Frank Lampard starts the bounce at Derby County

Six games in and the international break has provided a respite from the frantic Championship season, giving us all the chance to reflect on how Derby County and their rookie manager Frank Lampard have started their 2018/9 campaign.

The headline is very much a positive one.  Twelve points from a possible eighteen equates neatly to two per game – automatic promotion form and then some over a full season.  Derby have done extremely well to win four out of six league games, including striking very late to win at Reading and Hull, courtesy of Mason Bennett assists on both occasions.  Those two dramatic clinchers made the difference between the Rams sitting fourth in the embryonic league table and 14th (in which case, they would still have been a place and point ahead of Nottingham Forest).

It’s worth pointing out that, the four clubs Derby have beaten have all started badly and, at the time of writing, all sit in the bottom six.  This factor, combined with the manner in which Leeds comfortably beat us at Pride Park and the dithery defending which led to a disappointing loss at Millwall, do pose questions about whether our current lofty league position is something that Lampard will be able to sustain in the face of difficult tests ahead, or whether the flurry of early wins have masked a few underlying problems.

However, the more positive way of looking at it is that so far, they have scored maximum points against the dross and if you continue to do that, then you can get away with the odd slip-up, or setback against stronger teams – which happens to everyone – and still climb the table.

Another positive sign is the amount of goals and assists contributed by substitutes.  Bennett’s dramatic impact prompted an ecstatic Lampard to declare his outright love for the local boy.  Elsewhere, there was an ultimately fruitless goal set up by sub Craig Forsyth for fellow sub David Nugent at Millwall, while ‘Deadly’ Joe Ledley clambered off the bench to score the opener against Ipswich (with the help of a deflection).  Two goals and three assists from substitutes in six games is good going and points to a factor which could well help Derby to sustain a strong season – squad depth.

The sheer amount of players Lampard has to choose from has caused some observers, including the academic Kieran Maguire, to predict that Derby may eventually come a cropper under the EFL rules which cap the amount clubs are allowed to lose without being sanctioned.  So far, the Rams have avoided any punishment, but it’s surely impossible for that to continue unless several well-paid players currently on the books leave.

Of the players who are contributing, the most immediately successful Lampard signings have been the two England U21 internationals he borrowed from Chelsea – Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori.  Mount has quickly become Derby’s key creative threat and arguably also the chief goal threat so far – like Craig Bryson in his pomp, he is a midfielder who lives to break into the opposition penalty area and such is his desire to raid forward that he even accidentally blocked a Bryson shot from within the six-yard box against Preston.

Mount has had more shots from inside the box than any other Derby player, but one challenge still facing the team is to get him on the ball more often and affecting games more.  Such is the way with any team’s star player, but surprisingly, Mount is currently averaging only 26.3 passes per game, at 69.6% success.  For context, Villa’s Jack Grealish is averaging 45 passes pg, at 87.8%.  Part of Mount’s education at Derby will be working out how to deal with being closely marked and kicked and yet still continue to find ways to change games.

So far, so good, though:-

KEY PASSES (Chances created) – Top Championship players

Barry Bannan, Ben Marshall, Jack Grealish, Lee Evans – 15
Pablo Hernández – 14
Chris Brunt, MASON MOUNT – 13

At the other end of the pitch, Tomori has slotted into the team well after Curtis Davies’ hamstring injury.  He endured a very difficult debut against Leeds, but even in the face of that battering, Tomori earned positive reviews from many supporters for his whole-hearted defending.  His pace is an asset and, as my good buddy Chris Smith pointed out on the latest Derby County BlogCast, he has sprayed some eye-catching passes (although overall, Richard Keogh is a significantly more accurate passer than the teenager).  

Lampard’s squad size leaves him with tough selection decisions to make all over the pitch – and even for the bench, with Jack Marriott omitted altogether at Hull – but a particularly interesting question is, what happens when Davies returns?

Although the majority of those I polled would drop Keogh, another and probably more likely option would be to move Tomori to right back.  Andre Wisdom has looked clunky at times and has not been convincing on the ball, which is not helpful when the manager wants his defenders to provide the first line of attacking impetus.  18 year-old Jayden Bogle has already been preferred to Wisdom, so it wouldn’t be a major shock if Tomori moves across once the main man is back.

