Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Time for a squad audit as Freedman prepares for tricky summer

Another summer brings yet another tough task for the incumbent on Trentside.
Previous years have seen the club up for sale or wholesale changes in personnel as new managers look to mould the club in their image.
In some respects Dougie Freedman’s in-tray isn’t as dramatic or wide-ranging yet that’s not to say it won’t be just as vital, or indeed as tough.
The necessity of the transfer embargo leaves the Scot little wriggle room yet the experience of the last seven games has shown that the squad does require work.
Against Wolves, Watford, Ipswich, Norwich and Brentford we’ve held our own, been on top for passages and come up short in a barren spell that has seen us notch up no victories.
So, how does Dougie get us up to the same level as those sides without the freedom to spend how he wishes?

It’s vital, given the situation we’re in, to make the most of the personnel we’ve got. Every player needs to be properly assessed, including any returning loanees who have time left on their contracts. We can’t afford to be wasting time shopping around for players we’ve already got.
Equally the stability of having a strong core of players that remain on board should help. Most of the top eight this season are settled squads that played a defined style. Constant change at the City Ground has stopped us achieving any continuity.
To my mind only Henri Lansbury and Michail Antonio should attract interest from the Premier League. Given that we’re way off meeting any sort of FFP targets - and the restrictions on signings replacements - then it’s surely false economics to cash in on these two to reach that.
To my mind the ball is totally in their court. If, understandably, they want a crack at the big time then we should focus our efforts on getting the best possible prices (the losses do have to come down some time after all).
My instinct is that Antonio might be persuaded to stay another year – Freedman already seems to have started heavily hinting that he has plans to get the best from him. I also get the feeling Henri would fancy leaving, especially given that he’s already been denied the chance to head to the Promised Land last summer. If so we should wish him well and bear in mind that that is a position we may well need to fill. Freedman seems sensible and it’s time we got streetwise in the market and identified targets to replace our stars before they go.

So what are we faced with? I’d split the players into the following categories:

Assets: Lansbury, Antonio

First team squad: De Vries, Lichaj, Hobbs, Mancienne, Wilson, Osborn, Chris Burke, Blackstock, Fryatt

Question marks: Vaughan, Majewski, Mackie, Abdoun, McLaughlin, Fox, Paterson, Veldwijk

Out of contract: Harding, Collins, Halford, Tesche

Injured stars: Cohen, Reid, Assombalonga

Young prospects: Walker, Grant, Oliver Burke, Evtimov

We’ve already discussed the assets, so what about the rest? De Vries is signed up for a couple of years and is a decent, experienced pro at this level. It appears to me that Dougie only sees him as a back up though and would quite like to add another keeper, especially since the message seems to be that Evtimov isn’t ready.
Lichaj has been something of a revelation post-Pearce, so much so that he must be one of the first names on the 2015/16 team sheet. The beauty for Freedman is that he has shone at both right and left back – meaning he could fit in on either side, depending on who we can sign. I’d still prefer him on the right but starting the season with Lichaj at left back would not be a worry.
We’ve got three senior centre halves on the books and they need to deliver next season. Hobbs and Wilson need to shrug off their nagging fitness woes and show the sort of class that caused Fawaz to dig deep into his pockets to buy them in the first place. Wilson in particular has disappointed this time around but given that his wages would probably make him hard to off-load - and that we can’t afford to be making problems to fix - we need to work out how to get the best from him.
Ben Osborn has been a revelation this year and also one of the unluckier members of the squad – often being the one to get subbed or left out when changes are made. His energy helps us press high up the pitch and his passing and poise have come on a lot to make him a key part of the squad going forward.
The wily Burke and striking duo of Blackstock and Fryatt add experience – although big concerns remain about the forward pair’s fitness over a long-hard season.

That brings us on to the long-term injury situation. Chris Cohen and Andy Reid were all set to be Stuart Pearce’s central midfield combination of choice but both saw their season’s cruelly cut short, only managing six games apiece. Both are big concerns going forward and, at some point, a tough decision might have to be taken on their futures. For now it makes sense to try to get them back – while being mindful that we can’t factor either in as definite starters.
Britt, meanwhile, can be the January signing we’re not allowed to make. Provided his recovery goes to plan he can give the squad a vital boost at a time in the season when rivals will be able to dip into the market and make signings.
In general though, beyond these three, you have to be worried about the overall fitness of the squad. Fryatt, Hobbs and Vaughan have a great pedigree but we simply haven’t been able to field any of them for enough games for them to make the desired impact on our fortunes.
We cannot afford to juggle any more injured players and you wouldn’t be surprised if Freedman looked to move on one or more of the members of the squad who seem unlikely to be able to contribute for even 20 games across the season.

