The Derby County Blog Championship preview, 2017/8

Here’s the Twitter Derby fans’ predicted league table – and my two-penn’orth on each of the clubs at this stage follows.  There’s plenty of time left in the transfer window and some clubs doubtless still have plenty of business to conclude.  Not least the Rams, of course.  

 

The Contenders

Derby County

Are we really contenders this time?  The loss of Tom Ince is undeniably a factor, especially as the Rams didn’t score nearly enough last season anyway.  This will hopefully be mitigated to an extent by the return of Chris Martin – a very different type of threat – while Curtis Davies should improve a defence which had a respectable record in any case.  Throw in the nous of David Nugent, the surprise return of Andre Wisdom and the surreal return of Tom Huddlestone and there’s something there for Gary Rowett to build on.  Still, I can’t help wondering if this season will turn out to be one of ‘transition’, rather than promotion, just because of the scale of the task ahead of Rowett in terms of refreshing and reshaping the squad.  As things stand, I feel confident that this year will, at the least, turn out to be the start of a positive transition towards longer-term progress under this manager.

Fulham

No Wardrobe this time, but plenty of flair, which will continue to make them the neutral’s favourite.  Tom Cairney enjoyed a breakthrough season in the number 10 role and was promptly handed a contract extension, as was the prodigy Ryan Sessegnon.  However, questions linger over their defensive capability, as Derby demonstrated in that bizarre 4-2 victory at Pride Park.  It seems that Slaviša Jokanović is looking to take the McClaren route to the top – and fair fucks to him for that.

Middlesbrough

Garry Monk’s reward for bringing stability to Leeds is the chance of piloting Boro back to the top flight.  Doubtless, he will feel very confident of doing so, given the resources available to him – Jonny Howson’s capture from Norwich was a solid start, which felt very ‘Boro’.  That said, they’ve gambled £15m on Britt 9Assombalonga’s fitness – then there was a bizarre spat which developed between the club and its local newspaper, the Gazette, over their reporting of the fee. And don’t get Ramspace started on Cyrus Christie…

Norwich City

One of last season’s big spenders, Norwich’s underachievement relative to their budget was a big Championship story and cost Alex Neil his job.  They will expect to go closer this time.  New coach Daniel Farke (pictured) is the latest member of the Dortmund coaching staff to be offered a gig in England, alongside sporting director Stuart Webber, poached from Huddersfield.

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Reading

The stattos hated Reading all last season and kept waiting for the wheels to fall off – and yet.  Jaap Stam must now be a contender to get a managerial gig with a bigger club. Veteran target man Yann Kermorgant retires at the end of this season and it would be truly remarkable if he could follow up last year’s 19-goal ‘Indian summer’ with a final big campaign – Iceland striker Jón Daði Böðvarsson has arrived from Wolves as cover.  On paper, they ain’t great.  And yet.

Sheffield Wednesday

After two successive failures in the play-offs, the Owls somehow need to find a way to kick on under Carlos Carvalhal.  They have already paid £10m for Jordan Rhodes, which makes you wonder how much cash they can possibly have spare to strengthen elsewhere, given Financial Fair Play rules. George Boyd is the other high-profile recruit for Carvalhal’s third crack at the big time.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Strange times in Wolverhampton, as this unprepossessing corner of the West Midlands becomes an English outpost for the infamous ‘super-agent’ Jorge Mendes.  Exit the prosaic Paul Lambert, enter Mendes’ long-term pal Nuno Espirito Santo as coach – followed, incredibly, by the Portugal midfielder Rúben Neves, from Porto, for a preposterous amount of money.  Neves’ agency?  You’ve guessed it – Gestifute.

While the glamorous Neves deal made the headlines, Wolves have strengthened significantly beyond that, with two further signings from Portuguese football – the local journos particularly like the centre back Willy Boly – plus two from Norwich (including John Ruddy, following the awful news that Carl Ikeme had been diagnosed with leukaemia).  They’ve even found a second bloody Jota, Diogo, a winger on loan from Atlético Madrid.

Riotous levels of Chinese investment plus Mendes’ close involvement make Wolves a different proposition to the bafflingly meek side who have turned up for an annual hiding at Pride Park in recent years.  Owners Fosun are not here to make up the numbers, that is for sure.

The Dark Horses

Brentford

Always entertaining to watch and an established Championship club these days, with a brilliant recruitment ethos which allows them to consistently punch above their weight. They may lose “King” Jota, but it doesn’t really matter, as they probably already have a future superstar lined up to replace him from the Slovenian second division or Exeter, in the shape of the much-hyped Ollie Watkins.  Scout smartly, use data unashamedly, grow players, sell, reinvest.  It’s working a treat for them.

