Leeds United 1 Derby County 2

Brothers and sisters, that was immense.  
It started to flow in the second half of a game which could have got away from Derby, who were not punished for a lacklustre first 45 – too slow, wanting too many touches and too much time, losing possession too often in dangerous areas.  The answer – and this goes contrary to my instincts – was to counter Leeds’ aggressively high line by being less precise and more direct, to turn them and force them to retreat into their own third.  Leeds’ left back was a winger, Stuart Dallas – this seemed an obvious avenue to exploit, though in the first half, Derby’s full backs’ unwillingness to get forward and stretch Leeds limited our opportunities to create chances.

The home side got off to a fast start through the classic tactic of squeezing very high and hard – Huddlestone was caught on the ball and will get the criticism for the Leeds goal, but the situation initially arose from a poor touch by Forsyth, who allowed the ball to escape his control.  There were many such moments of sloppiness in the first half, but fortunately, Leeds lacked the quality to fully exploit them and kill the game off.  1-0 at half time felt about right and so it was over to Gary Rowett to direct the team to turn around what had been a very disappointing display.

I was prescribing substitutions – my thoughts were maybe Thorne on for Huddlestone and at some point, Vydra, probably for Lawrence, who had been peripheral – but the manager persevered with his starting XI for more than an hour – in fact, he didn’t even use his third substitute to eat up time, as the Rams saw it out in relative comfort, a rising drive from the edge of the box in the last minute aside.  That half-chance came from nothing, just a long ball and a nod-down – it flashed over. 

The luck is with the Rams at the moment, but they are rolling with it and hoovering up the points, leaving opposition managers and supporters to howl at the injustice of it all.  It is the opposite of what “the Derby Way” had become – and it is brilliant.

Even at the hour mark, it wasn’t obvious that the Rams were going to get back into it, but it was plain to see that Leeds had very few attacking ideas.  Isolated counter-attacking opportunities were presented to them by our mistakes, but they were unable to take advantage.  Derby were starting to control possession as the Leeds pressing game naturally faded and the longer it stayed at 1-0, the more the feeling that there was something in it for Derby grew. 

Huddlestone, who had struggled badly with the pace of the game in the first half, gradually became more influential and the pressure started to build.  Leeds were forced back and began to make errors of their own.  Corner after corner was flighted in and, in the end, they cracked.  It was the kind of quality pass you expect from Huddlestone, the perfect low cross on the run from Forsyth, an emphatic, net-busting finish from Winnall and it goes down as one of my favourite moments watching the Rams in recent times.  I think back to Ben Davies v Leeds at Pride Park, Johnny Russell v Forest in the 5-0, Thorne at Huddersfield and against Brighton in the play-offs – this one was up there with those magic moments. 

At the moment, Winnall for Butterfield is looking like one of the cannier deals Derby have done in recent years, shifting out a midfield misfit in return for a striking option totally different to what we had at the club.  Winnall is a goals man – another one of those late-blooming strikers who erupts from the lower leagues – and he could be a big asset for the rest of the season.  Having proved his Championship worth at Barnsley, joining Wednesday as an understudy to bigger names was an unfortunate career move, which cost him valuable time.  Now, his desperation to play, impress and snaffle goals is obvious and he had the balls to step up and convert the crucial penalty, as well.  I don’t see how he can possibly be dropped for the Reading game now and so Rowett has some interesting decisions to make ahead of Saturday.

So to sum it up, Leeds charged out of the blocks, worked extremely hard to stifle Derby for an hour, ran out of gas and ultimately – and actually rather tamely – lost, to a team which showed that bit more quality in the final third.  If a team is ultimately as good as its strikers, then Derby are very good at this level – and the good times could continue for a while yet.

Leeds can whinge all they like about the penalty award, but the fact is that their defender was rumbled and tried to get cute by committing a professional foul marginally outside of the box.  And it backfired on them – tough.  My instinct in real time was that it was a penalty and I can absolutely see why it was given. 

While Norwich can justifiably say that they were unlucky not to get at least a point out of their defeat to us last weekend, I don’t think Leeds – who mustered only one shot on target out of a grand total of eight – can have any complaints.  On that showing, I’m comfortable in predicting that they will finish well outside of the top six this season.

Beating Forest and Leeds within the spaces of a couple of weeks is brilliant – and Gary Rowett is surely October’s Championship manager of the month – but now it’s time to capitalise on Saturday, with a more prosaic, but equally important home game against Jaap Stam’s Reading.  It’s too early to start getting carried away, but at least we can talk about one ‘p’ word – positivity – which is undeniably flowing through the club again.

