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Brennan Johnson: The Nottingham Forest star in Dele Alli’s footsteps

Brennan Johnson

Brennan Johnson has set League One alight this season, FTF spoke to Lincoln City boss Michael Appleton about the talented Welsh sensation.

FA Cup third round ties, barring the odd miracle, are usually foregone conclusions.

Especially when you’re starting two eighteen year olds up-front at Stamford Bridge.

The game between Chelsea and Nottingham forest in January 2020 had that sense of inevitability to it.

In Brennan Johnson and Alex Mighten, Sabri Lamouchi started two players with a combined total of six appearances for Forest.

Chelsea’s defence meanwhile included Reece James and Andreas Christensen, who a year later are awaiting a Champions League final. Meanwhile Fikayo Tomori is now the impenetrable wall of the San Siro.

Yet, if it wasn’t for a teeny-tiny whisker and a contentious VAR decision, Forest could have recorded a famous draw against Frank Lampard’s blues on the night.

Much of that was thanks to the energy of their two 18 year old forwards.

Playing in an unfamiliar role, Brennan Johnson proved a nuisance on the day.

Drifting from left to right and centre, Johnson hassled, hurried and chased down his opponents at every opportunity. There was an infectious energy about the youngster as he battled with Reece James.

Physically he came up a bit short at times, but you could not fault his effort. Johnson won 6 out of his 7 defensive duels, made 3 interceptions and 2 vital clearances.

Add to the mix a few clever surging runs forward, plus stellar displays against Arsenal and Derby in the EFL Cup a few months prior, the performance felt like a catalyst in the young Forest star’s career.

Alas, it would not prove to be so. Johnson played only two more games in the club’s 19/20 campaign and found himself restricted to U23 football.

The catalyst would come a little over six months later instead with a move away from Nottingham.

Class of 92

When one speaks of Brennan Johnson it’s impossible not to mention Fergie’s Fledglings of the 1990s.

Johnson is the son of David, a former Manchester United academy graduate. The agency he is represented by, Footwork Management, was established by Dave Gardner and David Beckham. Meanwhile his current manager is Michael Appleton.

All four men belonged to the 1975 generation coming through at Old Trafford during the early and mid-1990s and are close friends.

The tight bond between Appleton and Brennan’s father played a key role in his loan move to the Sincil Bank back in September.

Sitting in Lincoln’s conference room, Appleton’s eyes light up at the mention of his young protégé.

‘Obviously I spoke to his dad numerous times and watched him play for Forest, I knew the talent he had’ Appleton tells FTF.

‘When there was the potential to sign Brennan I knew we had to do it. I told the board, we had a good young squad who could potentially do really well. But I felt like Brennan was someone who could give us another edge and a bit more of an attacking threat. I thought he could be the difference between success and failure.’

It’s fair to say Brennan has fulfilled those expectations at Sincil Bank.

Since the 2004/05 season only two U20 midfield players have totalled 20+ goals and assists in League One. Dele Alli was the first with 16 goals and 9 assists in 2014/15, and Brennan Johnson became the second with 10 goals and 12 assists.

‘I’m delighted we got the chance to bring him in,’ Appleton smiles.

Johnson’s influence has been immense. With Johnson in the side the Imps qualified for the Play Offs this season after finishing in 16th place last year.

No one made more goal contributions for Lincoln in League One during the campaign than Brennan and his availability for the crucial tie against Sunderland in the Play Off semi-finals could hold the key.

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Player Analysis

Johnson has attracted interest from Premier League clubs during his break-out campaign. Though Nottingham Forest and Chris Houghton will have a few words to say about that with Brennan likely to stay at the City Ground next season.

It’s easy to see the allure.

Johnson is an aesthetically pleasing player. When in full flow, he has the ability to make defenders stumble and chase shadows. Blessed with flawless technique, Brennan can shoot from long range and up-close with devastating effect.

This season he has played both on the right and left flank for Lincoln City, occasionally drifting to the middle.

(Brennan Johnson heatmap via Wyscout)

As you can see from his heatmap Johnson has covered a lot of area in the final third of the pitch and this is where he thrives.

‘I prefer playing him as almost like an eight,’ Appleton says. ‘It depends on the system, because some teams will play with a ten or a sort of nine and a half. But I like him playing in more central positions where I think we get more from him.’

One of Johnson’s biggest strengths is his ability to adapt his game in various positions. He has played in 6 different roles for Lincoln this season, DM, CM, CF, AM, LW and RW.

‘I do like that (versatility) about him. If you have players injured, he is capable of playing either flank, he can also play as a number nine as we have seen him do many times.’

Tactically smart, Johnson is a true ball carrier. He has averaged the 2nd most progressive runs in League One this season via Wyscout for attacking midfielders with 2.97 per 90.

His ability to advance the play, and be effective in the final third has played a key role for Lincoln City this season.

An area he often gets criticised for is how frequently he goes down. Some decisions may have been a little soft at times, but on the whole, Johnson uses his body well and has the ability to cleverly draw fouls at the end of his runs.

‘He’s got a lot of assists, some of them due to penalties because of how direct he is.’

Johnson has won 7 penalties in total for Lincoln and averages 1.51 fouls per game.

But it’s not just through running that he excels, Brennan is excellent at finding space in the box too and getting on the end of passes or loose balls. He has averaged 4.09 touches in the box per 90 and 2.27 shots, meaning most of the time his touches in the box will lead to a shooting opportunity.

Interestingly, shooting is an area of Brennan’s game, Appleton believes he could improve on.

‘He will be the first to admit that he needs to improve his finishing to a degree. He scored some great goals, but the amount of opportunities he creates for himself or gets, he will be looking to add to the ratio in terms of conversion.’

(Johnson shot-map via Wyscout)

Johnson has taken a broad range of strikes, though a lot of them tend to come from inside the box. Only getting 41.6% of them on target is therefore a poor return. Even though, as Appleton admits himself, Johnson has a wand of a right-foot.

Ready for more

Nottingham Forest have endured a difficult season scoring the second fewest goals in the Championship. The addition of Brennan Johnson could be a welcome reinforcement.

Houghton has preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation recently. There has often been a void in the number ten role. Portuguese Cafu played there a few times with little success, Krovinovic has slotted in with a little bit more success though with the pair of them set to return to their parent clubs, that opens up the space for Brennan Johnson.

His versatility will come in handy. Johnson has proven at Lincoln he could play in various positions for Chris Houghton and that will make him a major asset for the Tricky Trees.

Of course the Championship from League one will be a big step-up, but Appleton believes Johnson is prepared for the challenge.

‘To get to the next step, he just needs a chance. He just needs to play. As far as I’m concerned he is ready and he can go and comfortably play in the Championship.’

‘Chris is a fantastic manager and he’s very experienced at that (playing youngsters), and I’m sure Brennan will got back into that squad and play a major part next season.’

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