Derby County v Bristol City match preview, with The Exiled Robin

It’s easy to see why the basilisk eye of Sky Sports honed in on this one.

For an increasingly convincing, battle-hardened Derby, it is an opportunity to, if not nullify a direct rival, at least to kick away from them by extending the gap to eight points. For an exciting young City side, who have emphasised their credentials by knocking four Premier League sides out of the League Cup, it is an opportunity to get their stalled Championship campaign back on track.  The Robins’ 5-0 defeat at Aston Villa raised eyebrows across the land – but it should be pointed out that before that reverse, they hadn’t lost an away game since August 12.

Neutrals may be disappointed if they’re hoping for a fast-flowing encounter.  City have lost their last five matches in all competitions and will be desperate for something, anything from this game, while Derby’s home performances have, as a rule, been a little stilted  (while still usually getting the job done).  After the Rams overcame Birmingham City in arguably their most eye-catching and fluid performance of the season, Gary Rowett insisted that the game had been “too open” for his liking and that his side had “over-played” at times.  Without doubt, the game ebbed and flowed and what Rowett disliked was the amount of times Blues players were able to run at Derby’s rearguard – the need for professional fouls by Davies, Thorne and most memorably Russell all proving his point.  Perhaps Derby’s attacking midfielders got carried away with their own fluency at times – Lawrence was all stepovers and flashing feet, Russell carrying the ball with a new-found intent, Vydra as lethal as ever – and they simply forgot about helping to defend.  Not that it mattered on the day.

Derby’s form going into this surprise promotion ding-dong is exceptional.  As I pointed out in my last piece, the Rams have been strongly in contention on four of the last five New Year’s Days without converting, so there is a hell of a long way to go, but a record of only three goals conceded in the last eleven games points to a team which has found a plan that works and which has the durability to see it through.  Research published today by Ben Mayhew showed that Rowett has named an unchanged side more times than any other Championship club season.  If it ain’t broke…

Meanwhile, professional analyst Ted Knutson (formerly of Brentford FC) has tweeted his interpretation of Derby’s expected goal (xG) trends since last summer, which show that the xG scored is steadily increasing, while the xG conceded is dropping.  This strongly implies that the wave of form which propelled Derby into the automatic promotion race is built on something solid, rather than simply a lucky streak which is bound to end before May.

StatsBomb’s analysis of Derby County’s ‘expected goals’ performance shows that the xG conceded has been steadily dropping throughout the season, while the xG scored is creeping up. Credit: Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts)

I can’t emphasise enough that by doing well up to January, we are only where we have been in most of the past five seasons, so it is very important not to get carried away, or take anything for granted.  But Rowett is counting on one of the league’s oldest squads to remain unfazed by the pressure of what will be a gruelling run-in – and to complete the job this time.

Ahead of this one, I thought it would be worth checking in with my friend The Exiled Robin, to get his take on how things have been going for Bristol City this season.

Derby County Blog: Last time we spoke, six City first-teamers were out injured and you felt that three quality additions were needed in this transfer window.  How’s the injury situation looking now and are you still in need of reinforcements?

The Exiled Robin: Those players are all still out, although there have been hints at some returning to training – recent results are starting to show how much we need them back.  We’ve spent two months playing four centre-backs in defence, a left-back in midfield and two midfielders up-front.  Games against Wolves [a traumatic late 1-2 loss], Villa [0-5] and Norwich [0-1] have finally broken the momentum and spirit that seemed to be seeing us through.

We’ve signed two youngsters – as per our strategy – Ryan Kent on loan from Liverpool and  the highly-rated Everton midfielder Liam Walsh permanently.  Of course they’ll help, but especially as they’re both under 21, will take some time to bed in.  We’re in desperate need for a strong striker to ease the burden on Bobby Reid and Jamie Paterson.

DCB: I guess that leads us on to the League Cup question.  The heroic performances against Man United and Man City (and, to a lesser extent, Crystal Palace and Stoke) have rightly won lots of plaudits, but have the extra games – from a hard-headed perspective – actually turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing?

