Not so long ago – although it doesn’t feel that way – Derby County were second in the league and the fans were singing “We’ve got (boom boom) Gary Rowett” to the tune of “Glad All Over”. Simpler, happier times.
But they’re forgotten about now, because since an excellent run of victories propelled them through October, November and December, Derby have played like a drain in 2018 and plummeted quite deservedly out of the top six. At the moment, it’s so hard to feel positive, really about anything connected to the club, whether on the pitch or behind the scenes.
Yet as dismal as Derby have been in 2018, they are seventh, which was exactly where I predicted they would finish when asked by FourFourTwo, back in August. OK, they may have a bit further to fall yet, but mathematically, they can’t drop further than 11th. A top ten finish outside the play-offs would be in line with my expectations before a ball was kicked – but of course, with the way the season has turned out, that outcome would now feel like a crushing disappointment.
The Middlesbrough Gazette produced a handy graphic showing what the table would look like had the season started on 30 January 2018, when Tony Pulis took the reins:-
If Derby were ninth or tenth in the league but gradually rising up the table on the back of a good run of form, instead of slumping down from a highpoint which proved unsustainable, we would probably all feel a lot more positive and hopeful. But instead, it looks as though, just like in every season since 2014 (except for the Nigel Pearson one), we peaked too soon.
It’s weird, isn’t it? If Derby beat Boro, they go fifth. The season is far from over. But instincitvely, it feels to most of us like it already is and that its defining moments are already past.
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) April 20, 2018
If my poll was representative, most Derby fans now believe there’s no chance of us going up (and might even fear what came next, if we did). With Middlesbrough and Cardiff next up at Pride Park, you have to worry that things could be about to get worse before the end of the season. The sour taste could become even less bearable and things could get even more difficult for Rowett ahead of 2018/9.
After what can only be described as a shameful defeat at Burton Albion, the BBC’s veteran reporter Pat Murphy tweeted that Rowett was gearing up for a major clear-out of players in the summer. That would be a lot easier had a load of them not recently been given contract extensions. George Thorne and Craig Forsyth both got new deals to 2020, but have been banished since Sunderland. Richard Keogh, likewise, was extended to 2021. I wonder if Rowett wishes those deals hadn’t been handed out now. Even Jamie Hanson got a new deal this week, a 22 year-old who has outgrown reserve team football, but has never made the breakthrough and seemed to be totally out of the picture. With only Jason Shackell, Darren Bent and Chris Baird out of contract (alongside reserve keeper Kelle Roos), there isn’t much ‘chaff’ that can simply be let go.
But that’s for the summer. For now, the question is – how can we get the win we need against Middlesbrough (stop sniggering at the back, please)?
The most pressing problem is the speed demon Adama Traoré and the worst news is, he plays on the right wing, which brings Rowett’s left back problem into stark focus.
When you went out for your mate's birthday, but said you'd still be all right to play the next morning pic.twitter.com/ZKq28TYoet
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) April 16, 2018
Baird is not a left back, of course – he’s simply been dragooned into the job out of desperation. I’ve never been a fan of Marcus Olsson, but he is at least a bit quicker than Baird and naturally left-sided. If he is fit, then surely, Olsson will have to come back into the team today.
Traoré’s goals and assists record – five and eight respectively – is decent, but not all that impressive, on the face of it. He has scored less than either Andreas Weimann or Tom Lawrence. However, unlike our guys, he has started only 23 games and has peaked at the right time, bagging all of his goals since 20 January after being given a new lease of life under Tony Pulis.
Yeah, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? But the winger described by the Middlesbrough Gazette last month as “a phenomenon, a freak of a talent, arguably the most electrifying right-wing weapon in the entire division” struggled under Garry Monk, who apparently didn’t trust him, didn’t always select him and, according to the Northern Echo, told him he needed to do more to fit into the ‘team shape‘ – to ‘shelve some of his individual instincts… track back and carry out the defensive duties he has been instructed to enact.”
