What happens next at Pride Park?

At the time of writing, the home howlers against Bristol City and Cardiff have the feeling of a period which defines this as another season of underachievement – the week when Derby fluffed their lines again.

The disastrous events of last week have left Derby 11 points off the play-offs, with only 15 games left to play.  Anything can still happen and three points on Tuesday would be a start towards repairing the damage, but clearly, this is a gap which is going to be very difficult to claw back.

So, what happens next?  In the short term, changes to the side are inevitable and over the longer term, there may well also be repercussions for some players too.

Firstly, the changes which McClaren can and probably will make immediately.

Christie and Lowe 

McClaren’s formation works best with full backs who raid.  Even Christie’s surprisingly vocal detractors have to accept that he does this better than Baird, while Lowe should be seen as a seriously promising talent who deserves to be nurtured and developed, as Hughes and Hendrick were.

Baird has had a really good run and surprised me by showing how effective he can still be as a Championship full back.  However, the whole rationale for him being there was as a ‘steady eddie’ to help shore things up.  That is no longer working – Derby have struggled defensively for a few weeks now, not just in the past two games – and so I believe it’s now time to look to the future by bringing back Christie.

On the other flank, Olsson has presumably been preferred to Lowe for his experience, but why hold a potential star player back any longer for the sake of a competent journeyman?  I don’t think Lowe is that much worse than the Swede at the minute anyway and he has so much more scope to improve.  Have faith in Lowe, bear with his growing pains and reap the long-term rewards.  What have we got to lose?

Shackell

After his impressive performance against Leicester, one or two fans put their heads above the parapet to suggest that maybe it was worth bringing him back into the side.  These voices were soon shot down by the majority, who favour the cult hero Pearce, with my recent poll showing 75 per cent of fans who responded choosing a centre back pairing of Pearce and Keogh.

Derby still have one of the best overall defensive records in the division, but the topline stat masks a genuinely alarming decline in performance in recent weeks. The Rams have conceded 120 shots in their last seven league matches, which averages out at an unsustainably awful 17.1 shots per game.  For context, Rotherham give up an average of 17.8 shots pg and they are plunging out of the division like a stone.

Eventually, some of those shots were going to start creeping in and this was the week when the levee broke.  Meanwhile, we have an experienced, quality centre back kicking his heels on the bench, having put in accomplished performances against two Premier League teams in the FA Cup.

This is no way about ‘scapegoating’ Pearce – defending properly is about much more than just the back four and there are issues with the midfield balance for McClaren to chew on as well – but now is the time to restore our most talented defender to the side, in my opinion.

*

Those are the obvious options for changing the team’s fortunes in the short-term, but how about next season?

Prepare for summer clearout

Several players simply have to be moved on as soon as possible, for their own good. Top of the list is Vydra, closely followed by Blackman and I’d say Camara (although McClaren has made encouraging noises about the latter, despite his horrendous performance against Bristol City).  Russell is ticking down to the last 12 months of his contract and given the amount of speculation there has been already, I think he’ll be offski – again, it’s probably right for him to move on at this stage of his career.

We have to accept that we’re going to lose quite a lot of money on some players and that will make recruiting replacements more difficult – but it is what it is. Mac can’t use them.

With Forsyth coming back and Lowe emerging, I’d consider letting Olsson go. I would allow Johnson to leave, if we could drum up any interest.  I don’t see him as a player who fits into McClaren’s system – he is not a natural holding player and not technically adept or quick enough to play further up the pitch in the 4-3-3.

Midfielder passing
Tom Ince – Be braced for bids

Assuming we don’t go up, Ince is going to be in high demand.  Clubs coming down from the Premier League immediately start to hoover up the best Championship talent and Ince will be near the top of the list for any clubs looking to yo-yo.  Much will depend upon the player and whether he feels the grass looks greener elsewhere, or whether he wants to continue his love affair with The Mac.

Identify new midfielder(s)

The midfield three is a problem area at the moment, simply because the available players aren’t functioning as a coherent unit.  Possession and pass success are miles down on where we expect them to be, the defence is not being shielded effectively and we are heavily, overly reliant on Hughes for creative spark from this department.

