Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Can Forest keep Michail Antonio?

Last week Dougie Freedman referred to Michail Antonio as “the best player in the league.” It is no surprise that the explosive winger is a transfer target considering the manner in which he bulldozed his way through The Championship last season.

His pace and power were a real game-changer; not only did he have the beating of the majority of defenders when on the ball, the knowledge that this was the case unsettled opposition defences, forcing them to play with Antonio in mind.

For example, we sometimes saw the opposition right-back dropping off rather than getting touch tight, which created room not only for Antonio, but also any other Forest players in this area. This had implications for how high a defensive line they could play too (see example, right).

Additionally, his presence effected how often opposition full-backs got forward themselves, and even their team selection – a good example being the Derby game at The City Ground, where Steve McClaren opted to drop the exciting Cyrus Christie – a potent threat coming forward – in favour of the more conservative Ryan Shotton.

We also saw teams make changes during games, with Antonio’s first victim struggling. Any time you can force your opponent to make changes is a minor victory in itself and often hurts them elsewhere.

Antonio ploughed on almost regardless, and was involved in a fabulous 39 goals. His physical attributes are the player's major strength, but he is able to take advantage of this because he has good – albeit sometimes inconsistent – technical ability.

It was certainly a brilliant season, but we must not get carried away; the 25 year old is yet to prove he can replicate these results consistently.

A big factor in his success last season was the way Forest were set up to play. Stuart Pearce built the team around playing direct football. That is not to say The Reds were playing long-ball; their plan was to get the ball out wide quickly and hit teams on the break, rather than play consolidatory football that establishes possession in the opposition half, such as the style that Forest played under Billy Davies.
 
This direct philosophy suited Antonio; the player is well suited to running at a retreating defence. Football under Dougie Freedman was initially even more favourable in this regard; Forest ceded possession and territory and were reliant on the counter-attack.

But as Freedman changed his tactics after the Norwich game, Antonio appeared less comfortable in my opinion. Forest tried to play more complex football, and as results suffered as a result of this, as did Antonio’s contribution.

For example, before and including the Norwich game, after which Forest relied less on counter attacking football, Antonio was involved in 62.9% of Forest’s goals; this dropped to 44.4% afterwards. I must point out that this second period covers a comparably small period, therefore the evidence is far from conclusive, but the player’s performance under a more possession orientated approach is something we might keep an eye on in the future.

Another area to watch out for – if Antonio stays at Forest – might be his performance against players who can match him physically. Perhaps the only defender to conclusively get the better of Antonio in 2014/15 was the inexperienced Wolves youngster Dominic Iorfa, who was able to match the Forest man in terms of pace and power.

But these are mere points of interest, because Antonio has proven that he had the attributes to terrify the majority of defenders, and if able to hold onto him Forest will wield one of the more potent weapons in The Championship.
 
And it is also worth noting the player's apparent resilience - he has a good injury record, and last season he managed over 4000 minutes of league football, only the 7th outfield player to do since Forest were promoted to The Championship (see left) - this makes him a major asset for a club used to their best players being almost constantly injured.

Freedman himself does not offer much comfort when talking about the player's future. Despite stating that he is staying, he says “I have not had a conversation with him about the situation,” before going on to say “I am a coach – if he wants to talk to me about that situation, then he can. If he wants to talk about anything else then we have a board and he can talk to them about that.

Perhaps I am having a cynical moment, but I worry if Freedman, who should be close to the players, won’t talk to them about their future, instead leaving it to a boardroom full of comparatively unfamiliar businessmen. Who is Antonio more likely to be persuaded by - his coach, or some guy in a suit?

But then again, then in the same interview the manager is making statements like “I will always have the final say on players. I will tell him (Fawaz) which players can stay and which can leave,” which doesn’t seem to fit in with Freedman’s implication that Antonio’s future is in the board's hands (and thus out of his). Have we got another manager who will tell us anything to cover his own backside? Is Dougie getting his excuses in early? Or have I got out of the wrong side of bed this morning?
 
There are few short-term reasons for allowing Antonio to leave if he wishes to go. A well covered fact is that Forest would not be able to reinvest even a large transfer fee due to the transfer embargo.

However, one could not blame him for wanting to test himself at a higher level. He is unlikely to have as good a season as last year; demand for his services is likely to fall. And Forest are (at best) just one of the multitude of teams with ambitions of promotion; it would be far easier to transfer into The Premier League than achieve it with a club.

Antonio would perhaps need to be a particularly patient man, and extremely happy in Nottingham, not to want to leave. And while Forest could refuse to sell him, it may be unwise to keep an unsettled player.

Personally I feel he will move in the next few days – Freedman will want to know what he has to work with as soon as possible. Whatever happens, Antonio will have my admiration and thanks for providing some memorable moments in a season of mixed fortunes.

Thanks for reading.
 
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