East Midlands Derby recap, plus Cardiff City preview

Gary Rowett’s combative demeanour after Derby County’s latest draw showed his desire to promote an “us against the world” mentality at Pride Park, which could serve the Rams well, with nine games left to play.

Rowett has railed against refereeing decisions in recent weeks and Lee Tomlin’s successful gamesmanship gave him another incident to protest, after Tom Huddlestone was wrongly sent off for what Jeremy Simpson deemed to be a second bookable offence.

Huddlestone had patrolled the area in front of Derby’s back four effectively all afternoon, but was eventually caught the wrong side of Tomlin, who took the opportunity to go down. ¬†Replays showed there was minimal contact between the two players, but the rotund Tomlin had got his man. ¬†Simpson had refrained from issuing yellow cards until booking Tom Lawrence (for a dive, ironically enough) on about the half-hour and yet dismissed Huddlestone with an unseemly haste which did him no credit.

Until that point, it looked like Derby were favourites to win it, as a Rams side revitalised by the introduction of substitutes Cameron Jerome and particularly Kasey Palmer camped out on the home side’s 18-yard line for a lengthy second-half spell.

Palmer’s omission from the starting XI was a major talking point before the game, with Rowett springing a surprise in favouring the hard-working shuttlers Ikechi Anya and Andi Weimann in wide areas, plus Tom Lawrence to support lone frontman David Nugent. ¬†The majority of fans I polled prior to the match were hoping to see both Palmer and Matej Vydra start (Vydra’s groin injury was undisclosed), so for neither of them to be named was something of a shock to the system.

Lawrence made a virtue of chasing back deep into Derby territory in the first half, but also popped up on the right repeatedly in his free-ranging support role.  Some have referred to the shape for the game as 4-1-4-1 (Rowett described it as 4-3-3) and it was clearly slightly tweaked from the usual Rowett shape out of possession.

However, a glance at the touch map shows that Johnson and Huddlestone patrolled the midfield area as they usually would, with Lawrence typically floating higher up the pitch, or roaming wide.

Forest’s main problem in my view was that the young striker Brereton was too isolated. Curtis Davies and Richard Keogh didn’t really have much of a problem dealing with him, though the attacking midfielders Cash, Lolley and Tomlin were stopped by unfair means a little too often – on another day, a free kick might have dropped to the wrong feet in the box. ¬†Not that Forest were exactly squeaky clean themselves, with four players, including the rugged new defensive midfield duo of Colback and Watson, yellow carded.¬† Watson in particular looked no stranger to the dark arts of the professional foul.

You don’t need a full match report from me, so in summary – I was much more encouraged by this performance than anything I have seen in a long time.¬† As the away side, to prevent Carson from having to make a single save is an exceptional effort and if only Weimann’s feet could keep up with his legs, we could have won by two or three.

Palmer was outstanding when he came on and as much as Forest complained about Tomlin being fouled, they were soon reduced to doing the same to thwart the much more elegant playmaker.¬† Cameron Jerome also gave the Reds’ defence a problem with his pace, after replacing a waning Nugent, but for all his honest endeavour, he still doesn’t look any nearer to scoring a goal.


Anyway, now that Forest’s season is over, it’s time to refocus on the bigger picture, which is the play-off push. ¬†The point inched us on to 62, still at least a dozen shy of where we will need to be this season to make the top six. ¬†I think Rowett will want to get to 75 points as soon as possible – Neil Warnock said last weekend that Cardiff’s total of 73 meant they’d hit his provisional target, before they moved on by thumping Brentford 3-1 at Griffin Park.

Rowett clearly sensed that avoiding defeat at the City Ground, particularly in the context of finishing a man light, offered him a chance to rally the troops ahead of the final push.  Cardiff feels like a really big game and if the fans can get up for it, as they do in derby encounters, they can help a Rams team which will need to dig deep against opposition who will be very direct, physical and tough to break down.

The blue dots are teams promoted from the Championship since 2014 (the two which are significantly lower than the others are both Burnley). The black dot is #dcfc this season. The red dots are teams relegated to League 1 since 2014 and… the green dot way down south is Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City this season

To get promoted to the Premier League, it typically helps to have players who can pass it to someone the same coloured shirt. ¬†Unless… ¬†You are managed by either Sean Dyche or the daddy of them all, Neil Warnock.

Cardiff proudly boast the worst pass success of anyone in the Championship and are even worse on that measure than last season’s Rotherham. ¬†But it doesn’t matter, because the Bluebirds are still second in the league for total shots per game (14.1) and shots on target per game (5).

