It may be an exaggeration to say that Nottingham Forest’s path to conquering Europe began with Fulham but Brian Clough’s first league game in charge was against them. In all competitions, it was his second match at the helm. His fourth was also against Fulham. So were his eighth, ninth and 11th. After a marathon FA Cup tie, the Forest team of 1975 may have known Fulham better than the class of 2022 know each other.
When Fulham visit the City Ground on Friday, strangers will have had 13 days to learn their teammates’ names and Steve Cooper 13 to try and arrow in on his strongest side. An impromptu break still brought another arrival, with Serge Aurier becoming Forest’s 22nd new signing after the transfer window closed. If that overhaul has made Forest a punchline, there is an argument a summer exodus made it necessary and that they have failed to fully explain that. Whatever the necessity, they ended the summer with a bigger net spend than Serie A, La Liga, Ligue Un and the Bundesliga combined.
If naming the 22 presents a challenge, possibly to some of them as well as everyone else, a more pertinent issue is how Cooper should perm the right 11 after a summer of record-breaking busyness and business alike. Five of the starters against Bournemouth last week are remnants of their promotion-winning side, which may be too many. Brennan Johnson’s precocity and pace have made him the only ever-present in attack but the presence of three Championship centre-backs felt a factor in Bournemouth’s comeback win: Scott McKenna was at fault for the winner and Forest may rue the loss of the injured Moussa Niakhate, the signing who started the season looking the cornerstone of the defence.
Perhaps Cheikhou Kouyate, who started at the back in the 6-0 defeat to Manchester City and midfield against Bournemouth, could anchor the defence. Giulian Biancone has been limited to 12 minutes thus far, an indication Cooper may not rate him particularly highly. There is the feeling some of the signings come courtesy of the manager, others more of the club, and it is an explanation of why there are so many.
Left wing-back offers the incongruous pairing of Renan Lodi, who won La Liga with Atletico Madrid, and Harry Toffolo, who won League Two with Lincoln; the Brazil international may not tap up his rival for stories about working for the Cowley brothers. On the right, Neco Williams’ £17m price tag is an indication the Welshman ticks a couple of Cooper’s boxes: those with links to Liverpool, time spent in the Championship or the England youth ranks bear the stamp of his signings.
Johnson’s goal against Bournemouth was soured by a dramatic late comeback
Williams has excelled but Forest can get outnumbered in the flanks; perhaps they will in the centre of midfield in a 3-4-1-2 formation. The choice of the duo is instructive: Lewis O’Brien runs so much he was a target for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, Ryan Yates is the local boy who has come good, Orel Mangala has started impressively, Kouyate offers the most Premier League experience and Remo Freuler, a Champions League quarter-finalist with Atalanta has most pedigree.
Cooper’s fondness for a fluid front three has been apparent of late: the biggest buy Morgan Gibbs-White, the seeming flagship signing Jesse Lingard and Johnson are scarcely conventional strikers. Those who are include Taiwo Awoniyi, briefly Forest’s record signing and scorer of their first top-flight goal for 23 years, and Emmanuel Dennis, prolific in the first half of last season for Watford. A shape without an out-and-out No 9 has a boldness in itself.
Neco Williams has been a bright spark at the City Ground
Amid the influx of arrivals, there is an inevitability about some cases of trial and error. The second half against Bournemouth, when a 2-0 lead became a 3-2 reverse, turned an excellent start to the season into an underwhelming one. Such mistakes could prove costly. The optimum formula will involve disappointing at least half the signings and may need to be found rapidly.
There is a contrast with Leeds, able to indulge in more targeted recruitment of runners with a shared history from Jesse Marsch, each bought to fill a specific role, but no one started the summer with as few players as Forest.
They have never been bigger buyers, though they were at their best as buyers more than four decades ago when recruitment tended to be followed by reinvention. Aided by Peter Taylor’s skills as a talent spotter, Clough signed Kenny Burns and Trevor Francis, who had both been playing as centre-forwards for Birmingham. Reinvented as a centre-back and a right-sided midfielder respectively, they won the European Cup. Alter players’ positions and 22 signings bring millions of possibilities, but the difficulty of finding the best ones.