I’m not sure I see a way back for the out of contract players. Dougie knows he needs to trim the squad and the quickest and easiest to get the numbers down will be to let these players go. In some respects it’s a shame that Danny Collins’ renaissance fizzled out, that Dan Harding wasn’t given more of a go under Pearce when he was performing better than Fox. It's also said that the versatile Halford – who has the natural talent to play anywhere without ever nailing down a proper position – won’t have a future. Tesche (who I understand we have the option of taking for another year) showed flashes of talent but the later loan of Gary Gardner showed up what we’d been missing when Tesche was in the midfield.

The young prospects speak for themselves but I'm the first to admit that I don't know the full extent of what's waiting in the wings. It'll certainly be interesting to see if Louis Laing has done enough on loan to warrant consideration, while Roger Riera's acquisition was seen as something of a coup at the time. 

The main headaches come with the 'question mark' category. If we count the injured players, assets, first team squad members and young talent then we've reached a total of 18. Dougie will undoubtedly want another keeper so I'd say there's five spaces up for grabs for a 24-man squad.

Personally I don't see Veldwijk being part of Freedman's plans - he seems destined for a switch back home or a season long loan at least. He's struggled to settle and, if we're already carrying injured players, then we can't afford to hang about and see if it works for him. It was never a good sign for him that Walker took his place on the bench.

Abdoun needs to go pretty desperately - his attitude and wage bill really isn't worth the show pony routine - while Radi, for me, has also had his day. He couldn't force his way into the Huddersfield squad and simply can't be relied on to be consistent. McLaughlin doesn't quite look quick or sharp enough for this level for me, while Fox has been a continued source of frustration and, like Radi, is a liability. It's a shame because I thought he had the talent to finally end our left back hoodoo but it hasn't worked out.

Now down to the difficult choices. David Vaughan has been a huge disappointment, mainly due to the fact he has barely lasted 90 minutes, let alone two games running. The 32-year-old has the experience and class to run a Championship midfield - but can his body last the pace? Maybe our lack of bodies in the middle saves him but the jury is out though and if a suitable replacement can be found then maybe it's time to be ruthless and move him on.

Jamie Paterson has been the biggest disappointment of the season. The 12-goal rising star of last term has notched just once this time around and looked a shadow of the player from 2013/14. I can't help thinking it's because he's wrongly labelled. He's seen as a winger but I see him and think that the traditional game of the wide player - getting around a full back and whipping a cross in - isn't his game. For me he's better centrally, either just off a front man or at the point of a three-man midfield ala Lansbury. That's often where Billy got the best from the former Walsall man. Can he work in that position for Freedman? Possibly. It remains to be seen if Dougie fancies him there though. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him depart for pastures new - and then probably come back to haunt us!

Another tricky decision needs to be made over Jamie Mackie. In all honesty I don't see him as a regular starter, but probably as the ideal back up in either attacking wide berth if Antonio or Burke isn't getting any joy in Dougie's favoured 433. Yes he's not an out and out winger but - unlike Paterson - he can do a shift and cause havoc for defenders with sheer effort and strength. I'm not sure how big his wages are though - if they're sky high then it might be time to move him on too.

So where does that leave us?

Goalkeepers: De Vries, Evtimov
Defenders: Lichaj, Hobbs, Mancienne, Wilson
Midfielders: Osborn, Lansbury, C Burke, O Burke, Antonio, Grant, Reid, Cohen
Strikers: Fryatt, Blackstock, Walker, Assombalonga

With the following needed: a goalkeeper, full back, central midfielder(s), striker and another defender/midfielder - albeit with the chance to use Vaughan, Mackie and Paterson if required. That's maybe more drastic than I thought before going into this process but it does keep a solid core in place to build from.

I'd like to think the academy could provide at least one or two defenders in the coming years. It's a great disappointment that we are continually having to go cap in hand to Premier League clubs to pinch reserve right and left backs for a few months here and there. We have to be able to produce someone who is a solid defender at the very least, even if bombing past on the overlap is too much to ask for.

Interestingly, of course, Cohen did flourish at left back during Billy's second stint in charge. I do wonder whether, post injury, this may be where he needs to return in the future. Yes, it's a tough position with lots of heading and tackling but I can't help thinking that the hustle and bustle of the middle of the park might be too big an ask. In central midfield he'd be forever stopping and starting, twisting and turning and putting his legs at risk. 

In truth this whole audit has revealed that Freedman's task is a tough one. Too many of the core of players I'd like to keep have injury question marks by their side. Harsh as it sounds it's not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine a week without Hobbs, Wilson, Vaughan, Reid, Cohen and Fryatt fit and that can't go on, no matter what sentiment we may hold for some of those players. Dougie has to be ruthless and honest and act swiftly. He does, at least, have some talented players to work with and he's had time to properly assess who can contribute come August. 