Possession difference

Johnson has tried his best to adapt to the holding role, but it doesn’t really suit him.  De Sart is another Mascarell type – a wispy, technically nifty playmaker, who struggles to win the ball.  Of course, Thorne was perfect for the role and it will be hard to find another player of his calibre without spending a lot of money. Ideally, the man himself would return in full effect, but in any case, we will certainly need effective cover for him.

***

But before all that, it’s Burton and the return of Nigel.  You can see this going wrong, can’t you?  We know what he’s like – he loves the drama of these locally significant clashes – we always beat Leeds when he was here and there was the ‘ten men’ victory at Forest, which left some bloke called McClaren in ‘shock’. There’s Shaun Barker to come back, who everyone loves.  Kightly is a decent player, then there’s the time-honoured ‘law of the ex-player’, which covers Luke Varney and Tom Naylor.

Four more wins should just about see the Brewers safe and they’ve racked up three in their past six matches.  My reading of the stats – via my crude, but surprisingly effective model ‘The Thing’ – calls this game a draw, but you can imagine how the atmosphere could turn anxious and awkward for the Rams if it’s still level (or worse) after 75 minutes.

This strange, sort-of derby has banana skin written all over it and it will take cool heads for the undoubted extra quality Derby possess to prevail.

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Derby County v Bristol City preview, with the Exiled Robin (and infographic)

Now that the Leicester sideshow is out of the way, it’s down to the real business, which is the play-off challenge.  There’s no place like home and Derby are looking forward to three games on the spin at Pride Park, all against sides dwelling in the nether reaches of the Championship.

These are the games which we must capitalise on and so the target really should be at least seven points – two wins and a draw would give everyone a shot in the arm and keep the Rams at least within touching distance of the top six.

Of the three upcoming opponents, the most disappointing this season have undoubtedly been Bristol City.  While Cardiff have struggled for a while now and it’s a miracle for a club of Burton’s size to be competing at this level at all, the Robins are a team who seemed to be going into this campaign with the momentum and financial backing to at least be highly competitive in the Championship.

derby-v-bristol_20123798_ec2b882d141b07f44265f55c4a6d5090fd650013

I expect Derby to win this game, but I do not expect it to be a pushover by any means.  As the infographic shows, they’ve got far better underlying attacking indicators than their lowly league position would suggest – 15.1 shots per game is the second highest in the Championship and most of those have been taken from within the 18 yard-box.  They’re creating more than enough chances and Tammy Abraham has certainly done his fair share of converting them, but a lack of reliable goalscoring support is holding them back, compounded by the fact that the defence has been insecure.

Overall, City’s attacking form has been so much better than Derby’s this season that my (fairly crude) statistical model The Thing has this game down as a draw.  But the Robins’ form has nosedived spectacularly since December and until beating Rotherham 1-0 at home last week, they had not won a league match since 3 December (a 2-0 home win against Ipswich).

I was curious as to what exactly has gone wrong for them this season – so I thought I’d check in with the esteemed Bristol City blogger and ‘Exiled Robin‘, Paul Dinning.

Derby County Blog: Whathefuckhasgonewrong?!

The Exiled Robin: Ha ha, where do I start?!

We were probably punching above our weight earlier in the season, but no-one predicted the demise on quite this scale.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s happened, but the run of defeats started at Cardiff in October in Neil Warnock’s first match, where we were out-muscled and out-fought, followed shortly by being as outplayed as we have been in a 2-0 defeat at home to Brighton.  It seems as if almost from that moment, the manager and staff lost a little faith in the style and the team that had got us to that position previously.  They have been switching players, formations, styles and – well, everything really – with little success since then.

The two games that caused the most gripes were consecutive home defeats to Reading and Cardiff, where we were 2-0 and 2-1 up respectively heading into the final few minutes and managed to lose both 3-2.

It’s easy to forget that for the first four months of the season, we’d had more shots and created more chances than anyone else in the league. Unfortunately, the run of defeats has seen us change approach so dramatically that at times we now feel like cheering whenever we cross the halfway line!

DCB: Any concerns that Lee Johnson has irredeemably lost the plot, or do you still think he’ll be able to turn it around?

