How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy the ride on Mad Mel’s Crazy Bonkers Derby County Train

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

I spent hours on a piece analysing where Derby were up to under Nigel Pearson and within hours of me posting it, Morris has suspended him.

To be fair, if Clement’s performance last season was only good enough to get him to February, then it’s no surprise that Pearson’s ended in, reportedly, a massive dust-up before the end of September.

The fact that Morris was saying before the season that he liked the fact that Pearson would tell you what he thought and sort things out man-to-man (which was a clear dig at his last victim, Paul Clement) may have led Pearson to think that he could tell Mel what he thought and sort things out man-to-man, but when he did, he got suspended.

Cards on the table – I couldn’t stand Pearson.  From all the evidence I saw and heard, he was a charmless, humourless, paranoid bully, with no personal skills and zero flair.   I was never as keen on his appointment as many other supporters were – I saw the reasons why, but also catalogued my misgivings in a blogpost, which were around his bizarre ‘charge sheet‘ from the 2014/5 season, in which he verbally abused a young journalist, verbally abused a Leicester supporter and grabbed an opposition player by throat in the middle of a game.  These were not the actions of a normal, balanced individual and it worried me.  When I said he was ‘more suited to the job at Villa‘, I was really thinking, ‘please take him Villa – he might end up here, otherwise’.

I hated the way he seized so radgily on Owen Bradley’s use of the word ‘deployed’ in a recent pre-match interview – sneering and belittling the journalist for having the temerity to use a polysyllabic word, I guess.  Again, it was a little window into Pearson’s world, a little loss of temper at a vanishingly trivial ‘offence’, or something that he deemed an offence.

Anyway, he’s gone.  Mad Mel strikes again.

And I think we just have to accept that this is the way it’s gonna be from now on.  We don’t have a rational, hands-off chairman who leaves things in the hands of the professionals.  We have a guy who can’t detach himself – a kid running a sweet shop and going absolutely mental on the sugar overload, might be another way of describing  it.  All those icy-veined business decisions that made him a multi-millionaire…  Not relevant to his role as custodian of Derby County.  If results go badly, he will take it upon himself to do something.  He will ‘enter the dressing room’.

The old logic – that the manager needs to be given years to set up his team – is largely gone from the game in any case – if you screw up, you’re gone, quick as a flash.

Then again, I don’t know why I’m bringing up the word ‘logic’ in an article about Mel Morris’ Derby County.

Stability is boring anyway.  Remember GSE and Clough?  We pootled along in mid-table, painstakingly developed multi-million pound assets in Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick, shopped in Scotland and the lower divisions and eventually, the arse dropped out of the attendances.  For better or for worse, there’s no danger of things getting stagnant with Mel around, this much is clear.

I’m going to ‘live blog’ this evening and post it after the final whistle against Reading.

6:15pm – I announce on Twitter that I’m available to take the reins for the rest of season, if Mel requires a ‘cheap, FFP-busting option’ – by FFP-busting, I meant ‘helping the club comply with FFP’.  Not a very good choice of words, but there you go.  I was a bit over-excited at the time.  It get me a few likes, but Mel doesn’t call.  Perhaps he’s busy.

6:45pm – The team is announced and Lowe, it is glorious – Max Lowe is handed his debut (as predicted in my last article.  You know, the one I spent hours on and was then redundant almost as soon as it was published.  I don’t know why I bother…)

And it’s 4-3-3!  You know, that system we used for three seasons and which had us in the top eight every time and yielded 38 home wins, compared to 13 losses, but was apparently shite.

7:20pm – A chap rings Radio Derby to suggest David Wagner as a good replacement for Pearson.  It’s a lovely idea – a technical coach, previously assistant to the superb Jürgen Klopp, playing short, passing football with aggressive pressing.  However, think of it from Wagner’s point of view – why would you entrust your future to Mel Morris?  He’s been well backed by Huddersfield, who have allowed him to bring in his own players – and they would resist any attempt to poach him.  Such is the amount of Mel’s money that has been jizzed on non-producing players, that I don’t see how we could afford to pay even more money out on compensation for a manager.

7:36pm – Owen Bradley reports that Big Sam is about to be sacked as England manager….

7:40pm A couple of highlights from Twitter, as we warm up –

Brian Ellis (chief reporter at the Lancashire Evening Post) – Nigel Pearson on his way out? Well that didn’t take long. Most obnoxious manager I think I ever came across in 25 years as a footy writer.

My mate Stu – It appears talk of Sol Bamba was the final straw!

7:45pm – We’re off!  Ed Dawes censures Craig Ramage for using the word ‘transition’.  “You can’t use that word, it’s banned…”

7:48pm Tom Ince has a good shot and I get a genuine sense of excitement – two minutes in, it’s already better…

7:58pm Always worth having a look at the whoscored.com Match Centre for an idea of how the game is going.

7:59pm Rickie Lambert goes off with a groin injury, replaced by Kenneth Zohore.

8:01pm
Steve Nicholson – First chants of “Chrissy Powell’s balmy army” from the Rams fans. He will be on the shortlist should Nigel Pearson be sacked

8:04pm Cardiff have half a spell of pressure and there’s a bit of noise echoing around what sounds like a perilously half-empty stadium

8:06pm Ben Lavender posts a poll – would you take Steve McClaren back as Derby manager?  I vote ‘No’.

8:07pm “Johnson’s first touch gives the ball away” says Ed.  I’m afraid that’s something you see all too often.

8:10pm Patient possession – remember that?  And Hughes has a shot blocked out for a corner.

8:11pm More shots!  Ince, saved, Vydra, saved for corner……  This is exciting!

8:12pm Another corner!  Not that we ever score from corners.  But neither does anybody else – a study of Premier League corners 2011-13 found that only two per cent of them resulted in a goal.

8:14pm Ed says how much he’s enjoying himself.  Me too!  Long may this continue.

8:18pm Noone denies Butterfield, aaaaargh…… Nerves!

8:19pm Lex Immers sounds like a super-villain.  Meanwhile, Whittingham nails Vydra and is booked.

8:29pm Max Lowe getting lots of praise.  Which makes me idly wonder…  Did Morris not feel that Pearson shared his focus on youth?  That was part of why Clement was sacked, apparently.  When ‘the kids’ came off the bench in the cup friendly against Liverpool, Pearson said it “wasn’t political”, which I thought was a very odd choice of words.  If it wasn’t political, why even say that?

