Burton Albion v Nottingham Forest Preview: roles reversed?

Jacob Davenport making his mark – burtonmail.co.uk

Patience was the order of the day when Nottingham Forest beat Burton Albion 2-0 back in October, eventually unlocking the door through second half goals from Barrie McKay and Eric Lichaj.

The hosts had as much as 70% possession that afternoon at the City Ground and were by far the more proactive side, but this fixture could be a different affair.

For a start, Forest have gone from a side that played largely exciting football to gain mediocre results, only to potentially become one that plays slow, ponderous football to gain poor results.

It would be too early to pin all the blame on Aitor Karanka, whose honest assessments of performances has reaped some appreciation from fans. However, his appointment in place of Mark Warburton, who was sacked in December, represents a sharp change of ideals.

At their best, Forest scored a lot of long-range belters from the likes of Kieran Dowell, they played with boundless energy exemplified by Ben Osborn, they had adventurous full-backs in Eric Lichaj and Armand Traore supporting an attacking quartet that combined smoothly in central areas. That’s not to say that their pre-Christmas form was perfect, but there was an identity to what they did that is currently missing.

By contrast, Burton have been braver on the ball in the last couple of games. They went to Villa Park and Portman Road as underdogs, yet had more possession in both games to create chances and produce competitive performances, even if they were rewarded with just the solitary point. Manchester City loanee Jacob Davenport has added composure in midfield; he and Martin Samuelsen are the first Brewers players this season to average a pass completion ratio of over 80%.

While ball retention alone, doesn’t mean everything, failure to keep hold of possession in the right areas for long enough to sustain pressure was a huge reason why Burton fell to bottom of the table in the first place.

Moreover, Davenport and Samuelsen aren’t playing instead of another midfielder or an attacking performer, they are starting instead of a third centre-back.

Nigel Clough has fielded a wing-back system in 18 of his side’s 31 Championship games this season but the wing-backs had been primarily defensive players, like John Brayford, Stephen Warnock and Tom Flanagan. Ultimately, Burton invited pressure.

With a four-man defence and an extra player further up the pitch, the Brewers have instead been able to impose themselves more on games and no longer appear intimidated by the opposition. The next step for them therefore, is to find a finisher.

Football match previews suggest that there’s potentially goals in Darren Bent – who has scored more of them in the top flight than Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Matt Le Tissier and Didier Drogba – and in Liam Boyce, the SPL’s top scorer last term. Both though are still getting back to full fitness and we saw signs of rustiness at Portman Road last time out.

There is at least some semblance of optimism at The Pirelli, while Karanka deals with an eclectic mix of players. Eight players have left mid-season to give way to 10 new ones and the resultant turbulence has hardly been conducive to tactical consistency, nor the side’s increasing lack of pace. The younger players who remain from Warburton’s regime tend to prefer an arm round the shoulder to the new boss’ iron-fisted methods.

The decline in results doesn’t make Karanka a bad manager, but it does underline the swift upheaval required to make his methods work, which is so far doing more harm than good. We could see a game similar to the previous meeting on Trentside; but with roles reversed.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 2-0