Nottingham Forest in Steve Evans’ opinion are the enemy of attractive football but football in England is on their side. Counter-attacking has become the fashion and the Championship is embracing the trend as readily as any other league.
Leeds United made it work for them away at Bolton Wanderers last weekend but Forest saw them coming on Saturday and lured Evans into a similar trap. United’s head coach trusted the formation and tactics which baffled Bolton but found Forest to be less naive, sharper on the ball and helped by better discipline. Invited to dictate the match, Leeds succumbed to the shortage of class which has trapped them below the Premier League for 11-and-a-half years.
The blueprint of other defeats at Elland Road this season worked again as a solitary Nelson Oliveira goal picked Leeds off in a match of few telling chances. Evans gave Forest grudging praise afterwards, saying he would rather “watch paint dry” than spend hours watching them, but Dougie Freedman’s team played as Leicester played at Manchester City earlier in the day, minus the same brilliance or quite the same number of players up the pitch. It is week by week the way English football is going.
Leeds have suffered like this at home before and are liable to do so again, in part because of the heavy congestion Forest caused with bodies behind the ball but also because of the lack of star quality in Evans’ squad. At the end of a transfer window which left questions hanging in the air, United needed a comprehensive display to vindicate their policy of the right signings at the right time. A 1-0 loss merely fuelled dissent. Oliveira scored on the hour with a free header from close range, converted after Souleymane Doukara was caught daydreaming as Gary Gardner crossed from the right. Evans said later that Oliveira had been “fractionally” offside – a call which United’s defence seemed to be looking for – but the Portuguese forward met the delivery with a header which Marco Silvestri could only palm onto the inside of his post.
“I’ll give credit to Nottingham Forest,” Evans said. “They had one chance and they took it. The goal’s offside. It’s fractionally offside but we don’t get a yard or two so we’re certainly not going to get a fraction.
“The goal’s poor from our point of view. Big Doukara switches off. He only needed to run 10 yards to get the ball and it gave them an opportunity. We’ve had enough good possession, we got in enough good areas and we had enough crosses so if ever there was evidence that we’re missing a big striker like Chris Wood, it was today.
“But it’s difficult when you play against 10 or 11 men who camp in behind the ball. That’s how they play and they’re getting results. I’d rather watch paint dry but when you get results, you’re winning while you’re watching paint dry.”
It was a scathing assessment of a Forest side who, in spite of a Financial Fair Play transfer embargo, are unbeaten in 13 league matches and six places higher up the division. Oliveira’s chance was a rare effort from close range – Gardner clipped the crossbar with a fine effort in the first half and Robert Tesche volleyed a dropping ball wide when a calm touch would have rolled it under Silvestri on 27 minutes – but Leeds were never closer than the glancing header from Doukara which drifted past a post during one of their earliest attacks.
Saturday’s game was of little short-term consequence to Leeds, so far back are the club from the play-offs, but the struggle to cut Forest apart had the effect of reviving lingering complaints, particularly over the failure of the club to do more in the January transfer window.
A goalscorer more than anything was what Evans needed before last Monday’s deadline passed. One moment summed that up on Saturday – substitute Mustapha Carayol whipping a gift of a cross through a box with no Leeds player in it. Evans defended the club and their owner, Massimo Cellino again, saying United had not simply “woken up on deadline day and wanted to sign a player.”
Leeds showed a strong interest in Kike, Kyle Lafferty, Sam Winnall and Fraizer Campbell but failed on all fronts. Evans said financial considerations were the prime cause of the dead ends he encountered and he spoke about making sure that deals struck were not “out of synch with what this club is about.” It is true all the same that Leeds cannot use that argument indefinitely, or not without standing still.
“What we’re not going to do is be reckless and pay an amount or money or wages for a player which is out of synch with what this club is about,” Evans said. “We have to do it properly but we know we have to add because we all know that what’s in the door at the minute isn’t going to be good enough to push us on at the top end of the table.
“This budget is very healthy. Back in July it was a top six budget and it still is today. The reason you’re not in the top six is because of players, isn’t it? It’s not because you’ve not paid the money. You’ve signed those players thinking they’d take you to where you want to be. The problem is that those players aren’t good enough.”
Some who were at Elland Road in July would dispute that Leeds, with an estimated wage bill of £13million, have a “top six budget.” There is virtual silence from Cellino on the subject of expenditure and ambitions and he could provide more clarity than Evans. Either way, Evans finds himself returning regularly to the same conclusion: that his squad as it stands will not get close to promotion.
The defeat to Forest exposed Leeds as one-dimensional; constrained by an inability to realise that what worked at Bolton wasn’t working against Forest and lacking the resources to change tact and stop Oliveira, Jamie Ward and Ben Osborn from attacking pockets of space.
Evans said he had watched Forest do the same to Middlesbrough a fortnight ago and toyed with the idea of taking a different approach on Saturday.
“We thought long and hard about changing it,” he said. “We had a good look at Forest when they won away at Middlesbrough and it was very similar. Middlesbrough had all the play but didn’t really have cutting edge and my God, they’ve got some strikers. They couldn’t quite get through them. We said it would take a second of quality to open the door and it just never happened.
“I don’t think the performance is as bad as some people are making out. If we win 1-0, score an offside goal then people say we kept control of possession and played against a team who sat in behind the ball. But it is a results business. When they attacked us they attacked with three players and kept eight behind the ball. But that’s the difference with quality players in the Championship – you find a way to open the door. We found ways not to open the door.”