In his latest column, The Debrief, Adam Bate analyses how Nuno Espirito Santo has brought clarity at Nottingham Forest by restoring the counter-attacking threat that is his trademark; watch Nottingham Forest vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports PL this Saturday at 5.30pm
Saturday 30 December 2023 07:43, UK
On Boxing Day, in Nuno Espirito Santo's first away game in charge, Nottingham Forest became the first team to score three goals against Newcastle United at St James' Park since Manchester City in August of last year – and even City did not win.
This was the first time that Forest had scored three goals away from home in a Premier League game this century. In his very first attempt, Nuno matched Forest's total number of away wins this season. Indeed, he has matched the total for last season too.
It was hugely impressive, Chris Wood cutting through the defence against his former club to score a hat-trick. In Morgan Gibbs-White, Anthony Elanga and Callum Hudson-Odoi, there was quality support for the striker, while the defence held firm to secure the win.
A run of one win from 14 games had many fearing for their Premier League future. It is why Steve Cooper was replaced. But on this evidence, Nuno seems to have a clear vision for how Forest can play. Others will already be worried they could pull away from danger.
But should this really be a surprise?
It was curious to follow the reaction to Nuno's appointment. Sympathy for Cooper was understandable and appropriate given the seismic change that he had instituted at the club, transforming Championship strugglers and setting them on a very different path.
Less logical was the way that Nuno's abilities were denigrated. Cast as a failure following his brief time at Tottenham Hotspur - one that comprised just 10 Premier League games, half of which he won - his accomplishments before and since were too easily ignored.
Fourth with Valencia and second with Porto, he coached both in the Champions League, took Rio Ave and Wolves into Europe, and won the title in Saudi Arabia. The lowest league finish of his near 500-game career is 13th and Forest would surely settle for that.
The prospect of former Eintracht Frankfurt coach Oliver Glasner seemed more appealing to supporters because Nuno was a known quantity in the Premier League. His teams are seen as compact and reactive. But Forest fans are already seeing that they can still excite.
An expected-goals total of 3.46 at St James' Park reveals the quality of chances created. Statistically, this was not just their most creative away day in the Premier League but in any Championship game over the decade that Opta have recorded such things.
The counter-attack can be a thrilling thing when it is executed well. Forest were magnificent on the break against Newcastle, flooding forward in numbers and punishing the opposition. There was a clarity to what they were trying to do. It was trademark Nuno.
The numbers bear that out. According to Opta, this was the first time that Forest had scored twice in a game from fast breaks since their Premier League return. It was also the first time that they have had five fast breaks in total in a game, this season or last.
But this is nothing new for Nuno. It is the fifth time that one of his teams have done that in a game during his Premier League career. His Wolves team ranked top of the table for shots from fast breaks in each of his first two seasons in the Premier League.
Nuno's teams average more shots per game from fast breaks in the Premier League than any other coach who has managed 50 games in the competition since his first match as a Premier League manager almost five-and-a-half years ago. It is how he sets his teams up.
"We are talking about creating our own identity now," said Morgan Gibbs-White afterwards.
This is it. Defend in numbers but be prepared to attack at pace too. That clear vision for Forest has been lacking, particularly since the departure of Brennan Johnson.
There was a sense that Cooper had become caught between two ideas ever since. He was aware of the appetite for evolution but the result was that they were no longer as effective on the counter-attack, while never quite convincing as a possession side.
Compromises were made, Gibbs-White notably shifting to the right wing. There is no doubt that Cooper has been instrumental in his rise - something smartly acknowledged by Nuno since coming in - but restoring Gibbs-White to a central role was an easy win.
Instantly, Forest appear more balanced as a result. In Elanga and Hudson-Odoi, Nuno has been able to deploy two talented wingers either side of the team's most creative player. Incredibly, the trio had only started a single game together prior to Boxing Day.
It has given Wood the support he wanted. "We have got two very quick wingers. We have got Morgan with creativity in the hole and he has got pace as well," the striker said, before adding: "They make it an easier job if I only have to run 20 yards towards goal instead of 60."
Wood has already scored more goals under Nuno this season than under Cooper and hearing him talk of being "given licence" in the opposition half suggests that he is already excited about what else might be possible with more bodies up in support.
With Taiwo Awoniyi to return too, it seems that with the right approach, Forest have the firepower, after all. That is the difficult part because Nuno will expect to cut out the defensive errors that cost them against Bournemouth in his first game in charge.
Nuno can hardly hope to forge the same bonds at Forest as his predecessor, the club's most beloved manager in a generation. But he can say and do the right things. That should be enough to justify his appointment. And put his reputation into better perspective.
Watch Nottingham Forest vs Manchester United live on Sky Sports Premier League this Saturday from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm