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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