Philling the gaps – a plan for Derby County’s January transfer window

Wayne Rooney is coming to Pride Park very soon.  But while some fans have been getting excited about the possibility of him playing in as many as three different positions – up-front, as a number ten, or even the very unlikely shout of him playing in midfield – the fact remains that there is only one of him and Phillip Cocu has problems all over the pitch to address.

Derby’s recruitment in the summer let Cocu down and the situation was far from ideal, even before injuries deprived the manager of key players in Matt Clarke, Tom Huddlestone and Graeme Shinnie, with Krystian Bielik also struggling for fitness.  Now, the club are faced with a salvage operation of a January window, during which, they need to add sufficient quality to allow Cocu to field a competitive side and steer clear of trouble. 

Several positions in the squad need fixing urgently and even with investment from the Swiss financier Henry Gabay reportedly incoming, there will only be a limited pot of money to spend.  The football finance don Kieran Maguire recently explained to media including BBC Radio Derby that if Gabay is buying shares in Derby, a maximum of £8m of this type of capital can be counted towards the club’s profit and sustainability (FFP) calculations.  So, there will be some cash for Cocu, but with problems to address from front to back, how do we prioritise the spending?  

An overarching consideration for all of Derby’s plans has to be the club’s stated aim to develop academy players into first-teamers where possible.  Jason Knight is now pretty much there, with Morgan Whittaker and Louie Sibley the next closest to forcing their way in – and all three deserve opportunities to play.  At the same time, being put into the team is not necessarily the same thing as being given the platform to thrive and it would be both unwise and unfair to rely on a trio of 18 year-olds to consistently come up with the goods.

With so much to discuss ahead of a crucial month of transfer activity, I knew we needed to use the December episode of the Derby County BlogCast to get a word with Ram Srinivas, who, since his debut appearance on the podcast with us back in July, has begun forging his career as a professional scout, through the new consultancy he has co-founded – MRKT Insights.  



After talking it over with Ram and Chris Smith (Ramspace) and thinking on it some more, here is the ‘pecking order’, as I perceive it, for where the club’s immediate priorities should lie:-

1) Winger
2) Central midfielder
3) Centre back
4) Winger 

Those four additions plus Rooney should allow Cocu to at least guide the Rams to a respectable season, while also continuing the important work of offering the best young players opportunities as they try to cement their places in the squad for next season.|

The squad is in need of such a major overhaul that it is impossible to complete the job in one window – what we need to do in January is stabilise, ahead of another busy window of ins and outs next summer.  There will be much more work to do in the summer, not least signing a new goalkeeper. And things could change, of course, if the club receives a hefty bid for Jayden Bogle, or decides to part with Jack Marriott.

It should be emphasised that there is very little margin for error here.  This time, with the squad currently in a weak state, the signings will need to be successes, because we simply cannot afford another batch of players of the ilk of Dowell, Evans, Jozefzoon and Paterson. 

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  1. Wide / attacking midfield

This is the area which I believe to be in the most urgent in need of reinforcement.  When we reviewed the squad in the BlogCast, we couldn’t really nominate anybody who could could be relied upon to be consistently effective on either wing, which is an astonishing position for any manager to be left in. 

As Ryan Conway has reported, Derby failed to sign their preferred right-wing target on the summer deadline day and instead, loaned Paterson in a last-second panic.  It didn’t work out (although there is definitely an argument to be made that Paterson maybe deserved more opportunities to start ahead of Tom Lawrence in his preferred number ten slot).  Dowell is another player who is probably best suited to playing as a number ten and has struggled to affect games from a deeper midfield position. Elsewhere, Jozefzoon has, unfortunately, turned out to be an entire waste of money and Mason Bennett is yet again out through injury, as his contract ticks down towards expiry. 

How much is through choice and how much through necessity is open to debate, but it’s undeniably true that Cocu has relied much too heavily on Lawrence – who is simply not capable of carrying a Championship team on his back – while shoehorning square pegs into round holes in other attacking midfield slots and hoping for the best.  Martyn Waghorn has been doing his best out of position on either wing and such is the paucity of options that now even young Knight is being pressed into service as a makeshift wideman. 

With Lawrence more likely to get booked than to score or assist a goal and Whittaker still only at the ‘baby steps’ phase of his first-team career, Derby just do not have enough Championship-standard quality in wide areas, which is reflected in the Rams’ worryingly low key pass and shot counts for the season.

