Steve Cooper and Nottingham Forest completed a crucial victory in their play-off semi final first leg clash with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
Forest took the lead after only 10 minutes as Jack Colback followed up a parry from the goalkeeper to tap home for the opener. Eventually, after several clear-cut chances they added to their advantage as Brennan Johnson’s driven finish saw them double their lead. But Sander Berge managed to scramble the ball over the line from a corner to add some real fizz and set up a grandstand finish for the second leg.
Both sides set up synonymously with their shapes since their respective bosses took over mid-season with United opting for their 3-5-2 formation, spearheaded by the typical wingers of Morgan Gibbs-White and Iliman N’Diaye in attack.
Forest went with their 3-4-3 keeping James Garner and Ryan Yates in the double pivot midfield role, but they would have to work hard to prevent the midfield from becoming a slip road for Blades attacks with them being outnumbered in the middle.
The opening strike came largely against the run of play, as the away side invited the pressure from the Blades whilst sitting deep in typical Steve Cooper fashion. Arguably the Blades should’ve had a penalty as they aimed to exploit the visitors by lofting in set pieces and using their height advantage with Sander Berge dragged down early on in the tie.
However, Forest looked to flood forward and hit on the break when they could, picking their moments carefully and overloading in wide areas with quick interchanges. This was typified by their goal where they forayed forwards only to find themselves with spare men to tap home at the back post.
It came from a superb curved ball down the line by Joe Worrall which found Sam Surridge as he pulled outside, leaving the space in the middle for Phillip Zinckernagel to progress through the defensive line and get a shot away.
But as the half drew on, the Bramall Lane residents would’ve felt fortunate to only go in one-nil down at the break after being sliced open on far too many occasions by the opposition’s counterattacks.
Paul Heckingbottom was visibly surprised by the way his team were being rifled through at ease, with goalkeeper Wes Foderingham having to come to the rescue on several occasions.
An outstanding double save just before the break kept Sam Surridge’s high shot out, but it was clawed only as far as Johnson who headed towards the corner of the goal only to be kept out by a sprawling Foderingham.
Their dominance in attacking areas was shown by the 1.81xG they created by the halfway mark – the visitors should’ve put the first leg to bed by halftime.
As the whistle blew, a reaction was needed from Heckingbottom’s side, with them getting picked off in possession too easily which allowed Forest a field of space to drive into when they won the ball back.
The adaptations were made for the second half, as they tried to get into the channel more often, with them often withholding the ball in order to pick the correct pass to ensure they weren’t vulnerable to those counterattacks like they were in the first half.
But in so they took fewer risks, and some would say that was fair considering the quantity of clear cut chances Forest created during the first 45 minutes. However, this meant they decreased their chances of scoring but did in turn limit their vulnerability to those counters.
It was thought that with Sheffield’s early dominance, Forest may regret not taking one of those opportunities they had earlier on in the game. But that wasn’t to be as some perfectly timed option-based pressing from substitute Joe Lolley meant he robbed the ball from Chris Basham and presented an unmissable chance to Johnson, who using the momentum of the pass, steered the ball into the top corner.
A commendable example of Cooper’s coached intelligent press that he’s instilled during his time at the club, within and out of possession specialised sessions to perfect this.
All Sheffield United needed was a goal to relight the spark in the tie and to prevent it from being dead and buried by the time the second leg came around. And they got it, as they pushed for a late equaliser whilst in a measured manner in order to stop the tie from becoming out of reach. A corner kick fell in between Jack Robinson and Berge with the latter getting a touch on the ball to deflect it goalwards.
It was exactly what they needed, and the element of fortune that was needed to provide the platform for the second leg to thrive. But with Forest unbeaten at home during this calendar year, it’ll be a difficult task for the Blades to complete.
By: Louis Bent / @louisbent_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto