In less than a year in charge, Steve Cooper achieved something many previous managers conspicuously failed to do — he gave Nottingham Forest an identity.
He transformed a group of players who looked doomed to a fight against relegation into a team that excited the Championship at the opposite end of the table.
Now, as they prepare for life in the Premier League, there is an important question to be answered: do Forest keep faith with the approach that got them promoted? Or do they adapt for the far more difficult environment?
“The answer is probably both,” Cooper tells The Athletic.
“You have to stick to what you believe in as a starting point. I don’t think change for the sake of it does anyone any good. But, within that, you still have to evolve and adapt. The Premier League is very different to the Championship.
“It is more difficult, I am not going to shy away from that. We will not have as much of the ball as we had last year, we may not create as many chances.
“But we can still aim to do things the way we want.”
The way Forest want to play was implied in their 2021-22 FA Cup run. They beat Premier League opposition in Arsenal (third round) and Leicester City (fourth round), then beat Championship side Huddersfield Town, before pushing Liverpool all the way in a dramatic quarter-final clash on the banks of the River Trent.
Nottingham Forest’s 21-22 FA Cup Run
Leicester City (H)
Huddersfield Town (H)
The Athletic analysed those four FA Cup games, and some others, and found five tactical trends…
A strike partnership, wing-backs and attacking patterns
In terms of shape, Steve Cooper primarily used a 3-4-1-2. His team’s pass network shows how the wing-backs would push forward in possession and Forest would often create a front five in attack, leaving two defensive midfielders and the back three behind the ball.
Personnel would change but principles would not. The front two included a target man (either Keinan Davis or Sam Surridge). Forest would then play directly to the target man. From there, the target man was tasked with playing set passes or flick-ons to the No 10 (Philip Zinckernagel) or Brennan Johnson.
Forest no longer have Zinckernagel or Davis — both were on loan — but have added Jesse Lingard and Taiwo Awoniyi in those positions, part of a summer overhaul that included reinforcements in every position.
“Can we gel 12 new signings? We will see. It is a challenge we are looking forward to and I believe in how we do things,” says Cooper.
A threat down the flanks is also key. Seventy-eight per cent of Forest’s attacking touches were in wide areas last season – no Championship team attacked through the wings more. Take this example against Leicester. Steve Cook plays into the feet of Johnson, who has dropped deep. His first-time flick finds Zinckernagel…
Despite pressure from Luke Thomas, Spence retains possession and passes to Johnson…
…who picks out Davis with a perfectly weighted cross.
Davis then heads across goal for Zinckernagel to score.
Though not a high-possession side, Forest do play the ball across the back three. This is intended to trigger a press from opponents, whose defensive line then moves higher. Forest exploit that by playing directly from centre-back to centre-forward.
This pattern did not lead to any FA Cup goals but was executed perfectly in the play-off semi-final (second leg) against Sheffield United.
Forest move the ball from right to left and bait the press. Left centre-back Scott McKenna plays into Surridge, who runs beyond the defensive line…
…and squares it for Johnson to finish first time.
Defensively strong but little pressing
Forest’s defensive approach is influenced by their attacking game plan. Out of possession, the wing-backs drop into a flat back five and Forest resemble a 5-2-3 shape. Cooper’s side are good at keeping at least seven players behind the ball, with limited defensive responsibilities for the front three. Their No 10 is usually tasked with marking the opposition defensive midfielder, however. You can see this shape in the three examples below, taken from the Arsenal, Huddersfield and Leicester games.
Though Cooper switched to a back four against Liverpool, this was slightly forced upon him by injuries, but it seemed sensible to change tack and increase coverage of the wide areas given Liverpool’s strengths.
Forest’s playstyle wheel illustrates their relative defensive strength and style. Compared to Championship teams last season, they were an outstanding deep block side (“low defence” on the graphic below) but offered little as a pressing outfit (“high press” and “start distance”). This approach worked — Forest had the best defence in the Championship following Cooper’s arrival (28 goals conceded in 38 games).
Their main efforts to press came against Leicester and Huddersfield. Forest struggled against Leicester, who built up play with two defensive midfielders and a back four. Forest then had to press with a front three, leaving Zinckernagel to mark two players.
But Johnson does not move to lock off the central space, so Justin dribbles inside and breaks the press with a simple pass to Maddison. Leicester are in the final third six seconds later.