Under Lampard, Derby have returned to being one of the division’s more dominant ball-playing sides – passing it much more, keeping it much more – to the extent that Keogh has completed more passes than anyone else in the Championship, except for Sheffield Wednesday’s playmaker Barry Bannan.  Lampard wants his side to pass out from the back where possible, rather than launching more direct balls into the corners of the pitch and this style will always make some fans unhappy – impatient protests against ‘tippy-tappy’ football and shouts of ‘get rid’ will always abound from some corners, it seems.  

It’s all about what you fear.  Gary Rowett feared having the ball in case his players lost it and was happier letting the opposition take the ‘risk’ of  possession – this is also part of José Mourinho’s philosophy.  Lampard, on the other hand, wants his players to be braver than that, as he made clear after the Mansfield Town friendly, when Kelle Roos’ bad pass gifted a goal to the Stags.  After the game, Jody Morris said: “The first thing the manager said to Kelle was ‘don’t be worried about that… Don’t care whatsoever, we want to try to play the right way.'”

Short passes per game 

Leeds 411 (56.3% possession)
Brentford 405 (54.6%)
DERBY 384 (54.6%)
Preston 379 (54.4%)
Norwich 365 (52.9%)
Derby 2017/8 333 (48.1%)
Lowest – Rotherham 182 (40.5%)

It’s tempting to label advocates for more direct, old-fashioned English football as dinosaurs in an era when ‘playing through the thirds’ is largely accepted as the ideal form, but the first half at Reading was, let’s be honest, a bit of a disaster, as a rattled Davies and Keogh repeatedly passed the ball straight to opposition players in terrifying areas.  

Goalkeeper Scott Carson then mis-weighted a pass for Craig Bryson at Millwall, which ultimately led to a (freakishly fortunate) deflected goal for the home side.  After that game, the Racing Post’s Mark Langdon gave Derby a real roasting for their tentative approach, as they passed the ball around the back without creating enough opportunities to ever threaten victory.  

In his article, Langdon quoted the icon of passing football, Pep Guardiola, on the problems caused when defenders play too safely and don’t get anywhere, moving the ball across the pitch in a futile ‘U shape’:-

“Gentlemen, this is tiki-taka and it is s***. We’re not interested in this type of possession.  It’s totally meaningless.  It’s about passing for the sake of it. We need our central midfielder and our defenders to move out with an offensive mentality and break the opposition lines in order to push the whole team high up.  The U needs to go.”  
(Quote from Pep Confidential, by Marti Perarnau)

In other words, you can’t just keep knocking the ball from centre back to full back to centre back to goalkeeper and expect to get anywhere.  OK, sometimes, playing in this U-shape is simply about resting, keeping the ball to catch a breather, or to take the sting out of a difficult situation in the game.  There’s definitely a place for that.  But it is not productive football.

The important thing is for defenders to bring the ball forward – as Keogh so often tries to do – and also (this latter part includes the goalkeeper) to play passes which have an element of risk, not just short and sideways.  This could be a switch of play to the opposite flank, but the key thing is to  bypass the pressure of the opposition forwards, rather than allowing them to simply shuffle from side to side, blocking your progress without much effort.  The midfielders need to be showing for those passes, creating passing angles through constant movement, as without sufficient off-the-ball movement, the player with the ball at his feet can get bogged down – particularly if he is not the quickest of thinkers.  These are Championship defenders, after all.

It might be easier to just go Graham Taylor and ‘knock it’ for the likes of Nugent, Jack Marriott or Martyn Waghorn – all of whom are very willing runners – to chase it.  And there’s an argument that, over time, Lampard will need to recruit players more suited to his preferred style than Davies, Wisdom, Craig Forsyth – even Carson, if it is to be taken to the extreme.

