Pleat exit leaves road clear for McClaren at Nottingham Forest
Back in May, Nottingham Forest bowed out of the play-offs at the semi-final stage for the second year in a row. Of course, the spectre of play-off failure distorts the overall picture of a team that became accustomed to winning. A habit that has been hard to come by since the summer. But news has now emerged that seems to confirm Steve McClaren is digging in at the City Ground.
The latest flashpoint in the McClaren situation saw his charges beaten 5-1 at Burnley on Tuesday evening. While this may have seemed like another two steps back for his chances of success at Forest, reports that the former England manager has finally seen off football consultant David Pleat may be one important step forward towards a greater degree of harmony at the club.
Pleat has been picking up a reported £120,000 salary for his role – peanuts in football terms but a huge bone of contention given a recent history of tension in high places. When results start to go downhill, the presence of a football consultant is even greater folly than normal. It is a battle that McClaren has won and his road ahead is clearer. Now he just needs to locate the accelerator after his men crashed to the latest in a series of damaging defeats.
It is important to note that the scoreline suffered at Turf Moor is not without precedent – Davies lost 5-0 at the same venue early in his spell in the hot seat – and Forest also shipped four twice towards the end of last season, to Reading and Leeds United. So the kind of abject defending that allowed Burnley to run riot is not solely of McClaren’s making.
The figures make for interesting reading. Forest have now let in 19 goals from 9 league games this season, the same tally that it took them 21 league games to concede from the beginning of the previous campaign. Last season, the 19th came in the final game of December. This time, it was the last match in September.
None of that says much for McClaren, but Forest also conceded 21 goals in the last 11 Championship fixtures last season (a number rings true whether you choose to include their two play-off semi-final clashes with Swansea City or not). All of which leaves a record of two goals conceded per game over a period stretching back to March this year, after an opening five months of 2010/11 in which the ratio was better than a goal per game.
These basic statistics support the argument that Lee Camp, Chris Gunter, Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers (to name four of the back five which has remained fairly constant in recent times for Forest) are certainly capable of better than the last six months would suggest. With the seemingly perennial left-back saga solved by the acquisition of last year’s title-winning left-back Clint Hill, all was set for an improvement in fortunes.
This is where McClaren has truly baffled. Since signing Hill, Forest have moved to a back five for some mysterious reason. And so a team that has sporadically been in dire need of a left-back for a number of years suddenly found itself possessing an option but no position for him to fill.
While the defence has certainly proved to be problematic, there has also been a surprising transformation in Forest’s attacking approach. They ended last season throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Swansea and coming within inches of securing a place at Wembley when Robert Earnshaw’s late effort struck a Liberty Stadium post. There was enough pace to worry defences, to turn them around and make the City Ground a fearsome place to go.
McClaren, perhaps influenced by Davies’s constant harping about the youth and naivety at his disposal, added experience to the middle of the park by signing Jonathan Greening and George Boateng. In the early weeks of the season, it looked as though the one-way traffic of that late rally at Swansea had been replaced by a mundane city-centre thoroughfare – McClaren had pedestrianised his new team. Whether that is an accurate portrayal of Forest’s overall play this season is for their fans to confirm or deny.
There have been other question marks further up the field. Has Lewis McGugan, a goalscoring central midfielder shifted out to the left wing on more than one occasion by McClaren, been utilised to best effect? What is the best combination up front and are Ishmael Miller, Matt Derbyshire and Robbie Findley even good enough for what Forest want to achieve? In their defence, the need to score three goals in most games in order to win is not a brilliant starting point.
While Davies had his flaws, he knew how to construct a cohesive Championship outfit and his successor must now prove that he can also assemble a winning side. At present, it all comes back to this – whatever the magic formula for McClaren might be, it definitely isn’t 5-3-2.
As much as anything, the negatives of any defeat are always amplified by supporters if their manager has adopted an unusual formation. It smacks of a desperate short-term measure being applied to a situation which needs to be treated with extreme caution. And while sources claim that chairman Nigel Doughty is continuing to back McClaren with impending Financial Fair Play rules and an accompanying need for stability at the heart of his thinking, football is, as ever, a results game and improvement is imperative.