Derby County v Sheffield United preview, with Blades Analytics

I have a sneaky, horrible feeling about how the season has gone so far.

I don’t like to be a pessimist and my glass isn’t always half empty, but the four defeats and the nature of them have left me with some nagging doubts about how well-equipped this team is to win enough games to get promoted.

That is not to say that there aren’t serious positives, because clearly, there are.  Loaning Mason Mount and Harry Wilson was for sure a double coup, made possible almost entirely by the fabled (and very real) Frank Lampard Effect.  Jayden Bogle’s surge into the first-team reckoning has been heartening.  Fikayo Tomori has proved a popular and welcome addition to the squad.  The youthful exuberance these players have brought has been a breath of fresh air – look at the way they flourished fearlessly at Old Trafford – and the defence has, overall, been much more solid than we might have expected, given that Curtis Davies has been absent for effectively the whole season with a hamstring problem.  Bradley Johnson is threatening to resemble a player again.  Craig Bryson is back.  Jack Marriott is a promising addition up front…

Gary Rowett has gone.

But when we look at the league table, a quirk of the fixture list becomes clear.  Derby have only played one of the current top six – Leeds United at home – and, as you know, they were painfully walloped in that game.  

When we look at seventh – twelfth, it’s slightly better – the Rams beat Brentford in fine style at home and drew with Norwich and Blackburn, again, both at home.  But then you have to look down to 16th in the table to find anybody else that the Rams have played yet.

So far, Derby have played eight of the current bottom nine, emerging from those games with 13 points from a possible 24 (won 4 drawn 1 lost 3 – two at home, six away).  

Curiously, four of the Rams’ five wins this season have come against the current bottom four (Reading, Preston, Ipswich, Hull).  Away from home, they haven’t faced anybody higher up the table than 16th-placed Bolton yet.

In other words, while Derby have done OK so far, it’s mostly been against the dross – they haven’t really seen the best of the Championship yet.  With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder if they’re a few points short of where they really should be, if they are going to be a genuine contender.  As I mentioned in the latest BlogCast, losing at Bolton, Rotherham and Millwall just doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that a promotion team does.  

The big wins against Brentford and Man United eased those fears temporarily – which is why the loss at Bolton was so gutting.  For every encouraging step forward so far in Lampard’s debut season, there has been an instant wobble backwards.

There is an argument that Derby have struggled to create enough because they have come up against a lot of teams whose only ambition was to defend against them and that’s certainly a fair point to make.  We will find out plenty about this team’s genuine calibre in the next few days though, because they are about to test themselves against three of the top four.

The early leaders Sheffield United at home is just the start – after that come second-placed West Bromwich Albion, the top scorers in the league by a street (that one will doubtless be billed as Mount versus Harvey Barnes), then it’s Middlesbrough, managed by the infamous Tony Pulis and as miserly a side as you will ever face in the second division (six goals conceded in 12 matches).

Of the three games, the one I fancy our chances in most is tomorrow’s.  We’re at home, of course, but also, the Blades will come to take us on rather than stifle and that will give our attacking players the opportunity to counter at speed.   

The good news when it comes to assessing how we might do in what is undoubtedly a massive game against Sheffield United is that a new blogger, Jay Socik, came to my attention this season, tweeting as @blades_analytic.  He has been using data to assess not only the Blades, but also the whole Championship and as a result, is currently my “go-to guy” for evidence-based insights on how this season is panning out.

Derby County Blog: What are the strengths which have propelled SUFC to the top of league?

BA: Our tactical setup is well known to anyone who has seen us play – 3-4-1-2, with very attacking wing backs and two wide centre backs who also join the attack.  The biggest feature of our play is our ability to work the ball in wide areas, create overloads and extra men to make 2 v 1 situations and play the ball around the opposition defence.

We are an excellent passing team with some very good technical players and we tend to dominate the territory, playing much of our football in the opposition final third.  This is demonstrated by the fact that we have had the most touches in the opposition box and the most completed passes in the opposition final third in the league.  We don’t waste our possession on long shots either, we are patient and look to create high-quality chances in the penalty area, as our strikers suit those opportunities with the runs they make.

DCB: Does the underlying evidence say SUFC could sustain a real push this time?

BA: Yes. SUFC rank highly in most of the various metrics and stats anyone could use to look at a team’s performance.  Anyone who follows me on social media knows my best source of performance data is my own expected goals metric.  With xG, we can assess a team’s ability to create chances and how many chances they concede to the opposition.

