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:-
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.