Saturday, 7 March 2015

More sunshine and good times for Dougie

I could get used to this. Another Saturday, another superb win for Dougie Freedman's side. It wasn't easy - it took skill, effort and tactical nous to get one over Aitor Karanka's title challenging Middlesbrough - but it was another highly entertaining encounter to carry on the Scotsman's reign in some style.

Fresh from his first defeat, at The Valley on Tuesday, Freedman was forced to shuffle his pack again. I worried that switching Eric Lichaj to left back might spoil his near-flawless displays under the new manager and that the midfield selection - with Mancienne and Gardner in the middle - might be a sign that we were going to be a shade on the defensive side in the face of the threat posed by the likes of Adomah, Tomlin, Kike and the returning Patrick Bamford.

That wasn't really the case, though, in an entertaining first half that was just shaded by the home side. Still, it was Boro - a good technical outfit, well marshalled by one-time (well many times actually!) Forest target Grant Leadbitter - who took the lead through the man himself. Leadbitter's teasing, chipped dink to the far post found the net after a short corner which had predictably caught Forest napping.

That felt unfair based on the run of play and rightful parity was restored when Gary Gardner levelled matters in some style. Having just planted a header wide he made amends with a superb long range curled effort. Sky will have to name its 'Goal of the Day' award after the on-loan Villa man at this rate given the magnificent strike he fired home at the Madejski last week. His performance had deserved it too - a smart display full of clever touches, turns and passes which showed another side of his game, with Mancienne in the side to be the deeper man.

The second half was much more a case of dogged determination and discipline. Boro controlled the ball better as they looked for a way to forge ahead in a super-tight title race. Here Freedman earned his corn once again - setting up a solid shape that restricted to visitors to long-range efforts. It was tough to watch as we struggled to get enough of the ball but it was a system that retained just enough of a threat to conjure a winner.

Michail Antonio had been denied a penalty after what looked to be a pretty deliberate and clear hand ball from Kalas but made sure that that didn't matter by setting up Dexter Blackstock for a well-taken winner. I know some are frustrated at Michail's lack of defensive cover but you do wonder if it's a ploy for him not to track an overlapping full back so that he's in position to spring a counter. Even if it's not you can't be too harsh on him - the pace and power he shows on the left is a handful for anyone at this level and he's a joy to watch going forward. We'd be a much worse side without him.

You couldn't help but be delighted for Dexter too - netting his first goal at the City Ground since Boxing Day 2012 when he scored the 4th in a 4-2 win over Leeds United that was to prove the final game for Sean O'Driscoll. Dexter was a menace for the Middlesbrough back line all afternoon with the sort of hard working and physical display that was the hallmark of his earlier days at the club.

From then on it was what Freedman called a 'superhuman effort' to see the game out. It's the sort of steel we simply didn't have under Pearce. I needn't have worried about Lichaj who once again proved the unsung hero cutting out crosses and getting in tackles alongside Lascelles and Wilson, who both did well. The returning Todd Kane proved rusty in the first half but just about held out as part of the Freedman shape.

It all made for a cracking three points and, just as we feared we had done the Sh**p a favour, the icing on the cake came with news of two injury time goals for Birmingham down the A52.

I'm still not allowing myself to whittle about the play offs. I'm massively enjoying the football served up by Freedman's side and I really don't want to spoil it with all that stress, especially since it's still an awful way off and tough trips to both East Anglian clubs and Brentford await. I'd prefer to dwell on the fact that it's some time since such an entertaining run of performances from a Forest side.

I was also heartened by Freedman's pre-match interview. In some respects it was the sort of interview you'd like to hear from Fawaz. He was positive, enthusiastic and knowledgable whilst realistic to the challenge ahead. It sounds like he's effectively drawn up a 'business plan' for the future on how to recruit and develop under the limitations imposed after breaking the FFP spending limits. It's something that you doubt anyone else involved in the club has done, save maybe for a piece of paper in Fawaz's office somewhere with 'get to the Premier League' written on it.

I'm sold on Dougie now and I wish Fawaz would get on with confirming he will be with us next season. With the embargo looming over us we'll need to be super smart in the transfer market. Targets need to be identified now and chased as soon as possible. We need a plan and Freedman is clearly a man with a plan. His long-term stay on Trentside really shouldn't be dependent on him pulling off some unlikely promotion miracle. Days like this have earned him the right to try to deliver in the long-term, it's time that common sense prevailed.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Dougie Freedman? Everything he touches turns to goals

I don't know if Dougie Freedman has a middle name but it ought to be Midas.

I was underwhelmed at his appointment, a feeling not really dispelled by John McGovern offering the explanation of 'he was available' when asked why he was chosen to succeed Stuart Pearce.

Still, football moves on quickly and here I am, six games later, the opposite of underwhelmed (whelmed??!) by what the Scot in the hotseat has served up.

Six games, five wins, 19 goals and just one yellow card to boot. Given how obsessed everyone is by stats these days he's probably tempted to call it quits now, preserving an 83% win rate.

This latest victory will live long in the memory of the travelling Trickies - largely because it served up three top class strikes to overthrow the shellshocked Royals.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Freedman's tenure so far is how he's kept his good start going in spite of a number of number of challenges. £5m star striker injured? No problem - Dougie rejuvenates Dexter Blackstock and finds a new focal point for the attack. Blackstock struggling to make three games in a week after coming in from the cold? No problem, a quick tweak to our approach and Matty Fryatt comes in to lead the line. Defence out of form and fitness? Dougie digs out Danny Collins and gets him playing his best games in the Garibaldi. Jack Hobbs injured? Jamaal Lascelles slots in for the most assured performances he's put in for a year. Three captains missing (Cohen, Reid and Hobbs)? Lansbury fills the leadership void and thrives with the armband. Key midfield fulcrum struggling to make three games in a week? Mancienne makes up for Gardner's absence in a deep midfield role with a tidy display.