In terms of xG, SUFC rank as the joint best team in the league.  For chances conceded, we are fourth best in the league.  We’re creating lots of high-quality chances at the moment and don’t give away many at all – although with the caveat that our next run of games looks on paper to be much more difficult, starting with our trip to Pride Park.

Although we don’t average many shots per game (17th ranking in the league overall), our conversion rate on the shots we do take is the fourth best in the league and again, this points to the fact that most of our efforts come from the penalty box [Amen – DCB].  12% of all our shots come from within the six-yard box, the second highest number in the league and we are also second highest in the league forshots within the penalty area [for comparison Derby have managed a grand total of four shots inside the six-yard box all season – worse than anyone except for Hull – DCB].  We’re dead last in the league for shots outside the area, so expect a team that pass and probe and look for the right time to take an effort at your goal, rather than shooting from distance! 

DCB: Hallelujah… I’ve been banging the drum about shots from downtown being a waste of possession, territory and time for ages now.  It annoys me that our current team are so prone to taking them (direct free kicks excepted…)

Which players are the key men who make your team tick?

BA: We play such a bespoke system that certain players are imperative to make it work.  Without doubt, one of the key men and our best piece of summer transfer business, has been Oli Norwood in a deep lying playmaking role.  Norwood has been an absolute revelation for us.  We lost Paul Coutts at a similar time last season (when we were also top of the league!) and he had been our best player to that point, which might be a weird one for Derby fans to hear.  To be honest, we never really recovered from that.  Norwood has added outstanding passing range, set-piece quality delivery, effective forward passing from deep and generally ensured we have complete balance in our play.  

Norwood has three assists (joint third highest in the league), is fourth in expected assists per 90 minutes and third for key passes (passes that setup a shot) per 90.  I could go on, but I think another player worth highlighting is Mark Duffy, quite simply our creative fulcrum at number ten.  

Normally, if we score a goal or create a good chance, Duffy has been involved in the passing sequence before it and without Duffy we have struggled.  He’s so good that he’s keeping highly-rated Liverpool youngster Ben Woodburn out of the team.  

The final key man worth mentioning is the manager – he’s absolutely outstanding and with him, we always have a chance.

DCB: Any weaknesses about SUFC which are bothering you at the moment?

BA: The fact we seem to concede goals on a regular basis.  We are such an attacking unit that, even though we have good defenders, we seem to concede regularly.  We’ve only kept four clean sheets this season, despite having a defence doesn’t concede many chances (we only allow on average 11 shots per game, which is the third best rate in the league).

The only other thing that comes to mind is that we tend to score first in a game, but when we don’t, our win ratio isn’t good at coming from behind. The way we play will always leave us open, especially when chasing a game and this season, although we have only been behind in three games, we’ve lost two of those.

DCB: In terms of Derby, in your reading of the numbers, how decent are we at the minute and do you think we’ll do ok this year?

BA: More than decent, especially defensively.  My expected goals data has Derby as the best defensive team in the league in terms of chances conceded.  Derby also hold the sixth best record in the league at allowing opposition shots per game (only 11.7 per game).  I feel there is a strong defensive base there, with a good blend of experienced heads and younger, more athletic players filling a void I felt Derby had last year in terms of energy and dynamism.

Offensively though, the data suggests a different story.  15 goals scored with an xG of 14.1 shows Derby are performing slightly above expectations in terms of finishing ability, but their xG is only 18th best in the league, which shows a lack of high-quality chance creation.

No doubt there is some outstanding talent at Derby – Mount the pick obviously, but Wilson, Lawrence, Nugent, Waghorn and Marriott are clearly all capable on their day – perhaps it hasn’t clicked as a unit so far, but this is the main weakness I see with Derby at the moment.

One particular metric that does reflect well on the Rams is their pressing stats – the second highest in the league behind Leeds.

From personal views of watching Derby, I see a highly organised, motivated and focussed team who are set up well and clearly have quality but are yet to find their creative freedom within the system, hopefully it doesn’t present itself on Saturday!

DCB: Based on the stats, are there any Derby players who worry you on Saturday?

BA: Yes!  Mason Mount!  Overall this year, Mount has created the highest number of chances in the league (27), just ahead of the Blades’ Norwood. Mount also has the ninth highest expected assist tally in the league.  Clearly someone who is dangerous in the final third.  Mount’s three goals are also the joint second highest tally for a midfielder in the league.  The kid can clearly do it all!