However, it’s worth pointing out that Bradley Johnson – whose poor pass success of 67.4% underlines how unsuited he is to playing in a possession-based team – continues to feature in Lampard’s squad, while Butterfield and Thorne, both much better technical footballers than Johnson, have been marginalised.  While I doubt Johnson will be at the club beyond this season, I’d suggest that his presence in the squad affirms Lampard’s ability to be pragmatic and play the limited hand he’s been dealt, rather than being an inflexible purist in unrealistic pursuit of perfection.

Whatever system or style Derby play, ultimately, they have to create chances.  The main worry so far is that they’ve not been great in terms of taking shots from within the box – averaging only 5.8 per game, which is among the lowest in the division (only QPR, Reading and Swansea have managed less).

Despite this lack of high-quality chances, they are scoring a decent amount of goals – ten is the eighth highest and they have hit the target at least once in every game, which, when measured against the relatively bad shot count, suggests a bit of luck along the way (for example, Mount’s long-range strike which squirmed under Vito Mannone at Reading, Keogh’s header which Preston’s goalkeeper somehow missed); but also points to a real element of quality and ability to take advantage of the rare opportunities which come along (e.g. Lawrence’s fantastic header at Reading, Nugent’s cracking strike at Millwall).

The expected goals models I’ve seen produced by analysts thus far tend to show that Derby look defensively pretty sound, but haven’t been enough of a consistent goal threat to look like convincing promotion contenders at this stage.

This kind of goes against the ‘eye test’ which had convinced me that Lampard’s Derby had a problem with a soft midfield underbelly, with being ‘get-attable’.  That was definitely a problem against Leeds and at Hull, both of whom comfortably out-shot the Rams, but in the other games, they have been generally pretty secure – particularly in the back-to-back home games against Ipswich and Preston, when they were largely unruffled.

Some clubs have produced a hatful more chances than Derby – notably Wigan, Brentford, Sheffield United and Norwich – but without scoring many more goals.  Over time, you would expect them to score more, based on their stats – but only if they have the strikers who are capable of doing the job.  Derby certainly aren’t short of good finishers – including Lawrence, who underlined his credentials with a lethal finish for Wales during the international break.  If they can get those players into dangerous areas more often, then in the end, they will all score plenty.

As Chris Smith has said on the BlogCast, you can see somebody getting a real hiding at some stage –  but we haven’t quite created enough yet for this to happen.

All in all, Lampard has achieved plenty in his first months as a manager – engaging with the fanbase, beginning the difficult process of revamping the squad and, most importantly of all, nicking a few results, to his obvious delight.  There will be difficult times ahead – for god’s sake, nobody mention February – but with every victory, Lampard seems to grow in confidence and his readiness to praise the players and supporters alike is fostering a real feeling of optimism around the club.  His heart is on his sleeve and his emotional openness and easy charm have rapidly endeared him to pretty much everyone, even, dare I say it, some of the skeptics who felt that handing him such a high profile role for his first managerial appointment was an unholy gamble.  

And of course, they were right – it was a risky move.  But the alternative was almost certainly Mick McCarthy and he would not, to put it mildly have provided the breath of fresh of air which Lampard has turned out to be.

Lampard has the gravitas to inspire players, particularly young ones – “When he talks, you listen”, said Max Lowe recently – but also the youthful exuberance of a man who has started a new chapter in life and is genuinely enjoying himself in the process.  

He has started the bounce – and right now, the fans are bouncing with him.

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The Derby County BlogCast #2 – August reviewed

Last weekend, Chris and I recorded our second podcast, reviewing an encouraging August for the Rams. The odd flub aside – I praised Leeds for a goal they scored “against Leeds”, meaning to say Swansea – we ran through the major talking points brought up by the back-to-back league wins which followed back-to-back league defeats.

Frank Lampard seems to be settling into life as Derby manager and for what it’s worth, I think getting that first home win on the board has really helped his confidence to grow. With the squad’s strength in depth underlined by a thumping 4-0 demolition of a weakened Hull City in the League Cup, there are plenty of reasons for optimism as we head into autumn – not least the swaggering form of the hugely talented Mason Mount.

Listen to “DCFC Blogcast, with Ollie and Chris” on Spreaker.


