Frank Lampard’s quest for cohesion

I’m not sure who Frank Lampard was referring to when he expressed his frustration at the ‘negativity’ he perceives as surrounding Derby County last week.  Whoever his comments were aimed at, though, Lampard certainly got a big reaction and from what I saw and heard, the overwhelming consensus was that supporters wanted to rally around him and distance themselves from whoever it was who was perceived to be sowing the ‘negativity’.  It certainly moved the conversation on from what had been a pretty awful performance at Nottingham Forest – maybe that was the point.

Three points shuts everyone up, as Radio Derby will tell you when they’re programming a Monday night talk-in after a Saturday victory, but Derby haven’t won many league games in the last couple of months – and that builds tension.  Which is why it’s worth remembering that Derby’s fixture list around Christmas, New Year and into January was freakishly difficult.  Consecutively, the Rams played an East Midlands Derby, Sheffield United away, Norwich away, Boro home, Southampton in the FA Cup at home, Leeds away and then Southampton in the FA Cup again (going to extra time).  They followed that up with back-to-back wins, against Reading at Pride Park and then at Accrington Stanley in the cup.

That was an incredibly taxing run of matches and Derby only lost two of them, at Sheffield United and Leeds.  The problem was that they only won two of the league games and so started to tread water, as Bristol City surged up the table on a seemingly endless run of victories. 

Having watched the team battle through the challenge of playing all of the promotion contenders bar West Brom in a row, I couldn’t help but look at the run of Preston, Hull, Ipswich and Millwall as an enormous opportunity to pile on the points.  Surely, we would be good for at least two, maybe even three wins out of those four ‘easier’ games? And that would have acted as a much-needed pressure release after the difficult run we’d endured.

But as we all know, it didn’t happen like that.  Five points were all that was collected from the four games and performances have since slumped further, with the Paul Clement-esque defeat at Forest followed by the embarrassment of the worst result of the season at Villa.  And there is hardly time to pause and think, because the next game is tomorrow night.

Lampard tried a new midfield partnership at Ipswich, a back three against Millwall and then sent everybody’s eyebrows through the roof with a selection at Villa Park which Chris of Ramspace summed up as ‘suicidal’.  None of these changes have worked and they have started to look a little desperate, with Lampard seemingly chasing a mirage. Form has eluded Derby and the more the manager twists instead of sticking, the worse performances seem to get.

While trying to make sense of the array of team changes and formation tweaks which Lampard has been unsuccessfully deploying in recent weeks, I came across an article published by Training Ground Guru, which made complete sense, when applied to Derby’s current problems. 

TGG interviewed an Australian analysis company, Gain Line Analytics, who have developed a method for measuring team cohesion.  There’s science behind it, but essentially, it comes down to the basic common sense that a settled squad who’ve had time to develop relationships with each other on the field will enjoy greater success than one which is constantly being tinkered with.  The longer players work together, the better they get to know each other’s game, the more cohesive a unit they become, the better they perform. 

Analyst Simon Strachan summed it up by telling TGG: “If you are a low cohesion team, it doesn’t matter what the quality of the new player is, they won’t look very good.  They will be developing relationships with guys who are developing relationships with each other.” I’m sure that Strachan would have looked at Lampard’s team selection and the result against Villa and nodded sagely, as his point was proved pretty much exactly.  

Lampard of course takes responsibility for choosing to make so many changes for that game, but the underlying point Strachan was making is not that managers should select the same XI week in, week out regardless, but that it can take several seasons – three years on average, according to Gain Line – for a player to reach his peak with a club. 

Of the team that started against Villa, only Carson, Keogh and Bennett had been with the club for that long. It’s Wisdom’s second season here (in his second spell), but he has barely featured this term. Three of Lampard’s less high-profile signings started – Holmes, Jozefzoon and Evans, of whom, only Holmes has had a run of appearances lately. Max Bird was handed his full league debut. Ashley Cole may be the most experienced player you’ll ever see, but only arrived at this club in January.

With Gain Line’s findings in mind, expecting a new manager – who has made twelve new signings while allowing twelve senior players to leave – to find a cohesive team in his first season is not necessarily realistic. Viewed in this context, Derby’s flurry of early-season success starts to look much more impressive – their recent struggles more understandable.  

