How Aitor Karanka could have solved problems at both ends of the pitch, by strengthening Nottingham Forest’s core – Paul Taylor

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The finger of blame has often been pointed at Forest’s back four as they have slid down the table amid a frustrating start under Aitor Karanka, but Paul Taylor believes the Reds boss has strengthened in one area in particular, for good reason

When Jamie Ward found the back of the net, with a crisply struck, driven shot at the Riverside Stadium in January 2016, it was a goal that held some serious significance.

It extended Nottingham Forest’s unbeaten run under Dougie Freedman to 12 matches, with a 1-0 win that silenced a stunned crowd – who had anticipated a very different outcome.

It also ended a run of 11 games without a home defeat – and an arguably even more impressive run of nine games without even conceding a goal on home soil – for Middlesbrough, the side then managed by Aitor Karanka.

This was nothing new because Middlesbrough, earlier in the season, had already kept nine consecutive Championship clean sheets. And as they made their way to promotion, Boro kept a total of 21 clean sheets.

Talk to people who followed Middlesbrough that season and they will tell you that is a statistic that better embodied Karanka’s mentality and ethos more than any other. They only picked the ball out of the back of the net at the Riverside on eight occasions at all.

There has been some evidence of such stoic, gritty resolve in Karanka’s Nottingham Forest side, since he took over – but only within the space of one standout performance, against Wolves. Otherwise, that 2-0 win in the West Midlands remains the only clean sheet Forest have kept during his six matches in charge.

It is early days, but his Forest side have too often looked a long way from replicating those same qualities that formed the rock solid foundations for Middlesbrough’s rise.

But that is far from their only issue.

Forest need to improve defensively, as a team. Significantly so. But nor would 15 0-0 draws in their remaining games be enough to keep them up.

If social media can be relied upon to provide an accurate consensus of opinion, then many believe the Reds’ problems start and finish within the back four. But that is not true.

Michael Mancienne in particular has become the latest in a long line of Twitter scapegoats, with the defender – according to his most vocal critics – now apparently regarded as some sort of mute statue, perpetually standing silent and still; little more than an observer in the heart of the Forest back four.

One admittedly awful game from the current Forest captain, against Preston, has unreasonably diminished his standing – when he actually remains a solid, steady Championship defender, who possesses an ability to read the game that usually helps him to be in the right place at the right time. There is a reason why he is a respected figure in the dressing room.

There have, in fact, been calls for Karanka to drop Mancienne, Danny Fox and Joe Worrall.

Presumably with little thought of how the back four might look without the trio – and overlooking the fact that Worrall remains a young man with a future in the Premier League, if he can maintain his current learning curve, as testified by Burnley’s £12m January bid for him.

And if there is one thing Karanka knows about, as both player and manager, it is defending – and more specifically how to build a team that is good at it.

Within his January transfer business, it looks as though part of his plan, when it comes to improving Forest at both ends of the pitch – has been to strengthen their core.

Defensively, he bolstered his options with the addition of Tobias Figueiredo, a central defender who came through the illustrious ranks of the Sporting academy and the experienced Spanish left back, Juan Fuentes, who has played in La Liga, against some of the best wingers on the planet.

Both will have a role to play between now and May. And the club were minutes away from bringing Michael Dawson back on deadline day.

But there will be a reason why Karanka also focused his attention on adding players in midfield role. The two positions sat in front of the back four, within Karanka’s preferred 4-2-3-1 approach, are the least glamorous in the side. But they are also among the most important.

A casual observation from Lee Tomlin, offered a brief glance into the way Karanka’s mind works, when Tomlin talked of how the manager ‘always’ played with two defensive midfielders, during the time he spent with him at Boro.

He is a fan of that because, in Tomlin’s case, it allows him to do what he does best. Midfield solidity provides the stage on which the entertainer can perform.

And, in Ben Watson, Jack Colback, Liam Bridcutt, Adlene Guedioura and David Vaughan, Forest now probably possess the highest quality, most experienced group of defensive midfield options outside of the Premier League.

Middlesbrough’s remarkable run of clean sheets in 2015/16 were not earned by their back four alone – Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton, sitting in front of the defence, also had a big part to play.

And if Karanka can consistently find the right blend, from his now deep pool of resources, Forest’s defence will get the same brand of protection as that resolute Middlesbrough side did. The Reds will be stronger, defensively, as a team.

If Karanka can get the balance right, just as significantly, those in front of the midfield, will know they have the freedom – as Tomlin observed with eager enthusiasm – to make the most of their attributes.

And that will be vital, because there is another scary stat to consider. That being the fact that Forest have scored in only one of their last eight Championship games.

For all the focus being placed on the defence and those being singled out for criticism within it – and criticism is deserved, because they have conceded 50 goals, with only Sunderland (55) and Burton (58) shipping more – Forest have scored just two goals in 720 minutes of football.

The 4-2-3-1 formation is one that, when played with confidence, tempo and a positive attitude, does see the striker get plenty of support. It is an approach that can have four attack minded players, rather than just one.

But it requires the three attacking midfielders to have the belief and bravery to commit themselves forward, in the right moments.

When nervousness and trepidation creep in; when the mentality becomes a cautious one, that lone forward can become exactly that. Against Hull, Apostolos Vellios and, later, his replacement Daryl Murphy, both looked isolated, solitary figures.

But if those ahead of them learn that they can have faith in Forest midfield shield, confidence will grow.

And Forest do still possess enough firepower.

Murphy showed what he is capable of, scoring seven goals in 20 starts and one sub appearance in the Championship, prior to his back/rib injury and can be a force again, when he regains sharpness. He is perfectly equipped for the role, in fact.

Ben Brereton, still only 18, has more than just raw potential and will find the back of the net, if he gets the opportunity. His pace was missed, when he was left out against Hull.

Tomlin is a flawed genius, but also shares Karanka’s belief that he is a manager who can get the best out of him. If that proves to be true, he could be a crucial figure.

Kieran Dowell is suffering a minor dip in form, but remains a young man with outstanding ability – and is still also Forest’s top scorer, with ten goals. Patience with him, is likely to be rewarded.

You can put Barrie McKay in a similar bracket. It is only a few months since the popular opinion was that Forest had had Rangers’ pants down, by signing him for just £500,000. He has not become a bad player overnight. His potential remains, even if his confidence may not.

Joe Lolley knows how to win promotion from this division, having done so with Huddersfield – and was the closest Forest player to getting a goal against the Tigers after coming off the bench. His pace and directness will make him a lively, exciting asset.

Ben Osborn can slot into any position within that attacking three and will add quality and energy in all. Matty Cash may occasionally be a little rough around the edges, but his honest endeavour and toil consistently help him to find gaps in opposition defences.

Ashkan Dejagah is an unknown quantity these days, but has flourished with Fulham in the top flight and, like Vellios, is a man with a point to prove.

If Forest can find their confidence, they will also find goals – and wins to go with them.

But while they may not get too many headlines in the coming months, if Forest are to address their slide; if they are to avoid having to look over their shoulders in the final months of the campaign, it will be the men putting in the hard graft in the heart of the pitch, who will have as vital role to play as anyone.

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