The podcast is also available on iTunes

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Derby County 1 Leeds United 4

Some of my favourite ever moments following Derby have been in games against Leeds.  I think of 2010 at Elland Road, when Kris Commons and Rob Hulse were the stars of the show in the yellow and blue away kit.  2012, a barnstorming victory under the lights at Pride Park, when Ben Davies of all people scored that outrageous volley.  For its sheer brazenness, the infamous moment in 2014 when Adryan performed what was surely the most preposterous episode of play-acting in the history of the English Championship – the Leeds physio mimed playing the world’s tiniest violin as we raged at him – and then of course, the fabulous feeling of last season’s tremendous Elland Road fightback, when Sam Winnall’s brace propelled the Rams to victory after they had trailed at the break.

Leeds are a proper foe for Derby – you don’t need me to recite the amazing folk history involved in that – and games against them mean a little more than the average, to me, at any rate.  And they tend to be competitive, tough affairs, so you have to go back twenty years to find a result as emphatic as 4-1 in this fixture (1998/9 at Elland Road, when Baiano, Bowyer, Hasselbaink and Harte were among the scorers).

So it hurt a lot when, at a time in the game when Derby were battling to force their way back into it and the contest was hanging in the balance, Kemar Roofe body swerved past Richard Keogh and Fikayo Tomori before slamming in Leeds’ third.  The fourth – a routine long free kick dumped over the top, Pablo Hernández not followed by a sleeping Max Lowe and allowed to centre for a close-range Alioski header – was a simultaneous drop-kick to the solar plexus and teeth.  It could very easily have been five, had Samuel Saíz not decided to try to take the piss with a ‘scoop’ finish when clean through on goal.  To have opposition players taking liberties of that nature is never a good look at the best of times and capped a real nightmare start for Frank Lampard on his managerial home bow.

Leeds were very strong, defensively well organised and slick going forward at times, just as they had been in dispatching Gary Rowett’s Stoke on the opening day – but at no time did Derby make life particularly difficult for them.  Leeds were happy to play on the counter when necessary and snuffed out countless dribbles into their final third – their defensive wall was impermeable, with the back four attempting 17 tackles and winning every single one.  Yet Leeds also ended up having more possession.  Failure to keep the ball well enough meant that Derby’s brief spells of pressure were only sporadic and indeed, Leeds’ second goal – an aggravatingly easy header for Kemar Roofe, who stole between the otherwise impressive Tomori and Lowe to finish unchallenged – came after a panicked hoof up the line by Andre Wisdom surrendered possession to the visitors.

It was notable that the Derby defenders tended to play a more direct game than they had done at Reading, probably in reaction to the series of errors committed in the first half of that game, but Lampard confirmed after the match that this had not been his instruction.  He accused the players of ‘stopping playing’ early on, telling BBC Radio Derby:-

“We have to brave on the ball and we weren’t brave enough.  We know they’re gonna press and make it difficult for us to play out, I’d rather see us play out… and lose the ball, trying to do those things, rather than going away from the things that we do.  That’s where we have to go back to the start and be brave.  We are what we are, we need to be strong in our beliefs and [believe] in the quality we have… Today was a great reminder of what happens if you go away from those [values].”

These are very early days, but it would seem that Marcelo Bielsa has seen the Championship and understands how to win in it.  “El Loco’s” team didn’t do anything outlandish – they just pressed high and hard when Derby had the ball at the back, remained compact and difficult to break down when they were under attack and transferred the ball quickly and competently through the lines to their attacking midfielders Saíz and Mateusz Klich, both of whom were too readily able to pick the ball up in front of the back four.  With those two finding such space, Derby were asking for trouble almost from the first whistle and it was no real surprise when Klich punished them just five minutes in.

For Leeds’ first goal, Lowe will get the criticism for having dribbled infield and lost the ball, but he was a hell of a long way from his own goal when he lost it.  Surely he has the right to take a chance in that position and expect a team-mate to cover his back?  Watch it and see the way Mason Mount cruises back, rather than seeing the danger and sprinting to get into position.  Mount doesn’t sense the threat until it’s too late and in the end, Klich is allowed to shoot home from 20 yards under no more than nominal pressure.

