Waiting for Wazza – Can Wayne Rooney kickstart Derby County’s stalled season?

It’s not a great place to be when you still feel like you’re waiting for your season to get going in November.  But not much has gone right for Phillip Cocu since he touched down in Florida to take over the reins from Frank Lampard in July.  From the extreme weather which disrupted Derby’s pre-season friendly against Bristol City onwards, it feels like the fates have been conspiring to make life as difficult as possible for the Rams’ first-ever foreign manager. 

Nevertheless, even with extenuating circumstances and shameful off-the-field issues for which the manager cannot be blamed factored in, results and, in the main, performances have been undeniably underwhelming. 

The positive take on the results to date is that Derby have clocked up four consecutive home wins and three consecutive home clean sheets.  It could also be argued that draws against West Brom, Swansea and Leeds, all of whom are in the current top four, count as respectable results. 

On the negative side, there has been no away win since the opening day, with four of the last five away games having been lost to nil.  Two of those losses – Brentford and Charlton – were among the worst Derby County performances we’ve endured in a long time. 

And in truth, the home wins have been pretty sketchy, on the whole. Luton were beaten thanks to two outrageous fluke goals, while the Wigan performance was pretty ordinary, before Graeme Shinnie wrenched us out of jail at the death.  Even the 3-2 win against Birmingham, in the first game after the drink-driving scandal, was a game in which Derby mustered a mere seven shots on goal.  Factor in a meek cup exit at Forest – for which Cocu disregarded local rivalry and made eleven changes, in stark contrast to Frank Lampard’s prioritisation of the cup of last season – and there has been very little to savour all season. 

As it stands at the time of writing, Derby haven’t recorded a win against anybody in the top half of the table. They have, however, picked up 18 points from five wins and three draws in games against teams in the current bottom half.  

Credit: Soccerstats

This quirky breakdown of results points to a side which has enough about it not to worry about going down, but which is certainly not good enough to harbour any realistic ambitions of going up.

Derby have had problems at the back, where there is now no Richard Keogh, with goals and chances have been leaked too readily.  The latest expected goals table produced by the Press Association’s Head of Data Analysis, Ben Mayhew, shows Derby as having the fifth worst defensive xG record in the division:-

Meanwhile, the attacking players have struggled to create enough chances.  Derby are ranked 20th in the Championship for shots per game and 20th for shots inside the penalty area, 17th for key passes per game and bottom of the whole division for the amount of game-time spent in the opposition’s third of the pitch (25%).  The problem is clear – a worrying lack of penetration and creativity.

This bluntness has been apparent despite Derby having plenty of the ball in almost every game, being ranked fourth in the division for pass success, sixth for total passes per game and sixth for average possession.  The Charlton game – 61 per cent of the possession for a dismal tally of four shots – was the nadir so far, as Derby were completely dominated by Lee Bowyer’s Addicks, despite constantly having the ball.  Only Leeds have had significantly more possession than Derby across 90 minutes this season, but the majority of the Rams’ opponents have nevertheless managed more total shots on goal and, crucially, more shots in the 18-yard box. 

So the issue Cocu must urgently address is how to get the team creating significantly more and significantly better quality chances.  Kieran Dowell was signed to replace some of the guile Derby lost when Mason Mount and Harry Wilson left, but the Everton loanee has hardly featured since the loss at Brentford.  Statistically, however, he remains the player in the squad most likely to set up a shot – the delightful lobbed pass he played to set up Tom Lawrence at Hull was a particularly eye-catching example of this creativity and something I’m not sure any other member of the squad could have conjured.

Key passes per 90 minutes
(total minutes)

Dowell 1.9 (568)
Shinnie 1.5 (523)
Martin 1.5 (614)
Lawrence 1.3 (1,242)
Bogle 1.2 (792)
Marriott 1.1 (595)
Paterson 1.1 (493)
Waghorn 0.9 (1,077)
Holmes 0.9 (774)
Lowe 0.7 (952)
Malone 0.7 (886)
Jozefzoon 0.6 (574)
Huddlestone 0.4 (856)
Bielik 0.2 (1,118)

For division-wide context, the top players in the division for key passes per 90 are Izzy Brown (4.0), Niclas Eliasson (3.9), John Swift (3.8), Fran Villalba (2.9), Pablo Hernandez, Stewart Downing, Matheus Pereira and Said Benrahma (2.8 each).  It’s painfully clear that Derby currently have nothing special on the books, compared to those creative midfielders.