Lampard did hit on a team which worked earlier in the season – the hub being Harry Wilson and Mason Mount partnered together in midfield, with Tom Huddlestone sitting and an ideal front three of Martyn Waghorn, Tom Lawrence and Jack Marriott.  When fixture congestion started to take its toll and injuries started to bite, that line-up was disrupted. Of the entire midfield and attack which gleefully savaged West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, only Marriott started at Villa Park (although Huddlestone and Waghorn were not injured, to my knowledge).

Without some of those key players, Lampard has been reaching for an alternative winning formula that he just can’t find in recent weeks.  The team, whatever personnel or shape Lampard adopted, has been terrible – incoherent, incapable of creating a chance, let alone scoring a goal.  There’s a run of four successive home games to try to start putting things right, but as of now, it seems highly unlikely that Derby will be promoted this season.

But the truth is, there is no fast forward button.  Success will not happen overnight.  As painful as it is and as tiresome as it is to be promised ‘jam tomorrow’ again, we simply have to tough out this difficult phase, continue the rebuilding job in the summer and seek to emerge from it as a better club, in the long-term.   

In the social media era, where everything has been accelerated and success is demanded instantly, the idea that a team would be allowed to build and grow over three seasons feels unrealistic. But given that Derby have changed manager every season since 2013/4 without enjoying much success, you’d like to think that perhaps it would be worth trying.  That’s assuming that Lampard hasn’t been so turned off by the ‘negativity’ that he loses heart and decides to move on.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and Brian Clough isn’t on this particular job…

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Nottingham Forest 1 Derby County 0

RIP Mark Hollis

By the 70th minute, the game was as good as dead. Derby could do nothing to remotely affect Forest, who sat smug on the free gift they’d been handed in the second minute, like Smaug the dragon snoozing on his hoard of gold. We knew exactly how Martin O’Neill wanted to play, we fucked up straight from the kick-off and that is basically all she wrote.

To concede so early and then go on to muster two shots by half-time, just six shots by the final whistle, was shameful in a game of this magnitude. There was no rally, no real fight, no threat, nothing. Basically, there was nothing. I can take a defeat, but making it so easy for them in a loss this toothless, on top of a similarly toothless loss in the week, on top of a dreadful performance at bottom-of-the-league Ipswich, on top of a dreadful performance at Preston… Let’s just say that the honeymoon is well and truly over for Frank Lampard now, as he tries to work out how to get his squad out of their deepening rut.

It was surprising that, other than a different starting formation and Andy King replacing the injured Craig Bryson, Lampard didn’t see fit to make changes from the side which put in such an inadequate performance against Millwall. It was unsurprising when, just like against Millwall, Derby let their opponents control the game without the ball, shutting off spaces and ceding possession quite happily, challenging Derby to do something with it. What worries me is that Lampard said after these two 1-0 defeats that Derby ‘controlled the ball for long spells’. Yes, we did, but surely he must know that was a specific tactic the opposition were deploying. They let us have it, they were disciplined and organised and that is basically all it takes to beat Derby at the minute. As a bonus to their defensive wall of steel, Forest had Joe Lolley, who was brilliant in giving the defence a breather by carrying the ball up the pitch, often without any support at all.

Despite their lack of attacking ambition, Forest could easily have scored two or three on the night. We haven’t scored or even really looked like scoring for nigh-on 270 minutes of league football now and you look around wondering where the next chance is going to come from, let alone the next win. Aston Villa may be mid-table and floundering, with an abysmal defensive record, but they will have been watching this game and licking their lips. Any opposition scout would have been.

Jack Marriott never had a shot. Harry Wilson started on the left, where he had no impact whatsoever, then was moved into central midfield, where he had no impact whatsoever, then was subbed for Mason Bennett, who had no impact whatsoever. By the time a free kick came along in ‘Wilson territory’, the Welshman was already off the field. Martyn Waghorn took it instead, lobbing the ball to Costel Pantilimon with all the force of an underarm throw – a futile act which doubled Derby’s shots on target for the evening.

Ashley Cole must be wondering what on earth he has let himself in for. He is still a class act and in dealing with Lolley, was really the only bright spot in an otherwise pitiful team performance.

Hooking Tom Huddlestone at half-time was a reaction to the fact that, just like at Millwall, Derby had been too slow and spent too much time passing the ball in front of Forest and almost no time playing anywhere near their goal. Losing Andy King to injury shortly after that was unfortunate, but I didn’t feel like King would have made a difference to the result in any case.

