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.