The search for synergy – Rowettism, part 2

Part one looked at the overall tactical shape of the team under Rowett and went into a bit more detail about the Rams’ attacking performance.  As promised, here is part two…

Goals conceded

1. Cardiff – 14
2. Wolves – 17
3. Aston Villa – 18
4. Middlesbrough – 20
5= DERBY, Millwall – 21

Defensively, Derby have been pretty sound under Rowett, with more than half of the goals they’ve conceded this season having been shipped in just three aberrant defeats.

Shots conceded per game

1. Middlesbrough – 10.1
2. Sheffield U – 10.4
3. Preston – 10.5
4. Wolves – 10.6
5. Cardiff – 10.8
(11. DERBY – 12.5)

The Rams’ good defensive record has been in part assured by the form of Scott Carson, who has proved a reliable, reassuring presence between the sticks.  Derby have wasted millions on some serious shite in the past decade, but snapping up Carson after Wigan’s relegation has turned out to be one of their smarter moves.

Goalkeeper was one position Rowett didn’t have to worry about when he arrived, but he does take full credit for the signing of Curtis Davies for a bargain fee from Hull – undoubtedly great business, which has strengthened the team and had the additional benefit of making Richard Keogh look like a new signing.

Ben Mayhew of Experimental 361 produces a really useful graphic to measure defensive effectiveness, neatly splitting teams into four categories:-

  • Formidable: Teams which concede few goals and allow few shots on goal
  • Competent but busy: Allow more shots on goals, but less likely to concede when they do
  • Avoiding the issue: Allow few shots on goals, but are more likely to concede when they do
  • Pushovers: Allow more shots on goals and concede more goals

Defensive effectiveness scatter chart – courtesy of Ben Mayhew (@experimental361)

Cardiff, Villa and Wolves are all much more ‘formidable’ than the Rams.  But Derby have maintained a relatively good defensive record despite coming under more pressure than most of the top teams.  Davies’ appetite for defending – he has the most interceptions of any Championship centre back, according to Sportdec – and Carson’s competence have helped Rowett’s team enormously.

First half goal difference

Home 7-4
Away 9-5
Overall 16-9

Derby’s delirious 4-0 first-half romp against Hull masks a wider pattern of slow starts at home, which is starting to feel significant.  In the other nine home games this season, Rowett’s men have scored a grand total of three first-half goals.  They have only conceded four first-half goals in those games, which is great, but the balance has arguably become a little too “safety-first”.  Why, for example, did the doughty Chris Baird play at home against Burton and Birmingham, matches where the opposition set out to defend and extra attacking width to stretch them was desperately needed?

On the road, however, the first-half goal difference of 9-5 is excellent.  Derby have been ahead at the break in six of their eleven away games so far, compared to four out of ten at home – and this adds weight to the suspicion that Rowett’s game is more suited to away games, where the opposition are more motivated to push forward and inevitably allow the attacking players a little more space to break into.

Second half goal difference

Home 9-4
Away 8-8
Overall 17-12

We usually do get there in the end at home.  As nerve-shredding as it may be for supporters, a cagey performance is of course justified if the goals and points eventually arrive.  Nevertheless, too many important points have been dropped at Pride Park this season so far.

Rowett is getting bored of being asked about it, but the home fans need to see a bit more to get excited about.  The away faithful are clearly loving their season, as team after team are upended on their own turf – but the football at Pride Park has undeniably been far from vintage, most of the time.

But look at it from Rowett’s perspective.  His job is to win and win only.  If a manager who is being criticised for being too cautious tells his players to charge forward and then they get caught out on the break and lose, who gets it in the neck?  McClaren drove us all insane with a series of ridiculous 3-3 and 4-4 draws, even 4-3 defeats, whereas Rowett drives us mad with a gameplan, which yields far fewer crazy results, but demands far more patience and can lead to sterile football at times.  At the latest Fans Forum, Rowett spontaneously brought up his decision to pull everyone back at set plays – it was, he said, a reaction to Derby’s seemingly ingrained habit of conceding goals from those situations.  Safety first.

The bottom line is, you can’t win, unless you win – and even if you do win, you will still never please everyone.

Faith in youth?

As he points out at every opportunity, Rowett has a very large squad of senior players and this limits opportunities for young players to come through.  However, this is not entirely the doing of other managers.  Rowett has signed several veterans (Davies, Huddlestone, Ledley) and also extended the now nearly 36 year-old Baird’s contract last season, when he could have chosen to move on to a younger player (he is even being egged on by the Derby Telegraph to retain Baird beyond this season, which in my opinion is absolutely bonkers at this stage).