The only other worry (and this is not data-based) is Martyn Waghorn.  For much of the summer, we Blades thought Waghorn was coming our way, until Derby got involved and blew us out of the water.  This meant that we went and got Waghorn’s team mate at Ipswich, David McGoldrick – which has turned out to be a masterstroke, actually – but I have a sneaky feeling Waghorn might show us what we missed out on.

DCB: He’ll need to be picked, first…  
Care to hazard a guess at the result?


BA: Heart saying one thing, head another!  We have the best away record in the league and confidence is high being top of the league; however, I really rate this Derby side and feel it has potential moving forward.  A 1-1 draw just like last season is my prediction.

DCB: I also have this game down as a potential draw, on paper, though I expect it will be a much more entertaining encounter than last year’s, which was a bit of a dog.   

While we’re talking Championship numbers, some of my readers might be interested in your take on our auld enemy Nottingham Forest.  Unfortunately, they are gradually creeping up the table, but does the data suggests that they will stay in the top six?

BA: I actually have Forest’s expected position based on performance as 11th.  They have scored 17 goals, but have an xG of 13.1 (fourth worst in the league).  This either shows they have some quality finishers over there, which could be the case, or that shots are flying in that will eventually start to fly wide.  They’ve conceded 13 goals, but with a conceded xG of 16.1, which means that their attack and defence are both over-performing relative to expectation at the minute.  At the minute, I’m not sure a Forest play-off challenge is sustainable and they look more like a 10-12th type of team – although it’s still early doors, Derby currently project slightly better.

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Frank Lampard’s defensive dilemma

Derby County’s unexpectedly busy summer transfer window has left Frank Lampard with selection decisions to make all over the pitch, so long as everyone is fit.  He is certainly not short of forwards, to the extent that after the 1-1 draw with Norwich, he was able to change both wingers and his striker for the 1-1 draw with QPR.

Lampard also brought in Craig Forsyth in place of Scott Malone at left back for the trip to Loftus Road.  At right back, however, despite having the option of Andre Wisdom, Lampard has seemingly settled on the exciting talent of Jayden Bogle as first choice.  The 18 year-old is much less physically imposing than the ex-Liverpool man, but is far closer to the template of a modern Premier League full back – swift, agile, technically competent, keen to get on the ball and motor forward.   These are the attributes which give him a real chance of a big future.

On the opening day of the season, Lampard’s centre back pairing was, as expected, the hugely experienced duo of Richard Keogh and Curtis Davies.  Lampard described the men as his “two captains” before the start of the season, although in the end, he favoured Davies with the formality of the armband.  

Keogh and Davies’ jitters on the ball in the first half of that game caused  a few hearts to flutter, but the Rams eventually settled down and won that match – only for news to then break that Davies was injured and would miss the next game, against Leeds United at Pride Park.

Davies started every league game last season and was rightly hailed by fans as the team’s natural leader.  The statisticians at whoscored.com ranked him as the second best player in the Championship for 2017/8, behind only Adama Traoré.  Other than Scott Carson, he was the last player in this Derby squad I wanted to see injured.  

You don’t need me to remind you about the outcome of the Leeds game.  But surprisingly, given the four-goal thrashing the Rams took from one of their auldest enemies, the young man who stepped into Davies’ boots on debut earned some good reviews for his all-action defending.  

20 year-old Fikayo Tomori is a member of the vast, possibly soon to be regulated out of existence, Chelsea loan army and this is already his third temporary spell in the Championship.  The first was at a promotion-bound Brighton, where Tomori was mostly used as a substitute.  He featured much more regularly at Hull City last season, as they battled successfully to stay in the division, where he was chiefly deployed as a right back.  

Tomori’s pace is his stand-out attribute and, having watched older defenders like Keogh, Davies, Alex Pearce and Jason Shackell in recent seasons, is something of a breath of fresh air for Derby fans.  His ability to catch up to attackers means that he can recover from mistakes – either his own, or those of colleagues – and even get away with the occasional lapse of concentration.  Naturally then, in a pairing with Keogh, Tomori is the defender who makes more tackles and interceptions on the ground.  

