With only nine wins and 39 points thus far, Ross Bramble takes a look at Nottingham Forest’s season and the pressure building up around new manager Aitor Karanka.
In the summer of 2017, Wolverhampton Wanderers brought Nuno Espirito Santo to the club, along with around £24-million worth of new players. The pieces clicked, and Wolves went on to not only secure the Championship title and promotion to the Premier League but left their mark as one of the best Championship sides in the division’s history.
A year later, in another Midlands city, Aitor Karanka arrived at Nottingham Forest and proceeded to spend about £27-million on new players. The pieces, however, haven’t clicked as smoothly as they did at Molineux, and although the side have only lost five of their 26 games, Forest have only accrued nine wins and 39 points.
If rumours are to be believed, the Forest board are said to be ready to bin the Spaniard at the nearest opportunity. But, the fans and the players are still on Karanka’s side. So, how did we get here?
On the surface, it makes little sense. The club – who’ve been flirting with promotion for the last eight years, and across ten managers – are four points off the play-off places in seventh. The side have only lost five fixtures so far this term – the same amount of defeats as leaders Leeds, and two less than third-placed Sheffield United. It’s a good return for a side that has 17 new signings.
However, results have been a little mixed. The 4-2 victory over Leeds was one of the higher points of the season, while a 5-5 draw with Aston Villa and a 3-3 draw with Norwich were displays of vibrant, energising entertainment. Whether those moments are enough to satisfy a fan base that, expecting a play-off challenge, have seen their side beaten by Millwall and QPR and draw nearly half their fixtures, is still a question only the fans can answer.
So far, at least, it seems their answer is “yes”. There’s been no revolt or major move to see Karanka lose his job, and attendances have remained steady. The manager still has the backing of his players, too, and yet, as Forest approached games against Millwall and Leeds in their final two fixtures of 2018, all the headlines were of the impending sacking of Karanka.
The only faction that seem to be getting twitchy, it would seem, are the board. Despite the increasingly lucrative evolution of the Championship, £27 million is still a lot of money to invest in a second-tier side. It’s difficult to disagree that the £13-million investment in midfielder Joao Carvalho hasn’t reaped rewards.
What exacerbates Forest’s shortcomings in the eyes of the board is the lingering shadow of Wolverhampton Wanderers. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the Forest and Wolves projects – they are, after all, only a season apart from one another and both featured banner Portuguese signings. If Wolves did it, why not assume Forest could too?
The answer, of course, is that Karanka is not Nuno Espirito, Carvalho is not Neves, and star centre-back Michael Hefele is not Wily Boly. Wolves and Forest may both have spent swathes of money to answer the promotion question, but they could never be the same as one another. That, from this distance, seems to be Karanka’s great sin in the eyes of his employers.
With players and fans still in Karanka’s camp, firing the man seems reckless. That said, with Slavisa Jokanovic currently on the market and Karanka not meeting the expectations their financial backing might have demanded, the board may feel justified in swinging the axe.
Whether Karanka keeps his job can only really be decided on results, and the 4-2 victory over the league leaders Leeds will probably have bought him more time. However, you get the feeling that unless Karanka puts his foot in it before May, his position may be decided purely on whether the reds are a Premier League or Championship side next season.
Follow Ross on Twitter @rossbramble