The last few weeks has been the phoney war. When the final whistle goes against Cardiff the real work starts. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Dear Villa, please can we keep Gary Gardner?

I'm rooting for Villa. Not necessarily this Sunday, although I wouldn't mind seeing them upset Liverpool and the 'FA Cup narrative'. No, I'm backing Villa because I'm clinging to the hope that if they stay up and, even better, if they get bought out by rich owners, they might be prepared to let us keep Gary Gardner.

It's probably a false hope, especially with Tactics Tim's record with younger players and the restrictions we have under the dreaded FFP. It'd be nice though wouldn't it?

Wednesday's night's game against Watford served as a timely reminder of the quality we've missed from Gardner while he was suspended. 

Despite carving a golden chance for Chris Burke I felt we struggled to settle for the first 15 minutes - not helped by gifting a goal to Odion Ighalo after just four minutes. 

However, one touch of magisterial brilliance from the on-loan Aston Villa man lifted us. A neat dinked ball, seemingly innocuous given it led to nothing directly, seemed to spur us into life - as if we realised we had a bit of class to rely on in the middle and could go forward with confidence.

For the rest of the half I felt Watford continued to look dangerous - how did Abdi miss 'that' chance? - but so did we. Former Spurs keeper Heurelho Gomes denying Antonio, the tigerish Osborn and Eric Lichaj, who tried his luck with an incredible acrobatic effort from distance.

Still, all that good work, inspired by Gardner's poise and sheer class, was undone when Ighalo evaded the lame defensive efforts of an off-the-pace Kelvin Wilson and his shot rebounded to Matthew Connolly, who had started the breakaway, to establish a two-goal cushion.

There were plenty of grumbles at half time but actually it hadn't been a bad game, we simply didn't have the same cutting edge up front with a front line led by a largely anonymous Chuba Akpom and the wide threat of Michail Antonio not quite hitting the heights of a couple of months ago as the season continues to take his toll on the ex-Sheffield Wednesday man (surely the clear player of the year regardless?).

The second half was even more entertaining than the first prompted, bizarrely, by the red card of Kelvin Wilson. His horror show ended with a petulant looking kick out - a lazy bit of play that showed no regard for his team mates or the desire to come back in the game. At that point, with half an hour to go, you feared the cricket season was due to come to West Bridgford earlier than Sunday's first home clash with reigning county champions Yorkshire. Surely the hungry Hornets would pile on the pressure and give their goal difference a boost with the proverbial cricket score?

What followed was a remarkable effort from Freedman's men. Mancienne was put out of his midfield misery and shifted to centre half but the real change came with the sheer display of effort and determination. It was if the players knew they had to up their game to cope with being a man down - and dug deep to improve drastically (which probably also speaks volumes for Wilson's display too).

Led by the lung-bursting forward forays of the revitalised Lichaj, the men in red stormed forward, not caring that there was nothing to play for. Burke battled and schemed, Akpom was replaced by the much more effective Tyler Walker, Antonio dug deep and probed and Gardner, the fulcrum at the heart of everything, sprayed the ball about.

When a marginal free-kick/penalty decision on 72 minutes saw the referee opt not to give a spot kick, Gardner took his frustration out on the ball and thundered in a devastating free kick into the net to pull a goal back. 

What followed from that was something of a slugfest - a shootout at the City Ground corral - as both sides continued to attack. It was refreshing to see to be honest. Our players could have given up, given there was little to play for, and Watford could've sat deep and accepted a useful 2-1 win against 10 men. Instead both strove to find that all-important next goal.

It should've come to Antonio when a shot from Gardner - that man again - found its way to him just a couple of yards out with an open goal to aim at. But, despite all of those wonder strikes he's scored this season, Michail misfired and spooned his effort wide. Anyone stupid enough not to forgive the winger, though, needs to spend a few minutes on YouTube.

The sting in the tail came when Almen Abdi made amends for his earlier miss, finishing after Darlow parried a typically vicious swerved effort from ex-Red Adlene Guedioura. 

It was perhaps cruel, I thought a draw would've been fair for our efforts with ten men, but Watford will think it was reward for their own attacking intent and impressive cutting edge. Even then a slightly rusty Hobbs was charging forward with a give and go on the half way line in injury time - epitomising the exceptional spirit on show.

We've learned that Mancienne really doesn't work as a screening midfielder, that Tyler Walker coming along nicely and that Kelvin Wilson really doesn't deserve to be an automatic starter. Above all, we've also learned that we're at our best on the ball when Gary Gardner is in the side. A permanent deal for him would be the dream - and add real class to an emerging spine of a squad for next year. Does anyone at Villa fancy doing us a favour? Please?