If they have the ball, it goes towards the opposition goal as quickly as possible, either directly from the back, or via a cross from one of their dangerous wingers. ¬†With eight goals and ten assists, Junior Hoilett has been one of the Championship’s best players this season, while the converted attacker Callum Paterson has been raiding forward from midfield to feast on the crosses in recent weeks – playing in what you might call a Craig Bryson role (they have Bryso too, of course, but the goals have dried up for him since his heyday under Steve McClaren).

Then there are the corners to worry about. ¬†They’ve scored 18 goals from set plays this season, joint highest in the division with Wolves. ¬†Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba have contributed four goals apiece – last season, Morrison had the most shots on target of any centre back and more for Cardiff than anyone except Kenneth Zohore. ¬†The received wisdom is that a corner is so unlikely to end up in a goal that it’s effectively a failed attack – but nobody ever told Warnock that.

Defensively, they have been exceptional, conceding less goals than anyone else in the Championship. ¬†The backline is led by Morrison, whom¬†the journalist and Cardiff supporter Owain Thomas¬†describes as a ‘cut above’ even the impressive likes of Bamba and Bruno Manga. ¬†“He takes control of situations, is rarely out of position and wins countless headers and tackles and clearances – not to mention chipping in with the odd goal. ¬†If Warnock could forge his own custom-built player, I suspect it would look a lot like the Cardiff captain.”

The Brentford blog Beesotted, who are very proud of the Bees’ attractive short passing style (and why not), agonised over the triumph of ‘anti-football’ at their place in midweek as they suffered ¬†‘death by a thousand hoofs’. ¬†Thomas explains it in more sympathetic terms: “The strategy is designed to clear balls from Cardiff‚Äôs defensive third quickly and put pressure on opposing defenders with strong, quick wingers or forwards chasing down. ¬†Most of these don‚Äôt work, admittedly, but the tactic does not allow defenders to switch off or make a mistake at any time in the game.

“Think you‚Äôre in good shape with the ball on the edge of Cardiff‚Äôs area? ¬†Bang! ¬†Seconds later, you‚Äôve got a winger and forward bearing down on you with a ball bouncing around in no-man‚Äôs land. ¬†Do you stick or twist? Get that wrong and another second later, it‚Äôs in your net.”

It wouldn’t work against Manchester City, but let’s face it, this is the second division. ¬†Warnock has simplified things for his players and they have responded by overachieving relative to what anyone, even the club themselves, expected. ¬†Interestingly,¬†Rowett pointed out in his pre-match press conference that nerves are less of a factor for teams who don’t try to play out from the back.

But in a way – and I say this in the full knowledge that it could come back to bite me on the arse – I’m less worried about a strong, long-ball team like Cardiff than I am about a technical, possession team like Fulham, because I think we’re better equipped to cope with the Warnock approach.¬† Curtis Davies said after the 0-0 at Cardiff that he enjoyed marking a “big lump” like Zohore, while in full backs Craig Forsyth and Andre Wisdom, we have tall players who will put their head on crosses like additional centre backs if required (I’m going to go ahead and assume that the dainty Marcus Olsson won’t be selected for this one).¬† Bradley Johnson prefers a physical tussle to a passing contest and so we should – fingers crossed – be relatively well equipped to compete with them in open play and from set pieces.

The question, though, is whether the current injury situation will prevent us from putting out a strong enough attacking unit to find the quality (or luck) to create enough chances at the other end.  If Vydra is genuinely fit, then that would be a huge bonus Рif not, will Rowett finally unleash the hugely promising Palmer from the start at Pride Park?

Whoever is available for selection and whichever system Rowett adopts, this¬†will be a very, very tough assignment and I wouldn’t be surprised if the game ends in yet another draw, rather than the relief of a badly-needed home win.

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Nottingham Forest v Derby County preview

This is the last game that will mean anything for Forest this season, because the Brian Clough Trophy aside, they’re done. ¬†Before today’s games, they had somehow managed to position themselves 14 points short of the play-offs and 14 points clear of relegation – as the last word in Championship mediocrity,¬†in other words. ¬†Our league position has been so much better than theirs since last we met that they’ve never been relevant, other than for the occasional chortle as they dipped a bit closer to the bottom three, or sacked Mark Warburton.