A positive to take though is that three of the players in the top five of Derby’s key pass list – Shinnie, Martin and Bogle – are recent additions to the team, having been out of favour or injured earlier in the season.  Martin’s clever play in and around the opposition box needs no introduction, while Bogle is a genuine attacking threat from right back.  Shinnie, who is more readily associated with hard graft and the defensive side of the game, has also added some creativity as part of his all-action role.  Cocu may have favoured Tom Huddlestone until injury struck, but Shinnie grabbed his chance when it finally came and must now be considered one of the first names on the team sheet – if not the first.

Shots inside penalty area per 90 mins

Waghorn 2.3
Marriott 1.8
Martin 1.3
Shinnie 0.9
Lawrence 0.8
Dowell / Jozefzoon 0.6
Paterson 0.5
(Holmes 0.2)

Shots on target per 90 mins

Waghorn 1.3
Marriott / Lawrence / Shinnie 0.9
Martin 0.7
Dowell 0.5
Huddlestone / Paterson 0.4
(Holmes 0)

The players most likely to score are Waghorn, Marriott, Martin and Lawrence, while the three most likely to create an opportunity are Dowell, Martin and Shinnie.  It would be very difficult to put together a team which fitted all six of them in – but we need as many of them starting as possible.  These are the players we rely on in an attacking sense, with Bristol City loanee Jamie Paterson and Frank Lampard’s worst signing, Jozefzoon, having underwhelming seasons and perennial ‘supersub’ Mason Bennett out of favour, particularly since the crash.

Running through the data, one name consistently fails to turn up where I was hoping it would do and that is Duane Holmes.  He is ranked fourth equal for dribbles completed per 90 minutes, behind Paterson, Bogle and Lawrence, but other than that, he is yet to have a shot on target this season and averages less than one key pass per 90.  For all of his eye-catching flashes of speed and technique, there has been almost no end product – the moment when he killed a long pass stone dead and then shot wide from 20 yards instead of releasing a clean-through Marriott against Middlesbrough feels like a summary of his season to date.  If Cocu is basing his selection on statistical analysis, which to some extent, all coaches do in the data era, then Holmes might be feeling a little anxious at the moment, because he is not producing the goods.

Into all of this, in a few weeks’ time, steps Wayne Rooney. 

Rooney was undoubtedly the best player in DC United’s MLS team this year, leading them for goals, assists, shots per game and key passes.  His rate of 2.9 key passes per 90 minutes for DCU is particularly encouraging for a Derby side in dire need of creativity. 

The question remains of course over how the 34 year-old’s MLS form will translate into Championship form. Johnny Russell, for example, produced similar numbers of goals and assists to Rooney for Sporting Kansas City last season.  However, Rooney’s dead ball quality alone will certainly make him a significant asset for a team which currently can’t score from set pieces and whose most regular penalty taker has missed two out of four. 

If Cocu carries on with a two-striker system, either with a diamond or traditional flat 4-4-2, then my guess is that Rooney will probably play as one of the front two, alongside either Waghorn or Marriott, with Lawrence continuing as a number ten in the diamond.  Rooney would fill a similar niche to Martin, dropping deeper to pick up the ball and make things happen, rather than popping up in the box to take advantage of throughballs and crosses, as Marriott and Waghorn look to do.

While the mediocre results and performances haven’t given us much to shout about, it does feel like a core of players that Cocu can rely on is gradually emerging, while certain other players fall by the wayside.  The Dutchman can count upon experienced pros like Shinnie, Davies, Martin and Waghorn, while Bogle, despite his inexplicable howler at Forest, is established as a quality attacking right back at this level.  Cocu has Malone and Lowe to choose from at left back and retains a firm belief in Lawrence, which has translated of late into more focused performances (hopefully, the penny has dropped).  Kelle Roos may not have been forgiven for Wembley by some fans, but he retains Cocu’s confidence for now.  Marriott will score goals.  Krystian Bielik’s qualities as a midfielder are becoming clear – strength to hold onto the ball, ability to surge past an opponent and open up space, solid passing, aerial ability – his all-round game will make Derby better in the engine room (unless of course, it turns out that Matt Clarke has sustained a bad knee injury, which would be a major blow and force the club into the transfer market in January).      

Those players represent the basis of Cocu’s best team this season and they have enough ability to do well at this level.  If Rooney can emerge as the leader we badly need on the field, then we can look to the future with cautious optimism, despite the mediocrity which has reigned so far in the Dutchman’s era.