TER: Don’t forget Watford away, when they were flying!  It’s been a fantastic run and one I wouldn’t swap for anything now we’ve experienced it, but it would appear that the more recent games against the big Manchester clubs in particular are affecting our league form now.  By the time we play the second leg against City, we’ll have played 270 (or 300) more minutes than any other Championship side in the preceding 31 days and when you have a fairly thin squad and are playing lots of league games over Christmas, that’s going to really hurt.  Energy levels dipped visibly against Villa and Norwich and mentally, it must be very difficult to keep getting the players up for a game every three or four days for such a long time, especially when five of them – including Wolves and Derby – are so genuinely massive or critical.  It’s not as if we sit back like, say, Cardiff and soak up pressure without expending much energy.  We defend from the front, play a really high pressure game and never really get anyone a rest.  The front six, in particular, look absolutely shattered.

DCB: I guess the pressure is on Bobby Reid to keep delivering – from the outside, I was wondering how City would replace Tammy Abraham’s goals this season.  Could you have predicted Reid emerging in the way he has?

TER: No, I don’t think anyone, except maybe Lee Johnson, could have done.  I think his goals have been a bonus but his all-round energy, pressurising the opposition for 90 minutes has been the biggest win and that’s why Johnson moved him up there.  It sets the tone for the team and his skill, creativity and goals add even more to that hard work. But as mentioned, he now needs some help, having played much of the last two months up there alone, or with Jamie Paterson, who’s more usually a wide man.

DCB: Assuming you get the reinforcements you’re after, are you now thinking about automatic promotion, or a play-off push?  And was there a particular moment in the season which convinced you that promotion was a genuine possibility?  I’ve been really surprised at how several of last season’s contenders have failed to challenge and left the field wide open.

TER: I always thought automatic was a stretch, although on the back of five straight wins in December, we were obviously well positioned.  I think we’d all be absolutely delighted with a play-off spot, despite the obvious heartache that might end up causing!

Beating Middlesbrough and then winning very late at Sheffield United early in December were the big moments recently, but we were already eyeing the oft-mentioned injury list and fixture pile-up with trepidation at that point.  And I have to say, our performance against the Rams in September probably remains our most complete result and against a clearly good side.

Wolves are obviously going up.  I expect one of Derby and Villa to join them, with City, Cardiff, Leeds and any one of the half-a-dozen teams below challenging for the other three play-off spots.  Brentford keep popping into my head as the outsiders who might just cause a shock and charge through it, unless they sell half their team again in the January transfer window!

DCB: Just finally, do you fancy hazarding a guess at the City team for Friday and of course, the time honoured score prediction?

TER: I can see us suffering a sixth successive defeat, sadly.  2-0 Derby.

Fielding;
Wright, Baker, Flint, Bryan;
Brownhill, Pack, Smith;
Walsh, Paterson;
Reid.

 

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Manchester United 2 Derby County 0

It wasn’t the outcome any of the 5,500 travelling fans wanted, but in the cold light of day, it was probably the one which Derby County needed.  Nobody in their right mind could complain about the result, which was wholly justified on the balance of play.  But it didn’t stop Romelu Lukaku’s injury-time goal on the counter leaving me feel like I’d been kicked in the gut.

Derby hung on in there valiantly, surfing a big wave of fortune along the way and were less than ten minutes from forcing a replay, only to be toppled by a moment of sheer brilliance from Jesse Lingard.  The Rams didn’t have enough quality to find a way back, or to ever seriously test Sergio Romero, but until Lingard’s absolute exocet of a strike past the excellent Scott Carson, it was starting to seem as if the mighty United had run out of ideas.

José Mourinho didn’t mess around with his team selection.  There were no minutes for youngsters and Paul Pogba was not rested.  When the first half ended goalless, Lukaku was summoned in place of the fitful Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Anthony Martial came next and when that didn’t work, the brick-subtle Belgian Marouane Fellaini was brought on.  United were obliged to haul out their heaviest offensive artillery.  But Gary Rowett had, to my dismay, rested two of his most important players in Curtis Davies and Matej Vydra.

Given that Mourinho was never likely to take this game lightly, that felt like a decision which was asking for trouble.  In hindsight, I wonder if Rowett wonders what might have been had the Czech been on hand to take advantage of one of several promising counter attacks in the first half.