Bradley Johnson came on and did what he does – won the odd challenge and interception, clipped the odd nice-looking pass to the wing, blazed a shot over the bar, gave the ball away in midfield with mind-numbingly dreadful passes on two or three occasions. But Derby look so hopeless at the minute that I’m starting to think that he actually has a chance of starting at Villa.

I had no idea what team Lampard would pick before this game and after it was announced, I still wasn’t sure how he would line them up. Such is our lot, at the moment. Forest, on the other hand, looked comfortable in their skins and had a simple, solid gameplan, as negative as it was. You can’t complain or seek to inhabit the moral high ground when you play into the opponents’ hands and their tactics work as comprehensively as this.

So where do we go from here? Well, Villa Park, in the short term – where we haven’t won in thirty years – before a spell of home games against teams from the bottom half of the division. In theory, that March Pride Park residency is a huge opportunity to power back into the top six, but on the basis of their last few performances, Derby don’t look like a side who are capable of stringing enough wins together to do it.

I said at the start of the last BlogCast that the Rams’ season was ‘at a crossroads’. That was before Millwall. Zero points since then says that we have lurched a good distance down the wrong path entirely and while it’s by no means terminal at this stage, Lampard and the players have to somehow stop this rot as soon as possible, before they lose touch with the top six altogether

Points in last five league games

Norwich 12
Leeds 10
Sheffield U 13
WBA 10
Boro 10
Bristol C 12
DERBY 5
Forest 8
Birmingham 8
PNE 11

The turmoil of recent years has resulted in a mish-mash of a squad, with players signed by half-a-dozen or so managers still on the books, some of whom (Bryson and Nugent, for example) are clearly past their best. As Chris pointed out on the pod, what kills you is that there are surplus players in Chris Martin, Ikechi Anya and poor George Thorne who still have a year left before they can be released. But Lampard did make plenty of signings last summer and most of them (with the exception of George Evans) are featuring now. The front five who started at Forest and who looked, in the words of Jay of Blades Analytics ‘like they didn’t know each other’, all joined last summer.

The squad will look radically different before the first game of next season – which could still, in theory, be in the Premier League, although that prospect is rapidly receding by the game. Lampard pointed out after this loss that everybody had been talking about a ‘transitional’ season before a ball was kicked, rather than a promotion push and that gives you a pretty broad clue as to where his head is at.

There’s a lot of chat at the moment about the many players who are out of contract at the end of the season and the opportunity for renewal that brings. When you take out the loan signings as well, plus the retiring Cole, then the need for a big overhaul is huge. We will come back to that a bit nearer the time (as soon as promotion is ruled out, in fact).

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Nottingham Forest v Derby County preview

“Is this a good time?”

Gary Rowett called it “bollocks”, Frank Lampard dismissed it with less industrial language, but it’s February and yet again the Rams’ form has  deserted them.  Fatalists and those who read runes or tarot cards probably never liked the look of Nottingham Forest away at the end of February.  And Derby go into the game in the sort of form which we have become accustomed to, in what is starting to feel like the cruellest of months. 

Dreadful performances against two of the weakest sides in the division have resulted in five points dropped, sapping many supporters’ morale.  That’s no surprise.  We saw a similar movie last season, when academic arguments about the remaining fixtures being more or less ‘winnable’ than those of our competitors collapsed in the face of Derby’s stunning ineptitude.

Derby did limp over the line into sixth last year, but they were plummeting from a much greater height back then.  This season, the Rams’ form has generally been solidly top six, but at the lower end of that bracket – top two has never genuinely seemed like a proposition.  And so sitting here now, if any Ram was offered a guaranteed sixth place, I think they would take it.  And for the first time, Frank Lampard has to accept some criticism for his part in performances and results falling short of what is expected.  A manager’s honeymoon always ends at some stage, no matter how high-profile they are.  We’ve enjoyed the sprinkling of stardust Lampard brought, we’ve had a bit of bouncing, we’ve won at Old Trafford.  Now it’s just about grinding out sufficient results and points to get to where we want to be come May.

