What seemed to be a frustrating and wearying summer transfer window for Nottingham Forest at times ended up being a productive one for Chris Hughton.
On the opening day of the season away at Coventry, Forest travelled across the Midlands having only bolstered their squad with two new faces – goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, brought in on a free transfer to provide competition for Brice Samba, and Watford winger Philip Zinckernagel, joining on loan a day before the new season got underway.
With the first international break of the season now coming to an end, and all eyes turning towards another hectic block of fixtures in the Championship, it would be unfair to say that Forest aren’t better equipped for the upcoming season, with a mainly quiet summer culminating in plenty of activity in terms of incomings.
In the final days of the window, the speed of bringing in new players quickened for Forest. On Deadline Day, three new faces arrived, in Mohamed Dräger, Braian Ojeda and Xande Silva. The club even managed to bring someone in after the clock struck 11pm, beating the deadline and submitting the relevant paperwork to take Djed Spence on loan from Middlesbrough for the campaign.
But to many fans’ surprise, the club weren’t done there. With fans only just closing their Wikipedia tabs after researching the latest influx of new players, Forest moved to announce the signing of free agent Rodrigo Ely – the 27-year-old Brazilian centre-half let go by La Liga side Huesca at the end of last season.
On the face of things, a new defensive option did not, and does not, feel like a priority for Hughton’s side, with a lack of goal threat in the final third proving to be an early Achilles heel as it did last season.
In fact, arguably their best piece of transfer business of the whole summer was retaining not only Brennan Johnson, but Joe Worrall. The pair fielded plenty of interest from the Premier League, and in a window where finances were tight, the expectation was that one would have to be sold to make way for potential new recruits.
Worrall was a mainstay of a Forest backline which, despite their struggles, boasted one of the best defensive records in the Championship last season. Only four teams let in more than the 45 goals Forest shipped – Norwich and Watford, who both won automatic promotion, as well Swansea and Brentford, who were the two play-off finalists.
Worrall, alongside Scott McKenna, forged a solid understanding with each other, forming a partnership that, thankfully for Forest fans, remains intact and is still arguably one of the best in the division. But whilst top-flight clubs hovered over Worrall over the course of the summer, Forest, and their supporters, can feel lucky that that wasn’t the case with McKenna.
McKenna’s performances have gone under the radar since joining Forest in a deal rising up to £5million from Aberdeen last summer. A quiet person off the pitch but a boisterous leader on it, the 24-year-old has been a consistent, solid, reliable brute in Forest’s backline. If Forest fans had forgotten the impact he’s had on the Reds’ defence since arriving on Trentside, last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Derby County gave them a timely reminder.
Going in 1-0 down at the interval, Forest had it all to do against their arch rivals. A battling, much-improved display in the second half did see them grab a deserved late equaliser through Johnson.
On another day, Jack Stretton would have put the game out of Forest’s sight, with his close-range effort somehow staying out of the net following an exceptional block by McKenna. The Scot may not have known too much about it, but one thing he will have been aware of was the way he helped inspire his teammates to a first point of the season on the afternoon.
In his 98 minutes on the pitch, McKenna won 75% of his 16 duels. Seven of those came in the air, with the 24-year-old getting the better of his opponent on five occasions. Four interceptions were also made, paying testament to his positioning and ability to read the game, whilst also making three clearances to keep the Rams at bay.
An improved performance in the second half did see Forest have a lot more of the ball, with the onus on McKenna and Worrall to be patient and keep things ticking over as the clock ran down. From a total of 51 passes, McKenna accrued a success rate of 92%. Of those 51 passes, 15 were played forward, with 11 finding a teammate successfully, displaying his composure and quality to play out from the back and progress the ball up-field.
On 82 minutes, a cross from the left fell kindly at Johnson’s feet. He produced a thunderous first-time effort which was too hot to handle for Kelle Roos, with the midfielder’s strike finding the net before wheeling away in celebration, followed closely by McKenna. Two men deserving of such jubilant scenes in the latter stages of the contest.
A lacklustre start to the season, consisting of one draw and four defeats from their five opening league games, has led to the pressure building on Hughton, and a majority of fans have become increasingly frustrated with his reluctance to change from his usual 4-2-3-1 system.