I've heard it said that Freedman has succeeded by 'keeping it simple'. That's maybe true in the way that he's settled on a formation that works in the Championship and that plays to the strengths we have on the wings. However, go back to that list above and you'll see that he's hardly had an easy ride of it. He may have mapped out a solid and effective shape but that job - amid all the issues he's faced - has been far from simple.

With Mancienne, Osborn and Lansbury as the starting midfield trio, the action at the Madejski began firmly in Forest's favour. Osborn stood out with his purposeful running, tigerish work rate and smart passing as Reading dropped deep. Maybe Steve Clarke's men were buoyed by their results at Ipswich and Derby and wanted to play this as an away game? Still, this looked a little alien to us - probably as we were still recovering from not having a lot of the ball against Bournemouth - and there was just a skewed Osborn effort and a blazed Antonio strike to show for our early endeavours.

Reading then woke up. Everything they did all afternoon came through the former Reds duo of Gunter and McCleary on the right. I actually thought Danny Fox stood up well to the test but, with little or no help from the disappointing Paterson, the crosses and chances started to come in the second part of the first half. The first two were spurned by Simon Cox - one of their own they sung as though it a good thing. As those chances went begging and his game disappeared into all-too-familiar anonymity the Forest faithful were only too happy to remind the hosts he was, indeed, one of their own. The other two chances were thwarted by an ever alert Lascelles - the first a block to divert a Pogrebnyak effort wide and the second a clearance off the line to deny McCleary.

Safely back in the dressing room at 0-0, the Midas manager struck again. Seeing that Paterson was struggling he brought on Chris Burke and it almost immediately paid dividends. The Scottish winger's first foray down his flank caused havoc and instantly gave notice of our greater threat. His introduction also meant Michail Antonio switched to his preferred left flank and put him up against Chris Gunter, who didn't seem to relish the problems posed by the power and pace of the man who was plucked from non-league by Reading.

Still, the game required a touch of class to tip it properly in favour of Freedman's men. It came from the boot of Ben Osborn. The Sheep Slayer deliciously curled in a long range effort past a stranded Adam Federici. He was so nonchalant about it at first that we didn't quite believe it had gone in. I guess he's getting used to this. It was a sublime strike though and capped off what was, for me, a man of the match display.

Antonio then turned back the clock to last week, powering past a succession of players before letting fly with an effort that, unlike against Bolton, whistled wide. Reading weren't done yet though. Darlow denied Pogrebnyak with a smart save and Gunter fired over a dangerous cross that evaded everyone as it fizzed through the six yard box.

Our attacking play was much swifter and sharper in the second half though and when the ball broke to Antonio as the clock approached 70 minutes he burst forward again - this time releasing Fryatt who twisted and turned his way into the box before doubling the lead. His boss, no doubt biased by his goal poaching past, rated this his favourite of the three we scored all afternoon.

My favourite, however, came from the boot of substitute Gary Gardner. He was sent on to replace the tiring Fryatt with Antonio moving up front (for five minutes before Blackstock came on for Antonio we played with no strikers - who knew Dougie was the Scottish Guardiola eh?). Gardner looks like a proper footballer - the sort of underrated but talented midfielder who graced Trentside in the late 80s and early 90s. For this cameo he wasn't the deepest midfielder of the central trio and so had licence to roam. And roam he did, right up to 35 yards out from goal, when he let rip with a thunderbolt that satisfyingly kissed the underside of the bar on its way in.

In a nerdy way we ought, really, to have been almost as impressed by what followed. With ten minutes to go we witnessed a well organised solid unit keep its shape, keep working hard and shut out Reading in their quest for a consolation effort. No one even 'fed the Yak', who I'm not sure had a kick when he came off the bench. It was disciplined and just what we'd been missing under Pearce. Lichaj was flawless, Collins and Lascelles looked a good blend of experience and youth, having both previously had their fair share of shaky moments in the past year or so, and Lansbury and Mancienne worked their socks off to make sure the battle was won.

The contrast was even more stark for me given that I only get to the occasional away fixture. The last time I saw the Reds on the road was at Huddersfield. Not only was the result the exact opposite that time out but the performance was markedly different too. We were a shambles across the back and looked vulnerable every time the Terriers came forward. We couldn't get a foothold in the midfield and offered little or no attacking threat.

This also ended my own Reading hoodoo. I'd previously seen us put to the sword 1-0 on Good Friday 2003 as the play-offs loomed under Paul Hart and then again 3-0 a few months later in the early part of the disappointing following season. By then a frustrated Hart explained his only 'plan B' would be to throw Michael Dawson up front, so stretched were his resources. My next two visits were largely forgettable early season draws, a 0-0 in 2009 and 1-1 in 2010. It seems it took the Midas touch to break that duck.

So there it is. Freedmania runs wild. Let's hope for more sunshine, moonlight and good times from Dougie. And don't spoil it for yourself by stressing about the play offs. It's sobering to think that Billy's second coming brought a run of six successive wins after an initial draw. That was at a similar stage of the season when we couldn't quite chase down an impossible dream. Pearce also began with an identical points record to Dougie from his first six games.

Freedman's 'super six' have been more entertaining and convincing than either of those two runs, particularly Pearce's. He'll have more challenges thrown his way in the weeks to come and won't always be able to rely on the sort of long range raspers that Osborn and Gardner cracked in on Saturday. Still, given the way he's begun, we should stop being surprised if and when he finds the answer to any predicament to come.