However, Tomori has proved to be less effective in the air than Keogh and has lost more than half of his aerial duels.  One of the attributes which made Davies one of the Championship’s stand-out players last season was his aerial prowess:-

Aerial duels contested and won, per 90 minutes
Defenders (Championship 2017/8)

  1. Sean Morrison (Cardiff)  Contested 11 Won 7.5 (68%)
  2. Harlee Dean (Birmingham) Contested 8.7 Won 6.4 (74%)
  3. Shaun Hutchinson (Millwall) Contested 9 Won 6.1 (68%)
  4. Curtis Davies (Derby) Contested 9.1 Won 6.1 (67%)
  5. Adam Webster (Ipswich) Contested 9.1 Won 5.9 (65%)

To compare, here are this season’s numbers for Keogh and Tomori, again, per 90 minutes played:-

Keogh Contested 6.4 Won 3.8 (59%)
Tomori Contested 5.1 Won 2.5 (49%)

The Rams are having more of the ball this season and coming under less sustained pressure, but when we do, Tomori is marginally losing more headers than he is winning.  For a centre back, that is clearly not ideal.

Davies also led the league for interceptions per 90 minute last season:-

Interceptions per 90 minutes
Championship (2017/8)

1= Curtis Davies (Derby) 2.7
1= Sol Bamba (Cardiff) 2.7
3. Bruno Ecuele Manga (Cardiff) 2.4
4= Joey van den Berg (Reading) / Jack O’Connell (Sheffield United) 2.3

In terms of passing from the back, which is a key part of Lampard’s playing style, Keogh and Tomori have a very similar and respectable passing accuracy rates of more than 80 per cent (Keogh 83.8%, Tomori 81.4%).  Both are a bit better on this measure than Davies (78.3% last season).

Like Bogle, Tomori has the pace to get himself or his team-mates out of trouble, but I feel that he occasionally lacks the positional sense required by a top defender.  This is not to criticise him, as he is clearly only going to develop this through experience and get better.

 When he’s in full flow, Jayden Bogle’s flying runs into the penalty area cause havoc and get you off your seat.  His passing accuracy of more than 80% is good and in terms of chances created, Bogle shows up very well, which emphasises both his technical ability and attacking instinct:-

Key passes (Chances created) per 90 minutes
Championship full backs, 2018/9

1. Barry Douglas (Leeds) 1.7, 11 appearances
2. Cuco Martina (Stoke) 1.6, 8 apps
3. Reece James (Wigan) 1.2, 11 apps
4. Jayden Bogle (Derby) 1.2, 9 apps
5. Darnell Fisher (Preston) 1.1, 11 apps

Bogle has a reasonably good tackling success rate, but in terms of interceptions, he ranks 43rd out of the 44 Championship full backs who have made five or more appearances: –

Interceptions per 90 minutes
Championship full backs (2018/9)

1. Kristian Pedersen (Birmingham) 3.7
2. Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford) 2.3
3. Luke Ayling (Leeds) 2.0

26. Craig Forsyth (Derby) 1.1

42. Mahlon Romeo (Millwall) 0.6
43. Jayden Bogle (Derby) 0.5
44. Martin Olsson (Blackburn) 0.4

A big part of the game is decision-making and at the moment, Bogle is very much still learning the ropes.  In the last couple of games, I can think of a wild shot from a crazy distance when a pass was the better option against Norwich and an easy overlap pass to Florian Jozefzoon at Loftus Road, overlooked in favour of a more difficult ball into a congested central area.  From a defensive perspective, the way he was caught so far out of position by Anthony Martial at Old Trafford for Juan Mata’s goal sticks in the mind as an example of the young man switching off, for a fatal split-second.

***

Lampard chose to leave Davies on the bench at Loftus Road, but tougher tests than QPR are coming.  Derby’s next three games are against teams in the top four – league leaders Sheffield United at home, followed by two of the most difficult away trips of the season, back-to-back – West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough.  I don’t think that Lampard will want to go into these games with his best defender on the bench.  But incorporating Davies would unfortunately mean dropping somebody else.

Lampard has referred to Keogh as one of his two captains and although it is the fervent wish of a vocal minority, he is unlikely to be benched.  Keogh is the only player to have played every minute of every game this season, so it would be a shock if Lampard was to suddenly jettison a player who has been perfectly solid as the senior member of a defence which has conceded a respectable 13 goals in 12 games.  Keogh’s highest-profile gaffe this season was at Old Trafford, when he stumbled and presented Romelu Lukaku with a one-on-one chance on goal.  Fortunately, the gods were smiling on him on that occasion.

