Nottingham Forest head coach Sabri Lamouchi has been accused on occasion of being resistant to change, sticking largely to the same tactics – a 4-2-3-1 formation with a counter-attacking focus – long beyond the point when they stopped working.
Even after the embarrassment of their play-off collapse at the end of last season, the gameplan remained the same at the beginning of the season, bringing three consecutive scoreless defeats to Barnsley, QPR and Cardiff City.
The statistics going into their trip to Huddersfield Town on Friday night were grim – defeated in their last five; winless in nine; three victories in 18 going back to February. Heading into only their third game of the Championship season, the pre-match talk was of whether this could be Lamouchi’s final chance.
It appears the mood hit home to the Frenchman, who responded with what will surely be one of this season’s most surprising team sheets. There was a new system and no fewer than seven changes to the starting line-up, including four debutants, three of whom were in a completely changed back four. The effect was minimal on the end result, a 1-0 defeat.
So what was it all intended to achieve? Did any of it work? And was it simply the final gamble from a man who knows his days are now numbered?
Lamouchi has been strongly backed in this summer’s transfer market, to the tune of no fewer than a dozen signings. Many have been the selections of the boss himself, most noticeably in the addition of Championship experience, a virtue which hasn’t been considered such a priority in recent years at the City Ground.
However, Forest’s first few line-ups this season bore a close resemblance to those of the campaign before. Tyler Blackett, signed from Reading, and Sheffield United loanee Luke Freeman were quickly implemented but, on the whole, last year’s troops were given the opportunity to redeem themselves.
After opening the league campaign with back-to-back 2-0 defeats, something needed to change. With the embarrassment of talent now available throughout the squad, more of the same was not acceptable. But the scale of the clearout for the Friday night trip to West Yorkshire shocked even the most optimistic of supporters.
Most drastically, the entire back four was axed. Admittedly Joe Worrall’s absence was down to injury but Carl Jenkinson, Tobias Figueiredo and Yuri Ribeiro were all cast not just from the starting 11 but the entire squad.
In came Blackett at left-back, plus debuts for Scott McKenna, the highly-rated signing from Aberdeen earlier in the week; Loic Mbe Soh, a promising addition from Paris Saint-Germain no less; and Cyrus Christie, bringing strong Championship pedigree on loan from Fulham. If the signing of Nicholas Ioannou from Cypriot side APOEL had been secured any sooner, it might have been a full set.
The final debutant was Harry Arter, another with big second-tier experience having twice been promoted from this division, including last season with Fulham, while Lyle Taylor got a first start in place of Lewis Grabban. With Samba Sow preferred to Ryan Yates in midfield, only goalkeeper Brice Samba, midfielder Jack Colback, left winger Sammy Ameobi and Luke Freeman, pushed from the middle to the right, were retained, as the formation was tweaked from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a 4-3-3.
Considering the upheaval, the defence was one of the few positives to come out of another largely dire performance. McKenna and Mbe Soh looked a strong pairing at the heart, largely keeping Fraizer Campbell quiet, at least until the winning goal. Christie looks a real attacking threat from the right, and should lead their impressive list of options in that position ahead of Jenkinson, Tendayi Darikwa and the emerging Jordan Gabriel.
If anything, Blackett was the least comfortable defender at left-back, caught out of position several times. He might find a regular place either there or in the centre difficult to hold down, particularly with McKenna now likely to be the nailed-on left-sided centre-back.
In midfield, the balance did not work. Again the debutant did best, with Arter full of running though struggling to find a consistent link to the attack. There has been much talk of who replaces Ben Watson’s vital destructive role, and while Colback played the deepest with a quarter-back style, it was Sow expected to really bring the bite. However, the Malian, who has long struggled with knee injuries, was too aggressive, too eager, and fortunate to stay on the pitch for as long as the 57 minutes he did, Lamouchi hauling him off before the referee did.
Freeman should be a key player this season but was nothing more than a shadow out on the right flank. The only starter with fewer touches was Taylor, who battled and tried to link up but was often isolated, and didn’t quite have his touch right when chances did come. Ameobi was the biggest threat, with Alex Mighten also showing promise from the bench.
But overall, it was a failed and troubling gamble. Lamouchi has stuck to his convictions and faced condemnation for doing so, but his drastic choices on Friday night suggest more than a desire to try something new. Whether suffering a collapse in self-belief or wanting to make a point to his critics, he is now in a weaker position.
Considering the future of a manager three games into a season should be forbidden, but the nature of 2020 means that it is difficult to separate the new campaign from the conclusion of the last. For no man is that more unfortunate than Lamouchi.
Add the impressive summer recruitment, and the pressure is rightly on. He has a squad that should be delivering results and challenging for a top-six place, not stranded without a win or a goal. With very little personal credit left in his bank, he needs to dig out the winning formula quickly, or his time in the East Midlands will very soon be over.