At the start of last week, I had an instinctive favoured starting XI for this game, which, for what it’s worth, is as follows:-
I think that’s our best balanced and most dangerous side. However, with a range of attacking options in the squad, Rowett has the potential to tailor his front four – there are so few midfield options that it effectively has to be a front four – to the opposition. He needs to choose whether to go with what I would argue is his strongest offensive option – a Martin / Vydra partnership – or choose more diligent players like Winnall and Weimann, who are less technically good, but more willing to charge around closing defenders down (The Nuge has a little from both columns – but at 32, is no whippet).
Under Mark Warburton, Forest are keen to play attractive football. They have played more short passes per game than any other side in the Championship so far this season, just like Derby used to do – we were top for that measure in 2015/6, second highest in 2014/5 and second highest in 2013/4 (under Rowett, the average number of short passes has decreased significantly, from 400+ to just over 300 so far this season).
But Forest are testing their long-suffering supporters’ coronary resilience by trying to pass out from the back in almost all circumstances. When defenders like the lumbering Matt Mills are forbidden from “getting rid”, there are going to be opportunities for opponents with the necessary appetite to hassle and fluster defenders into errors. Forest can score when allowed to get into their flow, with Daryl Murphy still a significant goal threat at this level, but their defensive record – 19 goals conceded in 11 games – is among the worst in the Championship.
Forest had a bad September. The 2-1 win against Sheffield United was huge for them, because prior to that, their form stank – defeats at Sheffield Wednesday (1-3) and Aston Villa (1-2) were compounded by home losses against Wolves (1-2) and Fulham (1-3), the latter a very open game in which both sides missed good chances. These four defeats were partially mitigated by beating the Blades 2-1 at the City Ground and by keeping a rare clean sheet in winning 1-0 at Sunderland.
Note that Forest scored in every match and also that, in picking up six points, they actually did as well from the calendar month as Derby did, even though the Rams only lost once (albeit Forest played six games to our five). They haven’t drawn a game all season and so, despite suffering six defeats, sit two points above Derby in mid-table at this stage.
Warburton has a big, probably overly-stocked squad, with plenty of options to choose from in all areas of the pitch. He has shifted between a back three and a back four this season, even within games, I’m told, but has preferred a 4-2-3-1 in recent away fixtures. He could go either way at Pride Park, though I’m guessing he will start with the ‘safer’ option of a back four. Much will depend upon the fitness of David Vaughan.
Veteran schemer Vaughan is hailed as a key cog in Forest’s wheel by Nottingham media. He has been injured for several weeks, but is back in training ahead of the derby. If Vaughan is fit to start in what McClaren used to call the “conductor” role, Rowett will need to consider whether Derby’s number ten needs to be instructed to do a disciplined closing job, to prevent the Welshman from dictating play.
After Fulham beat Forest at the City Ground, coach Slaviša Jokanović told the BBC:-
“In the first 45 minutes we did not adapt very well in the game; we started in shy fashion. We know Forest are a team who are fighting for possession of the ball.
“In the second half, we tried to take more risks, to push forward and press them harder and we scored two more goals.”
Starting in a ‘shy fashion’ is not really an option, when you’ve got 30,000 people screaming blue murder at you. But I wonder whether Rowett’s template for this game could actually be the Fulham game last season, where Derby almost voided possession, yet had real joy on the break. The Rams kept just 26 per cent of the ball, but, largely through capitalising on loose Cottagers’ play in their own third of the pitch, pulled off a spectacular 4-2 win, with an exceptional ten shots on target.
But would the Pride Park crowd be able to handle an East Midlands Derby where Forest commanded the ball the whole time? How would you approach it, if you were in charge? “Play our football”, like McClaren, or look to stop the opponents from playing first – which seems to be Rowett’s instinct? Do we try to harry them into submission from the front, or do we allow Forest to pass out to an extent, trust the defence and midfield to deal with them and then trust the attackers to capitalise on the counter-attack?
The players are there for any tactic Rowett wishes to pursue, but I think it’s fair to say that he has not found the right blend yet. Derby are not creating enough chances to win games on a regular basis – in fact, the Rams’ lack of shots from within the penalty area so far this season is downright alarming:-
Fewest shots from inside penalty area (per game)
Burton Albion 4.2
Bolton Wanderers 5.3
Derby County 5.5
(Notts Forest 7.2)
Given the undoubted attacking talent within the ranks, that simply isn’t acceptable and has to change, but at present, Rowett hasn’t hit on an XI that truly works. Surely there must be a combination that will click eventually – and I think the addition of Joe Ledley is going to help the overall balance of the team – but I imagine Rowett might endure a sleepless night or two, in the build-up to this one.
*(I feature in the latest Derby County Podcast – an East Midlands Derby special)*
The stats and the underwhelming form guide point to a close-run thing between one team who can’t keep the ball out of their net and another who can’t get into the penalty area. One intriguing pointer for this fixture is the two clubs’ results at Brentford – the Rams endured their game at Griffin Park instead of playing it and drew 1-1, despite barely taking a shot. Forest, on the other hand, went toe-to-toe with the Bees and (with the rub of the green going their way) beat them 4-3.
The likelihood is that, at least for spells of the game, Forest will have the ball and seek to build a passing rhythm which will allow them to grow in confidence, while exasperating the crowd. But although they keep the ball better than Derby, their defensive leakiness suggests that they would struggle to sit on a 1-0 lead, for any length of time. This is probably going to be a much more open game than the last one that Pride Park suffered through, because Forest can’t and won’t set out to stifle, like Birmingham did.
That could play into Derby’s hands, but it will be a stern test of their mettle – and ours, as fans. Having struggled through a run of just one win in the last six league games, Rowett is in dire need of three points from this game. We will learn a hell of a lot about his coaching instincts, his temperament and the quality of his current squad on Sunday.