Among the players on Nottingham Forest’s summer shortlist, it is not hard to spot a theme emerging.
As well as a desire to strengthen down the spine of the side — in goal, in the centre of defence, in central midfield and up front (as well as at left-back) — there is another kind of player the club are looking at; one area of the pitch where they are focusing a lot of attention. More than any other position, in fact.
Among the players they have looked at, there are at least five players who are either wingers or forwards who are comfortable playing in wider positions.
This can be explained away by the lack of goals in the Forest side last season — Forest scored only 38 goals in 38 Premier League games, which was the fifth-worst in the division.
The need for more attacking threat is obvious. Steve Cooper has spoken about it himself — the desire to take another step forward this season; to add more goals to a side that ultimately survived by making themselves harder to beat.
Forest will not abandon their core principle of being difficult to break down, but there is a clear desire to be more ambitious in their approach.
The search for wide men could also be seen as careful planning, in case anyone does deliver a bid for Brennan Johnson that hits the number at which Forest would be prepared to do business. That figure is understood to be around £50million, which is significantly more than the £30million put on the table by Brentford. But with Aston Villa, newly qualified for Europe, also keen, it is unlikely to be the end of that saga.
Whether Johnson is ultimately sold or not, it is an area of the pitch that is an obvious priority for Forest to strengthen and add to the quality already provided in the final third by Taiwo Awoniyi, Morgan Gibbs-White and Johnson, who scored 23 of Forest’s 38 goals between them.
Willian was pursued hard, having been given a tour of the training ground and offered a two-year contract, in an effort to lure him away from Fulham.
But while a Steve Cooper charm offensive has attracted some big names to Forest — such as Jesse Lingard last summer — the pull of living in London was too much for the Brazilian, who opted to remain at Craven Cottage, despite the fact that Fulham were offering a shorter deal.
At no stage did Willian undergo a medical, but Forest pulled out all the stops, in an effort to move things along; to sign a player who had impressed against them last season.
The player is said to have been impressed by the people at Forest. But they could not compete with simple geography, with the 34-year-old (who will turn 35 before Fulham’s Premier League campaign begins, away to Everton, on August 12) ultimately willing to accept a one-year deal on less money to remain in London.
In the meantime, Manchester City’s Carlos Borges had been one of the key names on Forest’s wanted list. Borges won the Premier League 2 player of the season award after scoring 21 goals in 24 appearances for a City team that won a third consecutive PL2 title. The Portugal Under-19 international is valued in the region of £10million ($12.7m) and can play as a wide forward, a winger or an orthodox forward.
The player they are pushing hardest to sign in the short term is goalkeeper Dean Henderson — negotiations began earlier this week over a deal for the former England man and Forest want him to be their No 1, following his successful loan spell last season.
Forest also remain keen on PSV powerhouse midfielder Ibrahim Sangare, who they have made at least one offer for. Their interest in Botafogo’s Brazilian midfielder Matheus Nascimento, meanwhile, is not as strong as some reports in South America have suggested.
Henderson is not the only Manchester United player Forest have a keen interest in. Anthony Elanga, the Swedish winger, is another Forest have targeted and discussions have been held about his availability. United’s stance over the 21-year-old has softened this summer, as they look to sell some of their fringe players to help facilitate new additions. Reports have suggested Elanga would now be available for around £10million, which is a reasonable fee for a young player who has significant potential.
Elanga first broke into the United team under Ralf Ragnick but has struggled for minutes under Erik ten Hag. He made only seven starts in all competitions and 19 substitute appearances last term. Fred, Donny van de Beek, Henderson and Scott McTominay are among the others that United could look to move on to raise funds for Inter Milan goalkeeper Andre Onana and potentially Atalanta forward Rasmus Hojlund.
Elanga is expected to be part of the United squad that travels to the US for their pre-season training camp in the coming days, having previously not been included in the friendlies against Leeds or Lyon after being on international duty with Sweden last month. Forest are expected to rival Everton, who previously tried to sign him in January, for his signature now.
Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi is another player Forest have considered. Head coach Cooper has a good relationship with a player who was part of his England Under-17 side that won the World Cup in 2017. The finances involved in signing Hudson-Odoi could be more difficult, with the transfer fee likely to be more significant than United are asking for Elanga, while the player’s wages are also higher.
The 22-year-old has not travelled with the Chelsea squad to the US and played for the development squad against Boreham Wood. He is keen to move on in search of regular first-team football, while the club are keen to move him off their wage bill — and to secure a fee for a player who has only one year left to run on his contract.
Hudson-Odoi has made 32 starts and 40 sub appearances in the Premier League for Chelsea, scoring four goals, since making his league debut in 2018 — but has rarely had an extended run in the side, with an Achilles injury setting his progress back in 2019. He had a disappointing loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen last season, where he made 14 appearances but remains a player with significant potential if given the opportunity to develop with regular game time.
Like Willian, a move to Fulham could be a more feasible, attractive option for Hudson-Odoi, for geographical reasons. And Elanga and Borges are the most obvious, likely options for Forest.
An interest in Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye remains, too. He had been identified as a target this time last year, with both Cooper and the Forest recruitment team — then headed up by George Syrianos — having been fans of his qualities.
Marseille have bid for the Senegalese player, who was a leading light in the Blades’ promotion but also only has a year left on his contract. The French club have so far been unsuccessful in their efforts to sign the 23-year-old — who was also the subject of interest from Everton in January. Marseille remain the most likely destination for Ndiaye, but Forest will continue to monitor the position of a player who, like Gibbs-White, is comfortable playing across the attacking three within the kind of 4-2-3-1 formation that has often been favoured by Cooper.
In the meantime, while they focus on bringing in new additions, Forest are not actively seeking to usher Johnson out — not least because Cooper values the Wales international highly. He is currently in Spain with the rest of the Forest squad, although he is receiving treatment on an ankle injury, sustained on international duty with Wales.
But there would be a certain cold logic to considering high-value offers for Johnson — if they arrive — because of his status as an academy product.
Forest will be permitted losses of £83million over three years by the end of this coming campaign, given that one of the years under assessment would be their final season in the Championship. In 2021-22, they were permitted losses of £13m, which rose to £35m per season once they made the step up to the Premier League.
Selling Johnson would have more of an impact on Forest’s finances given his status as an academy product means any sale would represent pure profit — significant when it comes to how FFP losses are assessed.
Forest have a long list of high-earning players who they do want to move out — headed up by Jonjo Shelvey, who has been frozen out since reacting poorly to being left out of the starting line-up against his former club, Liverpool, in April.
A host of players have returned from loan and the majority are expected to be moved out, including Ethan Horvath (Luton), Josh Bowler (Blackpool, following an earlier spell at Olympiacos), Hwang Ui-jo (FC Seoul, and, like Bowler, Olympiacos before that), Jonathan Panzo (Coventry), Tyrese Fornah (Reading), Ateef Konate (Oxford United), Richie Laryea (Toronto), Loic Mbe Soh (Guingamp) and Mohamed Drager (Luzern) permanently following his loan there.
Sam Surridge is close to completing a £5m move to Nashville in the MLS, which would be a good move all round, but Steve Cook and Harry Arter are other players who Forest would like to move out. If you include Cook and Arter, you have an entire team of players who are unlikely to have a space in the 25-man squad and who, realistically, Forest need to find a new club for.
There is a significant financial burden that Forest need to offload, at a time when they do not enjoy some of the benefits that their rivals do.
The City Ground stadium — while an incredible asset in terms of the remarkable atmosphere it creates — does not help the club to fulfil their financial potential when it comes to match day revenue. That is part of the reason why the club are keen to push ahead with plans to redevelop the Peter Taylor Stand, in order to improve such facilities and, along with it, their ability to generate more income.
In the meantime, they continue to search for a front-of-shirt sponsor, with the ambition being to land a deal worth £10million or more.
But what matters most is building a side that can push on again in the Premier League and, for different reasons, adding to their attacking arsenal will be at the core of that.
(Top photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)