8:34pm Half time 0-0 and were those a few boos from the home end?  Ed suggests that Derby have ‘better control’ and the pass success is certainly much more like it – 84 per cent, compared to 75 per cent under Pearson.  That’s the extra central midfielder.

8:40pm The Derby Way is back, apparently…!

Hebberd’s Shin Pads ‏@wristslasher909 – We lost the plot appointing Pearson, never a #derbyway man.  I would never have paid to watch 2 seasons of that shite

MEL8:52pm We’re back and Ramage just launched into Ashford & Simpson’s Solid (as a rock), in praise of Alex Pearce.  Would it be a stretch to suggest that this is all reflective of the delirious sense of relief which has followed the suspension of Mr Pearson?

8:57pm Ince denied by Amos, there’s that excitement again…  The Rams fans are audible – all 317 of them.  God love them, every one.

8:58pm Ramage discussing the fine art of ‘defending from the front’ – something I also heard the great Klopp talking about last night on Sky and which I thought was sadly lacking on Saturday.

9:00 YES INCE!!!! 1-0!!! “BOOOOOM” SAYS RAMAGE

9:00pm Ramage: “Possession football – our footballers are coming good.”  YES RAMAGE, YES POWELL

9:01pm Eek, a stung Cardiff come straight up the other end and win a corner, which is headed just wide by Morrison…  Lucky.  “TOUCH TIGHT”, roars Ramage.

9:03pm Ramage using the ‘E’ word…. ‘Enjoy’.  “They’re enjoying it”.  First time all season….

9:08pm The away fans remind me what the Derby way is:-

“If you don’t attack, then you get the sack,
It’s the Derby Way…”

That’ll do as a definition for me!

9:13pm Bradley Johnson getting plenty of encouragement from Ramage.  If he can do that holding role, it would be a huge bonus for our season.

9:15pm Top three players on the park, according to whoscored.com

Ince 7.7 (/ 10)
Lowe 7.6
Pearce 7.4

9:16pm Ed says “Cardiff are the worst side we’ve come up against and if Derby can’t beat them…” Instantaneously ushering in a spell of Cardiff pressure and making everybody listening curse him bitterly.

9:17pm Ramage: “This is the Bradley Johnson we’ve been looking for”.  Long may that continue.  Ed: “Derby’s passing has been very good this evening”.  Long may that continue.

9:19pm 15 minutes to go and Cardiff trying to mount a comeback.  You’d think it would be time for Powell to use his bench – but the bench is Baird and five forwards.  A reminder that there are still some problems, for whoever is going to take the job on, to tackle.

9:20pm Nick Blackman is coming on… It’s a fresh start for everyone.  He’s on for Vydra.

9:24pm Blackman has won a penalty and Connolly is sent off!

9:24pm Nerves

9:24 NICK BLACKMAN HAS SCORED A GOALLLLLL

9:26pm Derby have scored more than one goal in a game for the first time all season.  No Pearson, no problem.  Apparently.

9:26pm: Ramage: “I don’t know, this 4-3-3, you know….

“They’re not a team of doggers.”

9:29pm Ince is withdrawn for Russell and receives warm praise from the commentary team and the fans.  Lovely.  Another player who had apparently been destroyed under Pearson.  Centre back Manga is brought on for the injured super-villain Immers.

9:31pm I just keep hearing long spells of commentary which involve Derby passing the ball to each other.  It’s like the good old days again.

9:33pm A pithy quote from a long suffering Cardiff journo…

Dafydd Pritchard ‏@DafPritchard
One more goal and Derby could double their tally for the season in one game.

9:34pm

Since I was young
I followed them
The 4-3-3
It’s the shape for me….

9:35pm Five minutes of stoppage time to play.  Nigel Pearson is still trending, but has been displaced from the top of Twitter by terms like #SamAllardyce, Southgate, Nicklas Bendtner (unfortunately) and Steve Bruce (in connection with the England job, not Derby)…

9:38pm Ramage: “It’s been a stroll.  We could get another one, here… I’ve been starved”.

9:39pm: Weimann on for Anya, to waste a few seconds.

9:40pm Butterfield almost scores another one… “WELL DONE” It’s the Ramage Roar

9:40pm “AND THAT IS TIME”, Ed says.  Cardiff 0 Derby 2

Bigger tests than a moribund Cardiff are ahead of us, but this is where it starts.

 

 

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Posted in Derby County, History, Match Reports | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy the ride on Mad Mel’s Crazy Bonkers Derby County Train

What the hell is wrong with Derby County?

Understatement – things are not going to plan.  So much so that the pre-season expectations of promotion have now been officially replaced in the club’s communications by a rather desperate repetition of the word ‘transition‘ (a transition, on the face of it, from good to bad).

After the shattering defeat on Saturday, I thought it was time to see if the stats can tell us anything about more about what on earth is going on – perhaps, I hoped, there might even be some much-needed reasons for optimism.

Fair warning – if you don’t like stats, then this post is not for you – go and do something else.  Cheers.

Shooting

Derby’s catastrophic lack of goals is not for a lack of trying.  They have taken 14 shots per game, the seventh highest average in the Championship – more than league leaders Norwich (13.2) and second-placed Huddersfield, who have taken only 9.9 shots per game (the lowest figure in the division).

Derby have had more shots than their opponents in six out of nine league games to date, taking 57.7 per cent of the total shots – 124 (for three goals) to the opponents’ 91 (for nine goals)

total-shots

For context, last season, under Paul Clement and Darren Wassall, Derby’s total shots ratio was lower – about 54.5 per cent – and under McClaren in 2014/5, it was lower still, at 50.7 per cent.

However, the Rams’ average of 3.6 shots per game on target is distinctly underwhelming – 16th best in the division.  Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and Tammy Abraham Bristol City currently lead the way, with more than five shots on target per match.  Ben Mayhew, blogger at Experimental 3-6-1 and head of sports data visualisation for the Press Association, points out that Derby’s shot accuracy (25.7%) is among the worst in the division.

An important factor is where the shots are being taken from.  Too many of Derby’s ‘dips’ are coming from outside of the penalty area, from where, you are unlikely to score.  The analyst Ted Knutson has calculated that a player shooting from a central position outside the box has only a three per cent chance of scoring.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to try your luck from distance, if the chance arises – but the vast majority of goals are scored from inside the box, so it’s something of a worry that 53 per cent of Derby’s shots so far have come from long range.  Only the bottom club Wigan have a worse record on that front.

