Nuno Espírito Santo is back in the Premier League.
After a run of one win in 13 and six losses in their last eight games, Nottingham Forest lost patience with Steve Cooper, and have replaced him with the former Wolves and Tottenham manager.
Forest have been sliding down the Premier League table for months, and owner Evangelos Marinakis, who has been considering other options for a while now, has finally pulled the trigger on Cooper.
Nuno returns to the Premier League hoping to rebuild a reputation that took a hell of a hit in a very brief stint in charge of Spurs – something that always felt quite harsh given how much good work he had done previously in his four years at Wolves – at a club with ambitions to work their way up the Premier League table.
Right now, though, the immediate ambition has to be to stop the rot. Forest aren’t yet one of the favourites to go down, but they’re not far off. Their chances of relegation are currently at around 30% according to the Opta supercomputer, and very much on an upward trajectory.
With relegation concerns understandably starting to creep in, here are five suggestions for how Nuno can turn Forest’s season around and get them looking up the table rather than worriedly over their shoulder.
Streamline the Squad
A late-December managerial change might normally have the benefit of very quickly giving the new boss the chance to bring in players in the January transfer window. Nuno might well be able to do that given the owner’s penchant for ambitious spending, but it should be more of a priority to trim the squad down by getting a few out the exit door.
Forest’s spending has been gobsmacking since they returned to the Premier League. Last summer, they signed 29 players for a total of more than £150 million – more than the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain spent in the same window.
It has meant Cooper had a squad of genuine Premier League quality to choose from, but inconsistency in team selection has harmed them – and maybe there is such a thing as too much depth. Whenever there has been a poor result, Cooper has had to make a statement by ringing the changes simply because there are so many other options available and gagging for a chance.
There really has been no chance for players to play their way into form. Last season, Forest used 33 different players and had 30 different players start games – both the second-highest of all Premier League teams. This season, they have already used 28 (the second-highest behind injury-ravaged Newcastle), with 27 of them having started a game – the most in the Premier League.
Now, I’m sure fans of, say, Manchester United would much rather have a deeper squad so that Erik ten Hag could make more changes during their injury crisis, but Forest haven’t struggled with injuries. They have had a squad bloated with too many players struggling for match fitness, who then aren’t sharp and ready to play when they are called upon. Only three teams have made more substitutions this season than Forest (75), but only six teams’ subs have contributed fewer goals and assists than their five.
What use has it been having the scorer of the winning penalty in the World Cup final and last season’s Europa League final, Gonzalo Montiel, as the fourth-choice right-back/right wing-back? Why sign Chris Wood and Divock Origi if neither is going to get much of a chance even when Taiwo Awoniyi is out injured?
Nuno needs to streamline this squad, not least so he can bring in one or two players who suit his game in January. It could – and possibly should – be another busy window for Forest.
Improve Their Set-Pieces
Set-pieces have always been important to Nuno. His Wolves side hit double figures in each of his three top-flight seasons as their manager. An improvement in Forest’s performance at dead balls is an obvious place for him to start.
Forest scored 10 goals from set-pieces in 2022-23, including a Premier League high three from throw-ins. This season, no team has scored fewer set-piece goals in the top flight than Forest’s one (level with Crystal Palace and Burnley). Set-piece goals made up 34.2% of their total for last season and were integral to them avoiding the drop, something they only managed by the skin of their teeth, and secured in the penultimate game of the season.
Forest have technical players such as Morgan Gibbs-White to provide quality balls into the middle, and they have a physical presence in the likes of Willy-Arnaud Boly, Moussa Niakhaté, Joe Worrall (should he be recalled by the new manager, having been frozen out by Cooper), Ibrahim Sangaré, Awoniyi and Wood.
There is already something positive on the pitch to work with here: Forest have had 67 shots from set-pieces this season – the seventh-most in the Premier League – and have generated 4.54 xG. So they are already creating chances – more than enough to score more than that solitary set-piece goal – they just need to finish them off. The club has also recognised the need for improvement in this department, having appointed England Under-19s manager Simon Rusk as their set-piece coach earlier this month. Improving here could be an easy win for Nuno.
Get Gibbs-White into Dangerous Positions More Often
Nuno and Morgan Gibbs-White haven’t had an entirely uncomplicated relationship. Nuno was a big fan early on, handing him his Premier League debut for Wolves in 2018. He then gave Gibbs-White his first start, and Gibbs-White provided an assist as Wolves recorded a memorable win over Chelsea. Back then, it looked like a match made in heaven.
