It’s impossible not to see Derby v Fulham as a potentially decisive moment in the season. Victory for the Rams would reignite hope, even if it is fainter now, of stealing second spot. A draw would at least keep the resurgent Cottagers below us for the time-being. A win for Fulham, on the other hand, would see them leapfrog us into genuine contention for automatic promotion, booting Derby further towards the dogfight for fifth or sixth.
Fulham’s form has been sensational since Christmas – their combined goals for and against from 23 December onwards is 30-9 (Derby’s is 18-10). Their capture of Aleksandr Mitrović feels like the key factor – finally, they have a strong central striker to bolster their pretty attacking patterns, providing a rugged reference point for all of those technical attacking midfield players in their ranks. Basically, the job they wanted Chris Martin to do last season (but let’s not get into that).
Derby on the other hand cannot be said to have strengthened in January and as soon as news broke that Sam Winnall’s season was over, it was clear that they went into February weakened as a squad. There should have been time to plan for Johnny Russell’s long-trailed departure, but, for whatever reason, nothing was done. If Kasey Palmer is viewed solely as cover for Matej Vydra and not as a serious wide option, suddenly, a squad which was by general agreement “bloated” starts to feel almost threadbare in attacking areas.
I asked Daniel Smith from Fulham Focus what has gone right for Fulham this calendar year and he wasn’t exactly short of responses, given their incredible form. Unsurprisingly, he points to Fulham’s success in loaning Mitrović:-
“Mitro gives us that much-needed presence up front, bringing the others into play and is clinical in front of goal, as he proved in our last two matches. He has also surprised me with his work-rate and ability to win back possession high up the pitch.”
But another key factor was the loan signing of left back Matt Targett from Southampton. “Targett was effectively two signings in one, as it has allowed Ryan Sessegnon to play further up the pitch. So just by having Targett, who’s accomplished both defensively and picking out a pass, we also have our best finisher playing in the position that causes the opposition the most damage.”
Sessegnon is frightening. 17 years old and bagging Championship goals for fun. His shot map makes him look like a predatory poacher, rather than a winger:
So in some ways, this is a tale of two Januarys. While Derby were mostly interested in shipping out surplus players, presumably to ensure compliance with Financial Fair Play regulations, Fulham had a more successful window. “We managed to hold onto all of our key players, like the much sought after Sessegnon, as well as Tom Cairney and Ryan Fredericks. New additions have also gone a long way to turning us from a good team into a serious promotion contender, they really have been the icing on the cake for us.”
We know that this will be a clash of styles – of attractive, technical, short passing football from the visitors against more reactive, direct, counter-attacking play from the home side. There will be frustrating times in this game, perhaps for prolonged spells of it, when Derby can’t get the ball off Fulham. Let’s face it, Jokanović’s will play the more pleasing and progressive football. But that is by Rowett’s design.
The reactive philosophy is summed up well by the journalist Diego Torres, describing Mourinho’s approach during his tenure at Real Madrid:-
1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors
2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition
3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes
4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake
5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake
6. Whoever has the ball has fear
7. Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger
(H/T Jonathan Liew)
Last season, Fulham totally dominated the ball in an extraordinary game at Derby, but imploded defensively, thanks to erratic passing out from the back, a personal nightmare for goalkeeper David Button and David Nugent’s magnificent poached hat-trick. Although not ultimately crucial in the season – Derby missed the play-offs, Fulham lost in the play-offs – it was certainly a big result for proponents of counter-attacking football to point to and pure gold for anyone who rejects what they might call the “tippy-tappy” possession style.
Since then though, The Nuge has scored seven goals in 33 appearances – none at all since Christmas – and at 32, going on 33, it’s impossible to escape the concern that he is a player whose best days are behind him. Cameron Jerome has the physical attributes which Rowett prioritises and scored 16 goals for Norwich last season, but can he fit into the Derby side and make the number nine position his own in the coming months?
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) March 2, 2018
Meanwhile, there has been considerable angst about who should play at full back. Craig Forsyth recently lost his place in the side to Marcus Olsson, who has just done exactly what he does – trundle up and down the wing competently enough with the ball at his feet, but look terribly vulnerable every time a high ball is aimed in his direction, or a tackle needs to be won.
Forsyth has his limitations as a player and has never been an accurate passer of the ball. But if a cross comes in, or a fifty-fifty needs to be won, who would you want to be in there? To me, the answer is clear and so as long as he is fit, I would stick with Forsyth at this point.
On the other flank, Rowett has trusted Chris Baird’s experience over Andre Wisdom’s pace and presence, a preference now disrupted by Baird’s straight red at Reading. Whether it was a fair decision or not, the dismissal was a result of Baird knowing that if he didn’t make a challenge which stopped Mo Barrow from escaping up the wing, then he would never in a million years catch him. At 36, Baird is still a solid player, but if he is caught out of position, he is screwed and knows it. I don’t understand why Rowett picked him to play against a player as fast as Barrow and am hoping that Wisdom will finally make the shirt his own during the veteran’s suspension.
So, how do we beat Fulham? If we are as passive as we were in the first half at Reading and allow them to dominate the ball without disruption, then I fear they will punish us. But at the same time, if we’re too aggressive and push too far up the pitch, they have the pacy players to catch us out – as good as Davies, Keogh, Huddlestone and Ledley are, they are not exactly blessed with speed, as was painfully demonstrated by Barrow’s goal at the Madejski.
Against Reading, certainly in the first half, our full backs were quickly closed down whenever they received the ball, which meant that they had to either go backwards, or clear it down the line. That meant that the Royals almost invariably got the ball straight back and could start again. By contrast, the bulk of the Rams’ pressing was done by Jerome and Palmer. If the wide midfielders hold their position rather than trying to pin the full backs in, then Fulham will be able to build from the back, as our two forwards will rarely be able to prevent an out-ball.
Last year, we beat them by haranguing their defenders and Button – since replaced by Marcus Bettinelli, whom I’m told is better with the ball at his feet – into howlers and that has to be the way to go again. It will take a lot of energy, commitment and guts to do it, because if they manage to pass around us, we’ll be exposed to the likes of Cairney and Sessegnon in attack. But if we just sit off them and let them build up pressure, they have more than enough quality to take advantage.
Victory in this game would be the biggest result of our season so far and certainly as far as form goes, we go into this as underdogs, home status notwithstanding.
But Fulham will come to Pride Park expecting a difficult afternoon and just as conscious of the importance of the occasion. As Daniel says: “We don’t tend to do well at your place, or against Rowett sides, so I’m quite nervous. Despite you appearing to slow down a little of late, you’re still a very good side with a very good manager, so for me, it’s a season-defining game for both teams.
“The one that wins still has a serious chance of automatic promotion, a defeat or a draw and I reckon it’s playoffs – at the moment, it looks very possible that we will end up facing each other.”
This potentially fascinating clash of styles just might have a lot more than 90 minutes left to run.