By all accounts, Nottingham Forest are set to complete the signing of Nigeria international Taiwo Awoniyi in the coming days.
Taiwo Awoniyi to Nottingham Forest: Good or bad move?
The 24-year-old is set to join newly-promoted Forest in the Premier League, but opinion is split down the middle as to the wisdom of this transfer
Forest, awash with delight at their promotion from the Championship (achieved via the play-offs), are moving quickly to tool up the squad for their return to the Premier League for the first time since 1999. Awoniyi is just one of a number of targets, including Manchester United’s Dean Henderson and Liverpool’s Neco Williams, that have been identified by the club.
For the Nigeria international, it is an acknowledgement of his strong season in Germany with Union Berlin, for whom he scored 20 goals in all competitions last season. However, even acknowledging the outsized pull of the Premier League, he would essentially be swapping European football for a relegation battle. That has understandably split opinion right down the middle.
Here are the cases for and against the wisdom of the move to England.
The case against
Let’s start with the bad news, as most people like to end on a sunny note.
There is no nice way to say this, but Nottingham Forest are unlikely to remain in the Premier League come May 2023.
The top flight of English football is a fiercely competitive one, with a midtable that gets stronger every year, both financially and – consequently – in terms of personnel. It is a difficult club to break into; you get the odd success story every now and again, but as a rule, newly-promoted sides tend to go straight back down.
Forest will consider their promotion a return to their rightful place in the English footballing pyramid, but there is a key metric that suggests a swift reversion. Steve Cooper’s side do not score enough goals.
It appears that an important predictor of a team’s chances of survival in the Premier League is whether it scored greater or fewer than 75 goals in its promotion campaign.
Take the last five Premier League campaigns as a sample size: of the 15 promoted clubs, six of them – Huddersfield, Brighton, Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich and Watford – came up having scored 75 goals or fewer in the Championship. Only two of them stayed up in their first season back. (One of them, Huddersfield, did so despite having the Premier League’s worst attack, the second-worst defence and losing the second-most matches in the 2017/18 season: the very definition of an anomaly.)
Conversely, of the nine clubs that came up having scored more than 75 goals in the Championship, six survived relegation from the Premier League in the subsequent season. The correlation seems remarkably clear.
Nottingham Forest's tally of goals last season? 73.
All of that is to say that the likeliest outcome of Awoniyi swapping Berlin for Nottingham is the 24-year-old gearing up for a season in the EFL Championship in a year’s time. This is hardly a fait accompli, of course. Forest could buck the trend, or the former Liverpool forward could post a good enough season to earn a move higher up the table.
Either of those scenarios is plausible; what they are not, however, is probable.
The case for
Watching Awoniyi, it is immediately apparent what he is and what he is not.
While he is a strong poacher, able to arrive in good goalscoring positions and capable of finishing when the opportunities present themselves, he is by no means an all-round centre-forward.
He is strong and bulky enough to shield the ball and battle, but he is not the tallest and does not possess a good enough spring that he can be used as a target man. He excels at pressing the ball, but in general, his work in possession is sub-par: he cannot be relied upon to drive his team forward with the ball at his feet, and his touch is sloppy.
Players with glaring strengths and weaknesses can, however, be easy to work with simply because you know what you are getting, and so can plan around it. In Awoniyi’s case, the solution is to give him a strike partner who excels at the other facets of forward play, and who will look after the ball in order to allow the Nigerian to concentrate on what he is good at.
At Union Berlin, that partner was first Max Kruse and then Sheraldo Becker. When the club elected to sell the former in January and fiddled with the idea of Awoniyi leading the line by himself, the striker struggled, failing to score for seven matches; only when the latter was introduced alongside did he return to something resembling his best form.
At Forest, he will find a system that is, in some ways, reminiscent of what he enjoyed at Union.
Welsh forward Brennan Johnson would offer a foil in attack, giving him someone to play off (interestingly, for all his shortcomings on the ball, Awoniyi is quite handy at playing the final pass). However, even beyond the two-striker system in possession, Cooper’s side are quite vertical in their approach, exploiting the wide areas directly or overloading the centre first in a bid to open up space for their wing-backs.
The upshot of this is that Awoniyi is unlikely to be tasked with doing too much in possession to break down opposing defences. When he will have to receive the ball out wide, it will be to hold it up and link with support arriving from deep; only when balls are played quickly into the channel or around the corner will he be expected to act with urgency, either to finish himself or to force the ball to his strike partner.
This will suit the player down to a tee, and if the club can strengthen in other areas, there is every chance Awoniyi gives a good account of himself in the Premier League.