Even so, Derby have still had more shots on target than their opponents in total this season – 31 (for three goals) to 27 (for nine goals).

Mayhew describes the Rams’ lack of goals as “something of a mystery”.  It is downright freakish that Derby have scored so few, based on the amount of shots they’ve taken. By no means do the stats describe a side which genuinely deserves such an abysmal record.

Defending

Even after losing four of the last five league games, Derby retain one of the better defensive records in the Championship.

When it comes to shots conceded per match, Derby (10.1) are better than anybody else in the division, except for Norwich (10).  They have played an average of just 26 per cent of each game within their own third of the pitch – the joint best record in the division, with Brighton.

In other words, the Rams are not being peppered with shots, not giving up huge amounts of chances and not being put under sustained pressure in games, with Carson often largely untroubled.  It is simply gutting to note that in the last three games, Derby have allowed the opponents only six shots on target – from which, four goals have been scored.

Passing and possession

The Rams’ average possession advantage has decreased under Pearson, but not massively. Although the figure is a shade lower than it was under McClaren or Clement, it remains the fifth highest in the division.

What has decreased is the number of passes per game – or more accurately, the number of short passes per game.

passes-comparison

The number of long passes per game is basically the same as in previous years, but the number of short passes has dropped noticeably.  This means that the proportion of long balls has increased, from about 14.75 per cent to 17.5 per cent, and this has led to a notable decrease in pass success – from more than 78 per cent in each of the last three seasons (when we were always among the best in the division), to below 75 per cent (which is about average for the division).

Derby cross the ball as much as anybody else – which could be seen as a positive, except that it’s now considered that crossing is the least efficient way of trying to create goals.  According to a study by Jan Vercer, from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, a goal results from only one in every 92 crosses, on average.  Derby currently deliver 23 crosses per match, so you could reasonably expect a goal to result once in every four games, if Vercer is right (so far, we’ve seen Forsyth’s goal from Hughes’ cross and, off the top of my head, there was Hughes’ big chance at Bristol City, from Anya’s ball in).

Players who bang in cross after cross tend to get accused of being ‘wasteful’ – Christie, for example – but it’s the imprecise nature of crossing itself which is the issue, not so much the player involved.  Vercer’s analysis suggest that, in theory, teams would score about half a goal more per game if they stopped crossing altogether and just kept passing it short instead (so maybe Louis van Gaal has him on speed dial).

When you consider everything that has to fall into place for a cross to result in a goal – the execution of the ball in, the positioning of the attacker, no defender getting in the way, the execution of the shot or header, the goalkeeper not making a save – it’s no surprise that academics deem it an inefficient use of possession, especially as most crosses end with the attacking side losing the ball, which means having to work hard to get it back again.

And it doesn’t surprise me in the least to note that the statistically canny Huddersfield Town and Brentford are among the teams who have crossed the ball least this season.  Both clubs are punching well above their financial weight at the minute, while Derby flounder.

Individuals

I spoke to Dustin Böttger, CEO of Global Soccer Network, who was kind enough to prepare the following graphic, giving GSN’s assessment of each Derby player’s performance this season.

derby-county-performance-score-mid

The GSN Index is developed by tracking and rating more than 150 different categories of actions within every game – both positive and negative – to give an overall performance score for each player.

The Derby players, in GSN’s assessment, are not actually playing that badly – not brilliantly, but not so badly that you would expect them to be struggling at the bottom, or scoring five goals less than anybody else in the division.  For context, Böttger also provided me with graphics for sixth-placed Brentford and mid-table Sheffield Wednesday – and Derby’s team average score was higher than either of theirs.

Forsyth is rated as Derby’s top performer (albeit from only three appearances), with Olsson among the worst, suggesting that Forsyth’s injury has affected the team.  I would not be shocked if Max Lowe was called into the side tonight, based on Pearson’s comments after Blackburn and the fact that Olsson has been substituted in three of the last four matches.

Of the players who have featured more or less all season, Christie scores highest on the GSN Index, followed by Hughes, Shackell and Keogh.  Anya and Vydra have also done relatively well.  At the other end of GSN’s scale, Johnson scored the lowest of any Derby player, for his nightmare hour against Brighton, while Bent, Ince and Blackman have all underwhelmed and Wilson has not got started yet – in part, due to the knee injury he has suffered – nor has Weimann, again, returning from injury.  There is a dire need for somebody to step up and partner Vydra effectively, assuming that Pearson is planning to persist with his 4-4-2.

CONCLUSIONS

While the points tally and goals total are completely unacceptable, it appears that the problems in front of goal are not so severe that you could reasonably expect the current barren run to continue indefinitely.  There is no underlying reason that I, or the two professional analysts I asked, can see that would suggest that the Rams deserve to have scored so infrequently.  That said, they need to create more shooting opportunities inside the box, instead of taking so many hopeful shots from range.

Although the team has been negatively affected by the absence of Forsyth and Shackell, the defence has still performed well overall.  Another positive is that Vydra and Anya have improved the team’s level since arriving – but this has to be weighed against the fact that the Rams have not seen anything like enough from any of the other forwards, so far.

Morale in the stands may be at rock-bottom and every error may seem to be getting punished at the moment – but at some point, the Rams’ luck should start to turn. Eventually, a few shots have to start sneaking in – and the results should start to pick up.

Tonight’s game at Cardiff would be a very good place for the turnaround to start…

To explore Championship statistics to your heart’s content, go to whoscored.com, who don’t pay me for the link – I’m daft enough to do it for free

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The strange death of Derby County – Rams 1 Blackburn f**ing Rovers 2

“Goals are over-rated.”  So wrote The Blizzard‘s Jonathan Wilson, a phrase so intriguing that it’s since been turned into a t-shirt.

I think he meant that the last thing we want is for football to be tilted too far in favour of the striker – mad 4-4 draws, like the one we had that time under McClaren at Huddersfield, are so memorable partly for their extreme scarcity.  “The beauty is in the struggle”, Wilson concluded – evoking the satisfaction we feel as fans when a side’s determined, sometimes grim efforts to find a crucial winner in a tight game are rewarded, the release of tension in the ground as the home side make it 1-0.

