Diminished Derby County cash in on Will Hughes

In a few short weeks, Derby County will run out to kick off their tenth consecutive season in the Championship, at Sunderland.  It is highly unlikely that any academy products will be in the starting line-up.  Max Lowe probably won’t get the nod, not with Craig Forsyth returning.  Others, like Mason Bennett and Jamie Hanson, have not quite proved up to the mark and seem destined to pursue their careers elsewhere.

And the most gifted academy player the club has produced since Giles Barnes over a decade ago has been sacrificed, for reasons I cannot easily forgive.

Hughes was different – he was a source of genuine pride – he meant more than the others.  I don’t have to tell you about how good he was.  He is not perfect, of course, not versatile, not a dead-ball specialist, not the complete article, not yet as good as he will ultimately be.  But he was just patently so much more talented and so much more exciting to watch than the overpaid, underachieving, uninspiring bunch of journeymen hired in from wherever they’ve come from in recent years.  He made the game look simple, where others laboured.  He saw and delivered passes that others couldn’t see, or have executed even if they had.  Watching him play made me happy.  I had faith in him and I know I am right when I say that he will get better and better.  This sale diminishes the club.

We knew that there would have to be outs.  Of course there did.  The club’s disastrous transfer dealings in the past couple of seasons ensured that.  But now we are left with two players signed to cover the midfield while he was injured who are nowhere near as good as him and we have no Hughes.  The reported fee – even if the highest figure plus all of the add-ons is right – is lower than the combined outlay on Johnson and Butterfield.

The fee – again, even at the highest end of the reports, with all of the add-ons included – is less than what the Rams paid to Watford for Vydra and Anya, neither of whom have had much impact at the club since arriving.  And the money for those deals was raised by selling a talented youth product, too.  Our future has been traded away and so far, the players recruited with the proceeds have, to be brutal about it, only succeeded in making us worse.

Early in his reign, Rowett told BBC Radio Derby that he wasn’t a fan of signing players on their way down from the Premier League and looking for one last payday.  I wonder if he now regrets that assertion.  Curtis Davies (32) was his first signing of this season, because he was available from relegated Hull on a cut-price deal.  Davies was keen to come at least in part because the transfer suited his wife, who is from Birmingham.  Derby have since been repeatedly linked with moves for the veterans Glenn Whelan and George Boyd.

Quite reasonably, Boyd has refused a one-year extension to his contract at Burnley, because he would much rather pick up another two (or more) years at a second-tier club like Derby, which is starting to feel more like a welcoming home for has-beens to rock up at when they’re ready to wind down than a nursery for the next generation.

DCFC player age

If it is right that the club is selling an England under-21 international developed through the academy in order to fund the signing of a 33 year-old who is finished at Stoke, then that is dreadful.  The symbolism of such a transaction – trading away our most talented young player in order to buy a waning star – is just awful.  I was under the impression that Mel Morris wanted the Derby Way to be a path for young players to tread, but now Hughes is leaving and at the time of writing, we are left with a bunch of ageing, largely uninspiring journeymen – apparently the only species of player guaranteed a game and an easy, obscenely healthy payday at this place.

Looking at it more positively, the Brighton & Hove Albion side promoted last season had plenty of experience on its books and there’s no doubt that a certain amount of nous can help drag a team through difficult spells in the gruelling Championship campaign.  Different signings from the players mentioned above may yet materialise and there’s no doubt that Andre Wisdom is a very good capture, pending a successful medical.

But it is difficult to square Rowett’s reported interest in a motley crew of grizzled veterans with the injection of athleticism, pace and fresh blood that we were initially briefed to expect coming through the door.

I was totally behind the idea of Rowett as a ‘new broom’.  I was also looking forward to the anticipated ‘clear-out’.  I was fine with the idea of new players with athleticism and pace.  I nodded approvingly when Rowett talked about not wanting to give a final pay-day to players whose best days are behind them.

