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Feature: Nottingham Forest and Joao Carvalho – an expensive mistake, or the one that got away?



It was on the first day of July in 2018 when Nottingham Forest fans began to properly drool with excitement ahead of the forthcoming 2018/19 campaign.

The club had just smashed their transfer record on a certain Joao Carvalho after agreeing a £13.2million deal for the Benfica playmaker, almost tripling the £5.5million they initially paid Peterborough United for Britt Assombalonga four years before.

Carvalho’s arrival on Trentside brought fresh optimism and hope amongst the Forest faithful.

They had just witnessed Wolverhampton Wanderers romp their way towards the Sky Bet Championship title after a memorable first campaign under Nuno Espirito Santo, spending significant amounts of money and bringing in exciting Portuguese players like Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota.

After seeing Wolves shade the 100-point mark and establish themselves as one of the best sides ever to grace the Championship, you could understand why Forest fans were so excited about the arrival of Carvalho, particularly after seeing Neves’ influence at Molineux albeit in a slightly different area of the pitch.

This transfer oozed excitement. It oozed ambition. It felt as if Forest were gearing themselves up to become the next team to steamroll their way towards promotion. They were at least putting their money where their mouth is in their bid to escape the clutches of the Championship, after a lengthy absence outside of England’s top-flight.

Carvalho took a short while to settle in the East Midlands, and it took time for him to showcase his ability on the banks of the Trent. Perhaps natural for a player who had played in his native throughout the early stages of his career. All of a sudden, he was in England after becoming a team’s marquee signing, turning out on cold afternoons at places like Griffin Park and the Den.

Aitor Karanka’s side began to find their groove and push towards the top-six, with Carvalho seemingly orchestrating their rise up the league table. Between the latter stages of September and late November, the midfielder hit a run of form where he contributed to eight goals in 12 league games, highlighting his importance on the team.

A fractious relationship developed between Karanka and the board, though, with the Reds failing to tighten their grip on the play-off places, leading the Spaniard’s departure shortly after the turn of the year.

In came Martin O’Neill, whose tenure of the club he lifted two European Cups with will hardly be looked back on by the Forest faithful with much fondness.

O’Neill is a manager who is very much set in his own ways. Whilst there are plenty of young, up and coming, flamboyant coaches who enter the game on a yearly basis and bring fresh tactical philosophies to the table, this wasn’t to be case with the Irishman, and deploying a flat 4-4-2 system in his first game in charge suggested that.

Carvalho was overlooked on multiple occasions during O’Neill’s stewardship. He was left on the bench for five of O’Neill’s first seven games in charge, and it wasn’t until the Reds’ bid for promotion had dwindled before he was given a chance to make his mark.

An exceptional display against Middlesbrough on matchday 44 brought fresh optimism amongst the Reds faithful heading into the new season, and when O’Neill was relieved of his duties, in came Sabri Lamouchi, with many Forest fans left wondering what may lie in store for Carvalho.

Fast forward to present day, and after last season’s inexplicable capitulation which resigned to them another year of Championship football, Forest have made a dismal start to 2020/21, with the axe preparing to swing on Lamouchi.

Last season was a frustrating one for Carvalho, who made only nine starts in the Championship. The season started off disappointingly for the midfielder, who picked up an injury pre-season against Alfreton Town which subsequently set him back a month or so.

Ultimately, it was hard for him to ever weave his way into Lamouchi’s side, and when he did get selected, it was often on the left-hand side of a 4-2-3-1 set-up.

It makes you wonder, then, that if Carvalho had played in his favoured position for a regular run of games, would he have made more of a difference under Lamouchi?

There is an argument that Carvalho didn’t take the chance when it eventually came his way. He scored only two goals last season – one against Derby which ricocheted off his leg and flew past a helpless Ben Hamer in the Carabao Cup, and one against Queens Park Rangers after a mazy run at goal.

Carvalho’s goal against the 10-man R’s very much typifies him as a footballer. Smart footwork, clever positional sense, and clear flair and skill on the ball.

Unfortunately for Carvalho, the Championship is a physically tough and demanding division, which more often than not puts a blanket over technical ability and guile on the pitch.

You could also argue, though, that those chances didn’t arrive for Carvalho as much as he would have liked. He only made 23 Championship appearances for the Reds last term, and the fact he failed to feature in any of their final seven games of the season suggested that he was fighting a losing battle at the City Ground, even in desperate times.

Carvalho has now sealed a move away from the City Ground. A loan move to UD Almeria has been finalised, and the Spanish side’s obligation to buy the midfielder at the end of his loan spell very much suggests that his time on Trentside is over.

Carvalho will be itching to get to work with Almeria. He will be itching to get back playing regularly, after being given a new lease of life and a chance to showcase his ability in a division which may not focus too much on physicality, and more on technical ability.

Carvalho’s departure has, naturally, divided opinions amongst the Forest faithful, and with the Reds finding the net only once this season, you can forgive many for criticising the club’s “internal decision” to let the creative midfielder depart whilst they are in such dire straits.

It was an arrival that brought real excitement and enthusiasm, but what it also brought was expectations, and ultimately, those expectations were unmet.

Nottingham-based journalist who regularly covers Nottingham Forest home and away.

ScoopDragon Football News Network

Article title: Feature: Nottingham Forest and Joao Carvalho – an expensive mistake, or the one that got away?

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