But coming into their match against Blackburn Rovers, Nigel Pearson’s Derby had tested both Wilson’s maxim and their defenders’ abilities to the limit.  Two goals in eight league games was the staggeringly awful return – and it was to the back four’s credit that the Rams had scrabbled together even six points by this stage.  Goals may be over-rated and overly craved by the social media / highlight reel generation (of which, we’re all a part) – but they remain the fundamental point of the game and if you can’t score any, you’re fucked.

In a relatively open start to today’s match – which was, by any lights, a must-win for Nigel Pearson and Derby County – the nearest thing to a goal came when Bent failed to connect with one of many Christie crosses.  But for the first ten minutes or so, Derby failed to really assert themselves and dominate their visitors, who looked competent on the ball without carrying any obvious threat.  This was not the fiery start you might have expected from a team in dire need of a win.

Derby’s shape was not quite a straight 4-4-2, as Butterfield floated across the pitch, popping up centrally and even occasionally on the left, leaving Christie to carry the attacking threat from his flank.  Vydra also floated, behind Bent -a pairing which didn’t really put the Blackburn centre backs under any pressure when they had the ball.

Hughes’ first corner on 15 caused chaos in the Blackburn box, but nobody was able to capitalise.  Bent then tried an overhead kick, after Vydra’s scuffed shot from a decent position – generated when Anya nodded down Hughes’ fizzed ball – reached him via a looping deflection.  It was the Rams’ first real chance, following a spell of moderate pressure, as Blackburn retreated into their shape.

Hughes then released Anya, who completely over-cooked his cross when a cool head could have provided Vydra with a tap-in, as Derby enjoyed what would prove to be their best spell in the match.  Seconds later, Blackburn looked to have been decisively undone, as Vydra released the rampaging Anya, who slotted past Steele only for his celebrations to be curtailed by the linesman – offside.

Chances were coming to Derby thick and fast, with Blackburn rather hanging on, but there was a nagging sense that the Rams needed to capitalise on this period of dominance. Butterfield’s strike from 20 yards was palmed wide, as Derby knocked on the door without making the crucial breakthrough, although Steele took an age to clear the ball after claiming the resulting corner – a sign that the away side were feeling the pressure.

Lowe was then booked for pulling down Anya just outside the box as he threatened to streak away – but Butterfield’s curling free kick lacked the power to beat Steele.

Blackburn had their first meaningful shot on the half-hour, Marshall driving towards the box but missing with a tame effort from a decent position, after Pearce gave the ball away with a poor pass.

At this stage, Derby’s mobility in forward areas was providing a test for Blackburn, but there was a certain openness to the Rams in midfield which raised concerns that they could be got at on the counter, if Blackburn could find the right pass. Frankly though, at this stage, that seemed unlikely – one particularly dreadful pass by Hoban leaving Conway visibly frustrated.

Blackburn had managed to ride something of a storm, it seemed, although Bryson popped up to toast a sweetly struck volley, unfortunately too cleanly, picking out Steele.

Next, a brilliant tackle by Hughes stopped a Blackburn attack and sent Butterfield hurtling forward, with only a crude professional foul from Evans curtailing his forward motion.

Derby had been generally dominant, but disaster struck in the 38th minute, when they conceded a penalty.  Emnes, who had been ineffectual until this point, chased a ball into the box and was upended, leaving the referee with no choice.

But Derby experienced a rare stroke of luck, with Marshall rolling his spot-kick against the post, then inexplicably side-footing the rebound wide of an open net.  Perhaps it would be Derby’s day, after all.

Or maybe not, as Bent rose towards a dangerous cross from Christie, only succeeding in flicking it away from Bryson, who was arriving in the box behind him, intent on striking the dropping ball.  It was a moment which summed up Derby’s performance and season to date – a team threatening to look good, but seemingly just not able to click.

You got the sense at this stage that if they could just get one goal, then the floodgates could open against such limited opponents.

But from the start of the second half, a sense of drift was pervasive and you got the sense that Derby needed somebody, anybody, to step up with a moment of game-changing class. Anya, who had been bright throughout, tried to provide it with a quick turn and direct burst forward which forced a corner, but the Rams’ clear desire to force an opening led them to commit bodies forward – sometimes overly so, with Conway at one point allowed to run the length of the field to win a corner, after Butterfield lost possession on the edge of Blackburn’s area.  Soon after that, the otherwise anonymous Gallagher was almost released clean through.  In trying to win it, Derby were looking in danger of being caught out at the back.

Gallagher was replaced by Danny Graham shortly after the hour and it felt like the right time for Nigel Pearson to shuffle his pack too, with the Rams’ performance in real danger of petering out.  But the double change that came was a head-scratcher.  Blackman for Bent was no shock, but Weimann for Bryson meant that Butterfield would move across to partner Hughes in a creative but undeniably lightweight central pairing.

With the subs having only just trotted on, Derby suddenly led 1-0.  It was as easy as pie when it came, Blackburn switching off from a throw-in, allowing Vydra enough time and space to compose himself in the box and slide the ball beyond Steele.

The relief around the ground was huge.  The beauty, like Jonathan Wilson said, was in the struggle – and Derby had finally cracked it.

Except for that the narrative as we understood it – that Derby just needed to get their noses in front and they would then settle down and go on to win – was suddenly, shockingly, hideously exploded.

With the lead barely a minute old and with the celebrations barely dying down, Graham completely mugged Pearce in an aerial challenge, helping the ball on to Emnes, who advanced menacingly into the box and saw his drive deflected unerringly (of course) into the corner of Carson’s net.

Derby tried to seize the lead back instantly, with Blackman’s cross saw Vydra force Steele into a flying save.  But seconds later, the ball was in the Rams’ net again – and they were staring down the barrel.

The goal was absolutely pathetic, embarrassing.  A pedestrian Blackburn, who had looked blandly competent on the ball throughout without carrying any real threat, were allowed to play a lengthy sequence of passes around Derby’s final third at their leisure, with Hughes, Butterfield and the rest apparently mesmerised, reduced to useless spectators, not quick enough to put in a tackle or anticipate the next pass.  The ball was eventually flicked beyond a static back four, releasing Graham, who couldn’t miss.  A glance at the linesman to check he was OK and he wheeled away in celebration.  It was a truly awful goal to concede -Derby’s passive, rabbit-in-the-headlights ball-watching getting exactly what it deserved.

Here was where Pearson’s decision to withdraw Bryson was shown up as deeply flawed, at best, with the threat of a real disaster looming.