Another plus is the gradual progress of several academy products towards the first team.  Lee Buchanan and Jason Knight may have receded from the first-team reckoning in recent weeks, with Cocu wisely opting for more experience to help the team through a rough patch, but they have at least made their league debuts, as has the promising Morgan Whittaker, with Louie Sibley also rated as a star in the making. As I write this, Sibley has just netted a hat-trick for the under 23s in an 7-1 romp against Leeds United.  All four of these 18-year olds have been called up to represent their countries at age-group level this season. 

The under 23s sit joint top of the Premier League 2 Division 1 table with Chelsea, while the under 19s (last season’s under 18s English champions) are making short work of the early rounds of the UEFA Youth League. They have the chance of a ’round of 32′ play-off game, potentially against one of Europe’s big guns, so long as they can finish the job against Icelandic champions ÍA Akranes at home later this month. 

However, it would be unfair to heap expectation onto the young players, who must be carefully nurtured. With the odd exception, such as Bogle, they will emerge slowly and get minutes here or there at first, with the hope that they can eventually replace older players as they leave. A group of senior pros including Curtis Davies, Huddlestone, Craig Forsyth, Ikechi Anya, Bennett and Martin are currently due to leave Derby at the end of the season, along with the loanees Clarke, Paterson and Dowell. That outflux could create opportunities for the youngsters in the longer term, if they can prove their worth and take their chances as they arise.

The gap to sixth place in the Championship has now edged up to seven points, which may not seem unbridgeable with 30 games to go, but the 74-point mark – the long-term average for sixth – is a long, long way off at this stage for a side who are yet to win back-to-back games. Unless Rooney, plus other new additions in January, can give the current squad the infusion of quality they need, the likelihood of Derby making the play-offs for the fourth time in six seasons is already receding fast.

And the trouble with waiting for Wazza is that there are still nine more matches to go before he can be registered.  After each defeat, the club issues another message about Rooney’s impending arrival and by all accounts, he is itching to get started – he is even enthusiastic enough to be recommending players the club could sign, if chatter this week is to be believed – however, Derby’s form needs to improve before Christmas, or this season could be more or less over by the time Rooney pulls on the Rams’ shirt for the first time.  

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The Richard Keogh years are over at Derby County

The Richard Keogh era at Derby County is over.  And now that the shock has abated over the manner of the serious injury which has ended his season and possibly his playing career, I’m surprised to find that I feel strangely relieved that he will no longer serve as one of the most high-profile emblems for our team and club.

Keogh made it to #19 on the list of the Rams’ all-time appearances list and had he not clambered into the back of Tom Lawrence’s car that night – a lapse of judgement so chronic that it is mind-boggling – he could have gone on to breach the top ten, by surpassing Steve Powell’s tally of 420 games.   Anybody who climbs past Powell gets into the company of men from bygone eras – Sammy Crooks.  Jack Parry.  Steve Bloomer.  Then it’s a top three from Brian Clough’s day – Roy McFarland.  Ron Webster.  Kevin Hector.  Keogh could have taken his place among those names.  But he was not able to do it and in truth, he would have been an incongruous, ill-fitting addition to that hallowed list.

He might play again, of course, for Derby or elsewhere.  His contract runs until the summer of 2021 and a provisional return date of January 2021 was set in the aftermath of the crash.  But that is a long, long way off for a player who is 33 already.  Phillip Cocu cannot count on Keogh as an option for the start of next season and Derby will have to recruit around his absence, possibly even as early as the next transfer window.  The club will simply move on while Keogh embarks upon a long and gruelling rehabilitation process and his time as a key figure – almost “Mr Derby County”, as Chris Smith phrased it in our post-court case BlogCast – has been curtailed, in the most disappointing manner imaginable.

Keogh has made more than 350 appearances for Derby County since Nigel Clough signed him from Coventry City for £1m in 2012, which breaks down to less than £3,000 per game.  Compare that in terms of value for money to some of the other, far more expensive signings made in more recent years and you’ll find that…  No, in fact.  Just try not to even think about it.

When we consider the rollercoaster of madness which unfolded throughout Mel Morris’ ‘roaring tens’ at the helm and Keogh’s integral part in it all, it feels fitting that his debut was one of the most bizarre games in the club’s recent history – a league cup exit against Scunthorpe, which the Rams led 4-1, only to draw 5-5 after extra time and lose on penalties – and that his final game before the ‘alcohol-related incident’ was just as preposterous – the grand larceny of a 1-1 draw at Elland Road, for which Derby didn’t turn up until the 92nd minute, then hilariously turned into prime Brazil for 30 seconds.  From the ridiculous to the ridiculous – with the occasional moment of the sublime – the Keogh years at Derby were certainly never dull.