Cardiff City

The Bluebirds have been in the wilderness for a while and they’ll be an outside bet to crack the top six, but will certainly be competitive this season.  Denmark striker Kenneth Zohore had a fine 2016/17 for the Bluebirds, with 12 goals in 29 appearances (24 starts).  Keeping him away from lurking suitors like Hull will be key to their chances.  Another question mark is over the ownership of the club, with Vincent Tan reportedly ready to sell up.

Leeds United

All hinges on whether new coach Thomas Christiansen turns out to be a David Wagner or a Ståle Solbakken.  Moving from the Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia to Leeds has to be considered a leap, but the Dirties’ new chairman is clearly intending to bring a measure of stability and sanity back to Elland Road – buying the ground back was a move to applaud, at the very least.  Vurnon Anita was the first major signing, with Pontus Jansson joining the club on a permanent basis and a slew of recruits from across Europe following.  In that sense, they appear to be taking a steer from Huddersfield Town last season – I’m sure that Terriers fans will be gratified to hear that being said.  They still have Chris Wood, of course.

Mid-table Mediocrity

Aston Villa

Dire predictions of two successive relegations never came to pass, but I find it hard to see why Villa are bookies’ favourites for promotion, after they limped to a mid-table finish last year.  I could be proved totally wrong if the players signed by Steve Bruce last year actually start to gel this season – but they need to, as Bruce cannot possibly be backed to the same extent again this season and has already reportedly committed £5m on John Terry’s wages for a single term.  Again, I could be wrong, but I can’t see how that is what Villa, or any Championship club, could possibly need.  Too many veterans with big wage packets and egos to match in a bloated squad is not usually a recipe for success.

Birmingham City

Harry Redknapp rides again!  I can’t see how this is going to end well – for Brum, at least. Redknapp always walks away whistling, with another cheque to deposit in the Sandbanks.  If it’s tits up by Christmas, he can just announce that he has a bad back / knee / elbow / dog died and resign, blaming the board for not letting him sign enough players.  Links to the likes of Ashley Cole – “he could still do a job at this level” – only serve to reinforce the impression of a man whose finger isn’t exactly on the pulse.

Bristol City

Tammy Abraham banged in enough goals to protect them from relegation last season. Now he’s gone and the Robins have paid big money for Angers (and occasional Senegal) striker Famara Diedhiou to fill the void.  Much hinges on whether that works out, although they have profited from Villa’s “Dad’s Army” recruitment strategy by re-signing the centre back Nathan Baker.

Hull City

After losing Marco Silva, the Tigers haev turned to Leonid Slutsky, previously coach of the Russian national team and CSKA Moscow.  Slutsky enjoys a good relationship with Roman Abramovich, meaning that he will be offered his pick of Chelsea’s stockpile of young players on loan.  Defenders Ola Aina and Michael Hector have duly joined – but Hull need all the help they can get, following a worrying exodus of talent over the summer. A major recruitment drive is necessary to make them competitive, but there doesn’t seem to be either the will or capability to do it.

Nottingham Forest

Having sailed through the EFL’s test as a ‘fit and proper’ owner, Private Eye star Evangelos Marinakis takes the reins down the road and at this stage, threatens to be a safer pair of hands than his predecessor (caveat – it’s impossible to imagine anybody doing any worse).  The noises I’ve heard from the Forest end are pretty positive, even if the signing of 34 year-old Daryl Murphy on a three-year deal has echoes of Greening and Boateng all those years ago.  A ‘consolidation’ season, with good young ‘uns like Ben Brereton coming through and not being sold off, will probably satisfy the fans for now.

Preston North End

After losing Simon Grayson to Sunderland, PNE needed to find a manager with the experience and nous to get the best out of a limited group of players, on a relatively low budget.  They turned to ex-Norwich boss Alex Neil, the archetypal “dour Scot”, who certainly has the charisma of a David Moyes and will hope to have a similar impact on this famous old club’s fortunes.

Sheffield United

The Blades are part-owned by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia these days and “consolidation” is their apparent aim for now, under Chris Wilder.  That could change if the petrodollars start to flow.

Sunderland

Simon Grayson was an astonishingly low-profile appointment for such a giant old club, signalling that the Black Cats are looking at a rebuilding project, rather than a cash-splurging bid to yo-yo straight back.  Unflashy signings such as James Vaughan and Aiden McGeady point to a club looking to adjust by picking up players who “know the level”, while Lewis Grabban on loan and Jason Steele from Blackburn for a bargain fee were similarly low-key moves.  But surely there must be some more cash to spend, particularly after Jordan Pickford’s big-money departure?  Saturday’s embarrassing home thrashing by a Celtic XI pointed to the sheer scale of the task ahead for Grayson.