There was time left – but the belief had simply drained out of Derby and they floundered horribly.  It was painful to watch, in truth, with many supporters quite sensibly deciding that they had seen enough with ten minutes or more to go.

A penny for Mel Morris’ thoughts as he watched the supporters streaming out.  More walked away when Weimann made a complete mess of a defensive throw-in and almost forced Carson into conceding another penalty.

Pearson’s last throw of the dice was to change Olsson for Ince, with Hughes apparently asked to nominally fill in at left back – another incomprehensible decision by the manager.

The final minutes ticked down – the game was dusted.  Ince’s dismal pass out of play on 84 minutes was the cue for more departures, the emptying stands a damning indictment for Pearson’s Derby.

With time ebbing away as steadily as the crowd, Blackman stabbed a low shot narrowly wide from the edge of the box, a half-chance which was the nearest Derby would come to an equaliser.  A better side than Blackburn might have inflicted pain on the counter, as Derby desperately but ineffectually committed bodies forward.

This deeply depressing and hurtful defeat leaves Pearson with many questions to answer, about his team selection, his tactical decisions and his transfer activity.  His inability to handle criticism during Leicester’s difficult 2014/5 season led to a string of bizarre on and off-field incidents and it is hard to know how he will react in the coming weeks, with the club’s former reputation as a Championship heavyweight being steadily unpicked, stitch by stitch, setback by soul-sapping setback, defeat by morale-shredding defeat.

In my last article, I said that change takes time.  And it does – but my call for optimism was undermined by both the failure to win at Bristol City and has now beem further derailed by this disastrous and pathetic defeat to one of the Championship’s worst teams, at home.  This was a game from which anything less than three points was simply not acceptable.

While it is abundantly clear that some of the current players are not part of the solution – and their FFP-busting recruitment is not on this manager – Pearson must accept that his attempt to introduce a new playing style, without making any changes to the squad until the very last moments of the summer window, has backfired horribly.

He chuntered in the DET this week that he didn’t see why changing the shape (and disposing of one of the Championship’s best proven goalscorers in the process) was such a big deal – well, unfortunately, Mr Pearson, it is.

As a result of his decisions, Derby County have staggered not just a step, but a country mile backwards since even last season (which was bad enough in itself) and are apparently incapable of snapping out of their current malaise.

Derby have not been relegated to the third tier since 1984, but results as bad as this – and the lack of any fightback after they went behind – mean that not since the tenure of the incompetent Paul Jewell have they looked so vulnerable to such a fate.  It is still relatively early in the season, but the current form, results, standard of performance and lack of goals are cumulatively terrifying.

Derby are in trouble and it is difficult to see how they are going to fight their way out of it, when on today’s evidence, they do not look like they could punch their way out of a paper bag.

We are a fifth of the way through the season and we are in the relegation zone.  We are 13 points behind automatic promotion (remember that as an ambition?), ten points off the play-offs and five points behind 16th.

Given the money spent and the club’s stated ambitions, this is an absolute disgrace.

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Ipswich ‘mugging’ hints at better things to come for Derby County

I was in Barcelona this week and we took a trip to the Camp Nou to watch the blaugrana, in what everybody assumed would be a standard thrashing of Deportivo Alavés.

camp-nou-web

What an arena.  Imposing and quite beautiful, with our views from the top of the south-facing stand stretching all the way down to the castle at Montjuïc.  Spots of rain and flashes of distant lightning, on an unseasonably warm night even for Barcelona, only added to what was a truly magnificent spectacle.

Barcelona rested Messi and Suárez, with only Neymar from the fabled front three starting the match.  Iniesta was also on the bench.  Still, here it was, the archetypal 4-3-3 possession system, in all of its elegant majesty.  Barcelona probed endlessly, their goalkeeper regularly roamed almost to halfway, the centre backs pushed far on into Alavés territory, the ball forever rotating from man to man.  Over and again, the spidery patterns were weaved.

Alavés sat deep, soaking up the pressure with admirable discipline and then, just as it seemed that all of the ominous Barcelona build-up play would inevitably lead to a break-through, the away team scored on the counter – neat wingplay buying room for a devillish low cross, which was bundled home.

Barcelona equalised seconds after the break, but then Javier Mascherano dropped a colossal bollock, duffing a routine clearance straight into the path of an Alavés forward, who romped through, barely able to believe his luck, to net what would be the winning goal.  The introduction of Messi, Iniesta and Suárez from the bench came too late, despite the former two in particular demonstrating all of their mesmerising gifts.

No matter how good your attackers are, it is very, very hard for them if well-organised opponents defend properly.  Even the greatest players in the world can be repelled by opponents who concentrate, track runs, throw bodies in the way of every shot and enjoy a little bit of luck along the way.

I’ve heard people suggest that Derby’s own 4-3-3 system had ‘failed’ and had to be junked.  I don’t agree and think that our overall record for the past three years refutes any such suggestion.  Controlling the game, hogging the ball and forcing the opposition to defend for long spells is a great way to play, if you’re technically able.  And we have surely the best technical midfielder in the division, in Hughes.

I’ve kept schtum since the start of the season, mainly because it was not at all apparent to me what Nigel Pearson was driving at.  Hughes and Martin were initially dropped, then there was the shocking performance at Barnsley and no wins or goals until both returned to the starting line-up, in what was described as a ‘4-1-4-1’ shape at Preston (definitely not a 4-3-3).

Then there was the alarmingly limp first half against Aston Villa, the wretched defeat at Burton and the last-minute transfer frenzy, with Vydra and Anya recruited as Pearson let Martin and Hendrick go.  The loss of Martin was disconcerting – Without him to hold the ball up, or a recognised holding midfielder to prompt and probe from deep, how would we exercise any control over games?  Wouldn’t we be weaker as a result?  But now, having caught up with the games I missed while away, it is starting to make more sense to me.

With two attacking full backs, Anya charging down one flank, presumably Weimann once fit charging down the other, plus two swift forwards, Pearson is aiming to put together a whirling dervish of an offensive unit to blow opponents away. In contrast to McClaren-era Derby, who often calmly passed lesser teams to death, Pearson wants his Rams to overwhelm them with a high-tempo bombardment, forcing them onto the back foot and prevailing through relentless energy and movement.  This is why the technically adept but ponderous Martin was discarded so casually.  That was a huge decision, taken ruthlessly – nearly as big was the decision to drop Jason Shackell for Ipswich and then there was the pointed refusal to use Tom Ince from the bench, when Pearson had a spare change to make and desperately needed a goal.

