Cocu set to Phil the void as Derby County gear up for life after Lampard

So that’s it, then – he’s gone.  A brief, entertaining cameo in the history of Derby County is over, the first Rams manager of the modern era with true celebrity status has moved on, to a stage which he feels is more fitting for his talents.  We were only ever a stepping stone for him to get to where he wanted to be and in the end, it was a gamble that paid off for Mel Morris, in the literal sense – generating at least £4m of profit in compensation, plus £1m in gate receipts from defeat in the Wembley play-off final.  That’s nothing compared to what the club would have earned from promotion, but it is also much better than a kick in the backside for a club that needs every penny it can get.

There’s no doubt that Frank Lampard had a genuinely positive effect on the club during his brief tenure.  He brought near enough everyone together behind him and news of his departure, which dripped steadily, agonisingly out through the summer, proved hard to take for many Rams fans, who bought into and became much too attached to a man whose ambitions were never likely to be sated by our club for very long.

Lampard left a void to fill.  But if a report in the very dishonest fake news media was to be believed, Morris was prepared to offer his former manager as much as £2.5m per year to stay – a fair chunk of the club’s turnover and much more than any Derby player would earn in the second tier.  At the time, I wrote this off as nothing more than a gesture designed to appease fans who were worried that Mel wasn’t trying to keep Frank – after all, there’s no winning a financial war with Roman Abramovich and his Premier League behemoth. 

But what that leak may also have been designed to do was to remind higher-profile candidates of the fact that there is money to be made at Derby, should they fancy the job.  Which is a huge opportunity for the right person to grasp, as always, but comes, as always, in circumstances which mean that the ultimate aim of promotion will be as difficult to achieve as it has ever been.  

Into the breach steps Phillip Cocu. The first foreign manager in Derby County’s history, the 48 year-old Dutchman was a revered player for both his country (for whom he earned 101 caps) and Barcelona. Having served his apprenticeship as a youth coach at PSV Eindhoven and as assistant coach for the Netherlands side which reached the 2010 World Cup final (don’t mention Nigel de Jong), Cocu graduated to the top job at PSV and brought the club three Eredivisie titles. In short, he is a much more experienced coach than Lampard and as a fellow international centurion and legendary figure at an elite European club, there’s also little difference in stature to Lampard (albeit Cocu is from a previous generation of stars).

All things considered, this surprise appointment feels like a genuine rabbit out of the hat from Mel Morris, when you compare Cocu’s track record to the uninspiring list of British options which were on the table. That in itself is a similar story to the one we had last summer, when Morris gambled on Lampard instead of going for a “safe” option. Indeed, when you think back, he has always gone for an ambitious, eye-catching appointment where possible (Paul Clement was the much-hyped “coming man” of British coaching at the time, Nigel Pearson had been relatively successful at Leicester and was expected by many observers to get the job done, Gary Rowett had a good reputation and was widely perceived to be a sound appointment).

Clearly, not all of Cocu’s coaching experience has been good – his move from PSV to Fenerbahce ended in disaster after only a few months of last season. However, I was told by the Dutch football reporter Chaka Simbeye that Cocu was ‘undermined’ in Turkey by assistants who were the club’s own appointments, a charge which was repeated to Sky Sports by Marcel van Der Kraan. Cocu will be accompanied by his own trusted lieutenants at Derby and reportedly given the security of a four-year contract.

I just hope that once the deal is finally confirmed, Cocu will be patiently supported by the club right through from boardroom to stands, because the transformation of the playing squad is a job which Lampard made a start on, but has left very much unfinished. I think the poll I did this week – which found that only 57 per cent of 778 Derby fans responding expected a top six finish – is encouraging, as it suggests that we are wise enough now not to demand too much, too soon in the quagmire of the Championship.

First and foremost, Cocu urgently needs new players.  Pre-season is upon us and the squad looks short of depth in key areas, with only two centre backs on the books, for example, while also lacking the sheer match-winning quality of Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, respectively Derby’s chief providers of creativity and goals last season. 

