As the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed elsewhere, Steve Cooper will have been an encouraged man by the time 5pm on Saturday afternoon in Huddersfield arrived.
After a difficult week, Nottingham Forest had recorded their first three points since April and their first of the campaign, with a professional, well-earned win over Huddersfield Town in West Yorkshire.
Their imminent new head coach, meanwhile, was the subject of talks between Forest and Swansea City over the weekend, with the two clubs looking to thrash out the final details as the Reds move closer to appointing him as Chris Hughton’s permanent successor.
Although Cooper was not present as a Lewis Grabban header and Lee Nicholls own-goal helped Forest to their first victory of the campaign, his presence at the John Smith’s Stadium was perhaps telling in other ways.
When the team news emerged before kick-off, a notable change was evident. Gone was Hughton’s trusted 4-2-3-1 setup, and in came a 3-4-3 formation – one that Cooper used variations of during his tenure of the Swans particularly last season. Steven Reid, who took interim charge for the weekend, insisted that this was his decision, however it’s hard to ignore the timing of it given the managerial change on the horizon.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was not only the decision to switch to a back-three, but the personnel selected to play in it. Scott McKenna and Joe Worrall were guaranteed starters, having forged a solid partnership in a 2020/21 campaign where only four teams conceded fewer goals than the Reds – Norwich, Watford, Brentford and Swansea.
But despite Loic Mbe Soh’s inclusion against Middlesbrough in midweek, albeit at right-back, in came Tobias Figueiredo for his fourth start of the campaign.
Figueiredo has been a divisive figure amongst Forest fans since his permanent arrival from Sporting Lisbon in 2018. At times under Sabri Lamouchi in 2019/20, he was unplayable, and it was his partnership with Joe Worrall which gave them the platform to play their football and hit teams on the counter-attack as they so often did.
At other times, particularly under Hughton, Figueiredo has struggled. A prime example of this was in a 3-1 defeat to Brentford last season – he was instructed to mark zonally from a corner at a time where his teammates had to take responsibility for a man each. The cause of this? Because he had let Henrik Dalsgaard wander away from him and flick the most simplest headers in at the near post to give the Bees the lead in what turned out to be a comprehensive away win.
But there were certainly no signs of complacency creeping into the 27-year-old’s game at the weekend, as he displayed the resilience and bravery required to keep a clean sheet and keep Huddersfield at bay in the final half-hour of the contest.
As our graphic below shows, Figueiredo kept a cool head throughout the 96 minutes. He didn’t commit a single foul, whilst making five clearances and winning each of his five defensive duels. Aerially, he was solid, winning 80% of his 10 duels overall and leaving Danny Ward anonymous.
With McKenna to his left and Worrall to his right, the onus was more on his two defensive companions to step out from the back and drive forward with the ball. This is something the latter did particularly well, advancing with the ball aggressively and picking out an array of clever passes down the channel for Djed Spence and Joe Lolley to attack.
Figueiredo, then, viewed the game from a more central role, acting as Forest’s lynchpin from the heart of defence. He only made seven passes throughout the game – only one of those were misplaced, however, showing that he can display composure playing out from the back if his role requires him to do so.
But Figueiredo’s reading of the game, at a time where he was often left alone at the expense of his progressive defensive teammates, was impressive. He made five interceptions and showed the poise to keep Forest organised and structured at the back, with Huddersfield piling on the pressure aerially in the dying embers.
Ultimately, the wider picture shows a first clean sheet since the penultimate game of last season, and the first time Forest have won and scored more than one goal in a game since the beginning of April. They were able to play with freedom, and it felt as if the shackles had been lifted following Hughton’s departure.
Worrall was able to join Spence and Lolley in overloading the right-hand side and creating problems, whilst McKenna and Max Lowe patrolled the left-hand side on an afternoon where Forest showed a rare sense of flamboyance going forward.
This, though, was underpinned by a solid defensive performance of which Figueiredo was at the heart of, whetting the appetite for what could be to follow.
Cooper will share a similar feeling of encouragement, as he prepares to lead the Garibaldi into a new era on Trentside.