But while certain players are not currently part of the plan, Pearson has praised others, most notably Craig Bryson, very highly – and this week, finally offered a word of encouragement for Hughes, who put in superb performances against both Newcastle and Ipswich.  Hughes and Bryson remain as good as anyone at this level and I trust them to forge a strong midfield partnership, around which Pearson can build the rest of his team.

OK, we lost to Newcastle, but I firmly believe that they are going to win the title with 100 points.  Look at what they did to QPR on Tuesday.  6-0, with 29 shots to seven.  Derby restricted them to barely a chance in the 90 minutes – you can’t call Gouffran’s goal from a corner a proper chance, it was just an exquisite strike of the ball.  Only later in the game did Derby start to look vulnerable to Newcastle’s counter, as they chased an equaliser they never quite did enough to deserve.  I could launch into a rant about the farcically unfair ‘parachute payment’ system at this point, but that’s for another blogpost.

The Ipswich defeat was an entirely different matter.  With even a modicum of luck, Derby would have won that game comfortably.  It wasn’t perfect, by any means – and there was one spell in the first half where the football descended to park standard, the ball pinballing around randomly from head to boot to head – but as bravely as Ipswich defended, they know that they would have lost that match nine times out of ten.

Freak things happen in football.  Teams go through bad spells, where nothing seems to go right.  Barcelona can even lose to Alavés, on the one Saturday when I happen to be in town.  But as long as the fundamentals are in place, good teams will prevail in the end.

This insane lack of goals will not continue.  The defence has been among the division’s soundest so far and as long as that continues, we will be fine.  A win will come soon – hopefully today – and things will gradually start to come together for Pearson.  While the performances against Barnsley and Burton were absolutely awful – indefensibly so – the Ipswich performance was undeniably much better and offered the first indication of what Pearson is trying to achieve.

There is still a long way to go – and the disappointments of the first few games cannot simply be swept under the carpet – but change takes time.  I now have real hope that something good is gradually emerging and that better things are just around the corner.

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Posted in Derby County, History, Tactics | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Ipswich ‘mugging’ hints at better things to come for Derby County

Championship season preview, 2016/7

2016/7 will be Derby County’s ninth successive season in the Championship.  Of the 24 clubs in this year’s second division, only Ipswich Town have been stuck at this level for longer.

Consecutive seasons

Hanging around in the Championship for almost a decade is the exception, rather than the rule.  So, is it finally time for the Rams to break the cycle of underachievement to experience the thrill of featuring last on Match of the Day – and of having less games moved for Sky Sports, as we become a smaller fish in the bigger pond?

Here is how my predictions for last season squared with reality:

2015/6 Championship Ollie predicted Actual finish
BURNLEY TOP 7 1
BORO TOP 7 2
BRIGHTON MID-TABLE 3
HULL TOP 7 4
DERBY TOP 7 5
SHEFF W BOTTOM 8 6
IPSWICH TOP 7 7
CARDIFF MID-TABLE 8
BRENTFORD TOP 7 9
BRUM MID-TABLE 10
PNE BOTTOM 8 11
QPR MID-TABLE 12
LEEDS MID-TABLE 13
WOLVES TOP 7 14
BLACKBURN BOTTOM 8 15
FOREST BOTTOM 8 16
READING MID-TABLE 17
BRISTOL C MID-TABLE 18
HUDDS BOTTOM 8 19
FULHAM MID-TABLE 20
ROTHERHAM BOTTOM 8 21
CHARLTON BOTTOM 8 22
MILTON KEYNES MID-TABLE 23
BOLTON BOTTOM 8 24

*********************

Notes  – the top ratings below include players who made at least 30 appearances in 2015/6 only.  Players who have left a club since the end of last season are not included and their rating is transferred to their new club, where appropriate…

The Promotion Contenders

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION
Consecutive Championship seasons – 5
Average points per season (last three) – 69.33
Last season finish – 3rd

Established as one of the strongest Championship clubs, Brighton continue to challenge for their turn in the Premier League, having quickly shaken off the nightmare Sami Hyypiä season.  Managed by the sensible Chris Hughton, they will be in the mix again and will expect to at least finish in the play-offs – the addition of Oliver Norwood and an attempted £8m move for Alex Pritchard (scuppered at the last minute by Norwich) point to their ambition to do even better.

Top-rated players*: 1) Dunk 7.30, 2) Stephens 7.26, 3) Kayal 7.16
(+ Norwood 7.45)

DERBY COUNTY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 8
Average points per season (last three) – 80

Last season finish – 5th

Everyone knows the expectation, everyone knows the challenge at hand – and there is a general feeling that Nigel Pearson was the right man to take it on.  The McClaren 4-3-3 is no longer considered the default and only viable starting shape, which has implications for all of the players – some will get more chances to shine as a result, others, including some fan favourites, may find themselves out of the starting eleven.  Pearson won’t care a jot who he upsets, or whether we produce stylish football every week – and as long as the results continue to flow, even if the football doesn’t, then nobody will have any grounds to complain.

Top-rated players: 1) Thorne 7.29, 2) Christie 7.21, 3) Ince 7.20

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Relegated, 18th

They come down with problems, of course, but they also come down with vast amounts of money.  That Rafa Benítez chose to stay says it all – anything other than automatic promotion would be a genuine surprise.  The summer recruitment drive was uncompromising, with Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Isaac Hayden quickly joined by Grant Hanley.  In all likelihood, automatic promotion this season is the Toon plus one.

Top-rated players: 1) Sissoko 7.04, 2) Mbemba 6.98, 3) Colback 6.90
(+ Hanley 7.31, Diamé 6.95)

NORWICH CITY
Relegated, 19th

Already promoted to and relegated from the top flight twice this decade, Norwich are now a club who yo-yo tediously, their artificially-enhanced revenues making them too rich to slum it for long in the tragically rebranded ‘EFL’.  Yet they are seemingly unable to consolidate their status among the elite.  You know what they’ll be like – competent, hard to beat and in contention for automatic promotion.  Finish above them, you’re probably reaching the Promised Land.