TER: Given the volume of changes in personnel each game, plus some erratic and questionable substitutions over the festive period, you have to have doubts.  Players who played a dozen straight games are suddenly not even in the squad for a few matches, substitutions have followed a predictable trend (until Saturday, when we tried something different and finally won!)  The pace has slowed to pedestrian at best, we don’t get forward quickly enough…. need I go on?

The tempo we played with at the start of the season has disappeared and the “one up-front” formation, which worked well earlier on, with midfielders getting forward to support Tammy Abraham, has become the stick which is perhaps understandably being used to beat Johnson with.  The midfield sits 30-40 yards behind Abraham and he only gets long balls now pinged to him.  Even then, if he manages to control one in three, we then haven’t got players close enough to him to make anything of it and it’s all very ponderous, slow, seemingly lacking bite.

Saying that… and I do get a lot of stick for this – we have still only lost one game by more than a single goal, which indicates teams aren’t pulling us apart.  With a touch of luck, a referee giving a soft foul, a deflection – those defeats, especially at home to Reading and Cardiff, could easily have garnered three points and things would be looking a lot rosier.

But they didn’t, and until we can stop the extended run of defeats, Johnson will be under tremendous pressure, from the fanbase at least.

DCB: Tell me about Tammy Abraham – what a signing he turned out to be!

TER: Yes indeed, although he too is struggling under the burden placed on him by the style of football we’ve changed to.  When he was scoring goals for fun, he pretty much just had to be in the right place at the right time.  That’s not meant to denigrate him in the slightest – it’s quite a skill – but the majority of his first ten or so goals were scored from around the six-yard line, as we were pushing other players forward, getting crosses in, shots were raining in and taking deflections or being saved and he mopped up beautifully.

Now we’re not and, at times, he looks what he is – a gangly 19-year-old kid battling two hardened Championship centre-halves on his own for 90 minutes.  By the time chances come to him, he’s so desperate to score that he’s started to snatch a little and shots have been blasted high and wide in recent weeks.

But that’s a somewhat petty criticism – he’s been fantastic in the main, has scored plenty of goals and, for a big lad, has fantastic touch and skills when the ball is at his feet.  I feel I can see a recognisable difference in his ability to get and control the longer ball fired up to him (he’s had plenty of practice!) and we’ll enjoy him whilst he’s still with us, because you can pretty much guarantee he won’t be at Ashton Gate next August.

DCB: Are there other players who give you grounds for optimism?  I noticed that a couple of foreign players have joined recently – any kop?

TER: A number of the new signings look strong.  Bailey Wright and Dave Cotterill have already shown a level of Championship experience not present in much of the rest of our squad, and offer a level of composure and assured thinking.  Jens Hegeler is a central midfielder apparently picked up for a bargain price from the Bundesliga and he looks a quality addition to shore up the midfield.

Up front, we’ve added Milan Djuric, a Bosnian international giant of a striker who gave Neil Warnock’s centre-halves a right going over, which tells you all you need to know.  He can be a big help and is certainly an option if Tammy isn’t working out.

The biggest news story was of course our capture of Matty Taylor from our Blue rivals on deadline day.  The fact we signed him was funny, the fact it was a bargain basement fee made it hilarious and it made for a rare day of fun on our social media channels during a month of gloom and despair!  But all that stuff aside, to sign a chap who’s scored so many goals in the bottom two leagues in the last 18 months for such a low fee has to be seen as a risk worth taking and hopefully, he can make the step up quickly.

DCB: Finally, assuming that City stave off relegation this season, which I’m sure they will, how do you see the future for the club – grounds for optimism?

TER: Yes, in the main, but we’ve got to rebuild confidence in the players, fans and coaching staff.  We’re not going to be able to play in the style we currently are for long – partly because fans won’t want to come and watch it, but hopefully a couple of wins nicked here and there can see us progress again and become more of an attacking threat once more.  Everything is in place around the club, we’ve just got to find the right formula on the pitch and sidelines.

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Derby County 3 Reading 2

This was not a game which Derby won through footballing excellence.  It was a game they won through hard work.

We knew exactly what Reading were going to try to do.  Under Jaap Stam, they play the Dutch passing game, taking the short option at all times on principle.  We know how beautiful that can be when the opposition lack the energy or bravery to shut it down.  We also know, from painful experience, how badly it can go wrong if the opponents push as high as they can and refuse to allow the keeper and defenders time to play.