And it’s important not to get too down after a couple of (admittedly unacceptably) poor performances.  Things are nowhere near as alarming as they became last February under Rowett and Derby still have the fifth best home record in the division (and seventh best away record).  The top four teams are effectively goners who will duke it out for the top two, unless a dramatic turnaround in results starts pretty much now.  But Derby still haven’t lost back-to-back league games since August and will overtake the division’s flyers, Bristol City, to go back into sixth if they can beat Nottingham Forest tomorrow.  

The ever optimistic Chris’ cheerful pre-Millwall prediction that the Rams would finish fourth this season looks less glass-half-full than goblet-overflowing at the moment, but it would only take one big performance at the City Ground to lift everyone’s spirits and get us looking up the table again, instead of down over our shoulders to Forest and the rest of the chasing pack.

Ipswich, the division’s bottom side, are doomed and let’s be honest, everybody had last Wednesday’s trip to Portman Road mentally ticked off as three points there for the taking, especially after after Tom Lawrence’s early goal.  But Ipswich have drawn more games at home than they’ve lost this season (including against the current top two, Norwich and Sheffield United) and refused to do the decent thing and roll over.  

A major problem on the night was that Derby’s midfield pair of Bradley Johnson and Andy King – both of extremely short of match practice – struggled to maintain control of the game, but the equaliser, when it came, was from a Derby mistake enabling a counter-attack.  It was sloppiness that cost us the win.  But Lampard had brought two rusty players into the side, changing from the line-up which had beaten Hull comfortably enough the Saturday before, with the aim of keeping certain players fresh for the Brighton tie.  

Fundamentally, the cups are only ever an added bonus for Derby these days and while the dramatic League Cup win at Manchester United was so memorable and enjoyable – with FA Cup progress at the expense of Premier League Southampton also giving an encouraging glimpse of what the team is capable of – ultimately, the additional miles in the legs caught up with us and have had an undeniable effect on the Rams’ recent league form. 

The best thing to happen to us in the cup this season was to win at Old Trafford.  The worst thing to happen to us in the cup this season was the injury to Mason Mount, which occurred at Accrington Stanley in the fourth round.  With Mount missing, Derby’s main source of creativity has gone and nobody else has really stepped up to replace him. 

Key passes (aka shooting chances created)

1. Mount 54 (2.1 per 90 mins)
2. Wilson 41 (1.8 p90)
3. Bogle 27 (1.1)
4. Lawrence 27 (1.4)
5. Bennett 19 (2.3)

With players rotated out of the side and points lost at Portman Road, Derby departed meekly from the FA Cup at Brighton.  It was a disappointing day.  But I think too much was made of the fact that Chris Hughton had made eight changes.  The team he put out was still much stronger than any Championship side and probably still better than the Southampton side the Rams eliminated.  As Chris pointed out in the latest Derby County BlogCast, it was just about the worst draw Derby could have had.  In my opinion (and I accept that this unromantic view will not be universally popular), it’s a bonus that we’re out of the cup now, because with Derby having only won three of the eleven league games since they last faced Forest, distractions of any kind are the last thing they need, if they are to force their way back into the top six reckoning.

***

Stattos hate Derby.  Not in general, or on principle, but certainly this season.  The more analytical commentators on Championship affairs have long predicted that the Rams would not go the distance this season, because of the relatively low quality of chances they are creating. 

Too many of our shots are from long range, not enough from inside the box, where you’re actually likely to score – barely any attempts have been from inside the six-yard box (Derby are worst in the Championship for close-range attempts on goal, but top for shots from outside the area). 

Shots from inside six-yard box (total)

20. Bolton Wanderers 25
21= Ipswich / Nottingham Forest 23 
23. Reading 22
24. DERBY 20

Shots from inside penalty area (total)

1. Norwich City 290
2. Leeds United 284
3. West Bromwich Albion 252
4. Sheffield United 248

19.DERBY 197
(20= Forest 194)

24. Ipswich 167 

The answer “Yes, but Harry Wilson” doesn’t really cut it, unfortunately.  How many blinding goals is Wilson going to score?  Nobody would back against a few more crackers this season, but that won’t be enough on its own. 

Lampard shuffled his pack for the Millwall game, changing to 3-5-2, with Jayden Bogle serving as a right-sided centre back, Ashley Cole and Duane Holmes working as wing backs and the returning Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn paired as a central strikers.  Unfortunately, they never received any bullets to fire.  Marriott almost scored from a long pass by Fikayo Tomori, but other than that, there was nobody to pick the lock of a strenuously organised Millwall back nine. 

