This was a frustrating, sapping 95 minutes of football and Steve Cooper did not overly care. For long periods Nottingham Forest played like the disjointed, slung-together set of players they inescapably are but it did not cost them. On the contrary they looked more comfortable as the game progressed against an increasingly exasperated Brighton and fought admirably to earn a point that takes them off the bottom of the table.
The robustness of their defending rendered the fact they barely mounted an attack of note irrelevant. If Forest rode their luck for spells of the first half they spent long stretches of the second untroubled, running the clock down expertly and playing on the audible nerves of a home crowd that has seen this all before.
Brighton’s old impotence has made an unwelcome return lately and, when Pascal Gross was thwarted by the best of several saves from Dean Henderson with nine minutes left, Roberto De Zerbi’s chances of a first win evaporated.
“For them to show the resilience and desire they did tonight, it’s ended up being a good point,” said Cooper, who knew his players needed a pick-me-up after their limp defeat at Wolves. “If we’d had a few more points on the board it would be a great point. We’re striving for that win.”
That never looked on the cards even though Brighton’s profligacy looked ripe for punishment. Their lack of a decisive touch was a theme that surfaced for patches of Graham Potter’s reign but must have been the last thing De Zerbi feared when overseeing a 3-3 draw at Anfield on his debut. Three subsequent outings have brought blanks; the solace for their head coach came in a performance he was reluctant to fault.
“I enjoyed [the game] and I said the same to the players,” he said. “I said thank you to them because they played a fantastic game. OK, we have to improve in the last 25 metres but after that I can’t say anything more.”
If it was a generous assessment of the final half-hour, which saw Brighton visibly run out of ideas, they had certainly done enough to expect an interval lead. Cooper claimed to have been encouraged by Forest’s play through the thirds before half-time but that, too, was over-egging things. Instead De Zerbi, a constantly agitated presence on the touchline, saw Henderson deny Leandro Trossard before the ever-involved Belgium international speared the game’s best effort on to the top of the crossbar.
Henderson saved smartly from Solly March and more straightforwardly from Pascal Gross, who should have done better after Trossard’s cutback, while Adam Webster and Joël Veltman flashed over from good positions. These were not gilt-edged opportunities, and nor were the volley and header from which Danny Welbeck came close after the restart, but one of them should have flown in.
That said nothing of the fact Brighton did not only squander shooting chances. Opportunities to feed teammates went begging, March failing to find Gross and later sending a low ball across goal with nobody waiting to pounce.
It all made for a hum of discontent, with a few boos at the end, from fans who want to feel confident De Zerbi can build on Potter’s platform. Nobody should dream of judging him for several months yet and, having endured the start of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine while Shakhtar Donetsk manager, the pressure does not faze him. “I stayed for five days inside a war so I’m not afraid of football,” he said. “But I’m sorry for the result because only two points from four games is not too much.”
Forest did not manage a touch inside Brighton’s box until Brennan Johnson, who had at least offered the boisterous away support a morsel with his enthusiastic pressing, outpaced Webster just before the hour then sliced his shot out for a throw-in. It was as exciting as their display got, summing up their attacking performance and cohesion on the ball. But Cooper explained that striking the right balance in a team which had shipped goals for fun requires going back to basics.
“Is that exactly what we want to be tonight? No,” he said. “But there’s small progress and a real commitment from the players every single day.” It felt like a long-awaited foothold.