Wisdom joins, Forsyth is back and with the addition of Davies, the defence starts to look good for this level – then (whisper it) George Thorne is returning for pre-season training and you start to feel like the future might be a bit brighter.  Hughes and Thorne playing together could have….

This situation reminds me, unfortunately, of when Tom Huddlestone left.  I feel the same way.  Here was a player who should have been at the heart of Derby County’s future, sacrificed for short-term expediency.

Whatever happens next, what I cannot forgive is that Hughes’ departure is a consequence of the gross recruitment incompetence which reigned at the club over the past two seasons.  That is what upsets me more than anything.

Still, this is Rowett’s decision to stand or fall by.  This week, he told TalkSport that he would like to sign two or three more players, pending the necessary outs.  He said that we will see “a very different Derby team” next season:-

“We’ve had a very technically strong team that perhaps lacked a few of those elements that you need in what’s a really resilient Championship league.”

Announcing the Davies deal on Rams TV, Rowett said that he wants Derby to be difficult to play against.  This is the change in mindset that he is looking to bring. Under McClaren, everything was about what we did with the ball – under Rowett, it seems that our game will be all about stifling the opposition first and foremost.

If Rowett does not consider Hughes as a good fit for how he wants to play – and that is the only possible interpretation I can see for the comments he’s made, especially given that Will was repeatedly left out at the end of last season – then I cannot help but resent him for it.

And so now it is up to Rowett to justify his choice by delivering on what he has promised and proving that his brand of football can win promotion.  If we are defensively solid and disciplined enough to grind out results on a consistent basis, then maybe we will have a chance of finally, finally clambering out of this bloody Championship, in which we have been marooned for almost a decade – and the loss of a player who was such a joy to watch will have been a price worth paying.  But those two or three new signings are going to have to be very good players if they are going to make the difference.

I do not associate the current squad with good football, good results, or good times – only with disappointment, embarrassment, patchy commitment, bizarre lapses and the ever-present threat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  And now, one of only two players we had who was capable of turning a game with a moment of magic, who was a unique, genuine, miraculous class act, a beacon of hope in the increasingly impenetrable fog of mediocrity, is gone, punted out for a relative pittance to fucking Watford.  No disrespect, Jonathan.

He was supposed to go to the Premier League with us, not without us.  Maybe Rowett has a rabbit up his sleeve and things will look brighter in a few weeks from now, but as it stands here and now, the Premier League has never felt further away and supporting this club has never felt more pointless.

I hate the club I love today.

See you all at Macclesfield on July 15th.

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Derby County squad review 2016/7: Goalkeeper and defence

Throughout the season, Derby maintained a decent defensive record, which was unfortunately undermined by their difficulties with defending set plays.  This was in part down to having a relatively small, slight midfield and frontline who struggled to mark bigger opponents.

About one third of league goals Derby conceded were from corners and free kicks, which is beyond annoying, because the amount they conceded from open play – 30 – was among the lowest in the division.

The latter fact was at least in part due to the excellence of the goalkeeper, who swept the board by taking all the available awards this season.  And with only three senior centre backs on the books, three specialist left backs and two right backs with completely different styles, there are plenty of important recruitment decisions for Rowett to make in this department.

Scott Carson (31)

No arguments with his Player of the Year award.  Carson has done a terrific job this season.  Goalies can go on almost forever these days and hopefully, in Carson, we have a dependable long-term number one.

Richard Keogh (30)

KEOGH

A part of the furniture at Derby – and that may not be such a good thing, given the need for a refurbishment.  Still only 30, Keogh will hope to survive any squad cull, but his recent struggles against (for example) Jota, Colin Quaner and Nouha Dicko did not bode well. Not the quickest and not the strongest – Rowett needs to decide whether Keogh is the man to captain his side to promotion, or whether fresh leadership is required at the back instead.