Pulis may not be renowned as a champion of jogo bonito, but he’s been able to get the young Frenchman producing the goods, where Monk failed. The secret? Balance, according to the Gazette’s Anthony Vickers: “I think the key is having a solid defensive full back behind him. It means he is not asked to cover back so much and his weaknesses are not exposed so often.” Rather than asking Traoré to change his game, Pulis has made allowances for him and is reaping the rewards.
One former Derby man, Ryan Shotton, has replaced another, Cyrus Christie, at right back for Boro. About the only thing those two have in common as players is that they weren’t exactly popular figures with a lot of fans by the time they left Pride Park (I found this out whenever I tried to defend Christie on Twitter – the level of trolling he experienced was appalling, in my opinion). Rams fans may not recognise the description of Shotton as ‘solid’, but will understand the difference in style between the two full backs.
Patrick Bamford won’t play today, but another ex-Forest striker, Britt Assombalonga, is also in Boro’s squad and has 13 league goals to his name this term. And Daniel Ayala, who has played for Derby and Forest, has proved he’s a threat at set plays, chalking up an impressive seven goals.
But it’s been a tough season for Boro too and on the whole, they’ve underwhelmed. Monk failed to deliver and now they’re scrambling for fifth or sixth, when their pre-season expectation must have been higher than that.
Derby’s abdication from the concept of ‘form’ has helped Boro massively, so it would be ironic (and quite funny) if the Rams suddenly sparked back into life now, of all weekends. But how can that happen and what team does Rowett pick?
He’s been let down consistently now for months and without transferring players, there are only so many ways you can rejig the side. Five changes were made after Sunderland, but Burton was so dismal that some of those players – Keogh, at the very least – may now have to be considered for selection again.
Monday’s experimental U23s line-up, with three at the back and Keogh as a holding midfielder, got tongues wagging – if you want to make friends on Twitter, start talking about a back three – and according to the Derby Telegraph, many of the first-team squad were watching the match.
Meanwhile, the club have made a big fuss over Luke Thomas, releasing a video interview with him, while a suspiciously-timed article in the Gloucestershire Echo (Thomas’ local paper) claiming that he is being monitored by West Ham and other Premier League clubs, despite still not having made his Championship breakthrough.
After the pitifully inadequate way they performed against Wolves and Burton, surely Rowett can’t pick the same team again – it would be madness to do that and expect anything different. The players showed that they currently can’t win matches, or even really compete at Championship level, with that line-up and in that formation. So it will have to be a case of going back to the drawing board, forgetting any previous assumptions about what would work and what wouldn’t work and trying something new, building on whatever strengths Rowett can identify and trying to protect any glaring weaknesses.
However, short of recruiting a new team, there is no magic bullet. There are too many problems for that. Left back has become a massive headache and Andre Wisdom hasn’t had a great season at right back either. Central midfield is a live issue, with the pairing of Joe Ledley and Tom Huddlestone currently looking much too slow and ponderous. With those two struggling for form and pretty obviously fitness too, there is precious little energy and even less bite in midfield. If Rowett is to persist with them, then they need some help in there. If Bradley Johnson is still injured, the most likely candidate to do that job is Jamie Hanson. But a midfield three would necessarily mean dropping an attacker from a team which is already failing to produce enough in the final third.
Yet again, Derby did not create much at Burton. This is a clear pattern now, not a blip. They are not scoring enough goals, not out-shooting teams, not even getting into the box with any regularity.
Rowett has put Kasey Palmer on as a midfielder when chasing a goal, but it seems clear that to get the best out of him, he needs to be playing further forward. David Nugent doesn’t look fit and is struggling to get through games, let alone score. Matej Vydra’s half-arsed free kick from the edge of the box at Burton, followed up by his absolutely brainless penalty, speak to me of a man who is struggling to cope with what is happening around him. And who can blame him?
The above sums up why my mood is currently so terrible. But the crazy thing is, it’s theoretically still salvageable. I’m not sure how it can be done, but it can be done. Two wins from the next four games and Derby might just squeak into the play-offs and then who knows what happens next.
Just look how much is riding on this game….
A win could change everything, absolutely everything.