An argument for selling Robbie Earnshaw
In recent weeks there have been several rumours concerning Forest’s attempts to sign Peter Whittingham from Cardiff City. One rumour has it that Forest have offered Robbie Earnshaw in part-exchange. Given that he is Forest’s top goalscorer for the last two seasons, and has netted 34 goals in 73 games for the club, is this madness of the first order, or perhaps a masterstroke?
The answer to this question is not straightforward. Swapping a striker for a midfielder makes direct comparison quite difficult. The best way to approach this is probably from a tactical angle.
In recent seasons, the offside law has changed and is now even more in favour of the attacking team than it was before. As a result, teams defend deeper. This has a significant impact on the shape of the team. With greater distance between a team’s defenders and forwards, the midfield runs the risk of being too far from one or the other (or possibly both). Consequently, we have seen teams move from what is referred to as ‘three-band formations’ (e.g. 4-4-2) to ‘four-band formations’ such as the 4-1-3-2. Even the 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid that has been widely adopted does not have a flat midfield and is probably better represented as closer to a 4-1-2-3, 4-3-2-1 or possibly even a 4-1-2-2-1.
Now what has all this got to do with Robbie Earnshaw? Well, as the midfield splits, it becomes necessary for one of the strikers to drop deeper (assuming the switch is from 4-4-2 to the new formation) in order to prevent the midfield being overrun, leaving a lone striker. Now Robbie, for all his goalscoring qualities, lacks the height and physical strength to play up front on his own, where he would be expected to compete in the air, hold up the ball and provide an ‘out ball’ when the team is under pressure.
At the beginning of last season, Billy Davies left Earnshaw out of the team – particularly away from home – and clearly experimented with one of the more popular four-band formations, the 4-2-3-1 in several matches. The 3-2 home win is a prime example, with the team lining up as follows:
Gunter, Morgan, Chambers, Cohen;
Garner, McGoldrick, Tyson;
Once Earnshaw got back amongst the goals in the autumn, he forced his way back into the side, and Davies reverted to a 4-4-2.
At Championship level, and with Forest possessing one of the stronger squads in the division, this switch back to 4-4-2 didn’t make much difference. Particularly at home, when able to dominate possession high up the field, Earnshaw was heavily involved and scored regularly. However, away from home he was less effective. By my reckoning, only three of his seventeen goals last season were scored on the road (against Ipswich Town, Middlesborough and Preston North End). However, should Forest reach the Premier League, they would be harder pressed to dominate games – and more importantly possession – and Earnshaw’s style of play means that he would contribute little to the team when Forest were without the ball.
My suggestion is that exchanging Earnshaw for Whittingham would allow Billy Davies to move permanently to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Whittingham and Anderson on the wings, and also accommodating all three of McKenna, Cohen and Majewski in central midfield. Signing an attacking left-back (a mirror image of Gunter for example) and playing Whittingham and Anderson on the ‘wrong’ wings would give them license to cut inside and mean that Blackstock wasn’t isolated in the middle when balls are played into the box.
This more consistent formation would also give Davies a greater degree of flexibility without having to change the system too much. McGoldrick, Garner and Tyson can all play as part of the attacking midfield three, and so can still feature in the team despite the obvious problems presented by playing a lone striker at a club with five strikers on its books. Also, away from home, or when on the back foot, various players can drop deeper or change positions without major changes to personnel. The 4-2-3-1 can easily become 4-4-1-1 (with the wingers dropping back in line with the deeper central midfielders) or McKenna could drop back into an anchor-man role, and Mejewski fall in line with Cohen to give the V-shaped 4-5-1 we commonly see the likes of Chelsea play. Finally, if one of McGoldrick, Garner or Tyson were playing, it could be switch to 4-4-2 without the need for any substitutions.
On top of the tactical reasons there are a couple of other fairly convincing arguments for making this exchange. Firstly, the financial one. While Nigel Doughty clearly isn’t short of money or unwilling to invest, if Davies followed the tactical route I have outlined above, Earnshaw would become a bit-part player most often deployed from the bench. As one of the highest-paid players at the club, he would become a very expensive impact substitute, and one who almost certainly wouldn’t be needed in every game. My gut feeling would also be that Whittingham would be on significantly lower wages than Earnshaw currently is (given Cardiff’s ongoing financial problems and their slightly smaller stature), and therefore we would be able to offer him an attractive pay-rise and still reduce the wage expenditure. (I will freely admit that this is pure conjecture on my part and could easily be shot down by someone with more information at their disposal.) Secondly, there is the simple reality of nature and the statistics from last season: we would be losing a 29-year-old who scored 17 goals last season and replacing him with a 25-year-old who netted 25 goals in 51 appearances from midfield.
I should stress, as my final point, that this thought process is not born of a dislike of Earnshaw. Far from it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that he is probably my favourite member of the current squad. I feel that his goals, his flamboyant celebrations and obvious enjoyment of scoring make him a valuable part of the matchday experience, and his presence in the team helps create a positive atmosphere among the fans, which almost certainly transfers to the team in general. In an ideal world, Billy Davies would sign Peter Whittingham and somehow fit him into the same starting line-up as Earnshaw, and we could have the best of both worlds. However, I am speaking with my heart here. Billy Davies’ job is to think with his head not his heart, and make the tough decisions for the benefit of the club. Should Whittingham arrive and Earnshaw leave, and Forest gain promotion as a result, I imagine any sadness at Earnie’s departure would be quickly forgotten.