Derby were lucky to go in at 1-1.  They did nothing to deserve their equaliser in the first half, having been guilty of allowing Reading to settle into their rhythm and dictate terms. Swift’s opener was as predictable as it was exasperating and at that stage, Derby were a remote second best.  There are times when I’m unable to celebrate a goal and Bent’s was one of them, but it was a stroke of fortune which the Rams had to capitalise on.

And they did.  Derby presumably got a bollocking at half time, because in the second half, they did to Reading pretty much what Leeds had done to them last week.  They pressed as high as they could.  The purist game which looks so slick when it’s working is best disrupted by haranguing the worst players in the side – the defenders and goalkeeper.  We know this and finally, we did it.  We forced the inevitable errors and we profited with three points.  Ince’s goal looked like a present, but of course it was actually the result of hard work and a bloody-minded determination not to allow them to play.

It was perfect timing that Hughes netted as Stam waited to make a double change. The third goal was a blessing and a curse, because it gave us a cushion, but also proved to be the cue for the Rams to retreat a bit, stop harassing Reading and let them settle into their passing game again.  It said something about Mac’s lack of faith in his threadbare bench that he refrained from making any changes until the last few minutes, because there was a clear need for fresh legs well before then.

Méïte made a difference with his mobility – and was granted an infuriating free header from a corner to make it 3-2 – but fortunately, with McClaren finally using his bench to create something akin to a back six, it was too little, too late for visitors who were left to settle for the moral superiority of 65 per cent possession.

A word for Marcus Olsson, who was well involved in the Hughes goal and who put in an impressive shift for a player only just returning to the side from a hamstring injury.  He looked as edgy as anyone else in the first half, but he kept going, felt his way into the game and made a telling contribution in the end, making his way into the box for the shot which was blocked into Hughes’ path for what turned out to be the winner.

And a word too for the South Stand, for their magnificent “we’ve got the ball” prank in injury time.  It was just beautiful – a gleeful lancing of the Reading supporters’ naive enjoyment of Stam’s possession-based system.  Because referee Peter Bankes didn’t have a clue what he was doing, he probably only added on about half the time the Rams fans wasted.  And Reading can’t complain about it, because they had been time-wasting from about the twentieth minute, right up until the point when they went behind.

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Derby County Podcast, with Ramspace and Popsider

The latest Derby County Podcast is out now and as usual, it was a really interesting chat with Joel, Chris and Jonathan.

http://www.dcfcpodcast.uk/podcast/podcast-5

Unsurprisingly, the kick in the balls that was defeat at Leeds United cast something of a shadow on the debate, but as Chris pointed out, it’s very important not to be swayed by individual results – we have to look at the overall trend, rather than the occasional bump in the road.

A few points, to expand on topics that we touched on in the debate:-

  • Bryson hasn’t played regularly for some time now and has said himself that he needs a run of games to get back to full sharpness.  I don’t want to slate him and am certainly not prepared to write him off, but we really need more from him, because the midfield three needs at least one player who can break into the box.  None of the others on the books seem capable of doing that, so fingers crossed he has a couple more seasons in him yet.  Otherwise, we may have to look at recruiting a replacement for Hendrick.

 

  • Pearce v Shackell – I understand why McClaren gave Shackell the nod at Leeds, given that Shackell was by general agreement man of the match at The Hawthorns. If a player is given a chance and does really well, what does it do to his morale if you then drop him?  I’d also add that I don’t think we lost at Leeds because of the centre backs.However, it’s obvious that the fans have taken Pearce to their hearts and want him back in the team.  This is a hard situation for McClaren to manage, but certainly, the people have spoken.

 

  • Butterfield – Chris correctly pointed out that Butterfield has not scored this season.  I think it’s worth pointing out that he has had more shots than any Derby player this season except for Ince – 47, of which, only nine have been on target.  The main reason being that 37 of those shots have been from long range.  Everyone remembers the beautiful strikes from last season, but those goals are the exception that proves the rule.Butterfield is a neat and tidy player who knits things together and passes well, but he can’t drive into the box – so I see his role in our squad as providing cover for Hughes.

