clock.
As is often the case with creative midfielders across the world, it’s their goals and assists record which fans look for straight away.
The stats tell you that Knockaert has scored one goal and registered one assist in his 16 outings for the Reds, and perhaps doesn’t scream inspiration.
In fact, his one goal for the Reds had a slightly fortunate feel about it. An in-swinging cross directed at Miguel Angel Guerrero deceived everybody and nestled into the bottom corner, in the 2-1 away defeat to Norwich City.
His one assist for the club highlighted his excellent quality from dead-ball situations, though. His delivery from a free-kick 40 yards from goal was perfectly weighted for Joe Worrall to head in a late consolation in the 3-1 home defeat to Brentford – a game in which also saw Knockaert pick up a second yellow card, after being adjudged to have dived inside the area in the dying embers.
Knockaert’s deliveries also proved to be a problem in his debut for the club, galvanising an equaliser against Derby County back in October. After coming on a half-time substitute, the Frenchman made an immediate impact as his dangerous corner from the left caused havoc, before Lyle Taylor lashed home from close-range to level things up.
The 29-year-old may well have played his last game for the club on Saturday, with a big decision now needing to be made regarding his future on the banks of the Trent. His loan deal, which expires on January the 7th, is coming to an end. There is an option to make the deal permanent, but it remains to be seen which option Forest take up, if at any.
Hughton is a man who knows how to get the best out of Knockaert. Whilst he may have failed to do consistently this season, he knows how important it is to have players of his quality at the club if they are to continue climbing the Championship table.
“It’s important to keep our players fit, but also to have players of quality,” Hughton told Football League World’s George Harbey last month.
“This is a tough division, and probably because of how it is this season without supporters, it’s as tough a Championship season as there’s been. There are no easy games.
“We need a squad of as much quality as possible, and particularly in the areas where we know we’ve got to improve.”
Having scored only 16 goals in 23 Championship outings this season, it’s clear which of those areas need to be strengthened this month. Knockaert, in the past, has proven to address those areas and bless them with true quality.
Whether he is to be given the chance to show that at Forest or not, remains to be seen.