Mount is without question a gifted young player and had more shots than any other Derby player on the day, but he couldn’t get on the ball often enough to have a major influence and didn’t put in a single tackle during his 70 minutes on the field.  If he isn’t going to be given the ball, then he needs to do more to help his team to win it back.

Lampard’s decision to bring on Bradley Johnson at half-time was acknowledgement that the midfield balance was wrong and that he needed more presence in the centre of the park.  Johnson had 45 touches of the ball in the second half, compared to 49 combined for Joe Ledley (22) and Mason Mount (27), which shows that both of those midfielders had been relatively peripheral in the match before they were subbed.

Bielsa spoke very graciously about Lampard’s “taste for attacking football” after the match, but privately, he will doubtless have been delighted at how well his side coped with Derby’s attack and, more so, with how much space his midfielders were granted to run the game by a home side who were too easy to play through.

The difference in managerial pedigree couldn’t be more stark – one man is a world-famous player at the very dawn of his coaching career – the other has honed his methods over decades, coached at World Cups and had books written about him, such is his influence on modern football.  Seeing him sitting calmly on his bucket, slurping his coffee, you couldn’t help but feel that Bielsa is already thinking past this level and towards the Premier League (though there is plenty of scope for things to pan out differently).  Lampard, on the other hand, must have known that there would be days like these, but has no reservoir of experience to draw upon.  This is new to him and the Championship is a pretty deep end to be thrown into as a rookie manager.

Mount, Lowe and Harry Wilson are young and we know that more youth was required to revitalise what had become a stodgy, aging side.  But young players who give you speed and flair will also make the type of mistakes that an older pro has already made and knows not to make again.  That is where experienced pros like Curtis Davies and Tom Huddlestone will hopefully make a huge difference to the solidity of the side – Davies for his strength and vocal leadership and Huddlestone for the reassuring way in which he helps to maintain possession and hence control of the game.

Davies tweeted his disappointment about the result –

So did I and was quickly castigated for doing so, being called a ‘twat’, ‘clown’ and ’embarrassing’, among other insults.  I didn’t say anything particularly different to Lampard, who freely admitted the performance wasn’t good enough, or the Derby Telegraph’s Steve Nicholson – not noted for overreacting to bad displays – who dished out threes, fours and fives out of ten to the majority of players in his match ratings, or Radio Derby’s Craig Ramage, who said:

“We were second best all over the park… We capitulated so, so easy… we was lazy at times in certain areas, it was easy for them to run through, we were so far off them at times, it was unreal and I think that’ll be what Frank will be having a word about.”

Is that overreacting, or being a twat or a clown, or embarrassing?

I used the word ‘unacceptable’ and that seemed to upset some people.  I’m happy for those fans if they are able to accept a 4-1 defeat at home to Leeds, on the grounds that it was only the second game of the season.  However, I strongly suspect that Lampard will not be so accepting of the performance and that we will see changes for the next league game, at Millwall.

When offered the ‘out’ of blaming early teething problems as new players gel by BBC Radio Derby’s Chris Coles, Lampard replied: “There’s a case for that, but that’s just an excuse to say it now.  I’m talking about good players… we should be able to play better than we did today.”

And what did Craig Bryson, the returning prince of Pride Park, make of it all?  He said: “To be fair, the four goals we conceded were all really sloppy from our point of view.  Goals always change games, no matter how well or badly you are playing – and the goals we conceded were kind of unacceptable.”

Is that overreacting, or being a twat or a clown, or embarrassing?

Derby can and will get better.  They will not play teams as strong as Leeds most weeks and the talented crop of forwards Lampard has assembled have the talent to dish out a real pasting to any opponent who isn’t on their game.  But whoever they play, they must defend far better than they did last night to give their attacking talents the chance to win games for them.

They had a stinker against a side which has the potential to get promoted.  It was disappointing in the extreme, but it’s done now and our young manager will have learned a hell of a lot more from the experience than he did from the morale-boosting pre-season wins against Southampton and Wolves (or indeed the last-gasp win over Reading).

The next game can’t come quickly enough.