You always knew that he had a mistake in him, even when he went for runs of games without making one.  He was not particularly quick, or commanding in the air and barely ever scored goals, but he worked hard on his game, particularly to adapt to the short-passing style that most of his Derby managers favoured.  His ‘loose racehorse’ runs from the back became the stuff of cult legend – fun to watch, without any end product, until, of course, at Elland Road in the 2018/9 play-off semi-final second leg, he galloped through a vacated midfield and executed a perfect first-time pass to set up Jack Marriott, sending the Rams to a Wembley final for the second time in his seventh season with the club.  

He was almost never injured, almost never dropped.  His temporary consignment to the bench by Gary Rowett – after an horrific 4-1 home defeat by a Sunderland side who went on to be relegated – lasted only three matches before he was brought back into the fold – after another horrorshow defeat in his absence, this time at Nigel Clough’s Burton.  

Barring a miraculous return, 2014’s Wembley play-off final will probably now remain the defining game of his time at the club.  For the record, Keogh never deserved sole blame for the Zamora goal.  Craig Forsyth and Jake Buxton should never have allowed the cross that came across the box, which Keogh could do little more than effectively ‘set’ perfectly for the journeyman striker.  But the shock of the loss was undoubtedly pinned on Keogh by many devastated supporters and negativity followed him around for seasons to come.  

Not this season, though.  By this year, I genuinely felt that the tide had turned for Keogh and his presence was valued by the vast majority.  There was no contest when I polled Twitter to find out who the fans thought our best defender was – Keogh won by a mile.  The delight we all felt when he thrashed home that penalty at Old Trafford last season, or when he set up Marriott for the best goal in Derby’s 21st century at Elland Road, these were magical moments. 

But other than great memories for the supporters, ultimately, those moments did not lead to any tangible, meaningful reward for the club – and that has very much been the story of our decade. 

I’m not saying that the ‘close, but no cigar’ years were Keogh’s fault – managers came and went every season from 2013/4 onwards, good money was thrown after bad, poor decisions made by those at the top.  But all the way through, Keogh was there.  Wagging his head as he strode forward, or chased back after faster, younger opponents, like-I-saying his way through the occasional interview – for a captain, he was not a regular presence on media duty, as BBC Radio Derby’s Chris Coles confirmed for us in the BlogCast.

As Chris told us:-

“He wore his heart on his sleeve and the interviews he did were often… when Derby weren’t doing so well. Curtis Davies in the team now is a Derby County dream, because they know that they can wheel him out whatever the weather and he’ll brilliant… Whereas when Derby were hammered by Brentford [this season], Richard came out and he was still absolutely furious and because of that, there’s not much value in interviewing him, because he’s just angry… So I think they needed to be a bit cuter with Richard and just take him out of the firing line.”

We are about to enter a new decade and the 2010s will go down as a time of disappointment, bad judgement, even calamity at times and all of those things are encapsulated in the incident which has effectively ended Derby’s Keogh years.  The Wembley goal wasn’t his fault and he never deserved the blame for it.  In this case, he has only himself to blame.

When you’ve been a part of the furniture for so long, despite a semi-permanent atmosphere of chaos reigning, perhaps after a while, you start to feel too comfortable.  Like you have a certain licence and can take a few liberties.  What happened that night was wholly unacceptable and for the club captain to have been so complicit in the wrong-doing was shocking.  Keogh will know how badly he let himself, the club, the fans, his family down.  And even in his disgrace, he must know how lucky he is, because things could have turned out considerably worse for him than they did. 

The idea of him not being around anymore was something that had honestly never occurred to me.  He wasn’t far away from a testimonial, which is rare indeed in these days of journeymen who pack their bags and move on every two or three seasons.  But while thanking Richard for the memories – some of which will make me shake my head and bring a rueful smile to my face for years to come – right now, I can only focus on the future for Derby County and the people who are in a position to help us.

The 2020s are about to start – and who knows what this new era in the history of Derby County will bring.

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New – Derby County BlogCast, with special guest Chris Coles (BBC Radio Derby)

A new episode of the Derby County BlogCast is now live. This month’s podcast understandably leads with the shameful drink-driving incident which resulted in criminal convictions for Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence and potentially the end of Richard Keogh’s playing career.