Allowed time and space until they reached the halfway line, Derby were feeble, slow and looked entirely devoid of confidence.  I found it a seriously worrying performance, although Lampard was outwardly relaxed in his latest press conference with Rams TV and told the media that he was happy with the shape of the team. It’s not impossible to imagine him sticking with a back three for this game (in which, the Rams will presumably have to actually defend for more than five minutes of the 90).

But Forest will play in the same negative way as Millwall, if they have to and their fans won’t care if it gets them the result they want against Derby.  Forest beat Brentford recently with just 30 per cent possession, at home.  That is almost as bad as Derby’s fabled Rowett-era draw at Griffin Park, in terms of ball share.  If you think that Martin O’Neill’s side won’t shithouse just as shamelessly as Millwall (or Rowett) did, think again.

O’Neill has left £13.2m Joao Carvalho on the bench, while starting the 21 year-old academy graduate Ryan Yates, who earned his stripes on loan at Scunthorpe.  O’Neill also has hardy midfield veterans Jack Colback, Ben Watson and Claudio Yacob to call upon, none of whom are exactly proponents of jogo bonito.  They have the worst disciplinary record in the division, with 79 yellow cards and five dismissals.  Forest will make it horrible and nasty if they need to.  And as Chris and I discussed in the latest BlogCast, Derby simply don’t have nasty players these days (unless you count the booking-magnet Bradley Johnson).  

Possible Forest XI (courtesy of a mole within their blogosphere)
Pantilimon;
Janko, Benalouane, Milosevic, Robinson;
Watson, Colback, Yates;
Lolley, Grabban. Osborn

Possible Derby XI

Who knows?  Will it be 3-5-2 again, or will Lampard revert to a midfield three?  Will he try to shore up with two sitting midfielders, for example asking King or even Johnson to play a holding role alongside Huddlestone?  Will Big Tom even start, after his strangely off-it showing against Millwall?  Will Scott Carson return in goal, after Kelle Roos’ first major mistake?  All we can say for sure is that Keogh, Tomori, Wilson, Waghorn and Marriott will start (plus presumably Bogle and Cole).  Beyond that, I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at what Lampard is going to do.

When we look at the overall statistics between the two sides for the season, they are really quite evenly matched, which is reflected in their proximity in the league table (and status as play-off chasers).  Their form in the last ten games is also very similar, with three wins each and similar numbers of goals scored and conceded:-


(Graphic courtesy of kick-off.co.uk)

For both teams, perhaps, there has been an over-reliance on certain key players to step up with a moment of magic. For Derby, it’s been all about Wilson, Marriott and Mount (hence his absence being so sorely felt). Forest have been purring over Joe Lolley’s long-range strikes, but for bread-and-butter finishes, it’s been Lewis Grabban’s responsibility to get the job done.

Goalscorers (league)

Grabban 15
Wilson 10
Marriott 7
Lolley 7
Cash 6
Lawrence 5

On the face of it, there is so little to choose between the two teams that there is no outright favourite on paper, although Derby’s recent ‘wobble’ and Forest’s home advantage could play into Keane and O’Neill’s hands. Another good point Chris made in the BlogCast is that Lampard’s chopping and changing has meant a stream of new partnerships on the pitch of late, which hasn’t helped the team at all as they struggle for consistency.

Who knows? All hell could break loose and the game could become bizarre, as it has done on more than one occasion in the last few years – or it could be another grim stalemate.

To win this match, Derby are going to have to show much more creativity than they have done in recent weeks, but if they can do it, all the jitters over recent away performances / Millwall / the February curse will be dispelled and everyone will feel much more confident about the final push. For Forest, a win would potentially light the blue touch paper for Martin O’Neill and reignite their hopes of a play-off charge. Chris confidently wrote off the Red Dogs’ chances in the BlogCast and while I’d love to believe he’s right, the wrong result here would drag them to within a point of us and three points off Bristol City.

As the away side, the current holders of the symbolic Brian Clough Trophy and after the dent caused to morale by a few ropey performances, a draw would be a much better result for Derby than for Forest.

