Derby’s progress through their opening pre-season game of 2017/8 was serene, against a limited Kidderminster Harriers side from England’s sixth tier.
David Nugent, Craig Bryson, Chris Martin and Darren Bent all scored, with Matej Vydra and Johnny Russell both going close to adding to the tally, on a night when the Rams could easily have netted seven or eight goals. At the other end, Jonathan Mitchell was forced to handle one smartly-stuck shot from range, with Scott Carson basically untested in the first-half.
Gary Rowett gave two separate sides 45 minutes each on the pitch. Both Rams XIs were set up in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Craig Forsyth making his first appearance since last August at centre back in the first half, alongside Richard Keogh.
U23 stars Mason Bennett and Calum Macdonald were handed opportunities to impress alongside the 20 available senior pros and Bennett, starting on the right of the front four, showed brightly in the early stages, chasing Nugent’s pass into the box and squaring low in the third minute, forcing the Harriers defence clearing their lines. However, Bennett showed defensive naivety seconds later, giving away a free kick 25 yards from goal in a dangerous position. A Harrier shot harmlessly wide.
Seven minutes in, the Rams opened their tally, Nugent drilling home from 15 yards out. Bennett’s pass found Andreas Weimann popping up on the right and when he crossed low, Martin’s stepover allowed Nugent to shoot. His initial effort was blocked, but looped high and a weak defensive header fell back to the Nuge, who drove home emphatically.
Nugent then released Martin with a throughball and the Wardrobe’s square pass gave Weimann a sight of goal, only for the Austrian to drag his effort well wide.
Bryson was making runs forward from the midfield two, with Bradley Johnson sitting in. With Martin back and leading the line, it was clear to see the potential for a flexible front four, with Weimann notably drifting across the field at will to join in play. It was a treat to see Martin, all smart flicks and lay-offs and remonstrations, in the black and white once again. Even the ideas that didn’t come off were a joy.
Soon it was 2-0, courtesy of Bryson. The goal was slightly farcical, as Martin’s ball forward was miscontrolled into the air by the onrushing Bryson. Weimann chased on, forcing the goalkeeper to charge off his line and, when he was unable to hold it on the slide, Bryson took up possession, dribbled towards goal unchallenged for a seeming eternity, before slotting into the unguarded net.
Weimann was notably not sticking to the left flank, regularly floating to the right to link with Bennett and create overloads.
On the half-hour, the Rams made it 3-0, with a lovely finish from Martin. Marcus Olsson was allowed to amble forward into the Harriers half and under no pressure, lobbed a high cross towards Martin, who simply cushioned the ball first-time back across the stranded goalkeeper. It was an easy goal in that neither player was pressurised, but still a wonderful show of technique from the big “Scot”. Next, Martin’s neat wall pass allowed Weimann another sight of goal, but his left-footed strike was weak and straight at the goalkeeper.
A scratch Kidderminster side patched up by numerous triallists clearly lacked the quality to take advantage of any Derby errors in defence, or to contain the Rams attackers. Even when Bryson presented them with a great chance through a calamitously sloppy pass towards his defenders, their forward Austin was eventually crowded out, with Olsson blocking his shot.
Nugent and Weimann then combined to released the Austrian on the right and his cross caused chaos, with a Harriers defender heading narrowly over his own bar. It had been a stroll in the park for a pretty strong and fit-looking Rams XI, who handed the baton over to their second half counterparts with a 3-0 advantage.
Scotland youth international Calum Macdonald was on show in the second half, but almost suffered a nightmare start when he was outmuscled by the touchline, allowing a Harrier to dribble into the box, before Mitchell smothered the attempted cross at the near post. Then in the next phase of play, Johnny Russell was allowed time and space to get his head up and float a ball releasing Vydra, who chested it down behind the last man, but had his shot charged down by the onrushing keeper.
Nick Blackman, stationed on the right of the front four, soon picked up a ball on the wing and drove inside, with the inevitable long-distance shot following. Blackman only ever has a shot on his mind and as soon as any space opens up, no matter what the distance, he will hit it.
On the Rams next attack, Russell, playing in the number ten position, was allowed to drive into the box and shown onto his left foot, which he used to poke a shot too close to the ‘keeper.
Vydra was stationed on the left, a position which doesn’t obviously suit him as a player who is not keen on the defensive side of the game. He and Jacob Butterfield were robbed of possession in dangerous areas in quick succession, although Harriers were unable to make anything of the situations.
Like Weimann in the first half, Vydra clearly had license to roam and popped up centrally more often than wide. Meanwhile, Russell remained fairly close to Bent, which made sense given that hold-up play is not a feature of the veteran striker’s game. The forward players enjoyed plenty of space between the lines.
A word at this stage for the RamsTV commentators, Jack Woodward and Marc Edworthy, who enjoyed a debate on whether Nick Blackman could be the replacement for Tom Ince on the right wing during the second half. I am confident when I say that this is a thought which had previously been considered by no Derby fan at any point, so it was certainly an eyebrow-raiser. Blackman is similar to Ince in the sense that he is a predominantly left-footed attacker who plays on the right, but that is where the resemblance begins and ends. He has an infuriating compulsion to shoot on sight, no matter where on the pitch he is and with no regard for whether team-mates around him might be in a better position. Perhaps this is the mark of a man who is trying too hard to make an impression, especially given the injuries he has endured.
Butterfield looked to release Bent behind the defence and the striker sprinted clear, only to be denied by the ‘keeper quickly off his line. Chipped throughballs were a feature of the Rams’ play throughout, especially in the second half, when Bent sought to use his anticipation to get away. The former England man took up a great starting position between the defenders and timed his run to perfection, rendering them both redundant to create the scoring opportunity.
The Rams’ second-half side finally opened their account when Russell moved across the edge of the box and passed to Blackman, who dribbled towards the box and after the covering defender stumbled, took the chance to stand up a cross, which Bent nodded home.
An atypically excellent track-back tackle from Vydra launched a counter-attack which saw Russell streak away, only for a covering defender to block his effort. Vydra’s final sprint towards goal, in the last minute, saw him hauled down on the very edge of the area, but Russell’s attempt from the free kick was tame and repelled easily by the Kidderminster wall.
So it finished 4-0, but could quite easily have been six or seven. Derby will step up their pre-season preparations considerably from here on in, but this was a useful first look at a system which seems likely to be Rowett’s “default” and certainly suits the majority of the personnel currently available to him.