We discuss the fall-out from the crash, how the club handled (or arguably mishandled) the situation and what happens next at Pride Park.

Chris Coles, the man behind the mic at Radio Derby, was kind enough to embark on a ‘busman’s holiday’ and give up an hour of his time to talk through all of that, as well as his general feelings about how the Rams are getting on under Phillip Cocu, plus the on and off-field implications of the pending arrival of Wayne Rooney.

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Leeds United v Derby County preview

It still isn’t so long since Leeds United beat themselves Derby County beat Leeds United 4-2 at Elland Road to progress to the Championship play-off final.  I was lucky enough to be there on the night and was so swept up in the emotion of it all that I wrote:

“Regardless of the result at Wembley, the way in which everyone – players, staff, manager, chairman/owner, supporters – were so tightly bonded has to have a meaningful legacy.  It has to be a platform that we build on as a club for seasons to come.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure it has really turned out that way.  That night was more of a tantalising glimpse of success, of what is possible, but the man who threatened to light the blue touchpaper let us down soon afterwards, firstly through a Wembley team selection which only served to confuse and disappoint everyone and secondly by decamping, in a wholly undignified, excruciatingly drawn-out fashion, back to his parent club. 

Mel Morris sought to replace Frank Lampard with an equally decorated individual.  It was never going to be possible for him to get a figure with the same stature in the English game, but he was able to hire another international centurion, with the benefit of a much better managerial CV than Frank Lampard.

But Phillip Cocu is a very different character to Lampard.  The Chelsea man’s extrovert nature and easy charm – at least partly learned at the knee of his uncle, Harry Redknapp – helped him to bond easily with the fans, the majority of us bouncing eagerly into his arms at the first sniff of success.  Lampard was also able to exert his influence and sign three unbelievable loan players from Chelsea and Liverpool, all of whom have gone straight onto featuring regularly and impressing in the Premier League this season.

Cocu doesn’t have the same charisma, contacts or status in the English game, which is why, particularly given the very short amount of time he had to work with his squad before we kicked off at Huddersfield, it should be no surprise to anybody that it hasn’t been all roses in these early stages of the season.  Add in the fact that the club disposed of various senior players in the summer to control its excessive wagebill, asked the manager to start trying to integrate young players into the team and then surprised everyone by committing to a marquee signing who won’t make his Rams debut until January and there’s no surprise that results and performances have not been stellar thus far. 

I have a lot of sympathy for Cocu, because although I think he got it wrong to an extent at Forest, circumstances have conspired roundly against him ever since he took the job.   Joining at the eleventh hour, the fixture calendar throwing up a series of extremely difficult games one after the other, arguably the nastiest possible league cup draw, missed penalties – even the fact uncovered by the analyst Peter A. Lohmann that seven points after seven games, while hardly brilliant, would not usually leave a team as low in the Championship table as 19th (it has only happened once before this century). 

But Cocu, you sense, is a gritty character, who will simply – well, OK, maybe not grin and bear it, but certainly, he will soldier determinedly on.  

There have been no such problems for Leeds United.  Marcelo Bielsa has simply carried straight on from where he left off last season and his team’s early performances have been flagged by every single statistician I follow as being on a different level to everyone else in this season’s Championship.  The average shot count in their games so far has been 18.1 – 8.7 and they have averaged more than 60% possession. They’re top of the table for shots on target, shots in the penalty area, shots in the six-yard box (2.1 per game).  They are absolutely flying and this is not a good time to go to Elland Road.  Add in the fact that their fans will be screaming for a measure of revenge to help them move on from the shock of last season’s play-off defeat and the script, it seems, is written. 

Just as it was seemingly written last season, when they had beaten us so easily three times on the spin that there was simply no way back for the Rams. We all know how that turned out.  

As dominant as Leeds have been and as splendid as some of their performances have been, they are not unbeatable.  Forest went their, were out-shot 15-6 and skanked a 1-1 draw through a scrambled Lewis Grabban effort late in the game.  Swansea City went one better, leaving the Home of Hubris with a win, despite barely having had a kick in the 90.  They are second division players and second division players, no matter how well coached, are fallible. 

Cocu will know, I’m sure, that he blew a lot of good will when he effectively conceded the league cup game against Forest.  He would get a lot of credit back in the bank if he could magic up a victory against another old enemy, but there is an understanding, I think, that the odds are firmly against him on this occasion and I’m certain that any sensible Rams fan would snatch the proverbial hand off for a point if offered it now.

