Ben Osborn: The missing man in Aitor Karanka's Nottingham Forest midfield?
The year was 2013. Nottingham Forest defender Gonzalo Jara had picked up an injury in training, and caretaker boss Gary Brazil was short of bodies for a tough-looking trip to face Ipswich Town in the Championship.
Academy prospect Ben Osborn travelled with a makeshift group of Forest players and, to the surprise of everyone, Brazil handed him a first-team debut as the Reds drew 1-1 with the Tractor Boys.
Then a relative novice, Osborn performed well enough to continue getting chances to play first-team football and finished the 2013/14 campaign with eight appearances under his belt.
The following season, Forest legend Stuart Pearce was handed the managerial reins and he saw Osborn as an influential part of his Nottingham Forest charges, with extra emphasis placed on ensuring academy players receive ample chances to play in the first-team.
On Saturday afternoon, the 24-year-old was left out of Aitor Karanka’s starting line-up and watched on from the substitutes bench as the Reds looked way out of sorts against Birmingham City.
The Reds came from two goals behind to claim a share of the spoils against the Blues, but it isn’t really a coincidence that Forest looked a much better outfit once Osborn had been introduced into the action.
Osborn remains something of an enigma around the banks of the River Trent. No player divides the club’s supporters more and even after almost 200 appearances he still hasn’t been able to hold down one position.
A jack of all trades, master of none. It speaks volumes that a last-minute winner in a 2-1 victory at Pride Park over fierce rivals Derby County back in 2015 is perhaps still the defining moment of his Forest career to date.
Of course, he still has flaws but certainly in the last six months he has shown enough to suggest that there is a very good footballer in there somewhere. The task now for Karanka is to ensure that he develops Osborn into the player that small flashes of brilliance have shown he is capable of.
There remains something about Osborn, however, that just makes him so crucial to how the Reds try to play. His passing statistics are usually among the best in the second tier, whilst his desire and determination are two traits that see him resonate with Forest faithful as being someone who actually cares deeply about doing well for the football club.
As with any footballer, there are chinks in Osborn’s armour. His height doesn’t help him win headers, whilst the fact he isn’t a natural left-back does see club’s target that side when he props up the left-hand side of the defence. Those, however, are outweighed by the evident qualities that he does bring to the side.
Part of the problem for Forest in the draw with Birmingham was that Ben Watson and Jack Colback were utilised as two holding midfielders. At home, in the Championship, that simply doesn’t work.
The Reds were extremely poor in the first-half and it wasn’t until Watson was withdrawn for Osborn that Karanka’s men actually looked like a team that could drive forwards, play some nice football and ultimately score goals.
Forest entertain Newcastle United in the EFL Cup on Tuesday night and his game-changing performance in the middle of the park on Saturday suggests that it could be the perfect chance for the Reds’ boss to hand Osborn the chance to shine in a more natural central midfield position.
Forest’s four currently fit central midfielders are all defence minded. Watson, Colback, Liam Bridcutt and Ryan Yates are all extremely similar and now would be the perfect chance for Osborn to step forwards, in the absence of Adlene Guedioura, and stake a firm claim to offer a more potent attacking threat in the Reds’ midfield.
Karanka’s current 4-2-3-1 strategy is only effective if his team can get the ball from the players in the middle of the park to the three attacking players and this is something that Forest have struggled with this season.
Both Watson and Colback are good players but playing the ball through the channels and getting it quickly into the likes of Joe Lolley and Matty Cash just doesn’t come naturally to them. This is where Osborn can step forward once again.
Over the years, Osborn must have been itching at the chance to return to a natural central midfield role and, if Saturday is anything to go by, his inclusion in the middle of the park could be a match made in heaven with the way his current boss wants to play.
Whilst he has done a solid job in various left-sided positions, the errors have crept in due to the role not being tailor-made to his strengths. Given his age, it is time he stood up to be counted and starts to stake a firm claim for a place in his actual position, especially considering that Watson (33) and Guedioura (32) won’t be around forever.
Osborn’s greatest strength is his ability to get the ball moving forwards quickly and his youthful exuberance would not allow opposition midfields the time to breath when in possession.
A player that the Reds label ‘their own’ burst onto the scene as a central midfielder and after several years deputising in other areas, the time is now for Osborn to show each and every Forest supporter that his very best football can be played in the engine room.
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