Undoubtedly the biggest strength of Forest is their ability to break, a skill that should be transferable to the Premier League. Cooper’s side had the joint-most “direct attacks” — possessions that start in a team’s defensive half and result in a shot or touch inside the opposition penalty area within 15 seconds — in the 2021-22 Championship season, with 97.
Across the last five seasons, only Cardiff have been promoted to the Premier League with a less patient attacking style than Forest.
Arsenal were undone by multiple Forest counter-attacks in the third round.
Here, Forest have seven players (back five plus midfield two) behind the ball. Arsenal try to play around the low block.
But a pass (white arrow) ricochets off Ryan Yates into the path of Johnson (blue arrow). He is positioned high to start the counter-attack…
…Johnson beats Rob Holding for speed down the wing.
Zinckernagel meets Johnson’s cross but his shot is saved.
Despite the warning signs, the only goal of the game came from another counter-attack.
Yates blocks a pass and again, the ball lands at the feet of Johnson…
…who feeds Yates on the overlap. Note Lewis Grabban’s run on the blind side of the defenders. Arsenal have just two players behind the ball.
Yates crosses for Grabban, who attacks the cross unmarked and scores with a first-time finish.
Counter-attacking with three players (the two strikers plus the No 10) was typical of Forest. The strikers would — like Grabban in the sequence above — position themselves behind defenders. This prevented those defenders from being able to watch the ball and their run simultaneously.
Forest created big chances with similar breakaways against Huddersfield and Liverpool but did not score.
The benefit of creating chances through counter-attacks is the shot quality — chances are under low pressure, so they are more likely to be scored. Though their shots came less frequently, the quality of Forest’s FA Cup chances was significantly better than their opponents.
Forest vs FA Cup opponents 21-22
xG per shot
Conversion rate (%)
*as defined by Opta
Set-piece threat and goalscoring versatility
Forest had the third-best dead-ball defence (eight conceded) and the joint-fourth best attack (16 scored) in the Championship last season. They undoubtedly benefit from their back three — having an extra central defender enhances their aerial presence in both boxes.
Exhibit A: Goal three against Leicester, via a Garner corner from the right. Forest have four attackers (Cook, McKenna, Joe Worrall and Yates) running from the edge of the box versus four Leicester defenders. Davis is pinning the goalkeeper and zonal line to create space.
Garner’s delivery is quality — he drops the ball into the “second” six-yard box.
Worrall and McKenna grapple well against their markers. Both get free and make clear runs at the ball but Worrall gets there first and heads into the far corner.
The same player made the assist for a different scorer against Huddersfield in the fifth round — Garner created the most chances from corners in the Championship last season (40).
Cook’s run induces Josh Ruffels to drop deeper than the initial high line, bringing all the Forest players onside.
One of them is Yates. He times his run perfectly and meets Garner’s free kick seven yards from goal.
Interestingly, all seven of Forest’s FA Cup strikes were from different goalscorers. They used 33 different players across the league season — only six sides used more. Johnson was their top scorer in the Championship last season with 16 goals. This accounted for 22 per cent of all Forest goals but eight Championship players scored a higher proportion of their teams’ goals — including both automatically promoted teams.
Late goals and game management
Forest were the masters of the final stages last season. They scored the most (22) and conceded the joint-third fewest (nine) in the final 15 minutes of Championship matches.
Cooper’s side are also experts at game management — the ball was in play for just 48 minutes and 14 seconds against Arsenal — but they are also very capable of playing keep-ball.
In stoppage time against Huddersfield, Forest recover possession in their own half and break. Davis’ diagonal pass finds Garner’s straight run through the disorganised defence…
…but rather than go to goal, he heads for the corner flag.
… Davis and Garner then exchange passes twice and Forest keep possession.
Forest’s FA Cup run indicated that they can match and beat top Premier League sides. Cooper’s side will need to repeat those performances early on, though Forest statistically have the joint-fourth toughest start to the season: before the start of September, they will have hosted Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United, and visited the Etihad, St James’ Park and Goodison Park. Cooper is not daunted.
“I cannot wait. I have worked all my life to try to work at the highest level,” Cooper tells The Athletic. “There is excitement and pride about what we are going into.
“But running right alongside that, there is a real awareness about how hard this is going to be. So with that comes focus, motivation and determination to do well. I want to be able to enjoy being in the Premier League. But I have got to be even better than I was before.”
(Top photo: Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)