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Derby’s Day: Derby County 2 Nottingham Forest 0

It panned out as expected, in some ways.  Forest had more of the ball and tried to pull us apart through quick passing and clever movement.  Derby had to endure spells where they couldn’t break up the opponents’ flow and instead, just had to sit deep, watch and wait.  It was nerve-wracking, at times.  Forest did work their way into dangerous areas on more than one occasion, but the final touch was lacking and they were much too weak at the back – and this Achilles heel was expertly exploited by the Rams.

On another day, the cross which Jason Cummings fizzed in would have been touched home by Daryl Murphy (even though the big Irishman was otherwise marshalled expertly throughout by Davies and Keogh).  On another day, Barrie McKay would have concluded his canter through an utterly rumbled defence by slotting his one-on-one chance past Carson.  But we got away with that single malfunction and in the end, it simply wasn’t Forest’s day, a fate which they seemed to have accepted long before the final whistle.  In the end, it was Derby who could have added more to their tally and who saw out their victory with relative ease.

It was our day, not their day, but we shouldn’t try to convince ourselves that we won through superior tactics, or because possession football is in some way passé.  We won because two quality strikers snaffled two quite brilliant goals from pretty much their only chances and because a quality goalkeeper stood up strongly to make a save when we needed him.

In winning this game, Derby had to ride their luck at times.  Nobody can dispute that the second goal came against the run of play and at a point when the threat at the other end was starting to build.  Fortunately, the second setback holed Forest below the waterline and, despite Mark Warburton’s substitutions, from around 70 minutes onwards, they began to subside.  I’ll be honest, the introduction of Jamie Ward made me think – is he the best they’ve got?  And the answer is, probably not, actually.  I guess it was a gambit based on the edge Ward has brought to this fixture in previous seasons, but it failed.

Derby had four shots to Forest’s ten in the first half and they will not always get away with going in at 1-0 up, if that continues.  The back four and Carson looks basically solid, but questions remain about the overall balance of the side.  A midfield two of Huddlestone and Ledley lacks mobility and there were some worryingly loose passes, some flustered, ‘anywhere will do’ clearances to chew on.

It wasn’t perfect.  But how often is a 90 minute performance perfect?

Despite an ongoing squad cull which has, to date, dispensed with almost as much wheat as chaff, Rowett can still call upon some of the best players in the Championship.  Matej Vydra, finally, is stepping up to become the key man in the number ten role.  Steve McClaren couldn’t use him effectively and Nigel Pearson wasn’t given time to demonstrate why he signed the gifted Czech, who has now scored or assisted 44 per cent of the Rams’ goals in all competitions this season (eight out of 18).  Rowett is obviously planning to build the team more or less around Vydra, for home games at least.

And (whisper it) George Thorne is back…  Brothers and sisters, if that boy can gradually build up his match fitness and nail down his place in the team, then we have a much better chance of success this season.  The ovation he received when he entered the pitch was incredible, because we love him, because he is class.

And Johnny Russell is back.  Now, this is an interesting one, because it was starting to seem as if Rowett had decided to do without him, presumably ahead of selling the Scot in January.  But with results threatening to go a bit skew-whiff, the manager was forced to reconsider.  Russell, like Thorne, is only contracted until the end of the season and has had as many downs as ups in his Derby career – but the hugely enthusiastic response to his man-of-the-match award spoke of the affection many supporters have for him.

And then there’s Tom Lawrence, a player who clearly has great potential.  It hasn’t quite happened for him just yet – how great would it have been had he blasted that chance for a third into the back of the Forest net – but his ability to beat a man, his set-piece delivery and his rocket of a shot are going to pay dividends eventually.

In short, there are as many reasons for optimism as there are reasons to counsel caution.

Was this a convincing performance?  Not totally.  Was it the performance of a team who are promotion-ready?  Not obviously – it wasn’t fluent, or wholly dominant.  Nevertheless, without necessarily passing “the eye test” and despite coming under some pressure, we won.  The challenge now is to repeat the trick consistently and so the next game becomes intriguing, because in many ways, it will be a similar assignment.