If we’re upset about the possibility of our season heading south, well, at least it headed north for a while in the first place. ¬†Forest’s current run of five games unbeaten – against Burton (0-0) Reading (1-1), QPR (2-5), Birmingham (2-1) and Norwich (0-0) – is their longest of the campaign without defeat.

For them, this is a free hit, with the added incentive of contributing to the old enemy’s downfall.

Derby have scored more goals than Forest, but not by creating more chances.  The difference, in a nutshell, is Matej Vydra, the microcosm of course being the 2-0 at our place, which was won through moments of quality from Vydra (and Nugent), not through sustained dominance.

For possession and pass success, Forest have been better than us and before you roll your eyes and tell me that doesn’t matter, have a look at this analysis.

The blue dots are the promoted teams (The two towards the bottom of the graph are both Burnley, in 2013/4 and 2015/6).  The black dot is 2017/8 Derby County.  The red dots are the teams relegated to League 1

The only team to have been promoted to the Premier League with less than 50% average possession or 75% pass success in the past five years is Burnley (twice) – like Leicester City, they are the exception to the rule that better teams, over a season, tend to have more of the ball and use it better. ¬†So unless Rowett has a plan to eventually emulate Sean Dyche’s team, the current signs aren’t looking all that good.

As well as struggling to hit the net, Forest have also seriously struggled in defence, with a goals against tally as bad as anyone’s, except for Burton and Sunderland. ¬†But since
Aitor Karanka’s frantic squad overhaul on deadline day, with seven new signings and six players leaving, they are a different proposition. ¬†Essentially a new team, their form has picked up, with (the possibly injured) Lee Tomlin and Joe Lolley already contributing five goals and four assists, a new midfield pairing of Jack Colback and Ben Watson on board – Watson has been given the captaincy – and the giant goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, replacing young Jordan Smith. ¬†Likewise, a new Portuguese centre back, Tobias Figuereido, is now playing instead of Joe Worrall (even with two young players replaced, the Forest academy is well represented at first-team level, with celebrity Rams fan Ben Osborn, Ben Brereton and Matty Cash all likely to feature tomorrow).

Looking at the ten-game form stats, although Derby are slightly better on most measures, there isn’t actually too much to choose between the two teams at the minute:

Image courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

Karanka is happy with how things are going and expects to field a similar side to the one that drew 0-0 at Norwich.  Rowett, on the other hand, is struggling for a fit eleven, let alone one that is in form.  A bunch of youngsters were withdrawn from U23 duty last night and other than Luke Thomas, none of them have been anywhere near the first team before.  The East Midlands Derby would be some game in which to make your senior debut

Before Christmas, we had four strikers, now we have two, both struggling with back injuries and neither looking like scoring.  Sammy Winnall, who had become a popular addition and was desperate to play and earn a contract at Derby, must be utterly distraught, as he would almost certainly be first choice by now, were it not for his awful luck with the injury.

Winnall and Johnny Russell had contributed ten goals between them this season. ¬† Kasey Palmer looks a real talent and could help to at least partially replace those lost goals, but Rowett has, up until now, had an issue with playing him in the same team as Vydra – dropping Lawrence and playing Palmer wide is apparently not an option, even though Rowett has said the Chelsea man can play anywhere across attacking midfield.¬† Perhaps after Tuesday’s unconvincing performance at QPR, which was redeemed only by Palmer’s outrageous creation of a goal out of nothing, the manager’s hand will be forced.

I’m starting to suspect that Vydra will be a Premier League player next season, with or without Derby.¬† It was his excellence that propelled the Rams up the league, but a lack of any reliable goalscoring back-up is now beginning to bite. ¬†He has endured a mini-drought by his own high standards in recent games, but nevertheless, has scored or assisted more than a third of our goals in all competitions. ¬†Where there’s Vydra, there’s hope.

Also, where there’s Palmer, there’s hope. ¬†It goes without saying that Vydra would be wasted out wide.¬† Palmer, on the other hand, is an assist man, who wants the ball at his feet so that he can make something magical happen.¬† I’d argue that he could be deployed wide, albeit with a bit of licence to drift around when we’re in possession.

I get the defensive risk associated with having a roaming wide man, who could leave that side a bit exposed when we don’t have the ball, or if an attack breaks down. ¬†But fundamentally, the forward players are there to create and score goals.¬† Lawrence has scored three all season, Palmer has two since last month.¬† On those grounds, I don’t see why Lawrence should be considered an automatic pick if Palmer isn’t.