It’s hard to see where any academy products fit in and how this can change in the future – especially if Derby are promoted.  As Rowett and Mel Morris have both alluded to, would a 16 year-old Will Hughes have been thrust straight into Derby’s first team today?  How about if we’re in the Premier League, with tens of millions to spend?  Necessity is the mother of invention and the likes of Hughes, Hendrick and Mark O’Brien were blooded at a time when no money was available.  This season, in contrast, Rowett was able to respond to a shortage of midfielders by signing Joe Ledley, instead of being forced to call on an academy product like Elsnik, Hanson, Guy or Bird to fill the gap.

Rowett recently referred to the 23-year old Lawrence as a “young talent we should all get behind”.  Unless Mason Bennett is going to get another opportunity, it seems unlikely that anyone younger than Lawrence, certainly from within the current playing staff, will be given the chance to make an impression this season.

Media management

This is a difficult thing to get right, but on the whole, Rowett handles his media and public appearances pretty adroitly.  His pat-a-cake interviews with RamsTV are of course geared to allow him to say whatever he wants, but he makes his points consistently and simply.

Rowett is far more skilled at handling interviews than his predecessors.  He’s usually ready with a quip or witty aside – he will come across as matey with blokish “old-school” outlets such as Talksport, is happy to indulge old stagers like Colin Gibson by reminiscing about the good old days, strikes a more serious tone with weightier publications like The Guardian.

He can become a little spiky when challenged by genuine journalists and he certainly reads his own press.  Of late, Rowett has started to meet certain negative perceptions (particularly about his playing style) head on and he usually comes armed with statistics to support his case.

His frequent use of pseudo-scientific buzzwords like ‘synergy‘ tickles me (and reminds me of late eighties / early nineties ecstasy-toting pop-ravers The Shamen)….

Image courtesy of Manchester District Music Archive (… geddit?)

Overall, Rowett presents an approachable, affable public face, while giving enough detail in his answers to point to his obvious professionalism and intelligence.  Contrast this with McClaren, who too often came across as patronising in his refusal to deliver much beyond superficial phrases about “play our football”; Clement, whose stellar CV as a number two can’t cover for an unfortunate lack of charisma under the spotlight; or Pearson, who treated journalists and even the club’s comms staff as if their questions were either pathetic, or part of a global conspiracy to discredit him.


It’s easy to mock Rowett’s quest for ‘synergy’.  But according to, the word means: “The interaction or cooperation of two or more organisations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.”  Or put even more simply, it’s derived from the Greek word ‘sunergos’, which means “working together”.  Play Vydra in his best position and watch him flourish.  Add Davies and Ledley in roles which suits them, watch the whole team function better.

On the “roundhead – cavalier” spectrum which runs from the pragmatic Davies to the purist McClaren, there’s no doubt that Rowett would be placed more towards Billy’s end.  However, he is not dogged by Davies’ paranoia, or Pearson’s ugly mean streak, meaning that he is able to maintain a much more positive public image than those two managerial roundheads.

His style of play is reactive and you sense that his worst nightmare is seeing his team caught out by a counter-attack.  Rowett seeks to build from the base of a robust defence and midfield, but his team are not instructed to retain possession for possession’s sake.  Ceding more ball to the opposition means that they do sometimes come under pressure, which is why it’s helpful that Rowett has recruited savvy veterans to lead the team.

Davies and Tom Huddlestone, as well as being very capable players, conduct themselves well on social media, issuing sensible, positive messages after each game.  They help to create reassuring air of competence, both on and off the field.  The emergence of youngsters is undoubtedly exciting, but the dependability of a seasoned pro means that you know what you’re going to get, consistently.  That is what Rowett is banking on – and it is paying dividends so far.

It would be interesting to see how Rowett responded to a major “blip” in results, but the reality is, so far, there has been no prolonged run of defeats to rock the boat under his management.  Defeats have happened (including a couple of really bad ones), but they have been isolated within strings of wins and draws and up until now, an embarrassing reverse has never escalated into a full-blown slump.

Meanwhile, Rowett’s comparatively warm personal style has allowed him to take people with him – the players he needs, arguably the majority of fans (you can’t please all of the people all of the time, no matter who you are) and – most crucially of all, – his boss, Mel Morris.