Bogle has praised Keogh’s role in his development, saying:

“He’s been a massive, massive help for me.  Even last season, just in training, he was always talking to me and we’d go through some clips sometimes.  So he’s been a big part in my development, I think, especially defensively.  He’s really helped me and I’m grateful for that.”

Tomori has been very good and is deservedly popular – touch wood, maybe there will be a chance for the Rams to sign him permanently after this season – but I would question whether he is as defensively switched on and positionally aware as Davies at this early stage in his development.  Certainly, he is not as commanding in the air.

One possibility – although it was heavily shelled when I unwisely floated it as ‘the obvious thing to do’ on Twitter recently – would be to move Tomori across to right back, if only for the coming few matches.  My thinking was roughly along these lines – Tomori is already experienced in that position, has pace and is a stronger defender than Bogle.  

Speaking to the Hull Daily Mail last season, Tomori explained that he would be happy to play anywhere across the back line – even at left back – and wasn’t sure what his best position was:-

“I’ve been asked the question a lot really and different parts of my game are suited to different positions.  I’m quite quick so that suits me at right-back but at centre-back that’s good as well. I can link up play and cover, which comes through at centre back as well.

“At the moment I don’t really see myself in one position. I’m happy to play in a variety of positions. As I play more games and develop, that one position that I play will become clearer to me. I don’t know it yet.”

However, from speaking to folks at the Hull end, I’m told that he is more one who ‘does a job’ at right back than one who looks natural in that position.

Peter Johnson, editor of the Hull City fanzine Tigerlink, said: “Tomori had a patchy but at times impressive time at Hull, typical of many loanees.  He played in around 25 league games and spent a lot of time on the bench.  He appeared to be in direct competition with [fellow Chelsea loanee] Ola Aina for the right back berth, but also covered at left back, centre back and even in midfield.  Plus he played in a variety of formations as Leonid Slutsky and later Nigel Adkins searched for success from a struggling side.

“On occasions, he linked up well as an attacking threat, this included work down the flanks with Harry Wilson, who had a very successful loan spell at the KCOM last season.

“One vital point is that he only played as a centre back in the early part of 2017/18 under Slutsky.  The rest of his time was largely at right back.  So a return to that berth might be a natural move for him.  But perhaps Tomori himself might prefer the centre back role, or it may be too early in his career, to decide with certainty where his best position is.  He’s worth a try at right back, but Lampard may be aware he never really made the position his own during his stint at Hull City.

“Certainly Tomori has potential and it will do Curtis Davies and Derby no harm at all to have a promising youngster to make Curtis look over his shoulder a bit.  Davies is the finished article and Tomori the young up and coming player looking to establish himself.

“In conclusion, Tomori’s worth a go at right back. Like any young player he needs a long run in the side to prove consistency and at Hull, he played in a defence with constant changes in formation and personnel. It may take a while to find the best fit for him. The jury is still out, but he never let us down and if he has a successful career at Derby or elsewhere, it would be no surprise.

“Many Hull fans will watch Tomori’s progress with interest and of course, Davies probably had his best days at Hull and few fans would have anything but high praise for him.”

Another maverick suggestion from a good friend of mine was to move Tomori to a holding midfield role – but his comparative lack of experience there would make that a real gamble, particularly when a seemingly reborn Bradley Johnson and Tom Huddlestone are both available.

Another idea (and certainly one which is regularly brought up on Twitter) would be to change to a back three and wing backs.  Bogle and Scott Malone certainly fit the profile for a more advanced full back-cum-wide midfielder and Tomori’s speed across the ground could in theory help to fill the spaces left by having three at the back.

But such a change would be a radical shift from the default shape which the team have worked on since pre-season.  Gary Rowett only changed to a back three because he was forced to when the arse fell out of his season.  Derby’s form and performances under Lampard have not been bad enough that you would necessarily suggest that a different system is required – and naming three centre backs would only intensify the selection squeeze in the already over-subscribed forward areas, forcing Lampard to leave out a Harry Wilson, or Tom Lawrence.  As it stands, Derby’s attacking record has been no better than so-so this season (perhaps this should be the topic of my next post) and so reducing our attacking fire-power would not be ideal at this point.

For a defence containing a 20 year-old and an 18 year-old to have been as basically sound as Derby’s this season is huge credit to Tomori and Bogle (and Keogh, as the defensive leader).  It would be extremely harsh to drop one of the youngsters – but does Lampard really want to go to the Hawthorns and the Riverside with Davies on the bench?   