This isn’t a dig at Lawrence. ¬†I’m simply pointing out that at the minute, our main goal threats are Palmer and Vydra and so it seems that the best way forward would be to find a way of combining their talents in the same starting XI. ¬†Rowett may not agree, or think that it’s possible.

Elsewhere, midfield injuries mean that Bradley Johnson will return to the team. ¬†Johnson is an attacking threat with his fierce shooting and aerial power, but I think by now, most people can see that in every game, he makes at least one terrifyingly awful mistake – either through a thoughtless pass, or by dawdling in a dangerous area, or a lapse of positioning at a set piece. ¬†All you can do is cross your fingers and hope that on this occasion, it doesn’t cost us a goal.

I’ve never heard Rowett sound as deflated as he did at Loftus Road on Tuesday. ¬† He came over as drained and demoralised. ¬†With Joe Ledley the latest man to break down, he acknowledged that his “ageing” squad was beginning to feel the pace.¬† He admitted that they had lacked quality or composure on the ball at QPR, whereas in previous weeks, he has spoken blithely about how time on the ball doesn’t matter.

“I know football fans want to see a thousand passes… but the reality is, everybody uses their own style to their own effect… we try to be more incisive quickly, rather than make passes in the build-up”, he said, before¬†Fulham, an excellent passing side, beat us 2-1 at Pride Park.

After QPR, which you have to work hard to remind yourself ended in a draw, Rowett’s demeanour was in stark contrast to his usual chipper, even cocksure self.¬† Without doubt, this was a manager feeling the heat. ¬†He was back on form by the time of his pre-Forest briefing, but for a moment, the confident exterior was punctured by the pressure.

The bottom line – Rowett’s job is to pick a team that wins and that is all the fans are asking for, especially on Sunday. ¬†At the moment though, the old rule that you don’t fix what isn’t broken doesn’t apply.

Three points shuts everyone up and three points against Forest goes a lot, lot further than that.  Over to you, Gary.

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Derby County v Fulham preview

It’s impossible not to see Derby v Fulham as a potentially decisive moment in the season.¬† Victory for the Rams would reignite hope, even if it is fainter now, of stealing second spot.¬† A draw would at least keep the resurgent Cottagers below us for the time-being.¬† A win for Fulham, on the other hand, would see them leapfrog us into genuine contention for automatic promotion, booting Derby further towards the dogfight for fifth or sixth.

Fulham’s form has been sensational since Christmas – their combined goals for and against from 23 December onwards is 30-9 (Derby’s is 18-10).¬† Their capture of Aleksandr Mitrovińá feels like the key factor – finally, they have a strong central striker to bolster their pretty attacking patterns, providing a rugged reference point for all of those technical attacking midfield players in their ranks. ¬†Basically, the job they wanted Chris Martin to do last season (but let’s not get into that).

Derby on the other hand cannot be said to have strengthened in January and as soon as news broke that Sam Winnall’s season was over, it was clear that they went into February weakened as a squad.¬† There should have been time to plan for Johnny Russell’s long-trailed departure, but, for whatever reason, nothing was done. ¬†If Kasey Palmer is viewed solely as cover for Matej Vydra and not as a serious wide option, suddenly, a squad which was by general agreement “bloated” starts to feel almost threadbare in attacking areas.

I asked Daniel Smith from Fulham Focus what has gone right for Fulham this calendar year and he wasn’t exactly short of responses, given their incredible form. ¬†Unsurprisingly, he points to Fulham’s success in loaning Mitrovińá:-

“Mitro gives us that much-needed presence up front, bringing the others into play and is clinical in front of goal, as he proved in our last two matches. ¬†He has also surprised me with his work-rate and ability to win back possession high up the pitch.”

But another key factor was the loan signing of left back Matt Targett from Southampton. ¬†“Targett was effectively two signings in one, as it has allowed Ryan Sessegnon to play further up the pitch. ¬†So just by having Targett, who’s accomplished both defensively and picking out a pass, we also have our best finisher playing in the position that causes the opposition the most damage.”

Sessegnon is frightening.  17 years old and bagging Championship goals for fun.  His shot map makes him look like a predatory poacher, rather than a winger:

Credit @worville

So in some ways, this is a tale of two Januarys. ¬†While Derby were mostly interested in shipping out surplus players, presumably to ensure compliance with Financial Fair Play regulations, Fulham had a more successful window. ¬†“We managed to hold onto all of our key players, like the much sought after Sessegnon, as well as Tom Cairney and Ryan Fredericks. ¬†New additions have also gone a long way to turning us from a good team into a serious promotion contender, they really have been the icing on the cake for us.”