All is calm.  After years of upheaval, the ship has been steadied.  That is no minor achievement and Gary Rowett deserves huge credit for it.

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A Roman Tortoise in West London – Rowettism, part one

Last month, RamsTV sprung a major surprise by airing a two-part interview with Billy Davies.  The strange little Scot, whose last game as a manager was on 22 March 2014, looks much the same as he did ten years ago – maybe a little redder in the face – and of course, he is still clear in his own mind that the record-breaking ineptitude of the 2007/8 Premier League season wasn’t his fault.

But that is a long story and one I really don’t want to revisit, so I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of the Davies interview for more than a week.  Yes, winning the play-offs was an incredible experience, but the thrill of promotion was soon overshadowed by Billy’s shenanigans – and his recruitment in the summer that followed, whatever his excuses about a relative lack of budget, was beyond abysmal.

I kept thinking: “Why now?”  Why would Derby raise the ghost of Davies and give him a platform to boost his profile?

The only logical reason I can think of is that the club was keen to get supporters thinking back to the 06/07 season and the gritty, unstylish, unglamorous manner in which that promotion was ultimately secured.

After a few minutes of reminiscing and explaining why he wasn’t to blame for the Premier League disaster, Davies finally delivers the quote which I suspect Colin Gibson was waiting patiently for: –

“What we had to do, because we were a team in the early making… we had to grind results out… we had to learn how not to get beat, learn how to hold onto wins…  And I know fans will say they want to go and win games confidently and fluently and score many goals, but that’s easier said than done.  It’s very competitive football, at every level.  Let’s not forget, we’re in year one here.”

Every word of that is applicable to the current season under Gary Rowett.

20 games in (as we were when I started work on this feature) felt like a good time to take stock of how much progress the club is making under Rowett’s management.  He now has more games under his belt than Nigel Pearson or (second spell) Steve McClaren, which means that we’ve actually had a bit of time to get to know him and assess where the club is at under his stewardship.


Rowett has decisively shifted Derby away from the Dutch-inspired 4-3-3 system introduced by McClaren and maintained by Paul Clement.  After Pearson tried and failed to change the shape without significantly changing the personnel, Rowett understood that he would have to buy and sell to suit his preferred style, rather than coaching, coaxing or coercing the existing squad into a new way of playing.

Rowett’s team plays in discrete units.  The defenders defend, the two central midfielders hold their position and try to set up the wide midfielders, ten and striker, a front four who are largely expected to take care of attacking on their own (the wide men have the extra responsibility of helping their full backs out by tracking back).

Out have gone the more aggressive full backs who would get to the byline to add an element of fluidity to the attack and the neat and tidy midfielders, who made a virtue of keeping the ball with short passes.

In August, he told The Guardian:

“At Derby it’s been a possession-based team but we want to speed that possession up a bit. We don’t want to suddenly go direct but equally we don’t want to make 25-30 passes when we can make six or seven to get in the same position. You’re always looking at ways to improve but our philosophy will always stay pretty similar.  If you don’t lose those elements of being hard to play against and very organised, it can potentially make you a very good team.”

The system is marketed as 4-2-3-1 by the club, but it could just as easily be perceived as a rigid 4-4-1-1, particularly in away games and particularly since the heavy defeats at Bristol City and Sheffield United.  Those losses convinced Rowett (and perhaps to an extent the players and supporters) that change was needed.

The now infamous 1-1 draw at Brentford, in which the Rams drew their horns in until they started to resemble less of a 4-4-1-1 and more of a Roman tortoise formation, was horrible to watch, but resulted in an important point, which led onto a very good 0-0 at Neil Warnock’s Cardiff – a game which on balance, Derby deserved to win.

And after that, the Rams on the road became a much different proposition, grinding out one result at a time until they had achieved an unbeaten run of seven away games – which is no mean feat in a gruelling Championship campaign.

Rowett (left) coaching the Derby players ahead of their trip to Brentford


Current top six
Wolves 52%
Cardiff 44.8%
Bristol City 52.5%
DERBY 49.1%
Sheffield United 52.4%
Aston Villa 48.7%

Rams’ previous seasons
2017/8 – 49.1%
2016/7 – 51.1%
2015/6 – 54%
2014/5 – 55%
2013/4 – 53.8%

This is the most obvious change of all.  Removing the third central midfielder has led to a sharp decrease in average possession per game under Rowett, a sacrifice of control which allows for the accommodation of the gifted Matej Vydra in his natural position.  The Brentford game – 24% possession, with Vydra left out and Bradley Johnson playing as an “anti-ten” – was clearly a step too far in the direction of negativity, but it can now be seen as the most extreme example of Derby shifting from dominating the ball to reactive counter-play.

