What Nottingham Forest can take from Man City defeat ahead of big week in relegation battle

Nottingham Forest's Ola Aina, Matz Sels and Chris Wood react to Manchester City's opening goal at the City Ground
Nottingham Forest's Ola Aina, Matz Sels and Chris Wood react to Manchester City's opening goal at the City Ground -Credit:PA

The City Ground broke out into applause at the full-time whistle. It was recognition from Nottingham Forest fans of what they had just seen. They had clapped and roared the Reds off at half-time, too. The final result might have been what many anticipated, but Sunday was about more than that.

Forest might not have finished with anything tangible to show for their efforts against Manchester City, but they could come away with something just as important in their relegation battle. Hope. Hope and confidence.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s men went toe to toe with a City side gunning for a fourth straight Premier League title. They could - and really should - have got something from the game.

READ MORE: Every word Nuno said on Forest defeat and formation change

READ MORE: Nuno delivers FFP appeal hearing update as Forest await verdict

If the Reds need a template to follow for their final three matches as they fight to secure safety, Sunday’s performance is it. Play with that kind of intensity, courage and conviction against their three remaining opponents and they will be in with a chance of banking points.

The 2-0 defeat to the reigning champions boiled down to something of a familiar tale in that it amounted to Forest missing chances and being punished from a set-piece. But on this occasion, the scoreline doesn’t tell the whole story. Let's look at the big talking points from the game...

Chance after chance

According to Opta, the Reds had an xG (expected goals) of 1.64 on Sunday. City’s was 0.84. Opta say Forest are only the second team to outshoot a Pep Guardiola team both at home and away in a season, following in the footsteps of Real Madrid in 2009/10. The Reds had 14 shots on Sunday, compared to the visitors’ 11. In the reverse fixture back in September, Forest had 10 shots to City’s seven. But only one team managed to find the back of the net. It was the same 2-0 scoreline in both games.

Finishing off chances is not a new issue for Nuno to address. On Sunday, though, the hosts spurned some gilt-edged ones. Chris Wood memorably bagged the equaliser in the same fixture last season. He could have had a hat-trick this time around but somehow missed a string of golden opportunities.

The New Zealander has 13 goals in all competitions for the campaign so far. After a hot streak of four in as many games, he has not scored in his past three outings - and has spurned a few big chances during those matches.

But Forest would be much worse off were it not for Wood. He had a real off day at the weekend but has come to the rescue before. And Nuno is backing him to do the same again in the remaining fixtures.

"We keep supporting. Chris is one of the best strikers I have worked with. He is huge with his work and what he gives to the team,” the Portuguese told BBC Radio Nottingham.

Formation switch

Nuno has generally stuck with a 4-2-3-1 system since taking up post Trentside. But on Sunday, as he looked to contain a dangerous City side, he mixed things up.

The Reds went with a back three of Willy Boly, Murillo and Moussa Niakhate, with Neco Williams and Ola Aina as wing-backs. It worked.

The visitors were limited to only a handful of chances. Matz Sels made a couple of strong saves, but wasn’t called upon as often as some might have expected him to be.

Pep Guardiola had what appeared to be a little dig about a “dry” City Ground pitch in his post-match comments. But Forest’s work-rate and compactness was the real factor in restricting City’s play.

“It is clear for everybody to see that against City it is difficult to cover all the spaces,” Nuno said. “Having an extra body in the back line reduces the possibility of gaps.”

Aina and Williams thrived in the wing-back roles. More than once, the former had the beating of Kyle Walker. The England international is known for his pace, but Aina raced past him as if on turbocharge.

Nuno was noncommittal about whether he might stick with the same formation in the remaining games, but it could make a lot of sense. Forest are going to need to be steadfast but not at the expense of losing attacking threat as they go in search of vital points - they demonstrated both qualities on Sunday.

Injury worries

No need for any angry club statements after this game. Instead, the Reds made their own statement on the pitch - and it was an impressive one. Several players put in excellent performances against City. Forest also played well as a collective.

But they ended the game with some worrying injury concerns to key players. And Nuno has come in for some criticism for not changing at least two of them sooner.

It was clear Williams was going to need to come off after he went down and needed treatment just past the half hour mark. The Welshman was off the pitch when the visitors had a corner from which Josko Gvardiol scored. With Gonzalo Montiel yet to come on, the Reds were down to 10 men defending the set-piece - which might have affected their marking system.

For City’s second, Erling Haaland went past Murillo. But the Brazilian had clearly hurt himself when making a superb tackle moments earlier, and he thumped the ground in frustration after the ball had gone in the net.

Murillo did come off after Haaland’s goal, while Boly made way about 10 minutes later. Having the latter back from injury made a huge difference. If he is fit for the run-in, it will be a big boost for the Reds. Nuno will be hoping Boly, Murillo and Williams all recover this week and that Nicolas Dominguez - who missed the game - is available again.

Big week ahead

Reds fans booed the Premier League anthem before kick-off at the City Ground. It was a clear show of frustration on the back of the club’s VAR and PSR (Profitability and Sustainability Rules) woes.

But if Forest are going to remain in the top-flight, they have a big week ahead. On and off the pitch.

The Reds expect to discover the outcome of their appeal hearing over their four-point deduction in the coming days. The club hope they are successful in getting some of their points back, but it remains to be seen whether that will be the case.

Whatever happens, having a verdict will at least provide final clarity on where Forest stand and what they need to do. Nuno has already said the uncertainty has affected his players.

They head to already-relegated Sheffield United on Saturday for a huge game. Improving their form on the road is a must for the Reds in their two remaining away fixtures - against the Blades and Burnley.

It is incredibly tight at the bottom of the table. Forest remain out of the relegation zone by the narrowest of margins, but they should approach the run-in with confidence after the way they took on City.

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