The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Nottingham Forest might have felt empathy with newly promoted Burnley, as Vincent Kompany’s side arrived at the City Ground still looking to find their feet in the Premier League, without a point after four games.
But for Steve Cooper’s side, the memory of last season and their own challenging return to the top flight should be both poignant and pertinent for more reasons than that.
The scale of change this summer has not been on the same level as a year ago, when Forest recruited a remarkable 22 new signings. It was ultimately enough to help them preserve their Premier League status but the process of acclimatisation was hardly straightforward, involving changes in mentality and formation, as well as personnel.
Following a fresh round of 13 signings — including eight in the last 48 hours of the window — expectation has grown again. The changes this time felt more planned but the immediate challenges remain decidedly familiar for Cooper, as he seeks consistency from his side.
The broader picture has Forest sitting in a very healthy eighth place after five games — ahead of Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle — with seven points. In comparison, Forest took jut six points from their first 11 games last season.
On Monday night, there was further evidence for optimism, provided most memorably by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who marked his debut with an outstanding goal. But there was also plenty to suggest that patience is still needed. Cooper again finds himself like a kid at Christmas, armed with a host of new toys and unsure which he should play with first.
A year ago, midfielder Remo Freuler — a player with international experience with Switzerland and European experience with Atalanta — had been sat in Cooper’s office, talking openly about how he had been caught out by the demands of the Premier League. Roll on 12 months and experience had taught Cooper the value of having a similar conversation with Ibrahim Sangare, the Ivory Coast international who has played Champions League football this season, with PSV.
Sangare is a player Forest believe can be a transformative figure, a midfielder who can be sufficiently influential to allow them additional flexibility in both formation and their mentality. It was not a coincidence that his debut coincided with a return to a 4-2-3-1, with he and Orel Mangala providing security in front of the back four.
The 25-year-old had only trained properly with his new teammates for the first time last Friday, after departing on international duty — where he scored as Ivory Coast beat Lesotho 1-0 — following his deadline day arrival.
“I had a good chat with him. What we have learned, since we have been in the Premier League, is that it can take some time to realise what it is like,”said Cooper. “English football is different in the way it is played, in the intensity, in the way it is refereed… Whatever age or experience you might have, there has to be a realisation of that.
“He showed bits of who he is and there are other bits we want to develop with him.”
Forest chased Sangare for 18 months – but how will he fit in?
In recent days, Cooper addressed his entire squad about needing to bed the new arrivals in slowly. Much of what Forest do on the training ground is focussed on drilling their ‘way’ into the players, the belief being that, if they get their message across clearly, it will become second nature on a match day.
That takes time. It also explains why it was a gamble to include Sangare. But it paid off in one sense, with Sangare’s defensive stats way above anyone else in the Forest side: he made five tackles, three interceptions, one clearance and blocked one shot. But Sangare also gave the ball away too regularly, with his passing success rate at just 75.7 per cent.
In fact, his performance perfectly reflected that of Forest as a whole: plenty of good stuff, but plenty to be worked on.
“This is the first time this team has played together so it’s promising. The only way is up,” said Morgan Gibbs-White — who had also encouraged his former England under-17 teammate, Hudson-Odoi, at half-time to stop being ‘nicey-nice’ and have a go if he had the opportunity. It was sage advice, with Hudson-Odoi applying an impressive first touch to a simple ball from Taiwo Awoniyi, to create half a yard at the edge of the box and then whip the ball across goal and into the net off the inside of the woodwork.
It was apparent that Hudson-Odoi had trained with his new teammates throughout the international break. He is somebody who already understands both top flight football, having cut his teeth with Chelsea, and how Cooper operates, having been part of his England squad that won the Under-17 World Cup six years ago.
There were enough flashes to suggest that Hudson-Odoi, Gibbs-White, Anthony Elanga and Taiwo Awoniyi could be a thrilling quartet of attacking players for Forest. But none of those moments were more impressive that Hudson-Odoi’s goal, which suggested Forest may have secured a bargain by signing him for £3million (possibly rising to £5m) last month.
“He can have quality; he can have moments of brilliance,” said Cooper. “He did some really good things, but then ran out of legs a little bit. It was a brilliant goal. We have had a few of those scored against us. But we have players in our team who are capable of doing those things now.”
If Cooper can coax a similar level of impact from all the new signings, the outlook for Forest will only continue to improve.
(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)