Back in January, Derby County travelled to Accrington Stanley for a fourth round FA Cup tie. The Rams had beaten Southampton on penalties after a replay to get there and then defeated Reading in the league three days later to sit sixth in the table. Apart from the pain of a defeat at Leeds sandwiched between the two Saints ties, everything was going pretty well.
Frank Lampard looked at the cup tie against the Lancashire minnows and decided to go strong. With no midweek fixture to follow, he made only two changes from the side that had won the previous fixture against Reading at Pride Park.
Lampard’s prize assets – his three loanees – all started at Stanley, alongside other key players like the emerging star Jayden Bogle and Martyn Waghorn. The bench included some academy products – Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, Max Bird, Calum Macdonald – but only Bird made an appearance, as despite the strength of the line-up, the Rams had to struggle for the win, eventually progressing after Waghorn scrambled the ball home in front of a delighted band of Rams fans.
But there would be a serious cost to this victory. Late in the first half, Lampard’s talisman, Mason Mount, suffered a hamstring injury which would sideline him for the next ten games. Mount’s absence was not the only factor, but in the nine league games which followed, Derby won two, drew three and lost four, slipping from sixth to eighth in the league and entering the run-in looking like outsiders for a play-off place.
Mount returned and the Rams pulled themselves together in the end, but that poor run of form included a shock home defeat to Millwall, a limp defeat at Nottingham Forest and total humiliation at Aston Villa, where the home side scored four goals in the first half against what was effectively a reserve team.
Lampard was strongly criticised for his eccentric selection at Villa Park, but had made the choice with the bigger picture in mind. Derby had three consecutive home games in a week after Villa and Lampard decided that he would effectively sacrifice the Villa game in the hope of nailing a big haul of points at Pride Park in the following days. It was a strange choice, certainly unfair on the supporters who were left to endure the fiasco that followed – and it wasn’t very effective either, as Derby collected only five points from the three home games.
Fast forward to August and Phillip Cocu was faced with an early test of his managerial nous when his Derby side drew the “auld enemy” away in the second round of the Carabao Cup. His first East Midlands Derby would be the Rams’ seventh fixture in just 22 days. Prior to Forest, the fixture list had been relentless. Monday – Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday.
In an episode of the Derby County BlogCast released just before the Forest game, Chris’ assessment, which I agreed with, was that Forest away was the nastiest tie Cocu could possibly have been handed.
In the first round, at Scunthorpe, Cocu had selected academy products Max Bird, Jason Knight and Lee Buchanan in a line-up which blended youth and experience. Bird was subbed at half-time for George Evans, but Buchanan and Knight played so well that they were included in the matchday 18 for the next game and soon went on to make their first league starts. There was also a debut for Krystian Bielik and a first start of the season for Jack Marriott, both of whom needed the game time.
Before the draw was made, Cocu’s plan for the second round of the league cup would undoubtedly have been to do exactly the same thing again – to rest key men for the league and try young players, which after all is supposed to be part of his remit. But once Forest came out of the hat, would he be forced to change his plans?
I spent time brooding on what selection he might go for prior to the game, seeing it as a fiendishly tricky puzzle. My suggested line-up contained multiple changes:
But I was wrong to predict that Cocu would deviate an inch from his plans purely to accommodate a fierce local rivalry. He stuck to his guns, making ten changes from the side which had drawn with West Bromwich Albion at Pride Park. Even young Knight was rested for the next league game. Emerging teenager Buchanan was the only player to have faced the Baggies to start at the City Ground – and two more academy products, Louie Sibley and Morgan Whittaker, were handed their first senior starts.
I think most supporters understood that, despite the fact that it was Forest, there would have to be changes. Surely, nobody expected Marriott – being nursed back to fitness after a thigh injury – to start, for example. But given the fact that this was an East Midlands Derby, it was a big call for Cocu to make quite as many changes as he did. So determined was the Dutchman to avoid any injuries to key players that he even diluted his bench, calling up Mitchell-Lawson and Bird to sit alongside Marriott and Tom Lawrence. Waghorn, Bielik, Lowe, Kieran Dowell and Tom Huddlestone were all omitted from the squad entirely.
