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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Nottingham Forest

The Athletic's Paul Taylor previews tomorrow's encounter

4 October 2019

They are unbeaten since an opening day defeat to West Brom and last Friday night’s 3-2 win over Stoke lifted Nottingham Forest to the top of the Championship for the first time in around a decade. How enjoyable have the first two months of the season been?

Pretty good. I don’t mean to play down Forest’s start to the season by any means because it has been very good and they deserve great praise, but the most encouraging thing is that you get the sense they could do better still. There’s room for improvement and the fact they are up there in spite of that is a really positive sign. Sabri Lamouchi has a real clear way of wanting to do things, a clear way of explaining what he wants to his players and there’s no doubt left in their minds about what the job is. Slowly but surely, they are coming round to his methodology and it feels like they are only going to get better from this point. While things haven’t been perfect and they’ve rode their luck a little bit at times, things are feeling very, very positive indeed.

Former French international Sabri Lamouchi was something of an unknown entity when he replaced Martin O’Neill in the summer. Would you say the fans’ approach to him has changed since he took over?

Initially, a lot of people didn’t know who he was, to be blunt. I was aware of him purely because I’m a football fan and a bit of a nugget, but had it not been for Zinedine Zidane and him coming through the ranks at the time they did, Lamouchi might have been an even bigger name in French football. He was a very highly-respected player there, played for some very big teams in Italy and France, won titles with Monaco and was probably a big deal outside of Britain, perhaps, but he’s very quickly won the fans round and they certainly know who he is now. He’s made a hugely positive impact and is just a straight-talking, honest, open, very driven kind of character who the fans have taken to very quickly.

Saturday’s fixture takes place at the City Ground, but on the road, Forest have almost matched last season’s poor tally of four wins. Would you say that’s been influenced by anything or just down to an increase in confidence?

What Lamouchi seems to have done is give the players confidence, belief and character. Players like Ben Watson, Michael Dawson, Lewis Grabban, Joe Worrall and probably Brice Samba as well are the spine of the team down the centre of the pitch. They are all leaders and strong characters but there’s also more of a physicality to Forest this year when you look at Samba Sow, Alfa Semedo and Sammy Ameobi who are big, strong lads. They’ve got some big, powerful men in the team so they are not physically bullied and they are not mentally weak, either. I think strength and power, both mentally and physically, has changed quite a lot for Forest and they are just stronger in both senses. If we’re honest, they didn’t play particularly well at Blackburn on Tuesday but probably did enough to get the point where they’d have lost that in seasons before. You could probably same the same against Stoke where they’d probably have also lost in seasons gone by. They just seem to have found a way to roll their sleeves up and get the job done; to face the challenges that are in front of them and find a way to get through them.

In your opinion, who’s been Forest’s best player so far this term?

The biggest influence – and it will have been a surprise to a lot of fans – has probably been Ben Watson. He’s the man that makes them tick. Sabri Lamouchi calls him the team’s brain and that’s really what he is: He picks up the ball from the back four and he just gives it to somebody who’s more attack-minded. He’s a great player for transitioning from defence to attack, winning the ball back and he’s just showing what he’s capable of more than ever more this season. He wasn’t always a popular figure with fans, for whatever reason, but he’s really shown what he can do and I think even his doubters are starting to be won round.

How much has Forest’s approach changed under Lamouchi?

Well, the previous manager was Martin O’Neill so they aren’t quite as direct now. The style of play has changed but all he’s done, really, is to give everybody a clear idea of what they are meant to be doing: He’s just organised them, got them disciplined and working hard. The formation is nothing unusual as it was one they used under Aitor Karanka and they do try and pass it when they can, but they are also willing to go more direct if they need to. They just seem to be able to mix it up a little bit, depending on the style or the methodology of the opposition – they have more than one string to their bow, if you like. Under Mark Warburton, for example, if Plan A wasn’t working, Plan B was to do Plan A better, as Brentford fans might remember. They never had another way of doing thing but Lamouchi has a way of mixing things up when he needs to find a different way of doing things.

What’s your score prediction for the game?

I’ve got to say a Forest win, haven’t I? I think it might be one of the hardest games yet because I’ve seen Brentford a few times on the telly and they’ve looked pretty good away from home, but Forest never seem to have an easy game against Brentford either way. Lamouchi was speaking on Thursday about enjoying playing against passing side so we’ll see if Forest enjoy it this weekend. I think it will be a good game and a closely contested one but Forest will edge a narrow 2-1 success.

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