Alex Pearce (28)

pearce

Became something of a cult hero on the back of his unusual career trajectory at the club and deserves credit for his determination to work his way back into contention, after spending so long in the wilderness.  However, his limitations began to show after a run of games.  He lacks pace and this is an issue – note how clumsy he was made to look in conceding crucial penalties against Cardiff and Blackburn – plus he never looks at all comfortable on the ball, which is not an added extra in the modern game.

Cyrus Christie (23)

CHRISTIE

A player who divides opinion like no other at the club.  I’ve also thought he has real potential, whereas others, including some observers whose opinion I absolutely respect, think he is hopeless.

For what it’s worth, my (amateur) reading of the available statistics make him look like one of the best full backs in the Championship, in terms of all-round impact.  To compare, here is the radar for the much-hyped Leeds left back Charlie Taylor, who is roughly the same age as Christie and is currently being linked with a move to West Brom:-

C TAYLOR

Christie hasn’t featured much under Rowett so far and is down to the final year of his contract, so the manager needs to decide whether to cut him loose, or show faith.  This may ultimately depend on what kind of interest there is from other Championship clubs – if he is available, I expect that this will be considerable.

Chris Baird (35)

Baird

A player who won over many Rams fans this season, his ‘Indian summer’ a rare positive from a generally glum year.  Despite the pressing need to make room for his own signings and also for fresh blood – younger, quicker players with more energy – Rowett made positive noises about Baird’s versatility and chose to keep him around.

However, as he reaches the end of a very solid career, Baird isn’t going to provide the ‘athleticism’ that Rowett says he wants and I would expect him to be a back-up option – either Christie or somebody else will probably play the majority of minutes at right back, with Baird acting as cover when required.

Marcus Olsson (28)

OLSSON

Put bluntly, he isn’t a strong defender and isn’t particularly impressive going forward either.  Given the emergence of Max Lowe and the pending return of Craig Forsyth, the unspectacular Swede seems a likely candidate for the exit.

FORSYTH 2014-5

Max Lowe (20)

Long considered the next cab off the Academy rank, Lowe finally featured in the first-team picture in earnest this season. If we are serious about youth development, then bringing through the unicorn of an actual English left back should be our top priority – not only does he has the potential to be our first choice in this most vexed of positions long-term, he could also become a serious asset for the club, if his current trajectory continues.

Jason Shackell (33)

If fit, Shackell is a fine centre back and unquestionably our most talented defender – a “Rolls Royce”, as Shaun Barker memorably described him.

The problem is that Shackell was signed with immediate promotion in mind, but the deal he was given was daft – too long and, if what I was told from the Burnley end is right, too lavish.  Injury destroyed his season and it’s not clear whether Shackell will be a part of Rowett’s plans – but also not easy to see how he could be shifted before the end of his contract in 2018, if he isn’t.

Jamie Hanson (21)

 

Jamie had plenty of defending practice at Wigan, whose season ended in disaster.  His effort has never been in question, as JJ from Wigan blog The Three Amigos attests:-

In the January window, Wigan’s beleaguered manager Warren Joyce made thirteen new signings, including seven loans…  Sadly Joyce’s signings were unable to steady a sinking ship and he was dismissed in mid-March.  Graham Barrow took over as caretaker manager, but was unable to prevent relegation…  It is only fair to look at Hanson’s loan at Wigan in this context.

It was never going to be easy for a young player coming in on loan to a struggling team.  In fact, some of the loanees hardly featured.  It is to Hanson’s credit that he went on to make more appearances than any of the other loanees – 14 starts, plus 3 as a substitute.

Hanson was used as both a holding midfielder and a full back.  At times, he would distinguish himself with excellent tackles and interceptions.  He frequently took set pieces, for which he often showed good vision and technique.  However, like many young players, he could be good one minute, but making errors the next.  Hanson might well have been playing to orders, but he seemed reluctant to push forward….  One time he did that very effectively was at Brighton, when he put in a superb cross for Nick Powell to head home.

Hanson established himself in the team as much as any of the January signings did.  He could not be faulted for effort.  Whether he will ever graduate to become a top player at Championship level or above remains to be seen.