Possession is probably the most sneered-at of all the stats (at least, it was until expected goals came along) and many people deride what they call “tippy-tappy” football – a comically Anglicised way of saying “tiki-taka”.  But I genuinely don’t think that most of these fans are hankering after hoofball – they’re just impatient to see their team getting into the final third and creating chances.

Possession football, when it works, is about circulating the ball to test the opposition’s concentration and pull their defensive shape apart, creating spaces for attackers to exploit.  Pep Guardiola talks about “positional” (rather than possession) play, with the aim of moving the team up the field together, so that in the end, you’ve pinned the opposition in their own half and they can’t get out.  Long clearances, more often than not, are retrieved by your defenders or go out of play and you start to play again.  Retaining the ball can also be used as a defensive strategy – taking the sting out of the match with a bit of tactical keepball has the twin benefits of tiring and frustrating the opposition (and their fans).

But Rowett’s team does not tend to control games in this way – which is fine, but does mean they have to expend more energy defending, chasing the ball and reacting to the opposition’s game than playing their own.

The reason a drop in possession is worth raising is not because there’s any link between an individual game’s possession stats and the result – there isn’t – but because by the end of the season, in recent times at least, there has been a clear correlation between Championship teams who dominate the ball and promotion, or at least a top six finish.

However, intriguingly, at this stage of 2017/8, three of the top six are averaging less than 50% possession per game.  Cardiff, in particular, are making a virtue of not having the ball.  Meanwhile, the five top teams for average possession – Reading, Forest, Fulham, Brentford and Norwich – are currently in a mid-table clump, between 11th and 16th.

This hints at a sea-change in Championship tactics, as teams become better at frustrating technically superior opponents and hitting them on the counter – at least, that’s one possible explanation for what’s happening.  Let’s see how the season pans out.

Pass accuracy

2017/8 – 74.9%
2016/7 – 76.9%
2015/6 – 78.1%
2014/5 – 79.2%
2013/4 – 79.1%

This is significantly down – again, principally due to the change in formation.  Out have gone Hughes and Butterfield, while Rowett favourites Johnson (66.4%) and Craig Forsyth (66.8%) are poor passers.  These factors add up to create a side which is more wasteful of possession than the Derby of previous seasons and speak of a manager who tends to prioritise physical attributes over technical prowess.

Goals scored

Wolves – 41
Hull – 37
Ipswich – 35
Bristol C – 34
Sheffield United – 34
Brentford, DERBY, Leeds – 33
Forest – 31
Cardiff – 30

The Rams are better than average here, chiefly thanks to the prolific Vydra.  Derby have won more penalties than anyone else in the Championship to date – and have scored the lot, to boot.

Shots on target per game

1. Brentford – 5.5
2. Cardiff – 5.1
3= Bristol C, Hull – 4.8
5= Wolves, Forest – 4.7
7. Barnsley – 4.6
(13. DERBY 4)

While the Rams have been scoring enough goals, they have not been testing opposition goalkeepers with such regularity that you could confidently predict that this will definitely continue.  The strikers have done a great job of snaffling what chances have come their way – Sam Winnall has four goals from 12 shots in total – but there is a nagging feeling that a bit of creativity is missing from Rowett’s side.  I wonder if this is why the manager is currently giving Chris Martin a run in the side, ahead of David Nugent.

Shots inside penalty area per game

19. Bolton – 6.4
20 = Birmingham, Leeds – 6.3
22. DERBY 6.2
23. Sunderland – 5.8
24. Burton – 4.9

This is surprising and actually pretty alarming.  Only Burton (who will need a miracle to stay up) and embattled Sunderland have mustered less shots from within the box so far, which after all is where the vast majority of goals are scored.

Tom Lawrence, for example, has taken 33 shots, but 23 of them have been from long range, so it’s no wonder that he has only netted twice.  As he did at Barnsley, he needs to be getting into more dangerous positions more often – after all, Nick Blackman got pelters for shooting from any distance and inevitably not scoring.  If Lawrence is to do the sort of damage we believe he is capable of, then he needs to be on the ball inside the penalty area, not floating around outside it.

