Nottingham Forest are having one of their quieter transfer windows of recent times. Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath and left back Nikolas Ioannou have arrived as well as Cafu making his stay permanent, but besides that, there has been little activity in the transfer market.
Perhaps transfer business will not be integral to Forest’s success this season as the side really settled in the latter months of the Championship season under Chris Hughton. They lacked a cutting edge more often than not but the solution to that may already be at the club.
There is excitement among Forest fans regarding Brennan Johnson after his return from a productive loan at an overperforming Lincoln side. Alex Mighten played a bit-part role last season and impressed considering his age so expectations are high for the young winger this campaign.
Joe Lolley struggled last season but is no doubt a capable option for any side chasing the play-offs under the right management, having been on the radar of a handful of Premier League sides a few years back. Despite these options, Forest have been in the market for a more creative winger- and they’ve finally found their man.
Before joining the Hornets it was Eliteserien side FK Bodø/Glimt where Zinckernagel played his football. He recorded 19 goals and 24 assists in 28 appearances playing as a right winger as his side won their first ever league title over Norwegian giants Molde and Rosenberg in 2020.
The Dane picked up the Eliteserien Player of the Season award in the same season and rightly so. He also performed to a high standard in the Europa League, showcasing his ability against the likes of AC Milan.
His partnership with striker Kasper Junker was formidable at times which led to Watford enquiring about the striker following Zinckernagel’s arrival, with hopes that their linkup could continue in England. A move never came to fruition however and he has since departed for pastures new.
Bodø/Glimt are no stranger to developing wingers: Jens-Petter Hauge, now at Eintracht Frankfurt (on loan from Italian giants AC Milan), impressed as a teenager operating on the opposite side to Zinckernagel. Hauge was also linked with a reunion with his old teammate in Hertfordshire, but Watford opted for other players.
There was great optimism when Zinckernagel arrived at Vicarage Road upon the expiration of his contract in January 2020. Straight away he inherited the number 7 shirt from fan favourite winger Gerard Deulofeu.
At a time when Watford’s board was accused of being too cheap and slightly unambitious, the Danish winger looked a real shrewd signing: adding an exciting player in keeping with financial restraints is no easy feat.
His debut came a week after signing, playing on the left of a 4-4-2 in a narrow FA Cup defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford. Quite the baptism of fire.
Hornets fans voted him as the man of the match on the club’s twitter poll. From then on he was limited to just substitute appearances, none of which occurring on either wing but, bizarrely, in the centre of midfield operating in said 4-4-2.
Finally, his first league start came nearly three months after he signed, against Wycombe Wanderers thanks to Nathaniel Chalobah and Dan Gosling being suspended and injured respectively.
When surrounded by Wycombe defenders, the Dane somehow found the gap to thread a ball through for Andre Gray to seal the game at 2-0. The injury crisis worsened and Zinckernagel kept his place.
In the next game (ironically against Nottingham Forest) he showed a different side to his game: when the team were up against it, he proved he can be a tough-tackling and tenacious midfielder, justifying Xisco Munoz’s decision to play him there.
Players gradually returned from injury but the winger-turned-midfielder was unmoved. A game against Rotherham came along and he again showed his quality by setting up two goals in a 4-1 rout.
From then on, he proved a mainstay in the side and finished the season with the most assists (5) out of the entire team despite starting just 8 matches.
If any word sums up Zinckernagel’s spell at the club so far it would be frustration. The man who recorded 43 goal contributions in a season on the right wing has been converted to a hardworking central midfielder.
This is understandable due to Watford’s player of the season Ismaila Sarr operating in that position, but a downturn in the form of Ken Sema on the left flank opened a perfect opportunity for Philip to slot in there.
Xisco Munoz’s insistence on playing Ken Sema resulted in the Swede burning out and performances declining, yet there was no sign of any changes.
Youngster Joseph Hungbo started on the right wing against Brentford but was substituted due to injury after 25 minutes. On came Philip Zinckernagel, who looked to finally have his chance, however it was short-lived as Tom Cleverley was injured 5 minutes later and replaced by forward Isaac Succes, thus forcing the Dane back into midfield.
More recently, a friendly away at Stevenage saw out-and-out striker Ashley Fletcher placed on the left wing with, you guessed it, Philip Zinckernagel playing in the middle of the park. Both were substituted at half-time to allow for rotation.
It is unclear why Xisco Munoz refuses to play him on either wing or why it took so long for him to get into the team. The situation is not too dissimilar to that of Steven Berghuis. The Dutch winger joined Watford for £4.5 million in 2015 and was limited to substitute appearances.
He did show glimpses in those appearances: one memorable moment saw him deliver a fine cross for Troy Deeney’s late equaliser against Aston Villa, before Deeney scored again to win it for the Hornets.
Berghuis was loaned to Feyenoord where he impressed enough to make his stay permanent. Since then, multiple successful seasons in the Netherlands earned him a call-up to the national team, the Feyenoord captaincy, and- very recently- a move to Champions League regulars Ajax.
An experienced manager like Chris Hughton is likely to understand the needs of a player as gifted as Philip Zinckernagel. As was previously mentioned, Forest lacked a cutting edge at times despite having solid foundations.
Watford are a prime example of promotion hunts being largely based on a reliable defence: they recorded the joint-best defensive record in Championship history, but, like Forest, looked toothless more often than not.
Zinckernagel solves this issue for the East Midlands outfit. He is a creative player primarily and one that could pick passes not many others can see. His direct dribbling ability and quick feet are enough to take entire midfields out of situations, leaving him and his precise passing ability against a flat defence, though this was not seen often enough at Watford.
He is also no stranger to goals. If the 19 goals scored in Norway in 2020 aren’t enough proof, his ability to pop up out of nowhere in goalscoring positions showed Watford fans that Zinckernagel can contribute where the strikers cannot.
Hughton may also believe it is best to continue his development in midfield and if that is the case then fans will see hard work and engagement from the Dane with only the occasional chance to showcase his technical excellence.
Watford are certainly the losers here. With many players leaving for the African Cup of Nations, versatile cover is an invaluable asset. Meanwhile, Forest will be gaining the key to turning mid table mediocrity to a real promotion push for once.
Zinckernagel has gone on record saying he picked Watford to have a chance of Premier League football and this move is a perfect opportunity to prove himself in that regard.
Forest have already played their first game of the season away at Coventry City. Zinckernagel came on as a substitute late in the game and has already played more minutes on the wing for the Reds than he ever managed at Watford. This time he was chosen to play on the left side.
Within seconds of coming on, he created a clear cut chance from a corner for Ryan Yates to score and potentially make it 2-0 to Forest, but the midfielder failed to convert, having his effort blocked on the line.
Besides that his opportunities were limited as the team had chosen to park the bus at that point. Minutes later, striker Lyle Taylor was substituted for midfielder Cafu, making Zinckernagel’s chances of making an impact even tougher.
This is the worry for any attacking player in a Chris Hughton side; there will be chances to showcase ability (particularly through set pieces), but later in games the side will be no doubt protecting what they have, limiting the opportunity for technical players to impress.
Forest lost the game in the final minute largely due to Hughton’s negative approach, and questions will be raised as to whether he can get the best out of the exciting forwards at his disposal.
Despite that, there is a big season ahead of Philip Zinckernagel and the glimpses shown today are a sign of what’s to come.
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