Monday, 13 April 2015

We must back Dougie Freedman's Forest manifesto...and use these four games wisely

A fully costed plan for tough economic times? Trying to deliver progress without much cash to spend? Looking to secure a mandate to carry out the plan? Yep, the main ‘manifesto’ i’m interested in this week is not those being put forward by the political parties but Dougie Freedman’s vision for the future at Forest.

The canny Scotsman does appear to have put deep thought into both the business and footballing side of the immediate future of the club and his signature on a piece of paper is the vital starting point for building to next season.

Freedman’s experience at Crystal Palace and Bolton means he’s not only got knowledge of the Championship but also of working to tackle the deficit. No, hang on, that’s politics again. You get the picture though – it’s hard to think of a manager out there who has such immediate experience of both the financial and footballing circumstances the club now finds itself in. That and the fact he now knows the squad and its strengths and weaknesses. Jettisoning him in favour of someone like Dan Petrescu – with no knowledge of the league – now would be barmy. I'm not suggesting that's likely but it's worth considering that we'd struggle to find anyone anywhere near as well qualified as Dougie.

The appointment of Leon Hunter looks to be an important one when it comes to next season too. It looks, to the outsider at least, as though we’re finally going to take seriously the need to scour the lower leagues for bargains and up-and-coming talent. Given the financial constraints imposed by Financial Fair Play that’s now a necessity but it really is something we should’ve been doing anyway. For too long now we’ve preferred to wait and chase players once they’ve made the move to this level and become expensive.

So, presuming Freedman signs on the dotted line and retains the wise old owl of Lennie Lawrence by his side, Hunter could be just what the pair need to help in their player search. Fawaz needs to trust in the trio and realise that being prudent and not overspendng doesn’t mean you can’t challenge at this level – see Brentford and Bournemouth – but it does mean you need to be savvy and patient – two things we’ve spectacularly failed to be for some time.

I like the sound of Freedman’s manifesto and you’d like to think the work on new players and building our squad for next year will have already started. He says he has told some players they can look for new clubs already and appears to be hinting that he’ll be seeing what a few more players have to offer in the next few games as he weighs up who stays and who goes. A warning for the disappointing Paterson perhaps?

I don't imagine we'll be seeing Collins, Harding or Halford again. Radi has done nothing on loan to suggest he's worth the hassle and while Mackie would possibly be a decent sub, you fear he's probably too expensive to have as a bench warmer.

I’d like to see that hard-headed approach extended further. Now that it’s mathematically impossible to go up (although it has been pretty improbable for a long, long time) it really is time to focus on next season. In fact, not using these last four games wisely would seem to be a total waste.

To that end I see little justification in playing Karl Darlow or Jamaal Lascelles. The Newcastle-bound duo have done their bit for us now but it seems unlikely that they’ll be around next season. Following on from his ten-game loan spell at Mansfield Town I’d give Dimitar Evtimov a game, just to weigh up how close he is to being ready for this level, if at all. He’s surely either destined to be our number two or, if not good enough for the bench, then due to leave for pastures new.

It’s become something of a cliché now but it is also, surely, time to give Tyler Walker a start. These games would be an ideal chance to build his strength and fitness and vital experience if he’s to play a part in the squad in our upcoming anniversary year. That’s either got to be ahead of Akpom – why groom someone else’s kid when we can groom our own? – or alongside him as a partnership.

Oliver Burke csn probably ease the workload on the increasingly weary Antonio while the likes of Jorge Grant and the more senior under 21s might be worth a place on the bench. There's no point chucking them all in at once, that'd be counter productive and wouldn't teach us much. I'd still like to make use of Gary Gardner,  for example,  because his calm quality in the middle is a useful springboard for others to play off. Plus, it'd be nice - and hopefully possible if Villa stay up - to entice him back next season.

I'd also pick Mancienne and Lichaj, two players who have proven their versatility, in their best positions and put trust in Osborn,  whose energy is badly missed when he'snot in the side.

I think it’s also got to be make-or-break territory for David Vaughan now too. You’d think someone of his quality should be able to dominate games at this level but he’s barely been fit enough to last 90 minutes, let alone back-to-back matches. At some point a decision needs to be taken. We’re carrying an awful lot of players who, harsh or not, are injury prone. Reid, Cohen, Hobbs and Fryatt are all quality players but are all long-term concerns. I’m not saying any of those should go, but the club can't carry too many players who can't contribute.

I know there are some who argue that we ‘owe it to the league’ not to weaken the side but sometimes you have to be selfish. We need to use these game to improve our squad and build for next year. Quite frankly, everyone else can get stuffed. This is a ruthless league and no-one else will do us any favours. Plus, it's not as if we'd field a team of kids all at once, that wouldn't give us the best look at them.

We should treat these four matches as a bonus chance to get ahead with our summer plans rather thsn playing them out as a formality. We need to put ourselves first and help Freedman put the finishing touches to his manifesto in time to get started for next year.