    (This shot detail infographic illustrates just how much we have relied on Ince this season for attacking threat, let alone goals, this season – best viewed on Piktochart)

dcfc-shots-deta_172_384fdd7310efca0137d2012d8a16f96577b67a7d

  • Ageing players – The club has developed what I believe is an unhealthy habit of awarding long-term contracts to players who are getting to the end of their careers. Shackell will be almost 35 by the time his deal expires.  Bent will be 33, Bryson 32, Johnson 32, Anya 32, Olsson 31.  This pattern has continued, with Nugent contracted until 2019, by which time he will be 34.  This is no good.  It’s almost as if the club are being blinded by reputations – they are not getting out there and finding younger players with scope to develop from McClaren’s much hyped coaching abilities and form the core of the team for the long-term.

 

  • Who would you lose from this squad?  Joel asked Jonathan the question and my answer, in this window anyway, would have been ‘Camara’.  He’s been here for a year now and he’s 26 – not a kid.   It would be wonderful if he proved me wrong, but I honestly feel that if he was capable of doing it at Championship level, then he would be doing it by now.  If there is an opportunity to sell him back to France, it seems wise to cut our losses and take it.

 

  • Chris Martin – (Sigh…) I take Chris’ point about ‘moving on’, but it’s not possible to move on until we’ve got the dosh he’s worth.  That is the problem – we’re in this limbo phase and it’s affected the club negatively.  The situation is a complete mess and clearly still a long way from being resolved.   This will drag on until next summer.  In the meanwhile, it’s perfectly possible that Martin’s goals will help propel Fulham into the play-offs and thence the Premier League, while we continue to struggle to score and pine for a ‘Martin type’ to hold up the bloody football….
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New Year’s resolutions for Derby County 

It’s well worth pausing at the turn of the year to congratulate the team and Steve McClaren for the miraculous way in which they’ve turned the season around.  The Rams’ form in the last couple of months has been exceptional – so much so that a GIF sent to me in October to use ‘when things haven’t gone so well’ was never relevant for the rest of 2016.

In honour of the non-performance at Norwich and Jacob Butterfield’s rather brainless dismissal, here it is, finally making an appearance a full two months after it was originally delivered:-

f6d1efbd-0ddf-4eb9-b650-09289bd06977
As we praise the team for their sterling efforts in recent times, the dawning of 2017 is also a fitting moment to look forward and consider what happens next.  Here are a few resolutions which I imagine will be pinned up on a board somewhere at DCFC HQ.

Work some magic in the transfer market

Every transfer window is important, but this one feels particularly so.  Even with players to come back from injury and suspension, the squad needs strengthening if it is to have a real chance of maintaining what, only a few weeks ago, seemed an implausible play-off push.

There is added pressure on the new (old) recruitment team to deliver, as the Directors of Recruitment brought in for Pearson have been elbowed aside for their sake and because Chris Evans’ record in his last spell contained at least one Ryan Shotton for every Alex Pearce.  Meanwhile, the new Chief Scout – Steve’s son Joe – will always be open to accusations that he did not get where he is on merit.

Hopefully, Julien De Sart will fill the George Thorne niche well and it was encouraging to see Derby come out of the blocks early this January with a promising loan signing, especially given the short-term midfield issues.  Now, with Weimann and Camara unable to force their way into the team, another wide attacker must surely be a top priority, while sharing the lone striker load between Darren Bent and Matej Vydra has led to the pair scoring four goals between them in the 16 games since Pearson’s departure (three for Bent, one for Vydra).

Which leads on to the next resolution…

Get Chris Martin back

Despite the vitriol aimed at him by a vocal minority of fans who can’t stand him, there is a dire need to retrieve Martin from his purgatory at Fulham.  Unless, of course, the Rams can find another 15-20 goal Championship centre forward for less than £10m elsewhere.

top-six_18309516_a44cd61e108d67017f24538280c4a599a8f726fa

As soon as it became clear that there was no recall clause in the deal rushed through in August – and that Fulham had absolutely no intention of converting Martin’s loan into a permanent deal in January – Derby had a big problem, because they had neither the player, nor the money he was worth.