After Leeds, we have a run of fixtures from which it is imperative that the team start to pick up some momentum. 

A home win as soon as possible is vital for everyone’s morale and I’m certain that it is coming. Ideally, somebody would get a right hiding off us, but however it comes, we will definitely settle down, pick up some results and start to improve. Exactly how much better we get – and what situation Wayne Rooney will walk into this winter – remains to be seen.

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Rome wasn’t built in a day – Phillip Cocu’s tough August at Derby County assessed

Back in January, Derby County travelled to Accrington Stanley for a fourth round FA Cup tie.  The Rams had beaten Southampton on penalties after a replay to get there and then defeated Reading in the league three days later to sit sixth in the table.  Apart from the pain of a defeat at Leeds sandwiched between the two Saints ties, everything was going pretty well. 

Frank Lampard looked at the cup tie against the Lancashire minnows and decided to go strong.  With no midweek fixture to follow, he made only two changes from the side that had won the previous fixture against Reading at Pride Park.

Lampard’s prize assets – his three loanees – all started at Stanley, alongside other key players like the emerging star Jayden Bogle and Martyn Waghorn.  The bench included some academy products – Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, Max Bird, Calum Macdonald – but only Bird made an appearance, as despite the strength of the line-up, the Rams had to struggle for the win, eventually progressing after Waghorn scrambled the ball home in front of a delighted band of Rams fans. 

But there would be a serious cost to this victory.  Late in the first half, Lampard’s talisman, Mason Mount, suffered a hamstring injury which would sideline him for the next ten games.  Mount’s absence was not the only factor, but in the nine league games which followed, Derby won two, drew three and lost four, slipping from sixth to eighth in the league and entering the run-in looking like outsiders for a play-off place. 

Mount returned and the Rams pulled themselves together in the end, but that poor run of form included a shock home defeat to Millwall, a limp defeat at Nottingham Forest and total humiliation at Aston Villa, where the home side scored four goals in the first half against what was effectively a reserve team. 

Lampard was strongly criticised for his eccentric selection at Villa Park, but had made the choice with the bigger picture in mind.  Derby had three consecutive home games in a week after Villa and Lampard decided that he would effectively sacrifice the Villa game in the hope of nailing a big haul of points at Pride Park in the following days.  It was a strange choice, certainly unfair on the supporters who were left to endure the fiasco that followed – and it wasn’t very effective either, as Derby collected only five points from the three home games.

Fast forward to August and Phillip Cocu was faced with an early test of his managerial nous when his Derby side drew the “auld enemy” away in the second round of the Carabao Cup.  His first East Midlands Derby would be the Rams’ seventh fixture in just 22 days.  Prior to Forest, the fixture list had been relentless. Monday – Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday – Tuesday – Saturday.  

In an episode of the Derby County BlogCast released just before the Forest game, Chris’ assessment, which I agreed with, was that Forest away was the nastiest tie Cocu could possibly have been handed. 


In the first round, at Scunthorpe, Cocu had selected academy products Max Bird, Jason Knight and Lee Buchanan in a line-up which blended youth and experience.  Bird was subbed at half-time for George Evans, but Buchanan and Knight played so well that they were included in the matchday 18 for the next game and soon went on to make their first league starts.  There was also a debut for Krystian Bielik and a first start of the season for Jack Marriott, both of whom needed the game time. 

Before the draw was made, Cocu’s plan for the second round of the league cup would undoubtedly have been to do exactly the same thing again – to rest key men for the league and try young players, which after all is supposed to be part of his remit. But once Forest came out of the hat, would he be forced to change his plans? 

I spent time brooding on what selection he might go for prior to the game, seeing it as a fiendishly tricky puzzle. My suggested line-up contained multiple changes:

Six out of eleven isn’t bad, I suppose.

But I was wrong to predict that Cocu would deviate an inch from his plans purely to accommodate a fierce local rivalry.  He stuck to his guns, making ten changes from the side which had drawn with West Bromwich Albion at Pride Park.  Even young Knight was rested for the next league game.  Emerging teenager Buchanan was the only player to have faced the Baggies to start at the City Ground – and two more academy products, Louie Sibley and Morgan Whittaker, were handed their first senior starts. 

