Nottingham Forest supporters saw another side to Nuno Espirito Santo when he smiled with relief and declared himself a happy man in his interview after the penalty shootout win over Bristol City in the FA Cup on Wednesday evening.
Even now, he is thrilled. “It was massive for us,” he tells Sky Sports. “I consider the FA Cup a unique chance to fight for a trophy.” And a fight it was. It has taken replays to see off Blackpool and Bristol City and set up a fifth-round tie with Manchester United.
It was anything but fluent. There were not the rapier-like counter-attacks that cut apart Saturday’s opponents Newcastle United away at St James’ Park. Nor was there quite the buzz of excitement that accompanied the recent home win over Manchester United.
But Nuno loved it for another reason.
“Identity is not just the way that you pass the ball,” he explains.
“It is not just the movements that you make. Identity is what we saw against Bristol City. Players struggling after four months out. Players in pain but still on the pitch because we do not have any more substitutes. Players giving everything. Players never giving up. This is identity. This is the first step. Never give up.”
These are fraught times at Nottingham Forest. The decision to dispense with the services of Steve Cooper was an emotional one for the club’s supporters given everything that he had achieved, all that he had made possible. But the threat of relegation loomed.
Nuno arrived in January to discover a team that had won one game from 13 and now finds itself in an equally traumatic battle off the field as possible punishments relating to profit-and-sustainability regulations hang over the club like a dark cloud.
It is against that backdrop that Nuno is trying to win matches.
I think we have to realise that we are in the process of building at a moment when there is a lot of noise around the club that does not benefit us at all. Issues that are still interfering with the team. All this fear that everybody has, it is not helping.”
Nuno, though, can help.
He has pedigree even if this is a different challenge. His last job was in Saudi Arabia, where he won the league title. From Rio Ave to Valencia via Porto, from Wolves to Tottenham in the Premier League, he has never finished as low as Forest are right now.
It is not the only unfamiliar aspect.
“It is the first time that we have joined in the middle of the competition. It is totally different. But honestly we are delighted with how the players are accepting our ideas. It is not easy to change but the commitment that they have shown makes me positive.”
That 3-1 win at Newcastle was a significant moment, Forest’s best away result since their return to the Premier League. “That was important. We did a good game and it is always easier to transmit your ideas when the atmosphere is good and everybody is happy.”
But what Nuno has not had is time.
He returns to a Premier League that he says has moved forward even in the short time that he has been away. “It is definitely getting harder. The game has changed. Managers are trying new things and it requires a lot of adaptation on our part,” he explains.
“Many of our players are playing together for the first time and it is easier to introduce new things when you already have that understanding and the knowledge. That is why I think we have to hurry up and adapt. As well as trying to create our own game.
“I could have a very good idea but do I think it is going to work out? Do I have the personnel to execute what I think? This moment of the competition is not the time to try things. It is a time to compete. If you want to build something then you need time. We do not have it.”
Nuno has not helped himself in needing replays to dispose of lower-league opposition in the FA Cup because it has robbed him of some of that time. Even the next round of the FA Cup will take place in midweek. Manchester United on a Wednesday before Liverpool at the weekend.
That means that Forest must use recovery time as preparation time too. “We do not have much time on the grass so it is about meetings, it is about conversations. It is about looking after the game to see what was right and what was wrong, correcting positions.”
Solving the set-piece problem
He is determined to solve the problem defending set-pieces that afflicted Cooper’s side and continues to undermine them. “We are working on it, looking at different aspects, because it is not always the same players, it is constantly changing, ” he explains.
Justin Kluivert’s early goal for Bournemouth in the 1-1 draw last time out came from a corner. It was the 13th goal that Forest have conceded from a set-piece situation in the Premier League this season – three more than any other side in the competition.
“We are looking to change the positions in the zones. If they are good on the second post, let us put them on the first post and see if they can be more aggressive dealing with the inswinger that is really close to our line because we have been struggling with that.
“We are working on it because it is something that is really costing us at the moment. At the same time, if we can also transform our offensive set-pieces and we are able to turn that into a weapon for our team, that will be able to help us to solve games.”
How Nuno has ‘rebalanced’ the squad
He talks a lot about rebalancing the squad. That happened during the transfer window. “Every manager has their own idea and the squad is built around that idea. A new manager has to rebalance in terms of the positions. We felt there were too many players.”
Scott McKenna and Joe Worrall departed having served the club well in defence. Orel Mangala left too. In came yet another new goalkeeper in Matz Sels. “At the same time, there were absences, especially in the offensive options,” explains Nuno.
Giovanni Reyna and Rodrigo Ribeiro will hope to help fill that void. “You have seen who has gone out. Two centre-halves. We still have five. We had wingers but we did not have those options [inside] if they were not available. This is the rebalancing.”
Reyna is an option as a No 10. “He can do that position and he can play wide.” Ribeiro is an intriguing signing but expectations need to be contained. “He is young but he has talent. It will take time for him to reach what we expect from him,” adds Nuno.
Injuries are hampering plans. Chris Wood scored a hat-trick against Newcastle but is now unavailable. At least Taiwo Awoniyi is fit again. “We have not had the chance to have the two strikers available. To use them both during a match would be so important to us.
“At the same time, let us see if we can make versatile players because this is important also. Players need to be able to play more than one position on the pitch because this gives us the option during a game to not change a player but just change their position.
“For example, Morgan [Gibbs-White], in the previous game, started as an offensive player but then we were able to drop him in as a second midfielder because we wanted to introduce another offensive option. This is what we are trying to see and to build.”
Again, there are long-term ambitions and short-term demands. He is trying to instil confidence. “This is our first message to them. Let us play, let us help each other.” Does that not come with results? No. Togetherness. “As long as we are together, it will come.”
The plan is that partnerships will begin to develop once – finally – there is some continuity at Forest. “Now, it is about getting the right pieces together, with their own characteristics, to see if they can gel.” Nuno insists that he is already seeing evidence of this.
“I have seen improvement in a lot of aspects. Our organisation, when we go to recover the ball, the distances between players. We need to reduce those gaps even more so that the opposition do not have time to decide. We are trying. But all these things take time.”
The hope is that Nuno has enough of it.