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New for 2018/9: The Derby County BlogCast, with Chris Ramspace

All has been quiet on the DCB front for a while for personal reasons, but one project which is now under way is the Derby County BlogCast.

Episode 1 was recorded on Sunday 22 July can be downloaded from our Spreaker site.  We discussed the early signs and signings of the Frank Lampard era, with some optimism, it’s fair to say, then have a quick look at the other Championship runners and riders and try to predict the unpredictable – what might happen to Derby County this season.

Chris Smith and I had a great time talking with Joel on the Derby County Podcast over the last couple of seasons, so we’ve decided to keep the audio going now that Joel has moved on to pastures new.

However, I’m very keen that we find fresh perspectives – whether black or white, male or female – so I’m starting to reach out to people to see if they’d like to take part at some point this season.  If you fancy having a chat as part of a future podcast, feel free to get in touch with me @derbycountyblog, or via email – lazerock @ hotmail.com.

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Out with the old

A few days ago, a rather cringeworthy tweet appeared on the Derby County feed:-

The problem I had with this messaging is that it made the club look much too starstruck about its high-profile new manager.  And that is not a good look for any institution.  The boss should never be deemed bigger than the club, no matter how famous he is.

Same goes for players, although I note with interest that some fans have lapped up the inevitable speculation that Lampard would like to be reunited with his old pal John Terry at Pride Park.

Terry turns 38 in December and has left Aston Villa, having reportedly cost the club more than £3m in wages for a single season.  Bizarre financial decisions such as that, taken with a view that promotion could be achieved in a single leap, have left the Villa staring down the barrel of financial oblivion, it has now emerged.

Derby County owner Mel Morris has, as is well known, decided that he will not breach FFP regulations by throwing good money after bad and is reining in the excesses to prevent the Rams from experiencing similar problems, which could lead to a transfer embargo (at best).

A look at the age profile of the current Derby outfield squad shows how ‘top-heavy’ it is and how few of the players could be said to be in their prime:-

Ten outfield players are aged 30+.  One of the problems with this is that their resale value is inevitably much lower than a man in his prime.  Too many of these players are on cushy contracts and couldn’t easily be shifted – and even if we could, it’s clear that Derby would have to accept a punishing loss on Bradley Johnson, to give the obvious example.

A further five players are aged 28 or 29 (including Jacob Butterfield, who will presumably get lots of birthday cards from Rams fans when he turns 28 on Sunday).

Only five players are in what you might call the ‘sweet spot’ of 24 to 26.  Players in their mid twenties attract the highest transfer fees, by and large, which is why Gary Rowett raised funds by selling Thomas Ince, Will Hughes and Cyrus Christie – but now, there are precious few of those players left.  The talk has been of sacrificing Vydra, because there isn’t anybody else within the squad who w0uld obviously command a fee of more than a couple of million pounds.

Then you’re into the ‘homegrown’ group of nine under 23s who have been in and around the first-team squad at some stage, ranging from 22 year-old Jamie Hanson to the 17 year-old prospect Jayden Bogle.

It strikes me that the club needs an embargo on signing any more veterans, no matter how famous they might be.  Chris Baird, Darren Bent and Jason Shackell have finally been shifted off the wage-bill and that process of renewal needs to continue, in fact, should be aggressively pursued, in my opinion.  In with the new, but just as importantly, out with the old.  They’ve been around for long enough, they haven’t achieved promotion and it’s time for a new generation of Derby stars to be given the chance instead.

By the end of the 2018/9 season, we have a fantastic opportunity to shed a lot more of the older players.  If my data is right, Pearce, Olsson, Bryson, Ledley, Johnson, Butterfield, Nugent and Blackman could all be released in twelve months time, even if they can’t be shifted before then (Davies, Huddlestone and Jerome are also out of contract at that stage, but with optional extensions –  the details  of which are of course undisclosed).

This is incredibly exciting to me – for the 2019/20 season.  Because by that time, a huge chunk of unproductive wage spend will finally be gone, giving Derby a bit more room to manoeuvre in the transfer market and therefore a massive opportunity to progress.

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