In an ideal world, Derby would recruit two new wingers and balance this by offloading Jozefzoon, Paterson (who is widely expected to return to Bristol City on January 1) and Dowell (who would probably leap at the chance of a loan termination).  These transfers would provide Cocu with fresh options, while ensuring that Whittaker and Sibley get opportunities to play, without having too much expected from them at this stage of their development.

2) Central midfield

Everything looked OK, briefly, when Shinnie – ignored by Cocu for the first two months of the season, to widespread bemusement – finally fought his way into the side, alongside Bielik.  However, Shinnie’s serious hamstring injury, on top of Tom Huddlestone’s serious hamstring injury, has left Derby dangerously light in this area, particularly as Bielik has been less than 100 per cent fit.  The inconsequential George Evans was drafted in as a midfield deputy, playing alongside little Duane Holmes – but even he is now injured. 

Even if Bielik can stay fit and Huddlestone returns early in the new year, it’s really important for Derby to recruit another senior midfielder, even if only on loan.  Cocu clearly values Huddlestone’s technique and will doubtless play him once he’s available again, but nevertheless, another experienced option – I would prefer a player in the box-to-box mould, though Chris suggested a creative ‘number eight’ – would be an enormous help.  Knight is improving all the time and should get chances to play, but it is too vital an area to leave as light as we currently are.

3) Centre back

Matt Clarke will hopefully return to the side very soon, but nevertheless, centre back is an area which needs bolstering.  Firstly in terms of sheer numbers – without Richard Keogh, Derby now only have two specialist senior central defenders and have been left with Craig Forsyth filling in for Clarke.  Andre Wisdom is, in theory, another option, but hasn’t been used as a centre back in a back four by Cocu to date.

Secondly, Cocu’s preferred style, as we know, is a short passing game.  This is why Clarke was recruited to partner Keogh, with Curtis Davies left out of favour.  The veteran is doing his best to adapt his game, but bringing the ball out of defence, as Keogh did, is not at all natural to him.  

And while thinking of the immediate situation, we should also consider the fact that with Davies unlikely to receive an extension to his current deal and Clarke only on loan, at the time of writing, Derby have no senior centre backs under contract for the 2020/21 season.  Bringing a defender who suits Cocu’s preferred style in now to compete with Davies and Clarke is essential. If it is to be a loan, in the shape of Leicester City’s Filip Benković, then that will at least plug the gap for now, before a long-term answer is sought in the summer. Ram is well behind the rumoured target Rob Dickie, whom he rates among the best defenders in League One this season.

4) Goalkeeper

This has been a bone of contention ever since Wembley, when Kelle Roos made one of the costliest mistakes in the club’s history.  The 27 year-old has much to recommend him, but his indecision under high balls is a fatal flaw in his game, which, by the end, left him the target both of opponents and, very sadly, many of Derby’s own fans, whose frustration boiled over into open derision. 

Derby did bring in a (presumably budget) back-up loan signing on the August deadline day – Ben Hamer.  The 32 year-old has played in all four divisions, clocking up hundreds of appearances at clubs including Charlton, Brentford and Leicester.  While Hamer is hardly a household name, signing him was not exactly the same as when Nigel Clough signed Michael Boulding, or when Dean Holdsworth ended up playing up-front for us in the dark days of Philip Brown.  He is a competent player at this level. 

In the BlogCast, Ram suggested that Charlton’s Dillon Phillips would be a good signing, but unless Derby can sign a player of his ilk, who is good enough to be part of the club’s longer-term rebuild, it hardly seems worth committing precious funds to another goalkeeper at this stage. One for the summer.

5) Striker

The arrival of Rooney boosts Derby’s strikeforce to four options, with the England legend joining three very different players in Waghorn, Jack Marriott and Chris Martin.  Martin has been a useful option since returning to the fold from his unsuccessful loan season at Hull, but Rooney is likely, in Ram’s words, to “do the Martin role, better than Martin”. 

Waghorn’s form has been up and down and Marriott continues to be a source of mystery and disappointment.  If only he was fully fit / had a manager who really believed in him … delete as applicable, according to your beliefs.  Whatever the truth of the situation, Cocu has joined Frank Lampard in declining to select Marriott consistently and there is only likely to be a regular slot in the team for him if the manager decides to use a two-striker system. 

It doesn’t seem impossible that another Championship club might make a cheeky bid for Marriott and if so, that Cocu might entertain it.  If that’s the case, then Marriott would need directly replacing with another forward, given that Martin and Rooney are unlikely to be named in the starting XI together.

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