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Derby County squad review 2016/7: The midfield

This is part two of a three-part series.  Part one covered the attackers.  Here’s an explanatory note on the radar graphs.  

Will Hughes (22)

Hughes
It hasn’t been a great campaign for young William, by his own high standards. Nevertheless, flashes of his brilliance shone through and the problems he encountered could well have been more to do with the chaos swirling around the club than anything else.  Pearson tried to shoehorn him into a 4-4-2, McClaren picked him regardless of form or fitness – and then Rowett showed a worrying readiness to drop him, or even to introduce Butterfield from the bench before him.

Rowett’s pointed refusal to hype up Hughes is making some supporters – and I include myself in this – wonder whether the Prince of Pride Park has been placed on notice.   Rowett has made it clear that his playing style will be different to McClaren’s, having recently told Radio Derby that he has no interest in “total football” and is more inspired by pragmatic coaches like Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone.  In other words, there are no points for looking good – just get me results.

Hughes completed more tackles and key passes per 90 minutes than any of our other midfielders, making him the only viable candidate I can see in the squad for Steve Nicholson’s newly-coined category of “warrior-wizard” (players who can make things happen, but also look after themselves on the pitch, I guess).  He has always been a good tackler and this season, his tackles won per 90 minutes was up there with the highest for midfielders in the Championship.  And we all know about his intelligence on the ball.

He has never been a prolific goalscorer, but is markedly better in terms of providing key passes than any other of our midfielders.  And assists are not wholly within a midfielder’s power.  I think of a sumptuous lofted throughball Hughes played for Matej Vydra at Huddersfield, only for the striker to fluff his shot – a superb ball which didn’t result in an assist – then a few seasons ago, watching Tom Carroll nervously poke a two-yard pass to Gareth Bale 40 yards from goal, whereupon the great man smashed it into the net.  Technically, an assist for Carroll.  So I’d argue a player’s that frequency of key passes + assists is a more reliable measure of their creativity.

Hughes is our best midfielder by far.  With his recent captaincy of England U21s raising his profile, other clubs will be taking plenty of notice of his situation, but Rowett would be foolish to part with him for anything less than a truly blockbusting sum of money – and even then, with the understanding that he is irreplaceable.

Rowett has a mandate for change.  I just hope he doesn’t throw the baby out, while retaining copious amounts of bathwater.

Bradley Johnson (30)

Johnson
Johnson does my head in, because he is maddeningly sloppy.  However, he has physical qualities sorely lacking elsewhere in the team and Rowett has expressed his desire to see the big man marauding forward more.  While no role can totally mask Johnson’s technical deficiencies, it makes much more sense to use him further up the pitch than it ever did to field him as a holding midfielder, where his lapses of concentration or touch make him something of a liability.

The radar doesn’t include the measure of his undoubted aerial prowess – Johnson is among the best midfielders in the Championship at winning headers.  However, it also omits the damning fact that he played almost ten inaccurate short passes for every 90 minutes he was on the pitch.

If Rowett can find a way to get the best out of Johnson next season, I will tip my hat to him.

Jacob Butterfield (26)

Butterfield
Butterfield’s bitty, seemingly terminal season was rescued at the death by Rowett, who enthused almost boundlessly about the player after using him in the holding role against Wolves.  Could it be that McClaren had simply been using Butterfield and Johnson the wrong way around the whole time?  Surely it couldn’t be that simple…  Could it?

Well, no.  We shouldn’t read too much into a couple of dead rubbers at the end of the season and Butterfield’s relative lack of defensive output does not point to an obvious role for him in front of the back four – certainly not in matches against stronger sides, or away games in general.  However, as Rowett pointed out, his range of passing is pretty good, so playing him in a deeper role in matches we are likely to dominate could be a useful option (and may even limit his unhelpful habit of shooting from long distance).