Again, perhaps this is behind Rowett’s decision to give Martin a run in the team ahead of Nugent – the big man’s link-up play is undeniably stronger and should, in theory, help to create more opportunities for “your Vydras, your Lawrences, your Weimanns.”  Indeed, Rowett raised this when Chris of Ramspace / Derby County Podcast fame mentioned the problem of dealing with opponents who park their bus at Pride Park, at the recent Fans’ Forum.

Part two to follow…..

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Three and easy – Barnsley 0 Derby County 3

For 40 minutes, it was a non-event, but Barnsley evaporated as soon as Derby made the breakthrough.  After the swift 1-2 to the gut that the Rams landed just before half-time, the only way Derby could have failed to win this was by beating themselves – but Barnsley lacked the quality to capitalise on the errors Derby made in the second half and the Rams, clearly superior to their hosts in every department, cruised to victory without ever really needing to get going.

On this showing, League One could yet await Barnsley, who slid tamely to a fifth successive defeat – while Derby must now be seen as genuine contenders for the top six. Certainly, they are a cut above the average Championship side – but as ever with the Rams, we must sound note of caution, because we have been here before, at this time of year, more than once.  And there was a potentially serious dampener, the withdrawal of Tom Lawrence at half-time – the Wales attacker having gone down, seemingly badly hurt, shortly before the interval.

Derby lined up in their by now familiar 4-4-1-1, with Martin selected to lead the line.  He put in an assured performance and did his chances of staying in the side no harm at all, with David Nugent relegated to a role entertaining the away faithful on the touchline (he also very nearly landed an artful lob onto the bald pate of a member of the coaching staff in the pre-match warm-up.)

George Thorne was unlucky to drop back to the bench, but Tom Huddlestone’s class on the ball helped to make the difference and the vital opening goal.  At times, the first half degenerated into a scrap, but as soon as Huddlestone got on the ball, order was restored, the pace slowed, the beginnings of an attack constructed.  He is excellent.  His ability to calmly manufacture all the time he needs to pick the right pass is a rare treat to see in the usually frenetic Championship.

Andi Weimann played with his customary gusto, starting on the right before switching to the left for the second half.  It’s a shame that his brain doesn’t work quite as fast as his legs can carry him, but it was great to see him smash in a volley in front of the 3,000+ away fans and celebrate like a man who meant it.  He needed, savoured and deserved his goal.

Scott Carson was largely untroubled, but did make a fine one-on-one save to keep the score at 2-0, after Martin’s misjudged pass set Barnsley away on the counter and a goal looked inevitable.  Other than that and a drive from the edge of the box which clipped the bar, after Derby fell asleep at a throw-in, the Tykes were pretty blunt in attack, Bradshaw ploughing a lone furrow without enough support. They livened up slightly after the introduction of the tricky winger Hamill and pony-tailed midfielder Moncur from the bench, but by then, it was too late – they were just doing that loser thing of having a five-minute spell of pressure when you’re 2-0 down.

Derby diligently defended the free kicks and corners they conceded – no more do we need to cringe at every set play – and finally, after numerous promising counter attacks ended in disappointment, Weimann’s emphatic goal killed the game stone dead.

So there you go – three goals, several other passable opportunities passed up, Carson forced into only one meaningful save, the home supporters sloping away dejected into the bitterly cold West Yorkshire night long before the end.  You can only beat what is in front of you.  Derby did that with minimal fuss and move on to tougher tests, starting next Saturday, against Aston Villa.

Player ratings

CARSON – Largely untroubled on a bitterly cold afternoon, yet had the concentration needed to come up with a big save to maintain Derby’s 2-0 lead when called upon.  On current form, he has to be considered one of the best (if not the best) ‘keepers in the Championship – 7
BAIRD: Another reassuringly solid performance from the veteran, who even sent in a couple of dangerous corners.  He may not have the pace to get up the pitch in support of counter-attacks, but his understanding of the game and positional sense can’t be faulted – 7

KEOGH: Not one of the most taxing afternoons he will face, but coped well with what Barnsley threw at him – 7

DAVIES: Seemed to enjoy his afternoon, getting stuck into challenges and more often that not, winning them – 7

FORSYTH – Defended well against the winger Thiam and chugged forward to support the attack, but as usual, he struggled at times to use the ball well.  It was such a pity that he couldn’t finish off the dazzling counter-attack move late in the game, instead blazing over – 6