Hughton’s response, speaking after their 4-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Wolves less than two weeks ago, was: “It’s about having the right players to play in the right formations. For where we are at the moment, we probably don’t have the numbers.”
Fast forward a fortnight, and Forest have added those numbers. 10 new players have been brought in since the end of last season, all bringing new possibilities and qualities.
One of those potential possibilities emerged as a talking point particularly after the announcement of Ely’s surprise signing. The central defender’s arrival prompted cries for a change at the back – not so much in personnel, but in fact a change in numbers.
The question is not so much why a 3-4-3 formation would be the perfect fit for Forest – but why wouldn’t it?
As opposed to Hughton’s current 4-2-3-1 system, the 3-4-3 formation places much more emphasis on full-backs to act as wing-backs and provide plenty of energy up and down the flanks. Max Lowe would be a perfect fit in that respect, having tailored his game to fit into Chris Wilder’s plans at Sheffield United following his move from Derby County last summer.
Djed Spence, meanwhile, is another one who you feel fits that wing-back role perfectly. There was an element of surprise amongst Middlesbrough fans when he was allowed to depart the Riverside not only on a temporary basis, but to a side who may emerge as a direct rival come the end of the campaign.
The 21-year-old has established himself as one of the most energetic and tenacious wing-backs in the league since bursting onto the scene on Teesside, with his performances believed to have even alerted the interest of Leicester City and Southampton of late.
It’s not as if they don’t have depth in the wing-back areas, either. Jordi Osei-Tutu looked to be an athletic, powerful figure capable of driving forward with the ball, all whilst having to operate on the left-hand side before sustaining a hamstring injury.
Dräger could also be a surprise package too. The Tunisian scored eight goals in 26 games for Freiburg II in 2017/18, operating primarily as a winger. The 25-year-old also scored 15 goals for the Under-19s’ in their 2014/15 Bundesliga season, so possesses attacking instincts which could also help him thrive in that role.
In midfield, Forest have players with different attributes who can not only help provide balance and steel when those wing-backs push forward, but also progress the ball and play through the lines efficiently. James Garner proved his worth last season, whilst new arrival Braian Ojeda – the young Paraguayan international – earned rave reviews over in his native, before moving to England and putting pen to paper on a four-year deal with the Reds.
Ojeda’s numbers, albeit in a lower standard of football over in Paraguay, make for impressive reading. The dynamic 21-year-old likes to carry the ball forward and progress the ball, suggesting that he could be someone who can supply Forest’s beleaguered offensive players with the right service.
Zinckernagel, Johnson and Alex Mighten are three players who can interchange in the final third, with the trio all displaying guile, intelligence, pace and trickery at various stages of their time at the City Ground. Lyle Taylor and Lewis Grabban also represent two classic number nines who can provide focal points and prowess to build from.
That leaves us with McKenna, and the Forest defence as a whole – the sole reason behind a potential change in formation, and more notably, a change in responsibility.
One thing McKenna does provide, above all else, is natural balance. He is a left-sided centre-half, which are often hard to come by nowadays, and that alone makes his partnership with Worrall a favourable one. As alluded to before, the Scot is comfortable at stepping in with the ball and playing out from the back, which is undoubtedly a vital component of any three-at-the-back set-up.
This is something which Worrall has improved at, but the general feeling is that he is viewed as more of the natural leader who stays in the middle and reads the game from a central role.
Forest’s opening goal at Coventry City was made by Johnson’s lung-busting run and ball across goal for Taylor to finish – but what may have gone under the radar was Loic Mbe Soh’s ability to step inside and play a progressive ball into the Wales international’s feet, showing composure and willingness to build attacks from the back.
Once the Frenchman returns from a groin injury, he will be vying to reclaim his place back in the team, and a change in system could be massively rewarding for the man Forest rate highly and view as an important figure for the long-term as much as the short-term.
As with any transfer window, there will be failure and success. There will be patience required, too, as Hughton looks to turn his side’s fortunes around having been able to strengthen his squad and much-needed bodies to it.
There is one clear difference from that disrupted pre-season, though. Forest now have a squad filled with competition for places, which could give Hughton a decision to make going forward for more than just one reason.