Craig Bryson (30)

Bryson
Largely ignored by McClaren, Bryson was instantly restored to the team by Rowett, but unfortunately the evidence suggests that he is no longer the player he was in Mac’s first spell.  When you break it down, he hasn’t contributed as much as we’d all have hoped for this season – certainly not as much as his barnstorming best season, way back when.

Bryson 2013-4
It seems a long time now since Bryson was on the verge of a move to Burnley, only for that big contract to be produced by the club at the last minute.  That deal still has two more seasons to run.

Ikechi Anya (29)

ANYA

Anya has an attribute which we need – pace – and for this reason, the affable winger may well have a future under Rowett.  His is the radar of a genuine wideman, who contributes little in terms of shots, but does beat men and create chances.  He also does his share of work defensively.

Abdoul Camara (27)

Unfortunately, Camara is not good enough to cut it at this level and it is everyone’s best interests to organise a move for him this summer.  Bonne chance, Razza.

Julien de Sart (22)

Much like Omar Mascarell, de Sart played McClaren’s ‘controlling’ role without the requisite physicality to cope with the rigorous demands of the Championship.  He also lacked the necessary composure on the ball and after being badly found out at Elland Road, the brace of ‘assists’ he provided for Brighton in the 3-0 loss proved to be his final contribution in a Rams shirt.  Bonne chance, Julien.

George Thorne (24)

THORNE 2015-6

“Thorne is the key”, as my dad once said, succinctly and correctly.

Even in 2015/6, at a time when he was inching back to his best until the horrific leg-break he suffered, the radar demonstrates that his impact on games was major.  In fact, his accurate long ball tally of 6.5 per 90 minutes has broken my existing radar scale (a problem I also encountered when trying to make a radar for Jonjo Shelvey).

So, while I go back to the drawing board….  I’ll give the last word to Tommo, who summed Thorne up this way – “he can play any type of pass and is hard.”

Everything crossed.

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Derby County squad review 2016/7: The attack

Tom Ince (25)

INCE
Thank God for Ince.  He was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of attacking contribution and without him, this disappointing season would have been even worse.  He got my vote as Player of the Year ahead of Scott Carson and is the only attacker on the books who could reasonably be expected to flush out a bid from a parachute payment-toting relegated club.  That said, he’s unlikely to want to go back to Hull – and who the hell would want to go to Sunderland? Perhaps one of his dad’s old clubs, Boro, will come calling.  If he does stay, Ince will be an integral part of Rowett’s team.

David Nugent (32)

NUGENT
A player who turned out to be McClaren’s parting gift to Rowett.  That Brighton were interested in signing him (albeit on loan) attested to his enduring qualities and he has been a breath of gobby, cheeky fresh air, with his hat-trick against Fulham through sheer chutzpah, leading the line with spiky directness and acting as a much-needed focal point.  I seriously question the wisdom of giving long contracts to players over 30 – and don’t expect Rowett to do so in future – but there’s no doubt that this pest of a striker has another season in him yet.

Chris Martin (28)

MARTIN

Martin’s loan move to Fulham – for whom he has scored ten league goals, so far – helped to scupper both Pearson and McClaren at Derby.  However, with Nugent around and Vydra as a second striker option, the Rams will no longer be wholly reliant on Martin to function as a team, as they were under McClaren.  I’ve heard it suggested that the Wardrobe may not be in Rowett’s plans – at the time of writing, it seems unlikely that Fulham will trigger their option to buy him, but there’s no doubt that many other Championship clubs would be interested, should he be available.

Darren Bent (33)

BENT

Bent will continue to do what has always done, which is poach goals – lurking around in the peripheral vision of defenders, darting left and right, but contributing almost nothing outside of the penalty area – as the radar clearly demonstrates.  He is 33 now and I don’t think there’s the slightest chance that Rowett would have chosen to retain him, had his contract extension not been confirmed during McClaren’s brief return.  Assuming efforts aren’t being made to offload him, Bent is far more likely to be used as an option from the bench than a regular starter next season.

