A lot of Nottingham Forest fans feel their team is not given the credit they deserve in the promotion race, with the Reds sitting fourth, just four points off the top two.
Are they and Sabri Lamouchi the real deal? Gabriel Sutton discusses...
Strong right side
In Matty Cash and Joe Lolley, Forest possess the most compelling right-side in the Championship.
Cash is a more exciting right-back than anybody Leeds, Brentford or West Brom could field in that position and Lamouchi deserves credit for using him in that position regularly, after Martin O’Neill toyed with the idea of dropping the winger deeper last season.
The academy graduates’ powerful, driving runs complement the elusive trickery of Joe Lolley, who loves to make winding runs in from the right and cut onto his excellent left foot, which he can use to curl shots to great effect, as we saw in the recent 3-1 win over Luton.
Cash and Lolley are Premier League players in waiting and, if Forest do go up, they will have played a huge part.
Another advantage Forest have in the promotion race is the clinical finishing of Lewis Grabban.
The front-man has scored 14 goals this season from 61 shots, which is an excellent return in comparison with the top scoring, starting strikers for Leeds and West Brom.
Patrick Bamford has scored 12 goals from as many as 104 shots for the Whites while Albion’s Hal Robson-Kanu has bagged three from 16 (Charlie Austin has eight league goals for the Baggies but six of those have come from the bench).
Grabban has won promotion from this level before with Norwich and was a key part of the Aston Villa side that reached the Play-Off Final in 2018; with 138 EFL goals to his name, the 32-year-old will be a key asset in the run-in.
Nottingham Forest haven't played Premier League football since 1999
When Michael Dawson was a young defender coming through the ranks, he learnt from the great Des Walker, so there is something romantic about the fact that, 16 years on, Worrall has picked up on Dawson’s experience and will begin to pass on the baton himself.
The centre-back has been a key part of a team that has conceded just 30 goals in 30 games, giving them the Championship’s third-best defensive record; the 23-year-old has been an ever-present.
In the periods under Phillipe Montanier and Mark Warburton, the team collectively was set up to play out from the back, which made them more liable to errors and thus Worrall looked weaker than he actually is; a better organised system under Lamouchi is enhancing his strengths, although regular senior experience has helped.
Tobias Figueredo has also proved a hit for Lamouchi’s side, who have kept 10 clean sheets – the joint-second most in the Championship.
A lot of those 10 clean sheets were down to the form of Brice Samba, who was inspirational in several victories, including August’s 2-1 win at Fulham, September’s 1-0 win over Barnsley and December’s 1-0 win over Wigan.
While Samba has been somewhat erratic in his decision making at times, he also averages 3.1 saves per 90 minute, which is the fourth-most out of all the first-choice goalkeepers in the Championship.
When it comes from saves from inside the penalty area, the tally is 1.7 per 90, which shows the Reds rely – perhaps more heavily than they would like – on their Congolese keeper.
Forest average 1.27 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.11 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 53.35%, the 10th-best in the division.
For comparison, they are averaging 1.37 Goals For per game, one Against per game and are fourth, which shows they are outperforming their shot data.
While the longevity of their positive results has to be respected, history tells us that teams who outperform their shot data normally cannot do so for a whole season.
In some cases, those teams improve their collective performance levels to match with results – and Forest have shown signs that they are beginning to do that in recent weeks – but in other cases, results can regress.
Concerns over the sustainability of results with performance levels are not unique to those away from Trentside; plenty of fans who are not necessarily public advocates of the xG model are happy with Lamouchi and content with progress this season, but also not quite sure they have enough to challenge the top two.
Magnificent from Forest. Deserved winners here at Griffin Park. A classic away performance, kept Brentford at arms length all night - a Sabri Lamouchi masterclass. #nffc right in the thick of the automatic promotion race now.— Baz Cooper (@bazdjcooper) January 28, 2020
Narrow goal threats
Grabban and Lolley have scored a combined 23 of Forest’s 41 league goals.
Outside those two, no player has scored more than three goals while only Ben Watson has scored more than twice.
We have criticised Leeds and West Brom for not having clinical strikers, but they have eight and seven players respectively on more than two league goals; the diversified goal threat arguably gives them an extra edge.
Forest have taken steps forward by signing forward Nuno Da Costa from Strasbourg and recalling the exciting Tyler Walker from Lincoln, as well as the arrival of speedster Adama Diakhaby on loan from Huddersfield, but they look short on genuine threats from midfield.
Lack of creativity
Forest rely on Tiago Silva for creativity in central areas.
The Portuguese midfielder uses the ball with delightful precision and could help them improve their play through the middle, but there can be a shortage of positive options in possession.
Watson is not too much more than a dependable anchor man and while Samba Sow uses his athleticism and aggression to good effect off the ball, he has struggled with injuries this term and Forest are weaker without him.
The reliance on Silva has not been problematic for Forest when they have had less than 50% possession; they have won a whopping 13 games in 20 in those circumstances.
Without seeing much of the ball, they can bring the Cash and Lolley combination into play quickly and create clear cut chances for Grabban.
As teams begin to work out that the way to stop them is to give them prolonged periods of possession, though, the Reds could suffer from having one central technician rather than two – the 3-1 victory over Luton was their only victory in 10 encounters with more than 50% possession.
Should Lamouchi be respected for the progress he has overseen this season?
Absolutely – considering the Frenchman took over just a day before their opening pre-season match, he has done wonders to become the most popular manager at the City Ground for many years.
Should Forest be respected as top six contenders?
Without question – they have shown more than enough to suggest they can achieve a Play-Off berth for the first time in nine years, which would be a fantastic accomplishment.
What is more dubious is whether Lamouchi’s side have enough strength across the park to challenge for automatic promotion?
Forest fans have every right to get excited, naturally, but Leeds, West Brom, Fulham and Brentford have all done arguably more in performances to suggest they can stay in the equation for the top two.
Lamouchi’s troops, we suspect, will be competing with the likes of Bristol City, Preston North End and Swansea for the two lower Play-Off berths.
Although, their success in games without much of the ball could give them an upper-hand against possession-based outfits in the Play-Offs.