I think back to previous encounters with United, when Rooney at his peak or Cristiano Ronaldo brought a genuine fear factor.  Centre forward-wise, in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimović, they have nobody with the same totemic presence.  This is by no means a vintage United side and the FA Cup looks like their only real chance of silverware this season.

Nevertheless, they are still United and Derby spent the first 20 minutes largely boxed in, peering suspiciously at the twinkling feet of Pogba and Rashford, waiting passively for something to happen.  They were fortunate that it didn’t.  But United were trying to pass through the eye of a needle, using the technical front four of Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata to unlock a much-changed Rams rearguard, which largely stood up to a really challenging examination.  Nevertheless, Rashford was released into the box with only Carson to beat and somehow fired over the bar, before heading a back-post cross against the upright.

For all of their obvious quality, United looked sloppy at times in the first half and a speedy Derby front four – Sam Winnall, Tom Lawrence, Andi Weimann, Johnny Russell – had clearly been selected with harrying and counter-attacking in mind.  With George Thorne and Tom Huddlestone sitting deep to screen the back four – to anyone who doubted whether they can play together, the answer is, they can – Derby repeatedly broke up play and scampered at the Reds – they had plenty of these situations and with a bit more quality in the crucial moments, could easily have nicked the first goal.  Derby were more in the first half than Mourinho will have liked, but frustratingly, they just couldn’t take advantage of United’s mistakes.

In the second half, the United pressure felt more sporadic, the introduction of Lukaku making their approach play less intricate around Derby’s box, Pogba becoming more and more frustrated with himself.  Rashford leathered a fearsome drive across Carson and against the inside of the post – it was one of those days for the excellent young Manchester lad.  But Derby, thanks to the nerveless conducting skills of Thorne and Huddlestone, continued to pick up the ball in decent positions and doggedly remained in the game, until finally being defeated by a moment of individual brilliance worthy of winning any match.

Thorne’s calm quality on the ball was plain to see throughout and there is no obvious reason not to extend his contract now, unless the player actively wants to go elsewhere.  Rowett said beforehand that he wanted to see which players could cope and the two midfielders certainly showed that, with the ball at feet, they are Premier League standard.

However, United were, as you would expect, a league apart, boasting strength, pace and technique that Derby simply do not have.   Physicality is as vital as skill in the Premier League and to compete strongly if they do attain that level, the Rams will certainly need to add athleticism throughout the team.

For Rowett, a 2-0 defeat was almost the perfect result.  Not bad enough to look embarrassing – heads held high and all that – but now there are no more cup games to worry about for the rest of the season.  Winning would have been amazing, but the reward would probably have been a fourth round trip to Burnley or somewhere, which the manager is doubtless privately delighted to have avoided.  And there were positives to take out of this encounter.

Firstly and most prosaically, the result was “respectable”.  Secondly, there is no replay.  The club’s finance director would have loved the major windfall that United would have brought and my Red pal was just starting to warm to the idea of a night out in Derby…  But we’ll just have to hope that it happens in the league next year.  From a dispassionate standpoint, an additional big fixture, while highly lucrative and exciting for the supporters, would have been a distraction from the real task at hand, which is attaining promotion.

The defenders who came into the team, Alex Pearce, Marcus Olsson and Andre Wisdom,  performed competently – in fact, there’s a strong case to make that the two ‘reserve’ full backs were actually more suited to this game than Craig Forsyth and Chris Baird.  I still feel that leaving out Curtis Davies sent out the wrong signal, but Rowett is paid to make these clear-eyed calculations, leaving the emotional responses to the fans.  If Derby beat Birmingham City next Saturday, then Rowett was right, simple as.

Mourinho’s comments about the club being a Premier League outfit in waiting were gracious, but then again, he’s a good winner – had Derby had the audacity to get a result, he would not have been so accommodating, I’m sure.  Plus, it was important for him to talk up the opponents, given that his phenomenally expensive side didn’t steamroller the Rams to the extent that the relative budgets involved would suggest that they should.  They have stuttered and struggled in recent weeks and Mourinho must have been mightily relieved when Jesse produced his moment of sheer magic.

The Old Trafford experience was a useful marker for Derby, which currently feels like a club on the up – and with every chance of going up.  Over a few post-match pints in Port Street Beer House, my United pal asked me how I would spend the TV money on improving our team if we do go up this summer…  So that will be the subject of my next post.