Top-rated players: 1) Brady 7.15, 2) Howson 6.77, 3) Bassong 6.75

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 4
Average points per season (last three) – 62.33

Last season finish – 6th

An incredible turnaround was wrought at Hillsborough last season, as Carlos Carvalhal and co made Wednesday a force at this level for the first time in many years.  And the Owls are not messing around – Scotland striker Steven Fletcher adds to their firepower up-front, Almen Abdi and Daniel Pudil have arrived from Watford and the Sheffield Star reported that Wednesday were ready to bid as much as £11.5m for Ross McCormack.  The chummy ‘see you at Wembley’ song that rang around the iPro last spring will be superseded by the knowledge that Derby are facing off against genuine rivals this season.

Top-rated players: 1) Forestieri 7.26, 2) Lees 7.24, 3) Lee / Loovens 7.06


The best of the rest

BRENTFORD
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 71.5

Last season finish – 9th

They stumbled after the heady play-off campaign under Mark Warburton, but rallied to finish ninth last season under Dean Smith.  Brentford’s recruitment nous is now legendary, so one imagines the players they’ve signed from the lower leagues this summer will be decent.  Plus, they have Alan Judge – and look out for an impact from highly-fancied striker Scott Hogan, who could be their next Andre Gray (or the new Jamie Vardy, based on his career trajectory).  Established at Championship level and ambitious to go further, they are no longer an unknown quantity and could contend for a play-off place again.  That said, I still think that the Warburton factor was what propelled them on that bit further in 2014/5.

Top-rated players: 1) Judge 7.46, 2) Dean 6.97, 3) Yennaris 6.83

IPSWICH TOWN
Consecutive Championship seasons – 12
Average points per season (last three) – 71.67
Last season finish – 7th

Ipswich are so entrenched in the second division that they have been there ever since it was rebranded as the Championship in 2004 – in fact, they were in the ‘English Division One’ for two seasons prior to that, having dropped out of the Premier League in 2002.  But they have pushed for the play-offs in the past three seasons under ‘Big’ Mick McCarthy, who is now nearing his fourth anniversary at the Tractor Boys – some achievement, in a world where a manager’s average tenure in a job is shortening all the time.

Top-rated players: 1) Berra 7.28, 2) Skuse 6.96, 3) Chambers 6.95

WOLVES
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 68

Last season finish – 14th

The takeover by a Chinese consortium will make things interesting in Wolverhampton this season, especially as the infamous ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes is now involved in the club. The immediate upshot of this was the eyebrow-raising installation of the great Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga as head coach, plus an influx of Portuguese players.  This could go either way and they are playing catch-up in terms of their planning for the season, but if the new players are of sufficient quality, Wolves could make a serious nuisance of themselves this season.

Top-rated players: 1) Doherty 7.30, 2) Batth 7.16, 3) Henry 6.93


Mid-table mediocrity

ASTON VILLA
Relegated, 20th

An opinion you hear floating around a lot is that Villa are in all sorts of trouble and could drop straight through to the third tier. That is the outcome which the Premier League’s parachute payment system was invented to prevent.  Nevertheless, Steve Clarke and Roberto di Matteo have a huge job on their hands and need to hit the ground running (which was why I assumed Villa would go all guns blazing to get Nigel Pearson).

What they must do is avoid blundering into the Fulham trap of signing the ‘fur coat’ of a top goalscorer, while neglecting to purchase the sturdy ‘undercrackers’ of a viable back four….  Oh.  Hang on a minute!

The capture of Tommy Elphick from Bournemouth was a good start – nevertheless, the scale of the task is there for all to see.

Top-rated players: Gueye 7.25, Ayew 6.88, Gestede 6.83
(+ McCormack 7.21)

BIRMINGHAM CITY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 5
Average points per season (last three) – 59.67

Last season finish – 10th

Gary Rowett earned many plaudits for his work last season – and has this summer earned my gratitude by signing Ryan Shotton on a permanent basis.  Cheers, Gazza!

Top-rated players: 1) Grounds 7.18, 2) Morrison 7.08, 3) Kuszczak 6.90

BRISTOL CITY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 1
Points gained – 52
Last season finish – 18th

Fans were pleased by the signing of the stocky playmaker Lee Tomlin, with Bristolian media even suggesting that the move heralded the dawn of ‘sexy football’ at Ashton Gate – but they will need to bolster their squad further before the Robins can improve significantly on last season.  Have retained their top scorer Jonathan Kodija, at the time of writing.

Top-rated players: 1) Pack 7.13, 2) Flint 7.05, 3) Bryan 6.92

CARDIFF CITY
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 65
Last season finish – 8th

Ex-Ram Paul Trollope is now the man in charge at Cardiff, after the unpopular Russell Slade initially moved ‘upstairs’, then decamped to Charlton.  Their first three signings of the window were all foreign strikers – Kenneth Zohore, Lex Immers (who sounds like a super-villain) and Frédéric Gounongbe.  I can’t wait for ‘Rammer’ to have a crack at the latter name.

Top-rated players: 1) Morrison 7.28, 2) Ralls 6.99, 3) Whittingham 6.90

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN
Consecutive Championship seasons – 4
Average points per season (last three) – 53

Last season finish – 19th

The Terriers’ bright and breezy showing against Wassall’s Derby was impressive, but they go into the new season unfancied, for all of ex-Dortmund coach David Wagner’s attempts to get them gegenpressing.   That said, they have mounted a real recruitment drive this summer – and I’m not surprised that Wagner has signed several foreign defenders, as the British ones he had last season were uncomfortable trying to pass out from the back.  Wagner may be one to watch, but unless the new recruits gel exceptionally quickly, a play-off challenge is well beyond them.

Top-rated players: 1) Lolley 7.11, 2) Hudson 6.86, 3) Wells 6.79

LEEDS UNITED
Consecutive Championship seasons – 6
Average points per season (last three) – 57.33

Last season finish – 13th

Massimo Cellino has actually managed to make a decent decision by appointing Garry Monk as Leeds’ latest interim head coach, in what feels like a last chance for Leeds to actually sort themselves out.  The capture of Kemar Roofe from Oxford United was another sign that things might be on the up for them – but the move coincided with the loss of one of their brightest youth prospects, Lewis Cook, to Bournemouth (with fellow academy prospect Charlie Taylor also requesting a transfer this week).  If Derby had sold the 19 year-old Will Hughes for £6m plus add-ons, there would have been uproar.  That’s where Leeds are at.  A top-half finish would represent decent progress for them, but I’m not sure whether their fans would see it that way, or more importantly, whether Cellino would.

