Will Aitor Karanka inhibit Nottingham Forest’s expressive youth?

Words By Nick Miller Image by Offside
January 12, 2018

Gary Brazil misspoke before Nottingham Forest’s FA Cup win over Arsenal. Discussing the players at his disposal, he said that young centre-back and academy product Joe Worrall could attract a “ten-figure” fee in the transfer market. He of course meant £10million: good as Worrall is, it might be a stretch to get £1billion for him.

But in some respects it was understandable if Brazil got a bit carried away. The man who at that stage was taking care of the Forest first-team on a temporary basis (for the third time), was helped out in the Arsenal game by his own good work: five of the starting XI came through the youth system that he has been involved with so brilliantly for nearly six years.

If ever there was a performance that made casual viewers wonder why Forest are 14th in the Championship, it was this one. They were vibrant in attack, relentless in midfield and pretty solid at the back, even if the Gunners’ absurdly toothless display didn’t exactly trouble them excessively.

At the heart of it all was those youngsters: Worrall was the rock in defence, Jordan Smith the assured goalkeeper, Ben Osborn the creator in midfield, Matty Cash the legs to his right, and probably the jewell of them all, 18-year-old Ben Brereton bullying Per Mertesacker, quite possibly into retirement. Throw in Tyler Walker off the bench and Kieran Dowell, on loan from Everton, and this was a team built on the exuberance of youth.

It wasn’t just that Forest beat Arsenal, but did so with such an expressive, positive performance. The urge to defend against the bigger side, understandable though it is, has made for some pretty joyless football this season, and while it required a certain amount of luck, their chutzpah was thrilling.

Of course, it’s always dangerous to extrapolate too much from a cup upset like that. There is a good reason why Forest are in more danger of relegation than promotion. That was not representative of their general performances over the season. Before the game Smith noted that the players were viewing this game as something of a ‘free swing’, that freed from the shackles of league context they could play with a little more liberation.

But it did at least show what this young group are capable of. This is a potentially very exciting, attacking group of players, who with the right guidance and perhaps a couple of shrewdly-chosen older heads around them could form a fine team. Which brings us to the appointment this week of Aitor Karanka as the club’s new manager.

Karanka remains extremely popular among some sections of the Middlesbrough support. And understandably so: he got them to the playoff final and then promoted into the Premier League, where three previous managers had failed. His standing was such that it was relatively late on last season – when it was ultimately too late – that most of the fans turned on him.

He clearly is a fine manager, and more importantly in some respects he’s a very sensible choice for Forest: a man with experience of getting a team out of the Championship, who talks about long-term planning and who will almost certainly tighten up their defence. The showing of the backline against Arsenal was most certainly not an accurate reflection of how things have gone this term.

And yet there is a nagging feeling that Karanka might be the wrong choice for this Forest team. One of the reasons they beat Arsenal is that Brazil encouraged them to attack, to use their positive potential in a way that took Arsene Wenger’s side by surprise. This fine collection of young talents was set free to play as they can, and that was almost more important than the win.

Forest will almost certainly not get that sort of approach from Karanka. His style is naturally more cautious – defensive might be a little harsh, but his Middlesbrough sides built slowly and carefully, a style of football based on control. The fear is that Karanka will not get the best from this collection of players, and thus deny Forest fans the chance to see what they’re truly capable of, before the best of them are inevitably sold.

Forest’s new owners, who arrived in the summer to save the club from the calamitous ownership of Fawaz-al-Hasawi, very much deserve the benefit of the doubt. They have at the very least put structures in place that were not there before: hiring a CEO and other key staff might not sound especially exceptional, but it’s an improvement on the last lot. Their plans for the future of the club – both already and yet to be announced – certainly are exciting, and it feels like Forest fans will have a club to be proud of again.

Still, though, there is the nagging sensation that they might have got this appointment wrong. Karanka might have been a safe choice, but is he the right one for this potentially thrilling group of young players?

Aitor Karanka
What are you looking for?