Having assessed the situation, Cocu felt obliged to field a team against Forest which was weaker than the one that faced Scunthorpe. Evans started in place of Bird and Matt Clarke played in central defence instead of Bielik – those changes could not be seen as dilutions, but elsewhere, Duane Holmes was drafted in for his first start of the season as an emergency right back and Mason Bennett started up-front. Young Whittaker, starting on the right, has talent, but to me, doesn’t look ready for a Championship first team at this stage, while Sibley, who has only just turned 18, could be future captain material and could get more chances before the end of the season, but still has a long way to go in his development.
For Cocu, the league cup offers the only chance to give these young men an opportunity in an almost risk-free, but still competitive environment and he was very quick to point out after the 3-0 defeat that Forest had made a lot of changes, too. But there was a difference in approach. Whereas Cocu picked a team to fulfil the fixture, Sabri Lamouchi risked his star turn, Joe Lolley, plus Albert Adomah and other regular first-teamers including Matty Cash and Joe Worrall.
It should be pointed out that Forest’s squad is farcically vast and if there is a Championship club armed for a league cup run this season, then it is Forest.
But Cocu’s caution led to a mismatch on the team sheets and inevitable defeat.
The result upset a lot of fans quite badly. Other supporters were pragmatic about it and encouraged fellow fans to brush it off – it was just the league cup, it doesn’t really matter – but it irritated me, because I couldn’t see why Cocu had to pick such a depleted bench. Yes, the players had been through a tough August schedule, but I found it hard to understand why Waghorn, for example, couldn’t at least have been named as a sub for a game which we knew wouldn’t have to go to extra time.
And when Mitchell-Lawson was introduced instead of Lawrence at 0-2, it felt to me like Cocu didn’t get the fact that the supporters actually give a toss about losing to Forest, even if it was just the league cup.
This depressing evening put immediate pressure on Cocu and his planned team for the weekend league game, at Brentford.
A lack of goals in the first few games may not have suggested it, but with skilful players like skilful players like Saïd Benrahma, Ollie Watkins, and Sergi Canós, the Bees have one of the most dangerous frontlines in the Championship. And you don’t need me to tell you that they ripped Derby a new one at Griffin Park.
But the goals that took the game away from the Rams in embarrassingly swift succession were almost entirely of Derby’s making. Lawrence’s poor touch coughed up possession before Bielik’s impetuous attempt to win the ball from the slick Benrahma allowed the Algerian to slip the fatal ball behind the Rams’ backline. Seconds later, Huddlestone’s attempt to lob the ball over Canós was underhit – but Buchanan had sold himself by flying forward to within about ten yards of Lawrence, who should have been the target of the pass. A sickeningly naff third goal was shipped on the brink of half-time to end the game as a contest and put a shitty seal on what had been a wholly embarrassing performance.
And it sent knees jerking all over the place. The whole point of the Forest loss was that we grin and bear that because it would give us a better chance of three points in the league, right?
Well, no, not entirely. It comes back to what happened to Mount at Accrington.
It’s starting to become painfully clear now that there’s no Wilson any more to smash in a piledriver and save the day, no Mount to provide killer passes or arrive in the box to score. So who is going to grab the goals?
The obvious answers, at least until January, when Wayne Rooney lands, are Marriott and Waghorn. This is why I felt before the start of the season (and still believe now) that a two striker system could suit this squad better than a 4-3-3 which Cocu has already repeatedly been forced to abandon mid-game.
Lawrence, while capable of occasional moments of quality, as we saw at Huddersfield, has never been a prolific scorer. Dowell has created more chances than any other Rams player, but hasn’t looked much of a goalscoring threat so far. Bennett, Florian Jozefzoon and Jamie Paterson are the other senior attacking options and none of that trio, in all honesty, are going to strike fear into the hearts of Championship opponents.
And that shortage of genuine attacking threats is why Cocu didn’t dare risk Waggy, or even Lawrence or Dowell, in the Carabao Cup – even against Forest, even for half an hour from the bench.
In his defence, the manager could point to the fact that Buchanan – the only player to start all three games against West Brom, Forest and Brentford – suffered what has been described as a minor hamstring injury at Griffin Park and has subsequently been withdrawn from England duty.