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Deja vu as Derby County celebrate another Happy New Year

Gary Rowett’s team talk after Derby’s final victory of 2017.

With 20 games to go and 60 points to play for, the league table looks much, much better than I’d dared hope at the start of this season.  This feels like the perfect time to congratulate Gary Rowett and the team on the excellent job they’ve done so far.  2018 will begin with what we can look forward to as a “free hit” at Manchester United and, while many of our Championship rivals go into the transfer window searching for players to turn them into contenders (or in several cases, players to suit a newly appointed manager’s requirements), Derby sail confidently and calmly into January.

The Rams’ current form is better than anyone’s, other than the apparently unbeatable, Jorge Mendes-curated Wolves.  The fancied teams – your Norwiches, your Fulhams, your Sheffield Wednesdays – have all underachieved, leaving the automatic promotion field wide open to anyone who cares to grab it.  There is now a race for second place and at the time of writing, it is hard to see a club consistent enough to snatch the big prize away from Derby County.

But.  Consider the following meme and do not for one moment get ahead of yourself:-

Courtesy of the excellent @_omeara_r

Derby were second behind Middlesbrough on New Year’s Day 2016, third behind Bournemouth and Ipswich on New Year’s Day 2015 and fourth on January 1 2014, behind Leicester, Burnley and QPR:-

2018: P26 Pts 49 (2nd)
2017: P24 Pts 40 (7th)
2016: P24 Pts 48 (2nd)
2015: P24 Pts 45 (3rd)
2014: P24 Pts 44 (4th)

At some stage, there will be a wobble.  Think back to the start of the season, when Derby stuttered and stalled, losing heavily at Bristol City and Sheffield United, scrapping out draws at Brentford and Cardiff, dropping vital home points to managerless Birmingham.  As it turns out, that opening run of ten games was a tough one, including away trips to three of this season’s front-runners, plus an early demonstration of Wolves’ finesse at Pride Park – but there was little in those early performances to hint at the outstanding form which has followed.

As I pointed out in my last post, Derby have been surprisingly poor at creating shots from within the box this season, but thankfully, the strikers have been snaffling almost every chance that comes their way.  Matej Vydra has bagged 14 goals from 19 shots on target, which is magnificent finishing – but is it realistic to expect him to do the same all season?  Sam Winnall, meanwhile, has more goals than league starts – six goals from eight shots on target.  David Nugent has chipped in with a respectable six, Bradley Johnson with four, the rest of the guys a couple here or there.

As a result, Derby are (by my amateur calculation) far exceeding their “expected goal” tally, with 41 scored, compared to an xG of 27.33 from their chances created.

Look at the next six home games – fourth-placed Bristol City, a direct rival who have sustained a surprise promotion challenge.  Brentford, who started the season slowly but have regularly outplayed Derby in recent seasons.  Expensively-assembled Norwich, who could frustrate the home supporters with their patient passing.  Leeds, which is always a big game.  Fulham, who can rip any Championship team to shreds on their day.  Neil Warnock’s Cardiff…

There are no gimmes whatsoever there and it tots up to the full Championship workout – six clubs who will present very different challenges, whether through slick possession football or a more physical and direct approach.  These are all big tests of the team’s mettle and, while we approach the coming fixtures with genuine optimism, if we can win all of those matches, then we will absolutely deserve promotion.

I’m not saying for a second that Derby are where they are because they’ve been fortunate.  But they are basically only where they have been in four of the last five seasons and there could easily come a time when luck turns against us, when Vydra endures a goal drought, when injuries strike down important players, when key refereeing decisions inexplicably go against us.

It is tempting to believe that things are different this season – that the manager is a football genius, that the squad is just too good for most of the league to beat, that they have the experience and know-how to handle the pressure of the run-in.  But once bitten, twice shy and after four-times bitten, you need rabies shots and a suit of armour.  We should absolutely enjoy Derby’s current pre-eminence and look forward to whatever surprises the coming months have in store, but must not get complacent, or kid ourselves about the scale of the task which is still at hand.

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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.

Conclusions

It’s easy to mock Rowett’s quest for ‘synergy’.  But according to oxforddictionaries.com, 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.

Tactics

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

Possession

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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