WEIMANN – His pace makes a big difference to Derby as a counter-attacking unit and he buzzed and bothered Barnsley all afternoon.  His distribution and decision-making remain maddeningly erratic, but hisemergence into as a genuine first-team regular has been a major boost for Gary Rowett – 8

HUDDLESTONE – Huddlestone was an obvious cut above everyone around him in terns of seeing the whole picture on the field.  Everyone knows he is not the quickest, but this is only a problem if opponents can exploit it – Barnsley couldn’t get the ball off him, or stop his passes – 8

LEDLEY – Can anyone remember a time when Joe Ledley wasn’t there? – 7

LAWRENCE – Hadn’t made a big impact on the game from the left flank, until suddenly, he got into the box, rode a challenge and smashed home the vital opener.  We can only keep everything crossed and hope that his ankle injury isn’t as serious as it initially looked – 7

VYDRA – Much like Lawrence, Vydra struggled to find the space to do his thing, until suddenly, Barnsley lose him for a second, one chance, bang.  His goal tally is starting to look mightily impressive this season, the quality everyone knew he possessed finally shining through – 7

MARTIN – Great to see the big man back.  I know he will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but not even his detractors could claim that he doesn’t look fit and motivated at the monent.  It’s a shame he couldn’t grab a goal, but this was a good performance in terms of his link-up play, shielding the ball – the things we know that he is good at were present and correct.  He knows he has to play we to stay in the team – fair play to Rowett for giving him the chance – 7


RUSSELL – Showed up well after replacing Lawrence, buzzing around on the right and always looking likely to make something happen.  Coming on at 2-0 up v Barnsley, with spaces to exploit, is a different challenge to facing Aston Villa, but Russell did his chances of getting a start no harm – 7

JOHNSON – Replaced Vydra and played on the left of midfield (his best position) for the last 20 minutes – gave the full range of Johnno features, winning headers and playing one astute through ball, while also occasionally giving the ball away. Claimed the assist for Weimann’s goal and basically did fine – 7

WINNALL – Expert trolling from Rowett to bring on Sam with the game already won – a pity he couldn’t bundle home his one chance, the ball somehow looping over the bar instead of nestling – 6


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Archive project: “Homegrown” players who started league games for Derby County, each season since 2002/3

In their seminal book “Who’s Pereplotkins?“, my friends the Spacerams did a great piece of research which listed the players who had emerged from Derby’s academy to feature in a league game, each season from 2002 to 2009.

As research by @s_spaceram shows, many of the Derby academy products plying their trade in the EPL and EFL today came through years ago.

As I’m in an ‘archive project’ place at the minute, I thought I’d update the list to bring it up to date.  So here we go…  If you think I’ve missed anyone out, let me know: –

Homegrown players who featured in a league match (including as substitute, but not including the final game of the season)

2009/10 – Addison, G. Mills

2010/11 – Addison, Ball, Hendrick, O’Brien, Severn

2011/2 – Ball, Bennett, Hendrick, Hughes, O’Brien

2012/3 – Bennett, Hendrick, Hughes

2013/4 – Bennett, Grant, Hendrick, Hughes

2014/5 – Bennett, Grant, Hanson, Hendrick, Hughes, K. Thomas

2015/6 – Grant, Hanson, Hendrick, Hughes

2016/7 – Bennett, Hanson, Hendrick, Hughes, Lowe

2017/8 – Bennett, Huddlestone, L. Thomas

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Time for special measures? A mid-term report for Derby County’s academy

In the last Derby County Podcast, we discussed the current state of the Rams’ academy.  I wanted to talk more with Chris about it after reading his recent post, which pointed out that for all the cash lavished on facilities by Mel Morris, the club has not produced any players for its own first-team squad since the emergence of Hughes and Hendrick.

Chris’ take is that the academy may well need a shake-up at this stage and shining a light on the situation feels timely.  The reality of Financial Fair Play means that the taps have to be turned off, the well-paid misfits need to be shipped out and there is a dire need for an infusion of young blood.  Those new players could be recruited, but it would be ideal if at least some of them could be promoted up from the under 23s.

In the podcast, I mentioned a study by a parent, Mark Crane, who was trying to work out which academies were the most productive.  His research focused on which academies the English players who played a league game in England’s top five tiers during the 2016/7 season came from*.