The Strugglers

Barnsley

A youthful and bustling Tykes side led by the effervescent Conor Hourihane put the cat among the pigeons early last season (*cough Nigel Pearson*), before bigger clubs twigged what was going on and plundered them remorselessly.  Defensive leader Marc Roberts was the most recent asset to be prized away and, as a selling club, Barnsley’s realistic goal can only ever be survival at this level.  Paul Heckingbottom did a great job to build a Championship-ready team – now he has to do it all over again.

Bolton Wanderers

The Trotters return to the second tier despite ongoing financial constraints and transfer embargo.  With off-the-field matters still dominating debate around Horwich Parkway, it seems probable that they will struggle in this unforgiving division, although the loan signing of the promising striker Adam Armstrong from Newcastle offered some cause for optimism.

Burton Albion

Jake Buxton, Stephen Warnock, Shaun Barker, Stephen Bywater, Tom Naylor, Luke Varney…  Nigel’s Ghosts of Derby Past XI continue to punch ludicrously above their weight at Championship level.  They have no chance, really, except that somehow, they do. Maybe it’s because Clough is a good manager who revels in the Brewers’ underdog status.

Ipswich Town

Vying with Derby to be the longest-serving Championship club, Ipswich have seemed more likely to exit via the trapdoor than the ladder in recent times.  Big Mick McCarthy has been there for such a long time now and I suspect that a shake-up is inevitable before the end of the season – whether that turns out to be for better or for worse is hard to say, but I’m leaning towards the latter.

Millwall

Lions boss Neil Harris is optimistic ahead of the much-loved Millwall’s return to the second tier.  New recruits include the (Huddlestone-era) Derby academy product James Meredith and a big target man, Tom Elliott from AFC Wimbledon, to add to their existing firepower in Lee Gregory and Steve Morison.  There will be no tiki-taka, but will they put a few noses out of joint – on the pitch, I mean – at the New Den?

Queens Park Rangers

I defer to Clive Whittingham of Loft for Words when it comes to all things Hoop. His feeling at the start of July was that “QPR look short.  Short up front, short of goals, short in defence, short just about everywhere other than goalkeeper in fact.”  Which doesn’t bode well, does it?  Their struggles towards the end of last season were those of a club reeling towards the precipice and although they had just about enough to stay up last time, this season is a whole new ballgame.

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FC Kaiserslautern 0 Derby County 2

I enjoyed this.  This was good.

Gary Rowett had been at pains to stress that we shouldn’t read too much into his team selection for this game and that shirts were still up for grabs, but in reality, on this showing, the team for Sunderland will be pretty adjacent to this one.

Curtis Davies will come in, presumably for Alex Pearce, while there’s still the possibility of a new wide attacker to compete with Andi Weimann and Johnny Russell for one of the forward berths.  But I’d be shocked rigid if the system for the Black Cats game isn’t 4-3-3, because Tom Huddlestone, in playing what can now only be called “the Huddlestone role”, completely transformed the team.

Afterwards, Chris Martin said that a lot of the players had been looking forward to playing with Huddlestone and it only took about eight minutes to see why, when he delivered the first magic ball of his afternoon.

It is important not to get carried away in pre-season and the long, gruelling Championship season soon puts paid to unrealistic optimism.  But when you have a player who can evaporate an entire defence with a single caress of the ball, from inside his own half, you’ve got every chance, haven’t you?

In George Thorne’s absence, Steve McClaren tried his best to recruit players to do the ‘controlling’ job, but simply couldn’t find anybody who was up to the job.  Within a few months of taking over, Rowett has found the perfect player for the position, certainly in terms of when we have the ball.  No, he’s not exactly Usain Bolt and he will get skinned by nippy forwards at times, but, Lord have mercy, his passing is nothing short of outrageous.

His influence on the team was obvious – the quality he shows on the ball rippling through the team, bringing a transfusion of confidence.  Butterfield and Johnson, neither of whom shine in deeper roles, were happier roaming further forward – Rowett has mentioned Johnson in this regard repeatedly in recent times and it was clear to see why.  He has driven me insane with his struggles in a ‘holding’ role, but probably, the demands of that position have driven him insane too.  Much as a right back can ‘do a job’ at centre back for a game or two, but gets found out over time, Johnson has done his best in a central two, or as the deepest midfielder of three, but it is not where he naturally belongs.

Meanwhile, finally, Chris Martin has been replaced, by Chris Martin.  Thank God.  Now, injuries allowing, we have quality players to play the crucial positions in the 4-3-3 system.   Nothing is proven at this stage, but the first half against Kaiserslautern was immensely enjoyable.  At times, it felt like watching Derby when they were in their 2013/4 pomp, confident, dominant, creative.  The Rams breached their hosts’ defence four or five times in the opening half and given that this was the Red Devils’ final friendly of pre-season, their coach will surely not have been at all pleased with what he witnessed.