Sheffield Wednesday will be well backed by their travelling support and, while not at the same intensity as the EMD, there will be a big game atmosphere.  Like Forest, they will look to take the game to us and will certainly dominate possession for spells.  If we are going to become a successful counter-attacking team, which appears to be Rowett’s intention, then we have to show the discipline and nerve to weather prolonged spells of pressure and emerge unscathed – but also the composure on the ball to play out quickly and accurately from the back (whether long or short) and create enough chances at the other end to win.  The latter part is not quite there yet, although on this day – just as they were in March – Nugent and Vydra were too good for Forest to contain.

Rowett’s work in progress continues, but on East Midlands Derby Day, we simply ask for a result – and we got it.

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Derby County v Nottingham Forest preview

At the start of last week, I had an instinctive favoured starting XI for this game, which, for what it’s worth, is as follows:-

Carson
Wisdom
Keogh
Davies
Forsyth
Huddlestone
Ledley
Russell
Vydra
Lawrence
Martin

I think that’s our best balanced and most dangerous side.  However, with a range of attacking options in the squad, Rowett has the potential to tailor his front four – there are so few midfield options that it effectively has to be a front four – to the opposition.  He needs to choose whether to go with what I would argue is his strongest offensive option – a Martin / Vydra partnership – or choose more diligent players like Winnall and Weimann, who are less technically good, but more willing to charge around closing defenders down (The Nuge has a little from both columns – but at 32, is no whippet).

Under Mark Warburton, Forest are keen to play attractive football.  They have played more short passes per game than any other side in the Championship so far this season, just like Derby used to do – we were top for that measure in 2015/6, second highest in 2014/5 and second highest in 2013/4 (under Rowett, the average number of short passes has decreased significantly, from 400+ to just over 300 so far this season).

But Forest are testing their long-suffering supporters’ coronary resilience by trying to pass out from the back in almost all circumstances.  When defenders like the lumbering Matt Mills are forbidden from “getting rid”, there are going to be opportunities for opponents with the necessary appetite to hassle and fluster defenders into errors.  Forest can score when allowed to get into their flow, with Daryl Murphy still a significant goal threat at this level, but their defensive record – 19 goals conceded in 11 games – is among the worst in the Championship.

Forest had a bad September.  The 2-1 win against Sheffield United was huge for them, because prior to that, their form stank – defeats at Sheffield Wednesday (1-3) and Aston Villa (1-2) were compounded by home losses against Wolves (1-2) and Fulham (1-3), the latter a very open game in which both sides missed good chances.  These four defeats were partially mitigated by beating the Blades 2-1 at the City Ground and by keeping a rare clean sheet in winning 1-0 at Sunderland.

Image courtesy
of kickoff.co.uk

Note that Forest scored in every match and also that, in picking up six points, they actually did as well from the calendar month as Derby did, even though the Rams only lost once (albeit Forest played six games to our five).  They haven’t drawn a game all season and so, despite suffering six defeats, sit two points above Derby in mid-table at this stage.

Warburton has a big, probably overly-stocked squad, with plenty of options to choose from in all areas of the pitch.  He has shifted between a back three and a back four this season, even within games, I’m told, but has preferred a 4-2-3-1 in recent away fixtures.  He could go either way at Pride Park, though I’m guessing he will start with the ‘safer’ option of a back four.  Much will depend upon the fitness of David Vaughan.

Veteran schemer Vaughan is hailed as a key cog in Forest’s wheel by Nottingham media.  He has been injured for several weeks, but is back in training ahead of the derby.  If Vaughan is fit to start in what McClaren used to call the “conductor” role, Rowett will need to consider whether Derby’s number ten needs to be instructed to do a disciplined closing job, to prevent the Welshman from dictating play.

After Fulham beat Forest at the City Ground, coach Slaviša Jokanović told the BBC:-

“In the first 45 minutes we did not adapt very well in the game; we started in shy fashion.  We know Forest are a team who are fighting for possession of the ball.

“In the second half, we tried to take more risks, to push forward and press them harder and we scored two more goals.”

Starting in a ‘shy fashion’ is not really an option, when you’ve got 30,000 people screaming blue murder at you.  But I wonder whether Rowett’s template for this game could actually be the Fulham game last season, where Derby almost voided possession, yet had real joy on the break.  The Rams kept just 26 per cent of the ball, but, largely through capitalising on loose Cottagers’ play in their own third of the pitch, pulled off a spectacular 4-2 win, with an exceptional ten shots on target.

But would the Pride Park crowd be able to handle an East Midlands Derby where Forest commanded the ball the whole time?  How would you approach it, if you were in charge?  “Play our football”, like McClaren, or look to stop the opponents from playing first – which seems to be Rowett’s instinct?  Do we try to harry them into submission from the front, or do we allow Forest to pass out to an extent, trust the defence and midfield to deal with them and then trust the attackers to capitalise on the counter-attack?