I think most supporters understood that, despite the fact that it was Forest, there would have to be changes.  Surely, nobody expected Marriott – being nursed back to fitness after a thigh injury – to start, for example.  But given the fact that this was an East Midlands Derby, it was a big call for Cocu to make quite as many changes as he did.  So determined was the Dutchman to avoid any injuries to key players that he even diluted his bench, calling up Mitchell-Lawson and Bird to sit alongside Marriott and Tom Lawrence.  Waghorn, Bielik, Lowe, Kieran Dowell and Tom Huddlestone were all omitted from the squad entirely.

Having assessed the situation, Cocu felt obliged to field a team against Forest which was weaker than the one that faced Scunthorpe.  Evans started in place of Bird and Matt Clarke played in central defence instead of Bielik – those changes could not be seen as dilutions, but elsewhere, Duane Holmes was drafted in for his first start of the season as an emergency right back and Mason Bennett started up-front.  Young Whittaker, starting on the right, has talent, but to me, doesn’t look ready for a Championship first team at this stage, while Sibley, who has only just turned 18, could be future captain material and could get more chances before the end of the season, but still has a long way to go in his development. 

For Cocu, the league cup offers the only chance to give these young men an opportunity in an almost risk-free, but still competitive environment and he was very quick to point out after the 3-0 defeat that Forest had made a lot of changes, too.  But there was a difference in approach.  Whereas Cocu picked a team to fulfil the fixture, Sabri Lamouchi risked his star turn, Joe Lolley, plus Albert Adomah and other regular first-teamers including Matty Cash and Joe Worrall.

It should be pointed out that Forest’s squad is farcically vast and if there is a Championship club armed for a league cup run this season, then it is Forest. 
But Cocu’s caution led to a mismatch on the team sheets and inevitable defeat. 

The result upset a lot of fans quite badly.  Other supporters were pragmatic about it and encouraged fellow fans to brush it off – it was just the league cup, it doesn’t really matter – but it irritated me, because I couldn’t see why Cocu had to pick such a depleted bench.  Yes, the players had been through a tough August schedule, but I found it hard to understand why Waghorn, for example, couldn’t at least have been named as a sub for a game which we knew wouldn’t have to go to extra time.  

And when Mitchell-Lawson was introduced instead of Lawrence at 0-2, it felt to me like Cocu didn’t get the fact that the supporters actually give a toss about losing to Forest, even if it was just the league cup.  

This depressing evening put immediate pressure on Cocu and his planned team for the weekend league game, at Brentford. 

***

A lack of goals in the first few games may not have suggested it, but with skilful players like skilful players like Saïd Benrahma, Ollie Watkins, and Sergi Canós, the Bees have one of the most dangerous frontlines in the Championship.  And you don’t need me to tell you that they ripped Derby a new one at Griffin Park.
 
But the goals that took the game away from the Rams in embarrassingly swift succession were almost entirely of Derby’s making.  Lawrence’s poor touch coughed up possession before Bielik’s impetuous attempt to win the ball from the slick Benrahma allowed the Algerian to slip the fatal ball behind the Rams’ backline.  Seconds later, Huddlestone’s attempt to lob the ball over Canós was underhit – but Buchanan had sold himself by flying forward to within about ten yards of Lawrence, who should have been the target of the pass.  A sickeningly naff third goal was shipped on the brink of half-time to end the game as a contest and put a shitty seal on what had been a wholly embarrassing performance. 

And it sent knees jerking all over the place.  The whole point of the Forest loss was that we grin and bear that because it would give us a better chance of three points in the league, right?

Well, no, not entirely.  It comes back to what happened to Mount at Accrington.

It’s starting to become painfully clear now that there’s no Wilson any more to smash in a piledriver and save the day, no Mount to provide killer passes or arrive in the box to score.  So who is going to grab the goals? 

The obvious answers, at least until January, when Wayne Rooney lands, are Marriott and Waghorn.  This is why I felt before the start of the season (and still believe now) that a two striker system could suit this squad better than a 4-3-3 which Cocu has already repeatedly been forced to abandon mid-game. 

Lawrence, while capable of occasional moments of quality, as we saw at Huddersfield, has never been a prolific scorer.  Dowell has created more chances than any other Rams player, but hasn’t looked much of a goalscoring threat so far.  Bennett, Florian Jozefzoon and Jamie Paterson are the other senior attacking options and none of that trio, in all honesty, are going to strike fear into the hearts of Championship opponents.