Kaiserslautern had better quality on the counter and forced the defenders to work at times, but overall, there was no doubt that Derby deserved to win on the day.  Understandably, the Rams struggled in the heat second-half and a raft of substitutions were necessary on 70 minutes, but this was an incredibly encouraging performance on the whole.

In the early stages, Butterfield learned that the referee was fussy, when he awarded a soft free kick after the midfielder seemingly legitimately robbed Kaiserslautern in a dangerous position. Huddlestone was then caught in possession, leading to a rapid Red Devils counter, but soon, he was showing exactly what he is capable of when his delicious pass from a defensive position shredded the offside trap, with Martin laying off to Johnson, who should have scored but could only strike the ball at the exposed goalkeeper, striving to take the chance with his left foot, when a right-footer would surely had driven the ball home.  But the point is, he was there in the box and will score goals if he can get in there regularly enough.

Butterfield was then told off sternly by a ref who clearly didn’t want any tackles flying in, before Johnson nearly released Weimann with a clip over the top which was just too high. It was a nice idea and all three midfield men were relishing their work at this stage, with Huddlestone demonstrating his top class range of passing.  It had been an aggressive (in a good way) opening from Derby and Forsyth won a header before taking possession of the loose ball and slipping Martin through on the left side of the box, from where his low drive was saved by the onrushing ‘keeper.

But it wasn’t long before another Huddlestone magic ball gave the Rams the goal their start had merited.  Again, he was very deep, but picked out Weimann perfectly and the Austrian’s simple nod-down put Wardrobe in behind the defence -he couldn’t miss, he didn’t miss, cool finish, 1-0.  Twice in 23 minutes, Huddlestone had rendered the entire Kaiserslautern defence irrelevant with his mind-bending technique.  And these were both passes from about the halfway line, mind you.  Unbelievable.

Russell then saw his looping header from nearly the edge of the box tipped over the bar. It’s rare to see a headed goal from that range, but the ‘keeper needed to work and with confidence clearly flowing through the players’ veins, anything seemed possible.

That confidence almost became overconfidence when Butterfield tried to engineer a shot from range which was blocked out to set up another quick counter, which ended with Wisdom showing his strength to defend from almost within his own six yard area.  The return of Wisdom, Forsyth and Martin, plus Huddlestone of course, makes the Rams a different animal when it comes to defending or attacking set plays, with much more height and power to call upon.

Carson hadn’t really been called upon in the first half, but was worried by a well-flighted free kick from Atik, which flew just wide.  At the other end, Huddlestone took over a free kick from an awkward range, central, 40 yards out, and contrived an ‘assist’, by scooping the ball onto the chest of Martin, who helped it into the path of Russell under pressure, who had the goal gaping six yards out only to fall over instead of putting it into the net.  It was an unbelievable miss, but not to worry – Martin soon won another free kick and while Kaiserslautern surrounded the ref to moan – they thought he might have dived, I think – Derby took it quickly, allowing Weimann the freedom to square it to Johnson, who swept a first time, left-footed strike authoritatively home from 15 yards.  Lovely!  2-0 at half-time, in what had been an excellent 45 minutes from the Rams.

Early in the second half, Huddlestone played it to Butterfield, whose throughball picked out the arcing run of Weimann, who slotted coolly, only to be flagged offside.  It looked OK in real time and Chris Martin wagged a finger in admonishment.  Replays, to my eye, show that Andi was probably onside and at the very least highly unfortunate.

From there, Kaiserslautern then began to get on top.  Forsyth was told off for a late, lunging tackle which seemed to betray a little tiredness, before Pearce produced an excellent recovery tackle to prevent a Red Devils counter attack from turning into a shooting opportunity.  Wisdom was forced into action, blocking shots and winning challenges and it was clear that the home side had been the better side for most of the second period, albeit they had made several substitutions before Derby made any.

They missed a big chance when a low cross from the right gave Kastaneer a clear sight of goal from close range, only for the Dutch forward to miss his kick with the goal gaping.  At this stage, it was clear that Derby needed to make changes and four players were withdrawn on 70 minutes, including Huddlestone, who had been far less influential after the interval.  Not that it mattered – he still has fitness to build up and had shown more than enough quality for one afternoon.

Kaiserslautern continued to push for a goal back in front of their home fans, but there were no more clear scares and the Rams held on for a great clean sheet and excellent victory.  Yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, but this was highly encouraging stuff.

 

 

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Doncaster Rovers 1 Derby County 1

The trouble with the new RamsTV service is that, having endured a few weeks with no Rams, I’m now so over-excited by the Return of Football and this new and rather slick service that I feel compelled to review every pre-season of 2017/8….  so here goes another one.