We know that this will be a clash of styles – of attractive, technical, short passing football from the visitors against more reactive, direct, counter-attacking play from the home side.¬† There will be frustrating times in this game, perhaps for prolonged spells of it, when Derby can’t get the ball off Fulham. ¬†Let’s face it, Jokanovińá’s will play the more pleasing and progressive football. ¬†But that is by Rowett’s design.

The reactive philosophy is summed up well by the journalist Diego Torres, describing Mourinho’s approach during his tenure at Real Madrid:-

1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors

2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition

3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake

6. Whoever has the ball has fear

7. Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger

(H/T Jonathan Liew)

Last season, Fulham totally dominated the ball in an extraordinary game at Derby, but imploded defensively, thanks to erratic passing out from the back, a personal nightmare for goalkeeper David Button and David Nugent’s magnificent poached hat-trick. ¬†Although not ultimately crucial in the season – Derby missed the play-offs, Fulham lost in the play-offs – it was certainly a big result for proponents of counter-attacking football to point to and pure gold for anyone who rejects what they might call the “tippy-tappy” possession style.

Since then though, The Nuge has scored seven goals in 33 appearances – none at all since Christmas – and at 32, going on 33, it’s impossible to escape the concern that he is a player whose best days are behind him.¬† Cameron Jerome has the physical attributes which Rowett prioritises and scored 16 goals for Norwich last season, but can he fit into the Derby side and make the number nine position his own in the coming months? ¬†

Meanwhile, there has been considerable angst about who should play at full back.  Craig Forsyth recently lost his place in the side to Marcus Olsson, who has just done exactly what he does Рtrundle up and down the wing competently enough with the ball at his feet, but look terribly vulnerable every time a high ball is aimed in his direction, or a tackle needs to be won.

Forsyth has his limitations as a player and has never been an accurate passer of the ball.  But if a cross comes in, or a fifty-fifty needs to be won, who would you want to be in there?  To me, the answer is clear and so as long as he is fit, I would stick with Forsyth at this point.

On the other flank, Rowett has trusted Chris Baird’s experience over Andre Wisdom’s pace and presence, a preference now disrupted by Baird’s straight red at Reading.¬† Whether it was a fair decision or not, the dismissal was a result of Baird knowing that if he didn’t make a challenge which stopped Mo Barrow from escaping up the wing, then he would never in a million years catch him. ¬†At 36, Baird is still a solid player, but if he is caught out of position, he is screwed and knows it.¬† I don’t understand why Rowett picked him to play against a player as fast as Barrow and am hoping that Wisdom will finally make the shirt his own during the veteran’s suspension.


So, how do we beat Fulham? ¬†If we are as passive as we were in the first half at Reading and allow them to dominate the ball without disruption, then I fear they will punish us. ¬†But at the same time, if we’re too aggressive and push too far up the pitch, they have the pacy players to catch us out – as good as Davies, Keogh, Huddlestone and Ledley are, they are not exactly blessed with speed, as was painfully demonstrated by Barrow’s goal at the Madejski.

Against Reading, certainly in the first half, our full backs were quickly closed down whenever they received the ball, which meant that they had to either go backwards, or clear it down the line. ¬†That meant that the Royals almost invariably got the ball straight back and could start again. ¬†By contrast, the bulk of the Rams’ pressing was done by Jerome and Palmer. ¬†If the wide midfielders hold their position rather than trying to pin the full backs in, then Fulham will be able to build from the back, as our two forwards will rarely be able to prevent an out-ball.

Last year, we beat them by haranguing their defenders and Button – since replaced by Marcus Bettinelli, whom I’m told is better with the ball at his feet – into howlers and that has to be the way to go again. ¬†It will take a lot of energy, commitment and guts to do it, because if they manage to pass around us, we’ll be exposed to the likes of Cairney and Sessegnon in attack. ¬†But if we just sit off them and let them build up pressure, they have more than enough quality to take advantage.

Victory in this game would be the biggest result of our season so far and certainly as far as form goes, we go into this as underdogs, home status notwithstanding.

The @kickoff 10-game form guide shows Fulham ahead on 17 measures out of 18, underlining just how good they have been this calendar year,

But Fulham will come to Pride Park expecting a difficult afternoon and just as conscious of the importance of the occasion. ¬†As Daniel says: “We don’t tend to do well at your place, or against Rowett sides, so I’m quite nervous. ¬†Despite you appearing to slow down a little of late, you’re still a very good side with a very good manager, so for me, it’s a season-defining game for both teams.