There’s a lot riding on it, not much to choose between the two sides and no love lost. If we put in the sort of second-rate, second gear performance we have seen too frequently of late, then we run the risk of a hiding. If we can play to something like our potential, however, then we might just see Frankie starting the bounce at the City Ground. And I have a strong suspicion that they would not like that at all….


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The Derby County BlogCast, Episode 7 – The Dreaded February

The latest Derby County BlogCast is now live.

This month, Chris and I spoke to David, who created the DCFCFans forum.  David told us a little bit about how much he has learned in the last decade of running the forum and reading the thoughts, jokes and rants of thousands of Rams fans (including a lesson in the legal implications of being a publisher, courtesy of Mel Morris….)   When you think about it, the internet is a very different place now to what it was back then.  If Derby had a season like 2007/8 now, the toxicity of Twitter and the message boards doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Another thing I’m glad we talked about this month is the ‘scapegoating’ culture which has developed online – again, this seems to affect all walks of life and football is no different.  Chris was justifiably forthright about how pathetic he finds it when supporters decide en masse to get on the back of one individual and blame them for all the team’s failings.  So many players have had their turn in the past couple of years and at the moment, it seems to be David Nugent who is attracting the Twitter trolls.

Constructive criticism is absolutely fine, in any walk of life – football is no different to that. And we all get wound up after a defeat, but the point Chris and David both made was how counter-productive it is.  I’m sure Nuge doesn’t give a flying one about them, but other players may not be as grizzled and thick-skinned as him.   They’re all individual human beings.  It’s obvious that Tom Lawrence, for example, felt it – that cupped-ear celebration to his own ‘fans’ against Preston said everything about how the abuse had affected him.

This stuff matters and it has an effect on individual people, but also on public discourse in general.  As a (trifling) example, I recently wrote a piece on ‘Spygate‘, the scandal which broke after a Leeds United spy was identified at Moor Farm and apprehended by Derbyshire Police.  However, I chose not to tweet it – the first and only time I haven’t tweeted one of my stories.  This was because I tweeted an opinion on their conduct after our defeat at Elland Road and spent the next three days being abused by Leeds fans.  After a while, the only thing to do was to either mute or block them, depending on the severity of the abuse.  I can deal with this crap, but other people have experienced far worse levels of trolling and hatred.  It’s not acceptable (Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is a great book on this subject, for anybody who wants to look into it.)

Back to the football and we discuss the disappointing performance at Ipswich, the disappointing performance at Brighton….  And the bigger picture, which is one of a decent season overall, which has set us up for a big run-in – with plenty of home games against the strugglers to come, starting with a big opportunity against Millwall – but also some trickier games, not least the next East Midlands Derby at the City Ground.

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Derby County’s season assessed (part 2 of 2)

(ICYMI, here is part one of this post)

In recent games, Derby have created barely anything inside the box, as the shot count since the defeat at Sheffield United demonstrates:-

Shots taken from inside penalty area
(For-against)


Sheffield United (A) 2-10
Norwich City (A) 9-16
Middlesbrough (H) 2-8
Leeds United (A) 2-12
Reading (H) 7-3
PNE (A) 2-17

Total 24 – 66

This alarming recent lack of any genuine creativity is being reflected in a growing gulf between Derby’s goal tally (40) and that of the top four (57, 50, 50, 59).  The ‘stattos’ I follow are picking up on this, pointing out that Derby’s ‘expected goal’ tally, which has never been very high this season anyway, has dropped off significantly lately, making them look less like promotion contenders.

That said, it cannot be forgotten that the recent run of league games has included some of the most testing fixtures of the season, plus three tough cup games fitted in around them.  It has been an extremely difficult period and Derby have done well to get through it, picking up eight points from the 18 on offer, while also progressing to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

But they lost Mount to a hamstring injury in the process of beating Accrington Stanley, Marriott is struggling with an ankle problem and they have not been dominating games since Christmas, or anything like it. 

With the exception of the game against Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough, Derby have not dominated the ball in recent weeks: –

Possession (%)

Sheff U 50-50
Norwich 38-62
Boro 62-38
Leeds 38-62
Reading 36-64
PNE 45 – 55

(Average 45% – 55%)

It may not be the whole story, but Tom Huddlestone’s absence from the side in recent weeks is surely a big part of the reason why Derby have suddenly stopped controlling games in the way they were towards the end of 2018.  Huddlestone averages more than 50 passes per game at an accuracy rate of 81%, whereas George Evans, who is seemingly being groomed as his replacement, has averaged less than 25 passes per game, with a much worse pass success rate (73%). 