I don’t claim to have the answer to Lampard’s defensive dilemma, but I do feel strongly that, particularly for the challenge of the forthcoming games, we need our best defenders out there – and Davies is our best defender.

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Derby County BlogCast, Episode #3 – September reviewed

September was nuts, wasn’t it?  From the soaring high of deserved victory at Old Trafford, plus a 6-1 aggregate romp at Hull and putting much-fancied Brentford to the sword at Pride Park, to the gutting lows of dreadful 1-0 defeats at Rotherham and Bolton.  

Unsurprisingly, there was much to discuss in the September BlogCast, with my usual compadre Chris Smith and our first guest panellist of the season, Liz Slattery.  We talked about the fabled mirage of ‘consistency’, the younger players making a name for themselves, the stirring victory at Old Trafford (of course), the exasperating crash at Bolton days later and gave Frank Lampard marks out of ten for his work so far.

Stream or download the BlogCast here

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Frank Lampard starts the bounce at Derby County

Six games in and the international break has provided a respite from the frantic Championship season, giving us all the chance to reflect on how Derby County and their rookie manager Frank Lampard have started their 2018/9 campaign.

The headline is very much a positive one.  Twelve points from a possible eighteen equates neatly to two per game – automatic promotion form and then some over a full season.  Derby have done extremely well to win four out of six league games, including striking very late to win at Reading and Hull, courtesy of Mason Bennett assists on both occasions.  Those two dramatic clinchers made the difference between the Rams sitting fourth in the embryonic league table and 14th (in which case, they would still have been a place and point ahead of Nottingham Forest).

It’s worth pointing out that, the four clubs Derby have beaten have all started badly and, at the time of writing, all sit in the bottom six.  This factor, combined with the manner in which Leeds comfortably beat us at Pride Park and the dithery defending which led to a disappointing loss at Millwall, do pose questions about whether our current lofty league position is something that Lampard will be able to sustain in the face of difficult tests ahead, or whether the flurry of early wins have masked a few underlying problems.

However, the more positive way of looking at it is that so far, they have scored maximum points against the dross and if you continue to do that, then you can get away with the odd slip-up, or setback against stronger teams – which happens to everyone – and still climb the table.

Another positive sign is the amount of goals and assists contributed by substitutes.  Bennett’s dramatic impact prompted an ecstatic Lampard to declare his outright love for the local boy.  Elsewhere, there was an ultimately fruitless goal set up by sub Craig Forsyth for fellow sub David Nugent at Millwall, while ‘Deadly’ Joe Ledley clambered off the bench to score the opener against Ipswich (with the help of a deflection).  Two goals and three assists from substitutes in six games is good going and points to a factor which could well help Derby to sustain a strong season – squad depth.

The sheer amount of players Lampard has to choose from has caused some observers, including the academic Kieran Maguire, to predict that Derby may eventually come a cropper under the EFL rules which cap the amount clubs are allowed to lose without being sanctioned.  So far, the Rams have avoided any punishment, but it’s surely impossible for that to continue unless several well-paid players currently on the books leave.

Of the players who are contributing, the most immediately successful Lampard signings have been the two England U21 internationals he borrowed from Chelsea – Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori.  Mount has quickly become Derby’s key creative threat and arguably also the chief goal threat so far – like Craig Bryson in his pomp, he is a midfielder who lives to break into the opposition penalty area and such is his desire to raid forward that he even accidentally blocked a Bryson shot from within the six-yard box against Preston.

Mount has had more shots from inside the box than any other Derby player, but one challenge still facing the team is to get him on the ball more often and affecting games more.  Such is the way with any team’s star player, but surprisingly, Mount is currently averaging only 26.3 passes per game, at 69.6% success.  For context, Villa’s Jack Grealish is averaging 45 passes pg, at 87.8%.  Part of Mount’s education at Derby will be working out how to deal with being closely marked and kicked and yet still continue to find ways to change games.

So far, so good, though:-

KEY PASSES (Chances created) – Top Championship players

Barry Bannan, Ben Marshall, Jack Grealish, Lee Evans – 15
Pablo Hernández – 14
Chris Brunt, MASON MOUNT – 13

At the other end of the pitch, Tomori has slotted into the team well after Curtis Davies’ hamstring injury.  He endured a very difficult debut against Leeds, but even in the face of that battering, Tomori earned positive reviews from many supporters for his whole-hearted defending.  His pace is an asset and, as my good buddy Chris Smith pointed out on the latest Derby County BlogCast, he has sprayed some eye-catching passes (although overall, Richard Keogh is a significantly more accurate passer than the teenager).  