The players are there for any tactic Rowett wishes to pursue, but I think it’s fair to say that he has not found the right blend yet.  Derby are not creating enough chances to win games on a regular basis – in fact, the Rams’ lack of shots from within the penalty area so far this season is downright alarming:-

Fewest shots from inside penalty area (per game)

Burton Albion 4.2
Bolton Wanderers 5.3
Derby County 5.5
Sunderland 6.5
(Notts Forest 7.2)

Given the undoubted attacking talent within the ranks, that simply isn’t acceptable and has to change, but at present, Rowett hasn’t hit on an XI that truly works.  Surely there must be a combination that will click eventually – and I think the addition of Joe Ledley is going to help the overall balance of the team – but I imagine Rowett might endure a sleepless night or two, in the build-up to this one.

*(I feature in the latest Derby County Podcast – an East Midlands Derby special)*

The stats and the underwhelming form guide point to a close-run thing between one team who can’t keep the ball out of their net and another who can’t get into the penalty area.  One intriguing pointer for this fixture is the two clubs’ results at Brentford – the Rams endured their game at Griffin Park instead of playing it and drew 1-1, despite barely taking a shot.  Forest, on the other hand, went toe-to-toe with the Bees and (with the rub of the green going their way) beat them 4-3.

The likelihood is that, at least for spells of the game, Forest will have the ball and seek to build a passing rhythm which will allow them to grow in confidence, while exasperating the crowd.  But although they keep the ball better than Derby, their defensive leakiness suggests that they would struggle to sit on a 1-0 lead, for any length of time.  This is probably going to be a much more open game than the last one that Pride Park suffered through, because Forest can’t and won’t set out to stifle, like Birmingham did.

That could play into Derby’s hands, but it will be a stern test of their mettle – and ours, as fans.  Having struggled through a run of just one win in the last six league games, Rowett is in dire need of three points from this game.  We will learn a hell of a lot about his coaching instincts, his temperament and the quality of his current squad on Sunday.

Graphic courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

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Gary Rowett’s search for a new Derby Way continues

We’re often told that when it comes to possession, it’s not how much you have, but what you do with it.  My take is that average possession percentage over a season acts as a good gauge for a team’s overall quality – same with pass success percentage.

An individual game’s possession stat is not reliable in terms of predicting the result – shots on target and particularly shot location are far more reliable in that regard – but when a side keeps the ball for less than a quarter of the game, it’s nevertheless a real eyebrow-raiser.  Especially when it’s Derby County in the Championship.  Teams can and very often do get away with a result despite having drastically less of the ball in a game, but I’m confident in saying that if the Rams averaged 24 per cent possession for the rest of the season, they would be relegated.

24 per cent.  It was a real shock.  After all, we have been known for seasons now as a relatively cultured, ball-playing outfit, prone to episodes of brilliance and inept capitulation in about equal measures, but keen to keep the ball on the deck and basically competent to do it.

That may have been the Derby Way in previous seasons, but it is not the Gary Rowett Way.

Lowest DCFC possession figures in last six seasons

Brentford A 17/18 – 24 (Rowett) 1-1
Fulham H 16/17 – 26 (Rowett) 4-2
Forest A 16/17 – 34 (Rowett) 2-2

Rowett flagged that a shift to a counter-attacking approach could happen during pre-season.  Discussing his philosophy with Owen Bradley, he said he was more inspired by pragmatic managers like Diego Simeone of Atlético Madrid than by any idealised notion of “total football”.  So when his side made prats of themselves at Sheffield United and Bristol City in consecutive away games, he rightly said that he would be “pretty stupid” not to change things – especially when the next game was against Brentford, who had humiliated Derby at Griffin Park a few months earlier.  That game was so embarrassing that the club refrained from posting the full 90 minutes on its website – to my knowledge, it’s the only match that hasn’t been added to the record in the past few seasons.

Rowett was clearly (and quite rightly) hellbent on preventing a repeat of that humbling defeat, which is he reverted to an approach more associated with his relatively successful Birmingham City – an underdog mentality of stifle first, counter second, clear the ball up-field, rather than play out from the back.  This ethos took over almost as soon as Joe Ledley scored and had been drummed into the Rams so hard that Vydra felt the need to apologise for the sin of trying to pass the ball in the middle third of the pitch when he could have cleared it.