Successful short passes per 90 minutes

Huddlestone 36.7
Bryson 34.1
Mount 26.8
Wilson 21.4
Evans 15.7

Huddlestone’s lack of mobility is always raised as his main shortcoming, but he has still won broadly as many tackles per game as any of the other midfielders, while also winning more headers than any of the others (he is less effective at making interceptions than either Bryson or Evans, however).   

Another factor which was painfully obvious in the Preston game was the lack of physical presence in the eleven, which meant that almost every corner the Lilywhites flighted in led to chaos in the six-yard box.  Eventually, Wisdom had to be brought on, seemingly for his size alone – an alarming defender-for-striker change which helped to avert what had begun to seem like the inevitable concession against limited opponents.  Huddlestone, however, remained on the bench, as did Bradley Johnson (and Florian Jozefzoon), with Lampard opting not to use his third change – a surprising, maybe even revealing decision, in the context of a game which hadn’t exactly gone to plan.

The smallest player of all, Duane Holmes, is gradually becoming one of the real plus points of this season.  I doubt he is being ear-marked as our future right back, but Holmes was nevertheless game enough to cover there in Jayden Bogle’s absence and is the one player in the squad who you fancy to take on and beat a player.  It’s still early days, but his successful dribbles works out as 2.9 per 90 minutes, which is pretty much as good as anyone in the division (Fernando Forestieri’s rate is 2.5, for example).  In these days of telephone number transfer fees, to find a player with Holmes’ potential for £700,000 was an impressive move by Lampard.   

In summary, it felt good that, after a game which the Rams clearly struggled to affect, Lampard had eight days without a fixture, to reflect and reassess his tactics and team selection, ahead of a potentially tricky home game against an almost ludicrously resurgent Hull City. 

If Marriott is still unfit – a previously disclosed illness has now been supplemented by acknowledgement of an ankle injury – then I am not sure that Nugent deserves to start in his place.  Waghorn (again, if fit) or even Bennett would represent a more energetic, quicker and stronger option, who could be relied upon to at least ask the Hull defence more physical questions.  Nugent has been a reliable player for as long as I can remember and nobody would ever question his attitude, but Steve McClaren’s decision to award a 30-month contract to a 31 year-old striker was always debatable.  We now live in the hope, rather than expectation, of an Indian summer from a forward whose best days look to be behind him. 

The same could be said (and is being said) of Bryson, although action has been taken there, with the loan recruitment of a (slightly) younger replacement in Andy King.  The Welshman, however, has barely played football since the end of his loan spell at Swansea City last season, so it feels unwise to expect too much from King too soon.

As for Ashley Cole, he has played regularly in the MLS for the last three seasons and is reportedly more or less ready to make his Rams debut.  It will be faintly surreal to see one of the nine players with more than 100 England caps playing in the black and white, while one of the others patrols the Pride Park touchline.  I don’t quite know what to make of it.  He is nearly as old as me, but unlike me, he was one of the greatest English left backs of all time, in his heyday.  Whether he will end up playing regularly, or is simply going to serve as experienced cover for Scott Malone, we will have to wait and see.

With Norwich flying, Leeds still in a strong position (even if their spying spree has been rumbled and curtailed), Sheffield United looking robust, West Brom having strengthened massively on deadline day and Boro continuing with their miserly pursuit of the play-offs, Derby are in my view genuine outsiders for promotion as things stand.  But with a bit of luck on our side, it remains entirely possible. 

Much has been made – maybe a little too much – of the fact that Derby have an ‘easier’ run-in than most, with Boro and Bristol City in particular having plenty of tricky-looking  games to come, while Derby look forward to plenty of home games against teams from the lower half of the table.  The schedule looks OK, on paper.

And the manner in which Lampard’s side have approached the cup games shows that they can get themselves up for big, ‘winner-takes-all’ games (granted, a pessimist could point to unimpressive showings at Elland Road and Bramall Lane as evidence that this Derby side are just as capable of flunking key tests as they are at passing them). 

Nevertheless, if Mount and Marriott can be nursed back to fitness soon and the rest of the most important players make it through the season unscathed, a top six finish remains a reasonable ambition.  We will talk more about what happens next season nearer the time.

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