Gary Rowett trailed the ‘double-header’ of games against Doncaster Rovers and Port Vale as matches which Derby might struggle to win, due to his strategy of giving as many players as possible 90 minutes, with the opposition expected to make the usual raft of pre-season substitutions.  It is an interesting approach, but worked to Rowett’s satisfaction at Doncaster, where all eleven players completed the full game against a home side which had been swapped over almost entirely by the hour mark.

Jonny Mitchell was in goal for this one and within seconds, was smartly off line to sweeper-keep ahead of onrushing attacker.  Mitchell looks a very promising goalkeeper to me, with a robust build for one so young and decent shot-stopping – and shot-holding – ability.  I wonder whether Derby will loan him out to play games this season?

The Rams started reasonably well, with Doncaster dropping deep into a shell when out of possession.  A nice passing move with Butterfield at its hub ended with Johnson stabbing it straight through to keeper, but Butterfield had enjoyed a far brighter start to the game than at Macclesfield.  With Donny sitting off, Martin looked to exploit the space by dropping off the front, collecting possession and smashing a 30 yard drive, off-target.

A fine counter-attacking move involving Forsyth, Weimann, Butterfield and Bennett indirectly led to the opening goal, via a corner kick (yes, really).  Butterfield landed his delivery straight on Keogh’s noggin for an unstoppable header.

Derby probably should have gone further ahead when Hanson’s dangerous, whipped cross was punched to edge of box, where Nugent attempted an insolent lob, which was undercooked.  You’d like to think that in a game that mattered, the Nuge would simply had got his head down and drilled it, much as he did against Kidderminster.

Derby were very dominant at this stage, but there followed an almost total lull, with Donny pinging some pleasant passes with the odd hint of promise, but no end product.  Next, Bennett latched onto Forsyth’s long (right-footed!) pass behind the defence and laid it off to Martin, who curled a shot against the inside of the post. We were in “useful workout” territory as the Rams took a 1-0 lead into half-time.

Donny made two substitutions at the interval and their club legend James Coppinger showed up extremely well straight away, looking a cut above his teammates and giving Derby serious problems in the final third.  The shape out of possession looked like a straight 4-4-2, with Bennett and Weimann dropping into a line alongside the central midfielders.  It was clear to see the issue with this formation, which invites opposing forwards to drop between the lines and collect passes through the centre, behind the midfielders.  Coppinger, for a time, had a bit of a field day and skinned Johnson on more than one occasion.

Here was where the players’ fitness truly began to be tested and Martin certainly showed willing, with a lung-burster to prevent a Donny goal kick.

Nugent messed up a chance to counter, presenting the home side with a counter-counter. Nugent chased back to concede a free kick, which very nearly resulted in a free back-post header, the cross inches too high.  Mitchell was then forced into a solid near-post parry following a one-two in the Derby box, as Donny dominated.

Their equaliser on 58 minutes was no surprise and followed another passing move, with the flagging Rams midfield powerless to intervene.  As Rovers built ominously towards the box, Butterfield was left with two midfielders to close down on his own, Johnson passed a runner onto the defenders rather than track him, bish bosh, a stepover and the Rams were prised open. 1-1.

Donny then sent on their full raft of subs, while Derby persisted with their starting XI, as Rowett had planned.  Unsurprisingly, Rovers continued to look fresher and quicker to the ball and Nugent’s misplaced pass set them on another counter, resulting in a back-post chip volleyed fiercely and saved smartly by Mitchell.

The Rams players were treading water at this stage, slowing things down and struggling to hang on.  Until, on 72, they were offered the chance to take an unlikely lead.  Johnson did really well to rob a dallying Rover and Bennett was then played through on goal by Nugent, before being hauled down for a penalty.  Unfortunately, Martin smashed it hard and too high.

Martin tried to make amends by flicking Mitchell’s goal kick into the path of Weimann, who carried the ball to the edge of the box from the left, but measured his attempted floated finish just past the angle of post and bar.   He was still full of running, as was Bennett and it was encouraging to see the Rams rally in the later stages of the game.

Perhaps the Donny subs were lower-standard players, but nevertheless, Derby had caught a ‘second wind’ which allowed them to come back into the match. Forsyth’s dangerous cross was next headed behind for a corner as Derby’s revival continued.

Martin and Weimann linked well again, but Martin was seemingly brought down – you can never quite tell – only for the ref to wave play on.  Donny were suddenly through four-on-three and only failed to score because Coppinger was  too short to reach the final cross.

Nevertheless, Derby continued to compete into the game’s final knockings and almost nicked it when a long-throw fell to Martin, who hooked an instinctive effort across goal and wide.

And that was that.  The modern style of online writing is, apparently, to ask – what have we learned?  Well, we’ve learned that performance in pre-season can be pretty variable, as players try to surf the line between doing the work and not over-exerting themselves to the point of breaking down.  That Rowett is still assessing the various options at this disposal (and still trying to strengthen in attacking areas).  That most of the players look basically fit and ready, with the season a couple of weeks away.