“The one that wins still has a serious chance of automatic promotion, a defeat or a draw and I reckon it’s playoffs – at the moment, it looks very possible that we will end up facing each other.”

This potentially fascinating clash of styles just might have a lot more than 90 minutes left to run.

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Derby County v Bristol City match preview, with The Exiled Robin

It’s easy to see why the basilisk eye of Sky Sports honed in on this one.

For an increasingly convincing, battle-hardened Derby, it is an opportunity to, if not nullify a direct rival, at least to kick away from them by extending the gap to eight points. For an exciting young City side, who have emphasised their credentials by knocking four Premier League sides out of the League Cup, it is an opportunity to get their stalled Championship campaign back on track.¬† The Robins’ 5-0 defeat at Aston Villa raised eyebrows across the land – but it should be pointed out that before that reverse, they hadn’t lost an away game since August 12.

Neutrals may be disappointed if they’re hoping for a fast-flowing encounter.¬† City have lost their last five matches in all competitions and will be desperate for something, anything from this game, while Derby’s home performances have, as a rule, been a little stilted¬† (while still usually getting the job done).¬† After the Rams overcame Birmingham City in arguably their most eye-catching and fluid performance of the season, Gary Rowett insisted that the game had been “too open” for his liking and that his side had “over-played” at times.¬† Without doubt, the game ebbed and flowed and what Rowett disliked was the amount of times Blues players were able to run at Derby’s rearguard – the need for professional fouls by Davies, Thorne and most memorably Russell all proving his point.¬† Perhaps Derby’s attacking midfielders got carried away with their own fluency at times – Lawrence was all stepovers and flashing feet, Russell carrying the ball with a new-found intent, Vydra as lethal as ever – and they simply forgot about helping to defend.¬† Not that it mattered on the day.

Derby’s form going into this surprise promotion ding-dong is exceptional.¬† As I pointed out in my last piece, the Rams have been strongly in contention on four of the last five New Year’s Days without converting, so there is a hell of a long way to go, but a record of only three goals conceded in the last eleven games points to a team which has found a plan that works and which has the durability to see it through.¬† Research published today by Ben Mayhew showed that Rowett has named an unchanged side more times than any other Championship club season.¬† If it ain’t broke…

Meanwhile, professional analyst Ted Knutson (formerly of Brentford FC) has tweeted his interpretation of Derby’s expected goal (xG) trends since last summer, which show that the xG scored is steadily increasing, while the xG conceded is dropping.¬† This strongly implies that the wave of form which propelled Derby into the automatic promotion race is built on something solid, rather than simply a lucky streak which is bound to end before May.

StatsBomb’s analysis of Derby County’s ‘expected goals’ performance shows that the xG conceded has been steadily dropping throughout the season, while the xG scored is creeping up. Credit: Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts)

I can’t emphasise enough that by doing well up to January, we are only where we have been in most of the past five seasons, so it is very important not to get carried away, or take anything for granted.¬† But Rowett is counting on one of the league’s oldest squads to remain unfazed by the pressure of what will be a gruelling run-in – and to complete the job this time.

Ahead of this one, I thought it would be worth checking in with my friend The Exiled Robin, to get his take on how things have been going for Bristol City this season.

Derby County Blog: Last time we spoke, six City first-teamers were out injured and you felt that three quality additions were needed in this transfer window.¬† How’s the injury situation looking now and are you still in need of reinforcements?

The Exiled Robin: Those players are all still out, although there have been hints at some returning to training – recent results are starting to show how much we need them back.¬† We’ve spent two months playing four centre-backs in defence, a left-back in midfield and two midfielders up-front.¬† Games against Wolves [a traumatic late 1-2 loss], Villa [0-5] and Norwich [0-1] have finally broken the momentum and spirit that seemed to be seeing us through.

We’ve signed two youngsters – as per our strategy – Ryan Kent on loan from Liverpool and¬† the highly-rated Everton midfielder¬†Liam Walsh permanently.¬† Of course they’ll help, but especially as they’re both under 21, will take some time to bed in.¬† We’re in desperate need for a strong striker to ease the burden on Bobby Reid and Jamie Paterson.

DCB: I guess that leads us on to the League Cup question.  The heroic performances against Man United and Man City (and, to a lesser extent, Crystal Palace and Stoke) have rightly won lots of plaudits, but have the extra games Рfrom a hard-headed perspective Рactually turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing?