The new boss will inherit two excellent Championship strikers in Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn, plus experienced midfielders Graeme Shinnie, Tom Huddlestone and Bradley Johnson.  Duane Holmes aside, however, the squad he takes on will be short of the type of attacking midfielder who can change a match through a moment of creativity.  Derby will be scouring the market to do what they can to replace Mount and Wilson, but expectations should be tempered – it will be very, very difficult to recruit players of the same calibre.

Chart shows players who started at least one Championship game last season and who are still contracted to Derby (plus reserve goalkeeper Jonny Mitchell)

Unless the new boss can find some serious attacking midfield gems in the market, a system which pairs Marriott and Waghorn could be a good bet for the new season.  We need to replace Wilson’s 19 goals somehow and the most obvious way of doing that without spending the proverbial £50m seems to be to pick two strikers, both of whom are proven at this level (even though Marriott was seemingly not trusted by Lampard, for whatever reason).  

These graphics by the football analyst (and bassist) Ram Srinivas demonstrate the characteristics of Marriott and Waghorn and give a flavour of how they might mesh together.

A gifted finisher, Super Jack does much of his work in the box and looks to get on the end of things, rather than regularly providing the killer pass, or winning the ball for the team. Waghorn is more of an all-rounder, who does a bit of everything – strong defensive contribution, plenty of involvement in build-up play, successful passes into the penalty area and also what Ram describes as a “sublime” finishing performance last season.

A criticism levelled at Lampard’s Derby by the stattos I follow on social media was that they didn’t create enough high-quality chances last season.  Waghorn and Marriott snaffled the ones that came their way, while Wilson just smashed the ball in from wherever he liked.  Pairing Waghorn, who is able to hold the ball up and link play, with Marriott, who doesn’t really do that, but has an amazing finishing instinct, would hopefully help us to be more penetrative and dangerous.

However, any thoughts of a two-striker system were dampened by my initial assumption when hearing Cocu linked that he would be wedded to the classic Dutch 4-3-3 and keep-ball system (as favoured by Steve McClaren, for example) and unlikely to deviate much from that formula. However, his tactics are actually more flexible and reactive to circumstances than that.

After his PSV side finished 2016/7 in a disappointing third place, he reviewed the team’s measured possession approach and changed to a more counter-attacking, direct style (one reporter referred to the new approach as ‘run-and-gun’). This may have been ‘direct’ relative to Dutch football – his 2017/8 PSV still averaged 50.5% possession, so do not expect him to turn out to be an orange-hued equivalent to Messrs Warnock and Pulis. But an analysis completed by Opta Pro’s Michiel Jongsma showed that the speed of his team’s attacking play became notably faster in 2017/8, after being assessed as having been too one-paced the previous season. Cocu replaced the target man Luuk de Jong, who had failed to convert enough of the chances created for him from regular crosses in 2016/7, with a less aerially dominant striker in Jürgen Locadia and despite having lost four key players the previous summer, the new style of play helped to deliver the Eredivisie title to Eindhoven.

Whatever system the new coach wants to use, he will need better quality and greater strength-in-depth to succeed in another gruelling season. Getting the recruitment right is always essential, but never more so than this summer.  Arguably Derby’s three best players have left and any club would struggle to cope with that, while continue to perform at the same level.  

While it’s improbable that Mel will go completely crazy again this summer, I don’t think there’s a need for further austerity cuts on top of releasing the likes of Bryson, Nugent, Olsson and Pearce, not now that the stadium has been sold.  Indeed, Morris seems optimistic that sweating Pride Park as an event space will help to generate profits to be reinvested back into the club (and presumably also to refund some cash to him, to make him feel better about the £200m which has disappeared from his fortune and into the trouser pockets of Anya, Blackman, Butterfield and other assorted winners).

So there should be some limited budget available – it feels implausible that Cocu would have agreed to sign up without assurances that he would receive at least some backing in the transfer market – but whatever cash the new boss is allowed to spend will have to be spent carefully, wisely and quickly, with the start of the season and the end of this transfer window already only a month away.

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