Johnny Russell (27)

RUSSELL
By any standards, Russell has had a poor season.  I ask myself what he adds to the team – is it goals?  Pace to penetrate behind?  Guile?  Rowett has professed his enthusiasm for a player he wanted to sign for Birmingham, but surely that’s the point.  Russell would probably be regarded a star player for a mid-table Championship team – and I often notice fans of other clubs suggesting him as a signing – but is he really good enough for a club with the professed aim of promotion?  Sentiment aside, I’m not sure he is.  Russell is a player who may just have been at the club for too long and be in need of a fresh start elsewhere. 

Matej Vydra (24)

VYDRA
McClaren’s inability to use Pearson’s marquee signing was a major problem, which became obvious towards the end of Mac’s ill-fated return.  Rowett on the other hand, gave Vydra a chance in his favoured number ten role and made a point of saying that he had watched back all of the Czech’s action from the Watford days, when he was one of the most feared forwards in the Championship…

VYDRA 2014-5

Remember the partnership he struck up with Troy Deeney for the Hornets?  If he can do something similar with Martin (or another tall striker) next season, the Rams could be a real force – and Popsider might even come back to us.  However, there’s no denying that this was a season for Vydra to forget.

Andreas Weimann 
(25)

WEIMANN WOLVES
If there’s the possibility of pocketing a fee for Weimann from Wolves – £1.5m, if you believe reports from the Black Country –  then that would probably be for the best all round.  While there has always been a lot of good will towards the Austrian from Derby supporters, he has failed to make much of an impression under multiple managers now and his output in old gold this year, judging from the radar at least, has been pretty limited.  Nevertheless, Wolves boss Paul Lambert wants to keep Weimann and he will probably get more opportunities to play at Molineux next season than he would at Pride Park.

WEIMANN 2015-6

Nick Blackman (27)

Blackman’s move from Reading has turned out to be a nightmare for everybody except the Royals, who pocketed an outsized cheque for his services after his short-lived goal flood in 2015/6.  

BLACKMAN 2015-6

At this stage, it seems unlikely that he will still be with the club in August, as long as somebody is prepared to give him a fresh start, after another disappointing, injury-ravaged season.  What chance a return to Sheffield United?

For an explanation of the ‘radar’ graphs, see here.  Any questions, comments, or to request a radar for a different player, get in touch @derbycountyblog.

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Radar graphs – an explanatory note

Some of you may follow Ted Knutson on Twitter and have noticed his player radars.  These struck me as a brilliant way of visualising a player’s impact in games, so I decided to start working on them for Derby’s players. What I didn’t realise was that Knutson, a professional analyst who has worked for Brentford FC, makes it look a lot easier than it actually is to create the charts.  Nevertheless, I pressed naively on, using only Microsoft Excel and data sourced from whoscored.com.

At this early stage, my efforts are very basic and there are things that I already know need improving – but it will take me a while to work that out.  In the meantime, I think they give at least a basic impression of different players’ styles and impact and hopefully, you will find them interesting.

Here is a graph of Tammy Abraham’s season, as an example (compare it to the Rams’ strikers radars and take a look at what we could have won…)

ABRAHAM
The values shown are the player’s average per 90 minutes he was on the pitch.  I haven’t provided graphs for players who played significantly less than 1,000 minutes this season – this includes Blackman, Shackell, de Sart, Camara and Lowe.  I felt that they had played insufficient minutes for ‘per 90 minutes’ values to be usefully produced.

Attackers

Non-penalty goals – Penalty goals are excluded – I bow to Knutson on this.  His reasoning is that penalties result in goals about 75-80% of the time, pretty much regardless of who takes them, so he strips them out.

Chances created – The player’s combined total key passes + assists

Key passes
– Classified by Opta as a pass which results in a shot being taken (without scoring)

Dribbles – Refers to successful dribbles, not total attempts

Int + tackles – The player’s combined total interceptions and successful tackles

Midfielders

Long balls – Successful long passes

 

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