Rowett’s defensive formation – stationing Johnson as a kind of “anti-ten” behind Winnall in a strictly regimented 4-4-1-1 – limited space for quicker, spritelier, younger Brentford, but sorely limited Derby’s attacking capability.  Presumably, the idea was that Johnson would be liberated to get on the end of a cross – but with the full backs barely advancing over halfway, we never put in any crosses (surely this, rather than Brum at home, was the game for Baird).  Rowett sacrificed any technique or dexterity in that area, which was at least partly responsible for the team’s worrying inability to control the game, even for a short space of time.  If the possession thing doesn’t bother you, the fact that Derby only had three shots in the whole game – none at all between Ledley’s 15th minute goal and injury time – really should.  Hopefully, the anti-ten thing will be written off as a failed experiment and Rowett will quickly move on.

There was only one side out there which looked remotely like promotion contenders.  And yet it finished 1-1, with both teams having the same amount of shots on target.

Brentford equalised late, which was a huge disappointment – but a point is hell of a lot better than losing 3-1 or 4-1.  Rowett can argue that his spoiling tactics worked better than taking the Bees on at their own game would have done – and his job is dependent not upon flair or style, but results (at least I think so).

For all that Brentford were clearly the superior team, they actually asked almost no questions of Scott Carson.  The problem here was not at all with the defence, who showed excellent discipline and competence in restricting the Bees to barely a single clear sight of goal.  It was the dismal lack of any play at all in the opposition half.  Weimann is presumably favoured for his diligence, but is technically poor; Lawrence flickered occasionally, but had no help around him; Winnall, credit for the assist aside, barely had a kick and Johnson was Johnson, in a role which doesn’t suit him any better than holding midfield does.

Meanwhile, Chris Martin, whose hold-up play and free-kick winning abilities might have helped to relieve the ceaseless Brentford pressure, kicked his heels on the bench and Ikechi Anya and Johnny Russell continued their exile in whatever Derbyshire’s equivalent of Siberia is (I assume that Rowett is planning to sell much of his remaining Scottish contingent in January).

The results so far have been the epitome of average – three wins, three draws, three losses, goal difference zero.  But it’s only three weeks since Derby steamrollered Hull 5-0 and the season is still in its early stages.  As discussed in the latest podcast, this is a club which is going through a genuine, necessary transitional period and variable performance levels are absolutely to be expected at this stage.  The defence looks OK and there are some good attacking options at Rowett’s disposal – but he needs to find ways to balance his desire for solidity (especially on the road) with sufficient attacking intent to break teams down (especially those who try to sit deep and dig a trench at Pride Park).

The Championship has changed.  No longer are Derby the chief ball-hogs, nor are we anything like the neutral’s favourite.  That tag passed to others long ago, teams like Fulham and Brentford, who play much more vivacious, eye-catching football.  Brentford, in particular, can point to the moral high-ground of being one of the smallest clubs in the division.  Derby no longer have a team capable of passing the opposition into the ground – mostly by design.  It isn’t what Rowett wants to do.  But there is more than one way to skin a cat (and hopefully to fell a tree, in a couple of weeks time – more on that later).

The last three performances have been inadequate, but there is more to come from the new players and there is scope for further squad overhaul in a few weeks’ time.  Cardiff will be a very different type of examination – much bigger, much nastier, much less skilful, much more direct – and the defence will have to be even more dogged and tougher than they were at Griffin Park if they are to emerge with another creditable result on the road.  Rowett could really use a win – but another point against Neil Warnock’s league leaders would keep things ticking over ahead of the derby.

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Posted in Derby County, Statistics, Tactics | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Gary Rowett’s search for a new Derby Way continues

The Derby County Blog Championship preview, 2017/8

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

 

The Contenders

Derby County

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

Fulham

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

Middlesbrough

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

Norwich City

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

maxresdefault

Reading

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

Sheffield Wednesday

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

Wolverhampton Wanderers

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

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

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

The Dark Horses

Brentford

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

Cardiff City

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

Leeds United

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

Mid-table Mediocrity

Aston Villa

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

Birmingham City

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

Bristol City

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

Hull City

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

Nottingham Forest

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

Preston North End

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

Sheffield United

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

Sunderland

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

The Strugglers

Barnsley

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

Bolton Wanderers

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

Burton Albion

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

Ipswich Town

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

Millwall

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

Queens Park Rangers

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

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Posted in Derby County | Comments Off on The Derby County Blog Championship preview, 2017/8