It’s easy to see why the basilisk eye of Sky Sports honed in on this one.
For an increasingly convincing, battle-hardened Derby, it is an opportunity to, if not nullify a direct rival, at least to kick away from them by extending the gap to eight points. For an exciting young City side, who have emphasised their credentials by knocking four Premier League sides out of the League Cup, it is an opportunity to get their stalled Championship campaign back on track. The Robins’ 5-0 defeat at Aston Villa raised eyebrows across the land – but it should be pointed out that before that reverse, they hadn’t lost an away game since August 12.
Neutrals may be disappointed if they’re hoping for a fast-flowing encounter. City have lost their last five matches in all competitions and will be desperate for something, anything from this game, while Derby’s home performances have, as a rule, been a little stilted (while still usually getting the job done). After the Rams overcame Birmingham City in arguably their most eye-catching and fluid performance of the season, Gary Rowett insisted that the game had been “too open” for his liking and that his side had “over-played” at times. Without doubt, the game ebbed and flowed and what Rowett disliked was the amount of times Blues players were able to run at Derby’s rearguard – the need for professional fouls by Davies, Thorne and most memorably Russell all proving his point. Perhaps Derby’s attacking midfielders got carried away with their own fluency at times – Lawrence was all stepovers and flashing feet, Russell carrying the ball with a new-found intent, Vydra as lethal as ever – and they simply forgot about helping to defend. Not that it mattered on the day.
Derby’s form going into this surprise promotion ding-dong is exceptional. As I pointed out in my last piece, the Rams have been strongly in contention on four of the last five New Year’s Days without converting, so there is a hell of a long way to go, but a record of only three goals conceded in the last eleven games points to a team which has found a plan that works and which has the durability to see it through. Research published today by Ben Mayhew showed that Rowett has named an unchanged side more times than any other Championship club season. If it ain’t broke…
Meanwhile, professional analyst Ted Knutson (formerly of Brentford FC) has tweeted his interpretation of Derby’s expected goal (xG) trends since last summer, which show that the xG scored is steadily increasing, while the xG conceded is dropping. This strongly implies that the wave of form which propelled Derby into the automatic promotion race is built on something solid, rather than simply a lucky streak which is bound to end before May.
I can’t emphasise enough that by doing well up to January, we are only where we have been in most of the past five seasons, so it is very important not to get carried away, or take anything for granted. But Rowett is counting on one of the league’s oldest squads to remain unfazed by the pressure of what will be a gruelling run-in – and to complete the job this time.
Ahead of this one, I thought it would be worth checking in with my friend The Exiled Robin, to get his take on how things have been going for Bristol City this season.
Derby County Blog: Last time we spoke, six City first-teamers were out injured and you felt that three quality additions were needed in this transfer window. How’s the injury situation looking now and are you still in need of reinforcements?
The Exiled Robin: Those players are all still out, although there have been hints at some returning to training – recent results are starting to show how much we need them back. We’ve spent two months playing four centre-backs in defence, a left-back in midfield and two midfielders up-front. Games against Wolves [a traumatic late 1-2 loss], Villa [0-5] and Norwich [0-1] have finally broken the momentum and spirit that seemed to be seeing us through.
We’ve signed two youngsters – as per our strategy – Ryan Kent on loan from Liverpool and the highly-rated Everton midfielder Liam Walsh permanently. Of course they’ll help, but especially as they’re both under 21, will take some time to bed in. We’re in desperate need for a strong striker to ease the burden on Bobby Reid and Jamie Paterson.
DCB: I guess that leads us on to the League Cup question. The heroic performances against Man United and Man City (and, to a lesser extent, Crystal Palace and Stoke) have rightly won lots of plaudits, but have the extra games – from a hard-headed perspective – actually turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing?
TER: Don’t forget Watford away, when they were flying! It’s been a fantastic run and one I wouldn’t swap for anything now we’ve experienced it, but it would appear that the more recent games against the big Manchester clubs in particular are affecting our league form now. By the time we play the second leg against City, we’ll have played 270 (or 300) more minutes than any other Championship side in the preceding 31 days and when you have a fairly thin squad and are playing lots of league games over Christmas, that’s going to really hurt. Energy levels dipped visibly against Villa and Norwich and mentally, it must be very difficult to keep getting the players up for a game every three or four days for such a long time, especially when five of them – including Wolves and Derby – are so genuinely massive or critical. It’s not as if we sit back like, say, Cardiff and soak up pressure without expending much energy. We defend from the front, play a really high pressure game and never really get anyone a rest. The front six, in particular, look absolutely shattered.
DCB: I guess the pressure is on Bobby Reid to keep delivering – from the outside, I was wondering how City would replace Tammy Abraham’s goals this season. Could you have predicted Reid emerging in the way he has?
TER: No, I don’t think anyone, except maybe Lee Johnson, could have done. I think his goals have been a bonus but his all-round energy, pressurising the opposition for 90 minutes has been the biggest win and that’s why Johnson moved him up there. It sets the tone for the team and his skill, creativity and goals add even more to that hard work. But as mentioned, he now needs some help, having played much of the last two months up there alone, or with Jamie Paterson, who’s more usually a wide man.
DCB: Assuming you get the reinforcements you’re after, are you now thinking about automatic promotion, or a play-off push? And was there a particular moment in the season which convinced you that promotion was a genuine possibility? I’ve been really surprised at how several of last season’s contenders have failed to challenge and left the field wide open.
TER: I always thought automatic was a stretch, although on the back of five straight wins in December, we were obviously well positioned. I think we’d all be absolutely delighted with a play-off spot, despite the obvious heartache that might end up causing!
Beating Middlesbrough and then winning very late at Sheffield United early in December were the big moments recently, but we were already eyeing the oft-mentioned injury list and fixture pile-up with trepidation at that point. And I have to say, our performance against the Rams in September probably remains our most complete result and against a clearly good side.
Wolves are obviously going up. I expect one of Derby and Villa to join them, with City, Cardiff, Leeds and any one of the half-a-dozen teams below challenging for the other three play-off spots. Brentford keep popping into my head as the outsiders who might just cause a shock and charge through it, unless they sell half their team again in the January transfer window!
DCB: Just finally, do you fancy hazarding a guess at the City team for Friday and of course, the time honoured score prediction?
TER: I can see us suffering a sixth successive defeat, sadly. 2-0 Derby.
Wright, Baker, Flint, Bryan;
Brownhill, Pack, Smith;