TER: Don’t forget Watford away, when they were flying!¬† It’s been a fantastic run and one I wouldn’t swap for anything now we’ve experienced it, but it would appear that the more recent games against the big Manchester clubs in particular are affecting our league form now.¬† By the time we play the second leg against City, we’ll have played 270 (or 300) more minutes than any other Championship side in the preceding 31 days and when you have a fairly thin squad and are playing lots of league games over Christmas, that’s going to really hurt.¬† Energy levels dipped visibly against Villa and Norwich and mentally, it must be very difficult to keep getting the players up for a game every three or four days for such a long time, especially when five of them – including Wolves and Derby – are so genuinely massive or critical.¬† It’s not as if we sit back like, say, Cardiff and soak up pressure without expending much energy.¬† We defend from the front, play a really high pressure game and never really get anyone a rest.¬† The front six, in particular, look absolutely shattered.

DCB: I guess the pressure is on Bobby Reid to keep delivering – from the outside, I was wondering how City would replace Tammy Abraham’s goals this season.¬† Could you have predicted Reid emerging in the way he has?

TER: No, I don’t think anyone, except maybe Lee Johnson, could have done.  I think his goals have been a bonus but his all-round energy, pressurising the opposition for 90 minutes has been the biggest win and that’s why Johnson moved him up there.  It sets the tone for the team and his skill, creativity and goals add even more to that hard work. But as mentioned, he now needs some help, having played much of the last two months up there alone, or with Jamie Paterson, who’s more usually a wide man.

DCB: Assuming you get the reinforcements you’re after, are you now thinking about automatic promotion, or a play-off push?¬† And was there a particular moment in the season which convinced you that promotion was a genuine possibility?¬†¬†I’ve been really surprised at how several of last season’s contenders have failed to challenge and left the field wide open.

TER: I always thought automatic was a stretch, although on the back of five straight wins in December, we were obviously well positioned.  I think we’d all be absolutely delighted with a play-off spot, despite the obvious heartache that might end up causing!

Beating Middlesbrough and then winning very late at Sheffield United early in December were the big moments recently, but we were already eyeing the oft-mentioned injury list and fixture pile-up with trepidation at that point.  And I have to say, our performance against the Rams in September probably remains our most complete result and against a clearly good side.

Wolves are obviously going up.  I expect one of Derby and Villa to join them, with City, Cardiff, Leeds and any one of the half-a-dozen teams below challenging for the other three play-off spots.  Brentford keep popping into my head as the outsiders who might just cause a shock and charge through it, unless they sell half their team again in the January transfer window!

DCB: Just finally, do you fancy hazarding a guess at the City team for Friday and of course, the time honoured score prediction?

TER: I can see us suffering a sixth successive defeat, sadly.  2-0 Derby.

Wright, Baker, Flint, Bryan;
Brownhill, Pack, Smith;
Walsh, Paterson;


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Manchester United 2 Derby County 0

It wasn’t the outcome any of the 5,500 travelling fans wanted, but in the cold light of day, it was probably the one which Derby County needed.¬† Nobody in their right mind could complain about the result, which was wholly justified on the balance of play.¬† But it didn’t stop Romelu Lukaku’s injury-time goal on the counter leaving me feel like I’d been kicked in the gut.

Derby hung on in there valiantly, surfing a big wave of fortune along the way and were less than ten minutes from forcing a replay, only to be toppled by a moment of sheer brilliance from Jesse Lingard.¬† The Rams didn’t have enough quality to find a way back, or to ever seriously test Sergio Romero, but until Lingard’s absolute exocet of a strike past the excellent Scott Carson, it was starting to seem as if the mighty United had run out of ideas.

Jos√© Mourinho didn’t mess around with his team selection.¬† There were no minutes for youngsters and Paul Pogba was not rested.¬† When the first half ended goalless, Lukaku was summoned in place of the fitful Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Anthony Martial came next and when that didn’t work, the brick-subtle Belgian Marouane Fellaini was brought on.¬† United were obliged to haul out their heaviest offensive artillery.¬† But Gary Rowett had, to my dismay, rested two of his most important players in Curtis Davies and Matej Vydra.

Given that Mourinho was never likely to take this game lightly, that felt like a decision which was asking for trouble.  In hindsight, I wonder if Rowett wonders what might have been had the Czech been on hand to take advantage of one of several promising counter attacks in the first half.