Lampard’s squad size leaves him with tough selection decisions to make all over the pitch – and even for the bench, with Jack Marriott omitted altogether at Hull – but a particularly interesting question is, what happens when Davies returns?

Although the majority of those I polled would drop Keogh, another and probably more likely option would be to move Tomori to right back.  Andre Wisdom has looked clunky at times and has not been convincing on the ball, which is not helpful when the manager wants his defenders to provide the first line of attacking impetus.  18 year-old Jayden Bogle has already been preferred to Wisdom, so it wouldn’t be a major shock if Tomori moves across once the main man is back.

Under Lampard, Derby have returned to being one of the division’s more dominant ball-playing sides – passing it much more, keeping it much more – to the extent that Keogh has completed more passes than anyone else in the Championship, except for Sheffield Wednesday’s playmaker Barry Bannan.  Lampard wants his side to pass out from the back where possible, rather than launching more direct balls into the corners of the pitch and this style will always make some fans unhappy – impatient protests against ‘tippy-tappy’ football and shouts of ‘get rid’ will always abound from some corners, it seems.  

It’s all about what you fear.  Gary Rowett feared having the ball in case his players lost it and was happier letting the opposition take the ‘risk’ of  possession – this is also part of José Mourinho’s philosophy.  Lampard, on the other hand, wants his players to be braver than that, as he made clear after the Mansfield Town friendly, when Kelle Roos’ bad pass gifted a goal to the Stags.  After the game, Jody Morris said: “The first thing the manager said to Kelle was ‘don’t be worried about that… Don’t care whatsoever, we want to try to play the right way.'”

Short passes per game 

Leeds 411 (56.3% possession)
Brentford 405 (54.6%)
DERBY 384 (54.6%)
Preston 379 (54.4%)
Norwich 365 (52.9%)
Derby 2017/8 333 (48.1%)
Lowest – Rotherham 182 (40.5%)

It’s tempting to label advocates for more direct, old-fashioned English football as dinosaurs in an era when ‘playing through the thirds’ is largely accepted as the ideal form, but the first half at Reading was, let’s be honest, a bit of a disaster, as a rattled Davies and Keogh repeatedly passed the ball straight to opposition players in terrifying areas.  

Goalkeeper Scott Carson then mis-weighted a pass for Craig Bryson at Millwall, which ultimately led to a (freakishly fortunate) deflected goal for the home side.  After that game, the Racing Post’s Mark Langdon gave Derby a real roasting for their tentative approach, as they passed the ball around the back without creating enough opportunities to ever threaten victory.  

In his article, Langdon quoted the icon of passing football, Pep Guardiola, on the problems caused when defenders play too safely and don’t get anywhere, moving the ball across the pitch in a futile ‘U shape’:-

“Gentlemen, this is tiki-taka and it is s***. We’re not interested in this type of possession.  It’s totally meaningless.  It’s about passing for the sake of it. We need our central midfielder and our defenders to move out with an offensive mentality and break the opposition lines in order to push the whole team high up.  The U needs to go.”  
(Quote from Pep Confidential, by Marti Perarnau)

In other words, you can’t just keep knocking the ball from centre back to full back to centre back to goalkeeper and expect to get anywhere.  OK, sometimes, playing in this U-shape is simply about resting, keeping the ball to catch a breather, or to take the sting out of a difficult situation in the game.  There’s definitely a place for that.  But it is not productive football.

The important thing is for defenders to bring the ball forward – as Keogh so often tries to do – and also (this latter part includes the goalkeeper) to play passes which have an element of risk, not just short and sideways.  This could be a switch of play to the opposite flank, but the key thing is to  bypass the pressure of the opposition forwards, rather than allowing them to simply shuffle from side to side, blocking your progress without much effort.  The midfielders need to be showing for those passes, creating passing angles through constant movement, as without sufficient off-the-ball movement, the player with the ball at his feet can get bogged down – particularly if he is not the quickest of thinkers.  These are Championship defenders, after all.

It might be easier to just go Graham Taylor and ‘knock it’ for the likes of Nugent, Jack Marriott or Martyn Waghorn – all of whom are very willing runners – to chase it.  And there’s an argument that, over time, Lampard will need to recruit players more suited to his preferred style than Davies, Wisdom, Craig Forsyth – even Carson, if it is to be taken to the extreme.

