Steve Cooper battling to find stability at turbulent Nottingham Forest

After a turbulent spell at the City Ground, it looked as if things were calming down when Steve Cooper surprisingly signed a contract extension until 2025 and Forest then ended their five-game losing run with a draw against Aston Villa to lift them off the bottom of the Premier League.

Naturally, the rollercoaster took another dive last Tuesday when the head of recruitment, George Syrianos, and the head of scouting, Andy Scott, were sacked after a brief review into the club’s £150m spending spree on 23 players. The writing was on the wall for the duo the week before when club insiders were briefing against them and the chief executive, Dane Murphy, said their roles were in doubt. The loss of Syrianos, a key ally, does not bode well for Murphy’s prospects.

Cooper maintained throughout the summer that the level of recruitment was necessary to create a squad capable of staying in the Premier League. He was the man who decided trying to re-sign Djed Spence was not worthwhile, so the club gave him Neco Williams, and Cooper rejected the idea of bringing back James Garner and Philip Zinckernagel, despite the suggestion greater continuity would be helpful.

It was Murphy and Syrianos who brought Cooper to the club. Murphy and the recruitment team held a meeting with Cooper before the summer window that resulted in everyone being on the same page in terms of what was needed. Players aged 26 and under were brought in to carry on the practice of targeting individuals with the potential to improve and increase in value. The club looked to the Bundesliga for value, bringing in Taiwo Awoniyi, Moussa Niakhaté, Orel Mangala and Omar Richards, who arrived with a broken leg. Elsewhere others were looking to have their say in the club’s transfer business, including Marinakis’s son, Miltos.

The arrival of Jesse Lingard changed the window for Forest: the strategy was gone. It was hailed as a signal of intent from the ownership but the former Manchester United midfielder has failed to make an impact, spending the Villa game on the bench without an obvious role in the team and being offered a 20-minute cameo in Saturday’s defeat at Wolves that left them bottom once more. Older players on higher wages were sought to add gravitas to a young squad, with the signings of Lingard, Cheihkou Kouyaté, Remo Freuler, Willy Boly, Serge Aurier and Emmanuel Dennis made by those outside the recruitment team. Miltos Marinakis ensured he received credit for these big-name signings.

Behind the scenes the club have hired consultants in the commercial and communications departments in an attempt to bring a Premier League structure. Meanwhile their head of operations has departed in recent weeks. They still do not have a shirt sponsor because of a lack of interest at the £10m figure demanded.

On Tuesday Forest play at Brighton, a club that offer stability, a cohesive long-term transfer strategy and a successful multi-club operation, three things Forest can only dream of. It is the start of a tough period for Cooper, with Liverpool and Arsenal their following two opponents, and three more defeats would leave them bottom with two matches to go before the World Cup break. Roberto De Zerbi likes his side to dominate possession and, if Forest’s past two games are anything to go by, his Brighton team will have a lot of the ball.

It has not been easy for Cooper to go against his footballing ideals, leaving behind the 5-2-1-2 formation that brought success last season but was too ambitious for a promoted club in the Premier League. Cooper has looked to bring more rigidity after Forest conceded 21 goals in their opening eight games. There was a five-man midfield against Villa and a far less vigorous pressing game as Forest accepted conceding possession at home to ensure they were harder to beat, rather than playing in the aggressive style that had been planned for this season.

The downside is it has made them look blunt. Morgan Gibbs-White’s attacking threat is limited in a more defensive midfield role for the record signing, as Cooper experiments to find the right balance. Brennan Johnson looks woefully short of confidence, summed up by his penalty miss at Wolves. Forest have not looked like scoring in open play in their past three outings, requiring a Dennis header from a free-kick against Villa for their only goal.

A new plan is being created behind the scenes and on the pitch, but Forest have found out how ruthless the Premier League is. They have to hope their big decisions work because they will otherwise be back where they started, only without the strategy that brought them up.