All eleven players got through the game with no problems.  There was little in the way of productive combination play between Martin and Nugent, although Wardrobe held the ball and linked in with the wide forwards, as well as winning his free kicks.  The back five, which lacked Carson,Wisdom and Davies, was tested intermittently and looked basically competent, with Hanson demonstrating his versatility yet again and Forsyth quietly getting through his first 90 since the injury.  Rowett may not persist with a midfield two, but Butterfield did show better quality on the ball than he had at Macclesfield.  Weimann and Bennett’s fitness levels were impressive…

All in all, despite their failure to win the match, there were more positives than negatives to take for this half of the squad.

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Macclesfield Town 0 Derby County 2, plus! Tom Huddlestone signs

Macclesfield

Derby’s preparations for another gruelling Championship campaign continued, with two separate XIs fulfilling an unremarkable friendly at Macclesfield Town of the National League.  Macclesfield is a pleasant town to visit, with plenty of decent pubs on offer and easily accessible from Manchester (which may explain why old ‘Cheshire set’ pros like Wes Brown train there, these days).

The first half team experienced some problems against the Silkmen, who forced Jonathan Mitchell into a couple of saves, but Scott Carson largely had a watching brief in the second half, when the Rams scored twice.

In the opening 45, Craig Forsyth made his first appearance at left back since last August. He was relatively subdued – it would be unrealistic to expect him to look the player he did before the injury straight away – but on the other flank, the powerful Andre Wisdom looked like a man playing against boys.

Nick Blackman started on the left and managed to float into a couple of dangerous positions, but missed the target from his one presentable opportunity, on the edge of the box – close range, by his usual standards – following a set from Darren Bent.  By that stage, Curtis Davies had hit the post with a header from a corner, Bent had a drive saved after a cute flick from the ever-lively David Nugent, while the Nuge also improvised a close-range overhead kick from Blackman’s cross, unfortunately directed too close to the home goalkeeper.

But on the whole, the first half side put in a bitty, unconvincing performance.  Nugent was the pick of the bunch in the second striker role, but Jacob Butterfield’s passing radar was well out, Bent looked off the pace, Blackman and especially Johnny Russell were largely peripheral and Craig Bryson made little impact.  Derby looked loose and easy to play through at times and you couldn’t shake the feeling that a higher quality opponent would probably have netted, at least once.

The second half turned out to be more entertaining from a Rams perspective, largely due to Chris Martin’s introduction.  Suddenly, the ball started to stick when it travelled up-field, allowing the three attackers behind the Wardrobe – from left to right, Ikechi Anya, Andi Weimann and Mason Bennett – to link together and create opportunities.  Anya’s pace and dribbling in particular worried Macclesfield, but all three looked encouragingly sharp.

The second-half team was generally much more coherent, with the Slovenian teenager Timi Max Elsnik, who has a better build than I realised, showing up well in central midfield.  His more experienced partner Bradley Johnson, on the other hand, endured a torrid time.  While Butterfield had struggled to pick the final pass to release a striker, Johnson was struggling to find a white shirt from any kind of range.  His goal, when it came, resulted from his own farcically slack free-kick, an attempted quick release of Weimann which was duffed feebly into the Macclesfield wall.  However, two of said wall then attempted to launch a counter attack, which was broken up by Johnson, who controlled and mullered it with something like fury into the back of the net from 20 yards. It was an unstoppable, vicious strike, perhaps born out of frustration.

Later, Elsnik’s simple, effective build-up play helped to create a raiding opportunity down the right flank for Anya, who crossed deep.  Martin headed back across goal and Bennett completed the move by nodding home.  It was heartening to see the youngster, who is currently training with the first-team, net a goal which his all-round performance merited.

Other than a melee when Johnson reacted with genuine fury after he was apparently elbowed – like Wenger, I did not see it, but the offender, Birmingham City loanee Jack Storer, was instantly “sent off” and replaced by a sub – this was a fairly low-key affair, with little to raise the pulse.  Young pros Bennett, Elsnik and Jamie Hanson (who completed the 90 minutes at centre back) all performed well, nobody got injured and several senior players did look the part.

As we took in a few of Macclesfield’s many hostelries afterwards, however, we were asking the question – who is going to play alongside Tom Huddlestone in the midfield?

*

Before the game kicked off, news had already emerged of Huddlestone’s withdrawal from Hull City’s training camp in order to fly home and sign for the Rams.  Arriving home, slightly worse for wear as I was, to watch the big man calmly chatting to Colin Gibson about stuff that happened twelve years ago was truly surreal.  But the more you thought about it, the more obvious it was that this was a potentially excellent piece of business.