I think back to previous encounters with United, when Rooney at his peak or Cristiano Ronaldo brought a genuine fear factor.¬† Centre forward-wise, in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovińá, they have nobody with the same totemic presence.¬† This is by no means a vintage United side and the FA Cup looks like their only real chance of silverware this season.

Nevertheless, they are still United and Derby spent the first 20 minutes largely boxed in, peering suspiciously at the twinkling feet of Pogba and Rashford, waiting passively for something to happen.¬† They were fortunate that it didn’t.¬† But United were trying to pass through the eye of a needle, using the technical front four of Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata to unlock a much-changed Rams rearguard, which largely stood up to a really challenging examination.¬† Nevertheless, Rashford was released into the box with only Carson to beat and somehow fired over the bar, before heading a back-post cross against the upright.

For all of their obvious quality, United looked sloppy at times in the first half and a speedy Derby front four – Sam Winnall, Tom Lawrence, Andi Weimann, Johnny Russell – had clearly been selected with harrying and counter-attacking in mind.¬† With George Thorne and Tom Huddlestone sitting deep to screen the back four – to anyone who doubted whether they can play together, the answer is, they can – Derby repeatedly broke up play and scampered at the Reds – they had plenty of these situations and with a bit more quality in the crucial moments, could easily have nicked the first goal.¬† Derby were more in the first half than Mourinho will have liked, but frustratingly, they just couldn’t take advantage of United’s mistakes.

In the second half, the United pressure felt more sporadic, the introduction of Lukaku making their approach play less intricate around Derby’s box, Pogba becoming more and more frustrated with himself.¬† Rashford leathered a fearsome drive across Carson and against the inside of the post – it was one of those days for the excellent young Manchester lad.¬† But Derby, thanks to the nerveless conducting skills of Thorne and Huddlestone, continued to pick up the ball in decent positions and doggedly remained in the game, until finally being defeated by a moment of individual brilliance worthy of winning any match.

Thorne’s calm quality on the ball was plain to see throughout and there is no obvious reason not to extend his contract now, unless the player actively wants to go elsewhere.¬† Rowett said beforehand that he wanted to see which players could cope and the two midfielders certainly showed that, with the ball at feet, they are Premier League standard.

However, United were, as you would expect, a league apart, boasting strength, pace and technique that Derby simply do not have.   Physicality is as vital as skill in the Premier League and to compete strongly if they do attain that level, the Rams will certainly need to add athleticism throughout the team.

For Rowett, a 2-0 defeat was almost the perfect result.  Not bad enough to look embarrassing Рheads held high and all that Рbut now there are no more cup games to worry about for the rest of the season.  Winning would have been amazing, but the reward would probably have been a fourth round trip to Burnley or somewhere, which the manager is doubtless privately delighted to have avoided.  And there were positives to take out of this encounter.

Firstly and most prosaically, the result was “respectable”.¬† Secondly, there is no replay.¬† The club’s finance director would have loved the major windfall that United would have brought and my Red pal was just starting to warm to the idea of a night out in Derby…¬† But we’ll just have to hope that it happens in the league next year.¬† From a dispassionate standpoint, an additional big fixture, while highly lucrative and exciting for the supporters, would have been a distraction from the real task at hand, which is attaining promotion.

The defenders who came into the team, Alex Pearce, Marcus Olsson and Andre Wisdom,¬† performed competently – in fact, there’s a strong case to make that the two ‘reserve’ full backs were actually more suited to this game than Craig Forsyth and Chris Baird.¬† I still feel that leaving out Curtis Davies sent out the wrong signal, but Rowett is paid to make these clear-eyed calculations, leaving the emotional responses to the fans.¬† If Derby beat Birmingham City next Saturday, then Rowett was right, simple as.

Mourinho’s comments about the club being a Premier League outfit in waiting were gracious, but then again, he’s a good winner – had Derby had the audacity to get a result, he would not have been so accommodating, I’m sure.¬† Plus, it was important for him to talk up the opponents, given that his phenomenally expensive side didn’t steamroller the Rams to the extent that the relative budgets involved would suggest that they should.¬† They have stuttered and struggled in recent weeks and Mourinho must have been mightily relieved when Jesse produced his moment of sheer magic.

The Old Trafford experience was a useful marker for Derby, which currently feels like a club on the up – and with every chance of going up.¬† Over a few post-match pints in Port Street Beer House, my United pal asked me how I would spend the TV money on improving our team if we do go up this summer…¬† So that will be the subject of my next post.

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