Derby County squad review 2016/7: The midfield

This is part two of a three-part series.  Part one covered the attackers.  Here’s an explanatory note on the radar graphs.  

Will Hughes (22)

It hasn’t been a great campaign for young William, by his own high standards. Nevertheless, flashes of his brilliance shone through and the problems he encountered could well have been more to do with the chaos swirling around the club than anything else.  Pearson tried to shoehorn him into a 4-4-2, McClaren picked him regardless of form or fitness – and then Rowett showed a worrying readiness to drop him, or even to introduce Butterfield from the bench before him.

Rowett’s pointed refusal to hype up Hughes is making some supporters – and I include myself in this – wonder whether the Prince of Pride Park has been placed on notice.   Rowett has made it clear that his playing style will be different to McClaren’s, having recently told Radio Derby that he has no interest in “total football” and is more inspired by pragmatic coaches like Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone.  In other words, there are no points for looking good – just get me results.

Hughes completed more tackles and key passes per 90 minutes than any of our other midfielders, making him the only viable candidate I can see in the squad for Steve Nicholson’s newly-coined category of “warrior-wizard” (players who can make things happen, but also look after themselves on the pitch, I guess).  He has always been a good tackler and this season, his tackles won per 90 minutes was up there with the highest for midfielders in the Championship.  And we all know about his intelligence on the ball.

He has never been a prolific goalscorer, but is markedly better in terms of providing key passes than any other of our midfielders.  And assists are not wholly within a midfielder’s power.  I think of a sumptuous lofted throughball Hughes played for Matej Vydra at Huddersfield, only for the striker to fluff his shot – a superb ball which didn’t result in an assist – then a few seasons ago, watching Tom Carroll nervously poke a two-yard pass to Gareth Bale 40 yards from goal, whereupon the great man smashed it into the net.  Technically, an assist for Carroll.  So I’d argue a player’s that frequency of key passes + assists is a more reliable measure of their creativity.

Hughes is our best midfielder by far.  With his recent captaincy of England U21s raising his profile, other clubs will be taking plenty of notice of his situation, but Rowett would be foolish to part with him for anything less than a truly blockbusting sum of money – and even then, with the understanding that he is irreplaceable.

Rowett has a mandate for change.  I just hope he doesn’t throw the baby out, while retaining copious amounts of bathwater.

Bradley Johnson (30)

Johnson does my head in, because he is maddeningly sloppy.  However, he has physical qualities sorely lacking elsewhere in the team and Rowett has expressed his desire to see the big man marauding forward more.  While no role can totally mask Johnson’s technical deficiencies, it makes much more sense to use him further up the pitch than it ever did to field him as a holding midfielder, where his lapses of concentration or touch make him something of a liability.

The radar doesn’t include the measure of his undoubted aerial prowess – Johnson is among the best midfielders in the Championship at winning headers.  However, it also omits the damning fact that he played almost ten inaccurate short passes for every 90 minutes he was on the pitch.

If Rowett can find a way to get the best out of Johnson next season, I will tip my hat to him.

Jacob Butterfield (26)

Butterfield’s bitty, seemingly terminal season was rescued at the death by Rowett, who enthused almost boundlessly about the player after using him in the holding role against Wolves.  Could it be that McClaren had simply been using Butterfield and Johnson the wrong way around the whole time?  Surely it couldn’t be that simple…  Could it?

Well, no.  We shouldn’t read too much into a couple of dead rubbers at the end of the season and Butterfield’s relative lack of defensive output does not point to an obvious role for him in front of the back four – certainly not in matches against stronger sides, or away games in general.  However, as Rowett pointed out, his range of passing is pretty good, so playing him in a deeper role in matches we are likely to dominate could be a useful option (and may even limit his unhelpful habit of shooting from long distance).

Craig Bryson (30)

Largely ignored by McClaren, Bryson was instantly restored to the team by Rowett, but unfortunately the evidence suggests that he is no longer the player he was in Mac’s first spell.  When you break it down, he hasn’t contributed as much as we’d all have hoped for this season – certainly not as much as his barnstorming best season, way back when.

Bryson 2013-4
It seems a long time now since Bryson was on the verge of a move to Burnley, only for that big contract to be produced by the club at the last minute.  That deal still has two more seasons to run.

Ikechi Anya (29)


Anya has an attribute which we need – pace – and for this reason, the affable winger may well have a future under Rowett.  His is the radar of a genuine wideman, who contributes little in terms of shots, but does beat men and create chances.  He also does his share of work defensively.

Abdoul Camara (27)

Unfortunately, Camara is not good enough to cut it at this level and it is everyone’s best interests to organise a move for him this summer.  Bonne chance, Razza.

Julien de Sart (22)

Much like Omar Mascarell, de Sart played McClaren’s ‘controlling’ role without the requisite physicality to cope with the rigorous demands of the Championship.  He also lacked the necessary composure on the ball and after being badly found out at Elland Road, the brace of ‘assists’ he provided for Brighton in the 3-0 loss proved to be his final contribution in a Rams shirt.  Bonne chance, Julien.

George Thorne (24)

THORNE 2015-6

“Thorne is the key”, as my dad once said, succinctly and correctly.

Even in 2015/6, at a time when he was inching back to his best until the horrific leg-break he suffered, the radar demonstrates that his impact on games was major.  In fact, his accurate long ball tally of 6.5 per 90 minutes has broken my existing radar scale (a problem I also encountered when trying to make a radar for Jonjo Shelvey).

So, while I go back to the drawing board….  I’ll give the last word to Tommo, who summed Thorne up this way – “he can play any type of pass and is hard.”

Everything crossed.

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