However, it’s worth pointing out that Bradley Johnson – whose poor pass success of 67.4% underlines how unsuited he is to playing in a possession-based team – continues to feature in Lampard’s squad, while Butterfield and Thorne, both much better technical footballers than Johnson, have been marginalised.  While I doubt Johnson will be at the club beyond this season, I’d suggest that his presence in the squad affirms Lampard’s ability to be pragmatic and play the limited hand he’s been dealt, rather than being an inflexible purist in unrealistic pursuit of perfection.

Whatever system or style Derby play, ultimately, they have to create chances.  The main worry so far is that they’ve not been great in terms of taking shots from within the box – averaging only 5.8 per game, which is among the lowest in the division (only QPR, Reading and Swansea have managed less).

Despite this lack of high-quality chances, they are scoring a decent amount of goals – ten is the eighth highest and they have hit the target at least once in every game, which, when measured against the relatively bad shot count, suggests a bit of luck along the way (for example, Mount’s long-range strike which squirmed under Vito Mannone at Reading, Keogh’s header which Preston’s goalkeeper somehow missed); but also points to a real element of quality and ability to take advantage of the rare opportunities which come along (e.g. Lawrence’s fantastic header at Reading, Nugent’s cracking strike at Millwall).

The expected goals models I’ve seen produced by analysts thus far tend to show that Derby look defensively pretty sound, but haven’t been enough of a consistent goal threat to look like convincing promotion contenders at this stage.

This kind of goes against the ‘eye test’ which had convinced me that Lampard’s Derby had a problem with a soft midfield underbelly, with being ‘get-attable’.  That was definitely a problem against Leeds and at Hull, both of whom comfortably out-shot the Rams, but in the other games, they have been generally pretty secure – particularly in the back-to-back home games against Ipswich and Preston, when they were largely unruffled.

Some clubs have produced a hatful more chances than Derby – notably Wigan, Brentford, Sheffield United and Norwich – but without scoring many more goals.  Over time, you would expect them to score more, based on their stats – but only if they have the strikers who are capable of doing the job.  Derby certainly aren’t short of good finishers – including Lawrence, who underlined his credentials with a lethal finish for Wales during the international break.  If they can get those players into dangerous areas more often, then in the end, they will all score plenty.

As Chris Smith has said on the BlogCast, you can see somebody getting a real hiding at some stage –  but we haven’t quite created enough yet for this to happen.

All in all, Lampard has achieved plenty in his first months as a manager – engaging with the fanbase, beginning the difficult process of revamping the squad and, most importantly of all, nicking a few results, to his obvious delight.  There will be difficult times ahead – for god’s sake, nobody mention February – but with every victory, Lampard seems to grow in confidence and his readiness to praise the players and supporters alike is fostering a real feeling of optimism around the club.  His heart is on his sleeve and his emotional openness and easy charm have rapidly endeared him to pretty much everyone, even, dare I say it, some of the skeptics who felt that handing him such a high profile role for his first managerial appointment was an unholy gamble.  

And of course, they were right – it was a risky move.  But the alternative was almost certainly Mick McCarthy and he would not, to put it mildly have provided the breath of fresh of air which Lampard has turned out to be.

Lampard has the gravitas to inspire players, particularly young ones – “When he talks, you listen”, said Max Lowe recently – but also the youthful exuberance of a man who has started a new chapter in life and is genuinely enjoying himself in the process.  

He has started the bounce – and right now, the fans are bouncing with him.

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The Derby County BlogCast #2 – August reviewed

Last weekend, Chris and I recorded our second podcast, reviewing an encouraging August for the Rams. The odd flub aside – I praised Leeds for a goal they scored “against Leeds”, meaning to say Swansea – we ran through the major talking points brought up by the back-to-back league wins which followed back-to-back league defeats.

Frank Lampard seems to be settling into life as Derby manager and for what it’s worth, I think getting that first home win on the board has really helped his confidence to grow. With the squad’s strength in depth underlined by a thumping 4-0 demolition of a weakened Hull City in the League Cup, there are plenty of reasons for optimism as we head into autumn – not least the swaggering form of the hugely talented Mason Mount.

Listen to “DCFC Blogcast, with Ollie and Chris” on Spreaker.


The podcast is also available on iTunes

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