But ultimately, Nuno struggled to find a permanent place for Gibbs-White in the team. Initially, a switch to a 3-4-1-2 created a spot for the youngster, but the emergence of Leander Dendoncker in central midfield meant he changed to a three-man midfield in a 3-5-2 before the brief period when Adama Traoré was totally unplayable ensured the manager went back to a 3-4-3 to get Traoré on the wing. Playing with three at the back and finding space for a playmaker is quite difficult, Nuno had discovered. Gibbs-White ended up on loan in the Championship with Swansea and then Sheffield United, and Nuno left the club in 2021.
Now, though, Nuno has a more experienced and better player in this Gibbs-White, and a lower-quality squad than he had at Wolves, so the midfielder is likely to be one of the first names on his teamsheet.
Comparing the positions of his touches this season to last shows that Gibbs-White has been spending too much time on the right wing, where he naturally struggles to affect games in the way he can. It would be an idea to prioritise getting Forest’s main attacking threat into more dangerous central positions as often as possible.
So far this season, he has only three goal contributions, averaging a goal or assist every 473 minutes, compared to one every 229 minutes last season. His only goal was a penalty, and one of his paltry two assists was a header to Awoniyi deep inside the Forest half at Old Trafford before the Nigerian ran the length of the field to score. It counted as an assist but it barely deserved to.
Gibbs-White isn’t blameless in this slump and must work to improve his own return, but Nuno also needs to do everything he can to get the most of his key man.
Consider a Goalkeeping Upgrade
Following respective summer moves from Arsenal and Benfica, Matt Turner and Odysseas Vlachodimos have both been disappointing in the Forest goal. Players with experience in Europe’s biggest competitions, they seemed to fit the bill as decent names arriving at the City Ground, but neither has lived up to expectations so far.
Following his mistake in the defeat to Tottenham last week, only Wes Foderingham (three) has committed more errors leading to an opposition goal in the Premier League this season than Turner (two) who, like Vlachodimos, has also underwhelmed with his shot-stopping.
According to our expected goals on target model, based on the quality and position of shots on target faced by Premier League goalkeepers this season, both Turner and Vlachodimos rank among the worst seven goalkeepers in the top flight. Turner has conceded 1.8 more goals than he should have based on the shots on target he has faced, while Vlachodimos has conceded 4.1 more goals than the model says he should have.
Meanwhile, the goalkeepers at all of the other teams in the current bottom five each have positive differentials, suggesting they are preventing goals that an average goalkeeper would not, and performing far better than either of Forest’s goalkeepers. Luton’s Thomas Kaminski, for example, has prevented 4.5 goals – the third-highest such rate in the Premier League.
These numbers could prove crucial come the end of the season, so it might be a good idea for Nuno to consider an upgrade between the sticks.
Use the Counter-Attack
Cooper chopped and changed tactics as well as personnel throughout Forest’s first season back in the top flight, and he was justified in doing so the moment his side secured survival in May.
But many of their best moments, particularly against bigger teams – including the 1-0 win over Arsenal that guaranteed they would beat the drop – came when playing on the break. Earlier this season, too, Forest nearly got results away to both Arsenal and Manchester United and they got three points at Chelsea thanks to their breathless counter-attacks. However, they haven’t been breaking upfield of late quite as effectively as we know they can.
Only West Ham (six) have scored more goals on the break this season than Forest (four), but since scoring two such goals in their first three games of the season, Forest have only scored two more in their last 14 matches. In that time, they have only had five shots following a fast break – the fourth-lowest total in the Premier League.
Given how much defending they do – Forest average just 39.7% possession – they should be doing more to take advantage of the space their opponents inevitably leave to attack.
Forest have had 833 transition opportunities – chances to attack against a transitioning defence – this season, but only 22.1% of those have reached the final third (the third-lowest proportion of all top-flight teams) and only 7.0% have led to a shot. That will in part be down to the fact they are attacking from a deeper starting point than many other teams, given they tend to defend in a very low block, but that didn’t stop them from causing Arsenal, United and Chelsea plenty of problems. There is no doubt that they aren’t the counter-attacking force they once were.
They have plenty of players suited to playing defending deep and attacking at pace, so Nuno has the tools at his disposal to improve his new team in this area, too.