Nevertheless, what happened at Griffin Park was a total nightmare for the coach. With his reserves looking short on quality and unlikely to score at the City Ground, his first team were toothless and made to look second-rate only a few days later. 3-0 may have flattered Forest, but it didn’t flatter Brentford. The underlying statistics of that game were so lop-sided that Cocu will have to go back to the beginning and reconsider everything.
He has already shown a readiness to take action when things aren’t working, including half-time substitutions and formation changes in games which were swinging away from him. At Brentford, he moved Waghorn to centre forward in a 4-4-2, in an effort to get him into the game. It worked, slightly and Waggy was more of a presence, picking up passes from defenders as Derby improved a bit from their wretched first half to at least muster occasional spells of possession, if not meaningful pressure, in the opposition’s third of the pitch.
Cocu will undoubtedly spend the break reconsidering what his best team is. He has started Lawrence, Dowell and Huddlestone in every league game so far, but their positions will have to be reviewed ahead of Cardiff, along with everyone else’s. He’ll need to think about whether to continue starting Knight at this stage, or whether the situation demands a different option, like Evans or Graeme Shinnie, who has been totally out of favour so far. He desperately needs Bogle back, but has to weigh that against the risk of drafting the 19 year-old into the line-up too early.
Six league games is not long enough to draw any firm conclusions on how good Derby’s season will be. We are still at such an early stage that two kicks of the ball are the difference between sitting 19th in the table and 9th. Yes, there have been unimpressive performances in certain games, but that is the case in any season. And yes, there are questions about whether Cocu has yet found his best line-up, but he is new to English football, has been unable to call on key players at times and had little time to work with a squad which cannot reasonably be described as his squad before being thrust into an extremely harsh August schedule. Especially at home, the relative strength of opposition should be taken into account, with Swansea top of the table having won every game except for the 0-0 draw at Pride Park, West Brom still unbeaten in fourth and Bristol City sitting fifth.
With a trip to Elland Road looming large, a win against Neil Warnock’s Cardiff would be a massive help for Cocu. But we should also accept that things could get worse before they start to get better and either way, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of overreacting to every single result. If the mission for the Dutchman is truly a long-term one – to rebuild the squad, to instil a new philosophy from top to bottom, while giving young players from the academy the chance to develop into first-teamers, well, that tells us that a) things weren’t exactly 100% right before he was introduced to the team in Florida two months ago, b) that he’s not going to be able to buy his way to success and c) it’s unreasonable to expect him him to wave a magic wand and work miracles overnight.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job”, quipped Brian Clough. A classic gem from the great man, but it did of course cheekily overlook the fact that in his first season at Derby, Clough finished 18th out of 22 in Division Two. It should go without saying, but I probably have to say it anyway – I am not comparing Clough to Cocu in any way – and yes, as one of my elders and betters reminded me on Twitter, Sir Brian’s side did also get to the semi-finals of the League Cup that season (losing to Leeds on aggregate). I only mention it to make the point that it took Clough time – and, of course, the signing of Dave Mackay – before the blue touchpaper was finally lit. More recently, after an unspectacular start to the season in 1995, Jim Smith’s Rams took off only after Igor Štimac arrived (and explained to the Bald Eagle how the team should be set up around him).
While it seems that Rooney is less of a Cocu signing and more of a Mel signing, it’s entirely possible that he could have as transformative an impact on our team as Igor did. However, he will not be a Ram until 2020 – which will hopefully be the beginning of a better new decade for Derby than we have experienced so far this century.
Patience is needed in the meantime. The serious-minded Cocu doesn’t have the same charisma and profile in the English game as the media-friendly Lampard and maybe that has made it more difficult for him to win over the supporters – but he has much more experience and unlike the Chelsea man, has actually won things in his managerial career. And given the lack of time he had to work with the players before the start of the season, it’s frankly unsurprising that he hasn’t immediately hit the ground running.
If he’s given the time which is needed to complete the work which Lampard started before he, like our best players from last season, was summoned back from his season-long loan, then Cocu may just be able to pilot the club to a better future.