Squad age Jul 16

I have chuntered on about the worrying age profile of the Rams’ squad for a while now and Huddlestone’s arrival takes the number of outfield players aged 30 or higher to nine. However, in this particular case, I can look the other way.  Everyone knows Huddlestone can pick a team-mate out from any range and he never had any pace to lose, so his age is less of a factor in that regard.  It’s a two-year contract and the reported fee (£2m – £2.4m, depending on who you believe) has to be considered a bargain.  I know Rowett said he didn’t want to take players on their way down from the Premier League, but when he’s able to take advantage of relegation release clauses to sign two high-calibre players with plenty more to offer for less than £3m, it’s very hard to knock those deals.

For sure, an influx of youth is required, but who knows – maybe some of the answers to that problem are already in the building.

And then there’s the romantic side of the story.  Rowett wouldn’t have signed Huddlestone if he didn’t think he was the right fit, but it is no way harmful for him that bringing the player ‘home’ a dozen years since he left a stricken club which was being run into the ground by fraudsters rights a long-standing ‘wrong’.  I said previously that selling the best youth product the Rams had produced in at least a decade for the sake of a veteran like Glenn Whelan, who was being strongly linked at the time of Will Hughes’ departure, felt horribly wrong – but it’s an awful lot harder to find fault when the club have moved to retrieve another of the greatest gems the club has ever mined and one who is cut from the same cloth when it comes to technical quality.

I never thought I would see Huddlestone play for the Rams again and always felt genuinely sad about that, because I never shook the feeling that he was stolen away from us much too soon.  While explaining his decision to sell Hughes, Rowett said that he understood it was harder for the fans when they perceived the departing player as ‘one of their own’.  Well, Huddlestone has always felt like one of our own too and although we were denied the opportunity we should have had to watch him develop, we can at least now hopefully enjoy at least two good seasons of a player generally accepted to be one of the best English passers of the ball there is.

The question now is, who plays alongside him?  There will be a maximum of two berths for five senior players to contest, all with different strengths and weaknesses.

Bryson offers his desire to get into the box, but lacks defensive instincts (and his statistical output last season was worrying.)

Bryson

Butterfield is a competent passer who can help knit things together, but lacks physical stature.

Butterfield

Young Hanson is a plucky competitor who will graft and do the unglamorous stuff willingly, while Johnson is technically limited, but can win his headers (and shoot)…

Johnson

…and then there’s the man George Thorne, who is, as Rowett points out, a similar calibre of talent to Huddlestone, but still needs to get himself fit.

THORNE 2015-6

Huddlestone

Midfield is the area most obviously still in need of work at this stage.  I can’t quite see what Rowett has in mind just yet – it may well be that, with Huddlestone signed, he starts to look at a 4-3-3 system again – although that in turn decreases the opportunities for the various forwards to play….

Over to you, GR.

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Posted in Derby County, Match Reports, Transfers | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Macclesfield Town 0 Derby County 2, plus! Tom Huddlestone signs

Derby County 4 Kidderminster Harriers 0

Derby’s progress through their opening pre-season game of 2017/8 was serene, against a limited Kidderminster Harriers side from England’s sixth tier.

David Nugent, Craig Bryson, Chris Martin and Darren Bent all scored, with Matej Vydra and Johnny Russell both going close to adding to the tally, on a night when the Rams could easily have netted seven or eight goals.  At the other end, Jonathan Mitchell was forced to handle one smartly-stuck shot from range, with Scott Carson basically untested in the first-half.

Gary Rowett gave two separate sides 45 minutes each on the pitch.  Both Rams XIs were set up in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Craig Forsyth making his first appearance since last August at centre back in the first half, alongside Richard Keogh.

U23 stars Mason Bennett and Calum Macdonald were handed opportunities to impress alongside the 20 available senior pros and Bennett, starting on the right of the front four,  showed brightly in the early stages, chasing Nugent’s pass into the box and squaring low in the third minute, forcing the Harriers defence clearing their lines.  However, Bennett showed defensive naivety seconds later, giving away a free kick 25 yards from goal in a dangerous position.  A Harrier shot harmlessly wide.

Seven minutes in, the Rams opened their tally, Nugent drilling home from 15 yards out. Bennett’s pass found Andreas Weimann popping up on the right and when he crossed low, Martin’s stepover allowed Nugent to shoot.  His initial effort was blocked, but looped high and a weak defensive header fell back to the Nuge, who drove home emphatically.

Nugent then released Martin with a throughball and the Wardrobe’s square pass gave Weimann a sight of goal, only for the Austrian to drag his effort well wide.

Bryson was making runs forward from the midfield two, with Bradley Johnson sitting in. With Martin back and leading the line, it was clear to see the potential for a flexible front four, with Weimann notably drifting across the field at will to join in play.  It was a treat to see Martin, all smart flicks and lay-offs and remonstrations, in the black and white once again.  Even the ideas that didn’t come off were a joy.