Top-rated players: 1) Bamba 7.35, 2) Taylor 7.26, 3) Cooper 7.01

PRESTON NORTH END
Consecutive Championship seasons – 1
Points gained – 62

Last season finish – 11th

Did much better than I expected last season, getting over the 60-point mark (and frustrated the life out of Derby, in the last knockings of Paul Clement’s tenure).  That solid showing gives Simon Grayson a good platform to build on and they have attracted Tommy Spurr from Blackburn, ex-Manchester United ‘keeper Anders Lindegaard, plus the tall striker Simon Makienok (although Charlton fans I spoke to last season said he was absolutely hopeless).  Realistically, they are probably hoping to replicate last season’s showing.

Top-rated players: 1) Gallagher 7.30, 2) Cunningham 7.11, 3) Wright 7.09

QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Consecutive Championship seasons – 1
Points gained – 60
Last season finish – 12th

QPR continue their ‘consolidation’, or to put it another way, sorting out the mess left after their crazy days of splurging millions on rubbish players.  Armand Traoré, Yun Suk-young, Matt Phillips and Rob Green are among the departures, while in come the less exotic but probably more suitable likes of Joel Lynch from Huddersfield, Jordan Cousins from Charlton and Jake Bidwell, from Brentford.  Mid-table.

Top-rated players: 1) Onuoha 7.19, 2) Luongo 7.09, 3) Hall 6.98 

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Promoted, Champions

Won League One comfortably under former player Gary Caldwell and the rookie manager now has a chance to take on the Championship.  The sturdy Stephen Warnock was a canny signing and reportedly said in an interview that Caldwell is aiming to model the Latics on Italy this season, with an emphasis on defensive solidity.  Perhaps Jake Buxton is earmarked to become their new Paolo Maldini?  Consolidation is doubtless the aim.

Player stats unavailable
(1. Burn 7.08)

The strugglers

BARNSLEY
Promoted, play-offs

Another trip to Oakwell, in all its corrugated iron splendour, beckons.  Woot!  We will get an early opportunity to determine whether the Tykes are strong enough to compete at this level, following last season’s magical, Roy of the Rovers surge from the relegation zone to Wembley glory.

Player stats unavailable 

BLACKBURN ROVERS
Consecutive Championship seasons – 4
Average points per season (last three) – 64
Last season finish – 15th

Venky’s made the strange decision to appoint the former Burnley and Bolton manager Owen Coyle, who was sacked from his last job in England, at Wigan, after a 3-1 home defeat to Derby in December 2013.  Star defender Grant Hanley was soon pinched by Newcastle, but an exodus of dross over the summer provided room for much-needed new blood for a stagnant club which limped to 15th last year.  But fear not, Rovers fans. Perhaps this is the season when Danny Graham finally goes nap?  Or maybe Anthony Stokes will be a more reliable source of goals.  If not, there may be trouble in store.

Top-rated players: 1) Duffy 7.40, 2) Conway 6.96, 3) Marshall 6.80

BURTON ALBION
Promoted, runners-up

The story that began back in 1998 has reached the unlikeliest and most amazing of chapters.  Realistically, bare survival will be the Brewers’ aspiration, but in Nigel Clough, they have a stubborn, determined manager, whose bloody-minded “don’t lose” philosophy jarred at Derby and Sheffield United, but could be more suited to a club playing the role of underdog every single week.  Clough would seriously enjoy putting a few noses out of joint along the way and I wish them every success – starting at the City Ground…

Player stats unavailable 

FULHAM
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 51.5

Last season finish – 20th

Fulham had a wretched 2015/6, to follow on from a wretched 2014/5.  Without Ross McCormack, it’s safe to say they would be gone by now and they remain at some risk of dropping into the third tier.  Moussa Dembélé and Emerson Hyndman have departed and you wonder whether McCormack, flogged to Villa this week, rues the day he moved to Craven Cottage.  That said, there’s every chance that he has moved to the ‘new Fulham’. Slaviša Jokanović has it all to do, but can at least sign players now, as the transfer embargo imposed on the Cottagers in January has been lifted.

Top-rated players: 1) Cairney 7.04 (McDonald 6.98)
No other current squad member made 30 starts last season

NOTTINGHAM FOREST 
Consecutive Championship seasons – 8
Average points per season (last three) – 59.67 

Last season finish – 16th

I think it’s fair to say that Philippe Montanier had no profile in this country prior to his unveiling at the City Ground.  The Nottingham Post felt compelled to run a piece entitled “Who is Forest’s new head coach?” and Fawaz misspelled his name on Twitter, while making the announcement.

Optimistically-minded Red Dogs can point to Montanier’s achievement of leading Real Sociedad to the Champions League qualification play-offs in 2013.  Nobody had ever heard of Carlos Carvalhal, but look how well he did last season, goes the PR line.  Carvalhal was well backed in the transfer market, though.

Speaking of backing, it’s reported that Fawaz is to be bought out by the Greek businessman Evangelos Marinakis – a man currently banned from football activity in his home country and recently mentioned in Private Eye.  The Eye notes that Marinakis is currently on bail, facing charges of ‘directing a criminal organisation’, blackmail, fraud and even ‘arranging an explosion’!

Top-rated players: 1) Vaughan 7.09, 2) Mancienne 7.06, 3) Mills 6.94

READING
Consecutive Championship seasons – 3
Average points per season – 57.66
Last season finish – 17th

Their Premier League dalliance long behind them, Reading are now in the unfortunate position of having their brightest players, like Oliver Norwood and Aaron Tshibola (and Nick Blackman), picked off by bigger clubs.  Their performances over the last two seasons have been poor and they will be looking over their shoulders nervously. New manager Jaap Stam is as big a name and frame as they come, but this is his first managerial experience of any kind, let alone of the Championship.

Top-rated players: 1) , 2) McShane 7.17, 3) Williams 6.97, 3) Gunter 6.50

ROTHERHAM UNITED
Consecutive Championship seasons – 2
Average points per season – 47.5
Last season finish – 21st

Neil Warnock kept them up comfortably in the end last season.  But what happens next? Back-to-back 21st place finishes with sub-50 point tallies tell you all you need to know about the target for new manager Alan Stubbs, who joins having won the Scottish Cup with Hibs last season.  No less than a dozen players left early in the summer, giving Stubbs a big job to do in rebuilding his team and squad.

Top-rated players: 1) Broadfoot 7.22, 2) Newell 6.94, 3) Mattock 6.93

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