The increasingly intricate structure of Financial Fair Play regulations make it hard to know for sure – and we still haven’t seen the club’s accounts for last season – but I wonder whether Derby, even if Mel wants to, could ‘break the bank’ on a serious new striker without also breaking the new spending limits (with permitted losses now capped at £39m over three seasons).  That becomes almost irrelevant if you get promoted, but if you don’t make it, the Football League now have the power to decide to hammer you with a points deduction, let alone a transfer embargo.

New contract for Will Hughes

Two of the more positive stories this season have been contract extensions for players who have done really well – Max Lowe and Scott Carson.  While reinforcements are of course required during the window, it would also be a huge boost to everyone associated with the club if Hughes committed to an extension at this stage.

With his current agreement ticking down to its last 18 months, now is the time to get a new one inked.  However, after all the upheaval and play-off heartache he has experienced at PP, Hughes could not be blamed if he decides to wait until the summer, see if Derby get promoted and then reassess his situation.

Finish in the top six

If Derby managed to get promoted after giving the rest of the division such a head start, it would be little short of miraculous.  That said, with order and pride now restored by McClaren, another tilt at Wembley glory must now be the aim.  There is a decent challenging pack, but nothing to be unduly afraid of and a successful January window, followed by a bit of luck with injuries, could see the season extended yet again – and even a different outcome this time…

Don’t sack Steve McClaren

… Nevertheless, we have to accept the very real possibility that Derby will be facing yet another season in the Championship come August.  It would be nice to think that we would be doing so with the same manager in post, because for now, the ship is back on an even keel – and that is not nothing, given the scale of the slump under Nigel Pearson.

The club will only tread water at best if there is constant upheaval.  Even by modern standards, Mel’s attitude towards managers has been alarmingly casual – but by now, even Massimo Cellino himself finally seems to have learned that chopping and changing is a recipe for disaster.

The owner is determined to make this club successful, but even he will finally have to acknowledge that Rome wasn’t built in a day (and the only man who could have pulled off that particular feat is sadly no longer with us).

Which leads onto a final resolution which seems to be occupying Mel’s mind at the minute!

World Domination

One of the more interesting off-the-field stories of the season has been Mel’s decision to challenge the Football League over what he deems to be an unacceptable TV rights deal for the 72 clubs.  This week, he summoned all of the clubs to his Citadel to discuss what should be done next and it was subsequently reported by Owen Bradley that Morris ‘will be involved’ in the next set of negotiations, adding that the FL clubs are ‘impressed by Morris and his vision’.

So, the point Mel is making is assuredly valid.  However, I sincerely hope that his wheeze of a ‘friendly’ against Leeds United, of all clubs, doesn’t go ahead in March.  The idea is theoretically sound, because there is a clear tone of misery and despair among English football fans during every international break (certainly there is ’round my house, anyway) and a ravenous appetite for televised domestic football on any given Saturday (hell, on any given evening).  It’s also worth remembering that the Premier League have always opposed the idea of a winter break, pointing out that far from allowing their superstars to put their feet up, the megaclubs would simply take themselves off, Harlem Globetrotters-style, to play hyper-lucrative friendlies around the world instead.

Decent ticket prices – maybe even freebies to reward loyal season ticket holders – and family-friendly offers will make for a buzzing stadium and a good day out for supporters.  But the idea of staging a friendly purely to prove a point, at a time when the players should be in the midsts of a dogfight for the top six if all goes to plan, is laden with risk.  Once you sell TV rights to the thing, you’ve got to play the first eleven and they have to try a leg, as well.  That’s not to mention the historic rivalry between the two clubs, which further rules out a cozy kickabout.  While Wednesday, Huddersfield, Reading and the rest are enjoying a Saturday off to recharge tired players’ batteries ahead of the final push, our lads will be out there risking injury in a meaningless game, which, OK, could be relatively lucrative if Mel is right, but ultimately only a sideshow.  The players have looked very tired in recent weeks, labouring to a victory against Birmingham before running out of gas against Wigan and Norwich.  Proof that regular breathers through a punishing season are a necessity.  A penny for Steve McClaren’s thoughts on this particular plan….

Happy New Year to all Rams fans, here’s to a belting 2017!

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