Soon it was 2-0, courtesy of Bryson.  The goal was slightly farcical, as Martin’s ball forward was miscontrolled into the air by the onrushing Bryson.  Weimann chased on, forcing the goalkeeper to charge off his line and, when he was unable to hold it on the slide, Bryson took up possession, dribbled towards goal unchallenged for a seeming eternity, before slotting into the unguarded net.

Weimann was notably not sticking to the left flank, regularly floating to the right to link with Bennett and create overloads.

On the half-hour, the Rams made it 3-0, with a lovely finish from Martin.  Marcus Olsson was allowed to amble forward into the Harriers half and under no pressure, lobbed a high cross towards Martin, who simply cushioned the ball first-time back across the stranded goalkeeper.  It was an easy goal in that neither player was pressurised, but still a wonderful show of technique from the big “Scot”.  Next, Martin’s neat wall pass allowed Weimann another sight of goal, but his left-footed strike was weak and straight at the goalkeeper.

A scratch Kidderminster side patched up by numerous triallists clearly lacked the quality to take advantage of any Derby errors in defence, or to contain the Rams attackers.  Even when Bryson presented them with a great chance through a calamitously sloppy pass towards his defenders, their forward Austin was eventually crowded out, with Olsson blocking his shot.

Nugent and Weimann then combined to released the Austrian on the right and his cross caused chaos, with a Harriers defender heading narrowly over his own bar.  It had been a stroll in the park for a pretty strong and fit-looking Rams XI, who handed the baton over to their second half counterparts with a 3-0 advantage.

***

Scotland youth international Calum Macdonald was on show in the second half, but almost suffered a nightmare start when he was outmuscled by the touchline, allowing a Harrier to dribble into the box, before Mitchell smothered the attempted cross at the near post.  Then in the next phase of play, Johnny Russell was allowed time and space to get his head up and float a ball releasing Vydra, who chested it down behind the last man, but had his shot charged down by the onrushing keeper.

Nick Blackman, stationed on the right of the front four, soon picked up a ball on the wing and drove inside, with the inevitable long-distance shot following.  Blackman only ever has a shot on his mind and as soon as any space opens up, no matter what the distance, he will hit it.

On the Rams next attack, Russell, playing in the number ten position, was allowed to drive into the box and shown onto his left foot, which he used to poke a shot too close to the ‘keeper.

Vydra was stationed on the left, a position which doesn’t obviously suit him as a player who is not keen on the defensive side of the game.  He and Jacob Butterfield were robbed of possession in dangerous areas in quick succession, although Harriers were unable to make anything of the situations.

Like Weimann in the first half, Vydra clearly had license to roam and popped up centrally more often than wide.  Meanwhile, Russell remained fairly close to Bent, which made sense given that hold-up play is not a feature of the veteran striker’s game.  The forward players enjoyed plenty of space between the lines.

A word at this stage for the RamsTV commentators, Jack Woodward and Marc Edworthy, who enjoyed a debate on whether Nick Blackman could be the replacement for Tom Ince on the right wing during the second half.  I am confident when I say that this is a thought which had previously been considered by no Derby fan at any point, so it was certainly an eyebrow-raiser.  Blackman is similar to Ince in the sense that he is a predominantly left-footed attacker who plays on the right, but that is where the resemblance begins and ends.  He has an infuriating compulsion to shoot on sight, no matter where on the pitch he is and with no regard for whether team-mates around him might be in a better position.  Perhaps this is the mark of a man who is trying too hard to make an impression, especially given the injuries he has endured.

Butterfield looked to release Bent behind the defence and the striker sprinted clear, only to be denied by the ‘keeper quickly off his line.  Chipped throughballs were a feature of the Rams’ play throughout, especially in the second half, when Bent sought to use his anticipation to get away.  The former England man took up a great starting position between the defenders and timed his run to perfection, rendering them both redundant to create the scoring opportunity.

The Rams’ second-half side finally opened their account when Russell moved across the edge of the box and passed to Blackman, who dribbled towards the box and after the covering defender stumbled, took the chance to stand up a cross, which Bent nodded home.

An atypically excellent track-back tackle from Vydra launched a counter-attack which saw Russell streak away, only for a covering defender to block his effort.  Vydra’s final sprint towards goal, in the last minute, saw him hauled down on the very edge of the area, but Russell’s attempt from the free kick was tame and repelled easily by the Kidderminster wall.

So it finished 4-0, but could quite easily have been six or seven.  Derby will step up their pre-season preparations considerably from here on in, but this was a useful first look at a system which seems likely to be Rowett’s “default” and certainly suits the majority of the personnel currently available to him.

 

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