Now that the Leicester sideshow is out of the way, it’s down to the real business, which is the play-off challenge. There’s no place like home and Derby are looking forward to three games on the spin at Pride Park, all against sides dwelling in the nether reaches of the Championship.
These are the games which we must capitalise on and so the target really should be at least seven points – two wins and a draw would give everyone a shot in the arm and keep the Rams at least within touching distance of the top six.
Of the three upcoming opponents, the most disappointing this season have undoubtedly been Bristol City. While Cardiff have struggled for a while now and it’s a miracle for a club of Burton’s size to be competing at this level at all, the Robins are a team who seemed to be going into this campaign with the momentum and financial backing to at least be highly competitive in the Championship.
I expect Derby to win this game, but I do not expect it to be a pushover by any means. As the infographic shows, they’ve got far better underlying attacking indicators than their lowly league position would suggest – 15.1 shots per game is the second highest in the Championship and most of those have been taken from within the 18 yard-box. They’re creating more than enough chances and Tammy Abraham has certainly done his fair share of converting them, but a lack of reliable goalscoring support is holding them back, compounded by the fact that the defence has been insecure.
Overall, City’s attacking form has been so much better than Derby’s this season that my (fairly crude) statistical model The Thing has this game down as a draw. But the Robins’ form has nosedived spectacularly since December and until beating Rotherham 1-0 at home last week, they had not won a league match since 3 December (a 2-0 home win against Ipswich).
I was curious as to what exactly has gone wrong for them this season – so I thought I’d check in with the esteemed Bristol City blogger and ‘Exiled Robin‘, Paul Dinning.
Derby County Blog: Whathefuckhasgonewrong?!
The Exiled Robin: Ha ha, where do I start?!
We were probably punching above our weight earlier in the season, but no-one predicted the demise on quite this scale. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s happened, but the run of defeats started at Cardiff in October in Neil Warnock’s first match, where we were out-muscled and out-fought, followed shortly by being as outplayed as we have been in a 2-0 defeat at home to Brighton. It seems as if almost from that moment, the manager and staff lost a little faith in the style and the team that had got us to that position previously. They have been switching players, formations, styles and – well, everything really – with little success since then.
The two games that caused the most gripes were consecutive home defeats to Reading and Cardiff, where we were 2-0 and 2-1 up respectively heading into the final few minutes and managed to lose both 3-2.
It’s easy to forget that for the first four months of the season, we’d had more shots and created more chances than anyone else in the league. Unfortunately, the run of defeats has seen us change approach so dramatically that at times we now feel like cheering whenever we cross the halfway line!
DCB: Any concerns that Lee Johnson has irredeemably lost the plot, or do you still think he’ll be able to turn it around?
TER: Given the volume of changes in personnel each game, plus some erratic and questionable substitutions over the festive period, you have to have doubts. Players who played a dozen straight games are suddenly not even in the squad for a few matches, substitutions have followed a predictable trend (until Saturday, when we tried something different and finally won!) The pace has slowed to pedestrian at best, we don’t get forward quickly enough…. need I go on?
The tempo we played with at the start of the season has disappeared and the “one up-front” formation, which worked well earlier on, with midfielders getting forward to support Tammy Abraham, has become the stick which is perhaps understandably being used to beat Johnson with. The midfield sits 30-40 yards behind Abraham and he only gets long balls now pinged to him. Even then, if he manages to control one in three, we then haven’t got players close enough to him to make anything of it and it’s all very ponderous, slow, seemingly lacking bite.
Saying that… and I do get a lot of stick for this – we have still only lost one game by more than a single goal, which indicates teams aren’t pulling us apart. With a touch of luck, a referee giving a soft foul, a deflection – those defeats, especially at home to Reading and Cardiff, could easily have garnered three points and things would be looking a lot rosier.
But they didn’t, and until we can stop the extended run of defeats, Johnson will be under tremendous pressure, from the fanbase at least.
DCB: Tell me about Tammy Abraham – what a signing he turned out to be!
TER: Yes indeed, although he too is struggling under the burden placed on him by the style of football we’ve changed to. When he was scoring goals for fun, he pretty much just had to be in the right place at the right time. That’s not meant to denigrate him in the slightest – it’s quite a skill – but the majority of his first ten or so goals were scored from around the six-yard line, as we were pushing other players forward, getting crosses in, shots were raining in and taking deflections or being saved and he mopped up beautifully.
Now we’re not and, at times, he looks what he is – a gangly 19-year-old kid battling two hardened Championship centre-halves on his own for 90 minutes. By the time chances come to him, he’s so desperate to score that he’s started to snatch a little and shots have been blasted high and wide in recent weeks.
But that’s a somewhat petty criticism – he’s been fantastic in the main, has scored plenty of goals and, for a big lad, has fantastic touch and skills when the ball is at his feet. I feel I can see a recognisable difference in his ability to get and control the longer ball fired up to him (he’s had plenty of practice!) and we’ll enjoy him whilst he’s still with us, because you can pretty much guarantee he won’t be at Ashton Gate next August.
DCB: Are there other players who give you grounds for optimism? I noticed that a couple of foreign players have joined recently – any kop?
TER: A number of the new signings look strong. Bailey Wright and Dave Cotterill have already shown a level of Championship experience not present in much of the rest of our squad, and offer a level of composure and assured thinking. Jens Hegeler is a central midfielder apparently picked up for a bargain price from the Bundesliga and he looks a quality addition to shore up the midfield.
Up front, we’ve added Milan Djuric, a Bosnian international giant of a striker who gave Neil Warnock’s centre-halves a right going over, which tells you all you need to know. He can be a big help and is certainly an option if Tammy isn’t working out.
The biggest news story was of course our capture of Matty Taylor from our Blue rivals on deadline day. The fact we signed him was funny, the fact it was a bargain basement fee made it hilarious and it made for a rare day of fun on our social media channels during a month of gloom and despair! But all that stuff aside, to sign a chap who’s scored so many goals in the bottom two leagues in the last 18 months for such a low fee has to be seen as a risk worth taking and hopefully, he can make the step up quickly.
DCB: Finally, assuming that City stave off relegation this season, which I’m sure they will, how do you see the future for the club – grounds for optimism?
TER: Yes, in the main, but we’ve got to rebuild confidence in the players, fans and coaching staff. We’re not going to be able to play in the style we currently are for long – partly because fans won’t want to come and watch it, but hopefully a couple of wins nicked here and there can see us progress again and become more of an attacking threat once more. Everything is in place around the club, we’ve just got to find the right formula on the pitch and sidelines.