In modern clickbait terminology, “what he found may shock you”:-

Number of English-qualified players from an academy who played a league game in England (2016/7 season)

Manchester United – 65
Tottenham Hotspur – 54
Arsenal – 46
Chelsea – 45
West Ham United – 41
Everton – 40
Southampton – 36
Liverpool – 33
Crewe Alexandra (Category 2) – 32
Middlesbrough – 31
Charlton Athletic (Category 2) – 30
Wolverhampton Wanderers – 30
Aston Villa – 29
Leeds United (Category 2) – 28
Manchester City – 28
Coventry City (Category 2) – 26
Crystal Palace (Category 2) – 25
Newcastle United – 24
Reading – 24
Blackburn Rovers – 23
Watford (Category 2) – 23
West Bromwich Albion – 23
Ipswich Town (Category 2) – 22
Leicester City – 22
Norwich City – 22
AFC Wimbledon (Category 3) – 21 
Bolton Wanderers (Category 2) – 20
Fulham – 20
Leyton Orient (Category 3) – 19
Sheffield United (Category 2) – 19
Birmingham City (Category 2) – 18
Millwall (Category 2) – 18
Nottingham Forest (Category 2) – 17
Sunderland – 16
Brighton & Hove Albion – 14
Stoke City – 12

* (I’ve refined Crane’s data to only count players who featured in the Premier League or EFL, disregarding the National League).

The mega clubs are streets ahead, which is understandable, but Derby are also lagging well behind Crewe, Middlesbrough, Charlton, Wolves, Leeds, Coventry and Reading, among many others.

According to Crane’s analysis, Derby has one of the least successful Category 1 academies in England.  Ten Category 2 academies produced more English players who featured in the Premier League or EFL last season and even two Category 3 academies – AFC Wimbledon’s and Leyton Orient’s – were more productive overall.

Given the relative levels of investment involved, that has to be considered something of an embarrassment.

It’s clear that the relatively huge expenditure on players during the failed bid to buy promotion blocked any path through for any young player to the Rams’ first team, but in recent years, the academy has not even produced many players who have gone on to forge a career elsewhere in the English professional game.

As research by @s_spaceram shows, several of the Derby academy products plying their trade in the EPL (Grant) and EFL (Camp, Evatt, Holmes, Huddlestone) today actually came through in the early 2000s.

Mel Morris is clearly acutely aware of this and mentioned in his recent “Fans Charter” meeting that measures have been taken to focus more keenly on the development of the best prospects in Derby’s current system.  He explained that a full-time member of staff has been appointed, from within, to manage a ‘bridging’ process for academy players whom the club seriously believe have the potential to make it.   These ‘fast-track’ prospects, he said:

“will become part of a group managed… to bridge the requirements of the first team and what happens to them in the academy…  Gary goes to almost every U23 game, he’ll spot the guys he thinks have got a real chance and will tell us what he thinks they need to work on… 

“The person in this new role will make sure that the individual training of that player is done to the prescription of the first team, as a priority above everything else.”

It’s a little strange that Morris didn’t name the staff member involved, but in any case, this is a clear concession that at least some reform was required for how the academy was operating, to make it more productive.

Those fast-tracked players may not become regular fixtures in the Rams first-team, but the additional, focused effort put into their development will hopefully mean that they are at least better prepared to have a chance of building a career elsewhere in the EFL.

Of course, it’s a positive that under Darren Wassall, Derby’s U23s have been promoted to and survived in the new PL2, competing with and sometimes beating the big boys – this season, they have beaten Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs and most recently handed West Ham a 5-1 walloping at an empty Olympic Stadium.  But in his latest book, No Hunger in Paradise, Michael Calvin reports that the PL2 has been described as ‘crap’ by Man United’s academy director Nicky Butt and as a ‘waste of time’ by Gareth Southgate.  “The majority of games are stripped of passion and pressure”, Calvin says of a league which cannot be seriously seen as a challenge worthy of the most gifted young players.

Meanwhile, the Premier League’s Checkatrade Trophy wheeze – which forces, at the threat of a fine, lower league clubs to field strong teams in glorified friendlies  – was rejected by most sentient fans as an insulting notion at best, or as a Trojan Horse for B teams in the Football League at worst.  It was not even supported by most of the biggest clubs it was designed to attract – Derby got the call to enter a team last year after Man United, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool all declined the invitation.  Simply put, there is no way to simulate league football – young players just need to play it.