And that shortage of genuine attacking threats is why Cocu didn’t dare risk Waggy, or even Lawrence or Dowell, in the Carabao Cup – even against Forest, even for half an hour from the bench. 

In his defence, the manager could point to the fact that Buchanan – the only player to start all three games against West Brom, Forest and Brentford – suffered what has been described as a minor hamstring injury at Griffin Park and has subsequently been withdrawn from England duty.

Nevertheless, what happened at Griffin Park was a total nightmare for the coach.  With his reserves looking short on quality and unlikely to score at the City Ground, his first team were toothless and made to look second-rate only a few days later.  3-0 may have flattered Forest, but it didn’t flatter Brentford.  The underlying statistics of that game were so lop-sided that Cocu will have to go back to the beginning and reconsider everything. 

He has already shown a readiness to take action when things aren’t working, including half-time substitutions and formation changes in games which were swinging away from him.  At Brentford, he moved Waghorn to centre forward in a 4-4-2, in an effort to get him into the game.  It worked, slightly and Waggy was more of a presence, picking up passes from defenders as Derby improved a bit from their wretched first half to at least muster occasional spells of possession, if not meaningful pressure, in the opposition’s third of the pitch. 

Cocu will undoubtedly spend the break reconsidering what his best team is.  He has started Lawrence, Dowell and Huddlestone in every league game so far, but their positions will have to be reviewed ahead of Cardiff, along with everyone else’s.  He’ll need to think about whether to continue starting Knight at this stage, or whether the situation demands a different option, like Evans or Graeme Shinnie, who has been totally out of favour so far. He desperately needs Bogle back, but has to weigh that against the risk of drafting the 19 year-old into the line-up too early.

***

Six league games is not long enough to draw any firm conclusions on how good Derby’s season will be.  We are still at such an early stage that two kicks of the ball are the difference between sitting 19th in the table and 9th.  Yes, there have been unimpressive performances in certain games, but that is the case in any season.  And yes, there are questions about whether Cocu has yet found his best line-up, but he is new to English football, has been unable to call on key players at times and had little time to work with a squad which cannot reasonably be described as his squad before being thrust into an extremely harsh August schedule.  Especially at home, the relative strength of opposition should be taken into account, with Swansea top of the table having won every game except for the 0-0 draw at Pride Park, West Brom still unbeaten in fourth and Bristol City sitting fifth. 

With a trip to Elland Road looming large, a win against Neil Warnock’s Cardiff would be a massive help for Cocu. But we should also accept that things could get worse before they start to get better and either way, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of overreacting to every single result.  If the mission for the Dutchman is truly a long-term one – to rebuild the squad, to instil a new philosophy from top to bottom, while giving young players from the academy the chance to develop into first-teamers, well, that tells us that a) things weren’t exactly 100% right before he was introduced to the team in Florida two months ago, b) that he’s not going to be able to buy his way to success and c) it’s unreasonable to expect him him to wave a magic wand and work miracles overnight. 

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job”, quipped Brian Clough. A classic gem from the great man, but it did of course cheekily overlook the fact that in his first season at Derby, Clough finished 18th out of 22 in Division Two.  It should go without saying, but I probably have to say it anyway –  I am not comparing Clough to Cocu in any way – and yes, as one of my elders and betters reminded me on Twitter, Sir Brian’s side did also get to the semi-finals of the League Cup that season (losing to Leeds on aggregate).  I only mention it to make the point that it took Clough time – and, of course, the signing of Dave Mackay – before the blue touchpaper was finally lit.  More recently, after an unspectacular start to the season in 1995, Jim Smith’s Rams took off only after Igor Štimac arrived (and explained to the Bald Eagle how the team should be set up around him). 

While it seems that Rooney is less of a Cocu signing and more of a Mel signing, it’s entirely possible that he could have as transformative an impact on our team as Igor did. However, he will not be a Ram until 2020 – which will hopefully be the beginning of a better new decade for Derby than we have experienced so far this century. 

Patience is needed in the meantime. The serious-minded Cocu doesn’t have the same charisma and profile in the English game as the media-friendly Lampard and maybe that has made it more difficult for him to win over the supporters – but he has much more experience and unlike the Chelsea man, has actually won things in his managerial career. And given the lack of time he had to work with the players before the start of the season, it’s frankly unsurprising that he hasn’t immediately hit the ground running.

If he’s given the time which is needed to complete the work which Lampard started before he, like our best players from last season, was summoned back from his season-long loan, then Cocu may just be able to pilot the club to a better future.


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