If they’re not ready to feature for the first eleven, then a time-honoured way to find out whether they can cut it or not is to send them out on loan.  This worked well for Callum Guy last season, who did well for Port Vale of League One (until a hamstring injury prematurely ended his season).  Jamie Hanson spent some time at the sharp end, helping Jake Buxton and Stephen Warnock in Wigan Athletic’s unsuccessful fight against relegation from the Championship, while Kelle Roos helped AFC Wimbledon to win promotion to League One via the play-offs.

This year, Offrande Zanzala has had a spell at National League side Chester FC, while Kellan Gordon has scored three goals for Swindon Town, with Timi Max Elsnik also playing his part in the Robins’ League Two play-off push.

On the other hand, Farrend Rawson spent time with Coventry City in League One last season and is now with Accrington Stanley, in League Two.  This is an alarming regression from 2015/6, when he was described as a ‘future Premier League player’ by Steve Evans, his manager at the then Championship side Rotherham United.  Roos, meanwhile, is 25 and so even in goalkeeper terms, can no longer be seen as a prospect and really should be establishing himself as a number one somewhere by now.

Although Roos and Rawson’s careers seem to be drifting, there’s no doubt that loans can be invaluable in helping a player to establish himself as a professional.  I can’t for the life of me understand why Jonny Mitchell, just shy of his 23rd birthday, isn’t out on loan, if something could be arranged for him.  It would necessitate the signing of an experienced ‘number two’, but this should effectively be seen as a youth development investment, because Mitchell will surely learn little warming the bench.  He had a difficult time of it in a rare start in this season’s EFL Cup – when he was criticised by Rowett after the Rams lost at Barnsley – and so in the event that something happens to Scott Carson, would the manager really be happy to turn to the young man as his cover, or would he rather have him out learning his trade elsewhere?

Hanson, Max Lowe and Mason Bennett are the three products closest to the first XI, but Lowe has been dogged by injuries and now finds his path to the team blocked by Craig Forsyth.  He has featured in Derby’s last six U23 games and if he isn’t going to get a chance in the first team, is another who could probably do with a loan.

Bennett was horribly unlucky to suffer a bad knee injury early on in his first league start of the season, at Brentford – it would be nice to think that he could challenge the likes of Johnson, Russell and Weimann for a place in the side once he returns to fitness.  As a ‘utility player’, Hanson always offers a manager an option, though a lack of specialism can also be viewed as a curse.  We were told years ago that he was being ‘groomed’ to play as a holding midfielder, though he seems to get more games as a full back.  In Rowett’s system, there is in theory a place in the squad for a ‘shithouse’ midfielder to run around alongside Huddlestone, booting people as appropriate.  ‘Bruiser’ Hanson might be tailor-made for this role – if Rowett thinks that he is good enough.

Let’s be fair to Rowett, who has a first team to manage and is expected to win (and win “well”).  He cannot afford to indulge anyone.  Winning is quite rightly all that matters to him and he needs to be able to trust whoever he selects to do  what he needs them to do.  As Rowett pointed out last night, Luke Thomas was so nervous about making his debut against QPR that he ran onto the field and took up a position on the wrong wing of the pitch.  That’s funny in the context of a comfortable victory, but makes the bigger point quite well.  The onus is not on Rowett, who has a big enough job to do already, but on the youth development staff to help the manager by producing youngsters who are as ready as they possibly can be, if and when the first team needs them.

There is no magic wand for player development and the harsh reality is that the vast majority of kids in even the most productive academies cannot make it into the upper echelons of the game.  The dustbin of history is littered with the names of boys who had everything, but ended up falling short – for as many different reasons as there are people.  Calvin’s book includes a chapter on poor Zak Brunt, whose father recently made his dispute with Derby County public.  The player himself is clearly a fine prospect, but had endured a chaotic ‘career’ through the academies of four major clubs by the age of just 15.

In recent years, Derby’s headlong pursuit of promotion was seemingly the only thing that mattered, but it was not achieved and so now, it’s time to take stock and reassess.  There’s no doubt that a lot of money and effort has been poured into the development of academy players at Derby, but in any other business, Morris would expect a reasonable level of return on a substantial investment.  This football club has arguably failed to deliver that in recent times – and it should not be judged any differently.

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Posted in Derby County, Give The Lad a Chance | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Time for special measures? A mid-term report for Derby County’s academy