Derby County v Sheffield United preview, with Blades Analytics

I have a sneaky, horrible feeling about how the season has gone so far.

I don’t like to be a pessimist and my glass isn’t always half empty, but the four defeats and the nature of them have left me with some nagging doubts about how well-equipped this team is to win enough games to get promoted.

That is not to say that there aren’t serious positives, because clearly, there are.  Loaning Mason Mount and Harry Wilson was for sure a double coup, made possible almost entirely by the fabled (and very real) Frank Lampard Effect.  Jayden Bogle’s surge into the first-team reckoning has been heartening.  Fikayo Tomori has proved a popular and welcome addition to the squad.  The youthful exuberance these players have brought has been a breath of fresh air – look at the way they flourished fearlessly at Old Trafford – and the defence has, overall, been much more solid than we might have expected, given that Curtis Davies has been absent for effectively the whole season with a hamstring problem.  Bradley Johnson is threatening to resemble a player again.  Craig Bryson is back.  Jack Marriott is a promising addition up front…

Gary Rowett has gone.

But when we look at the league table, a quirk of the fixture list becomes clear.  Derby have only played one of the current top six – Leeds United at home – and, as you know, they were painfully walloped in that game.  

When we look at seventh – twelfth, it’s slightly better – the Rams beat Brentford in fine style at home and drew with Norwich and Blackburn, again, both at home.  But then you have to look down to 16th in the table to find anybody else that the Rams have played yet.

So far, Derby have played eight of the current bottom nine, emerging from those games with 13 points from a possible 24 (won 4 drawn 1 lost 3 – two at home, six away).  

Curiously, four of the Rams’ five wins this season have come against the current bottom four (Reading, Preston, Ipswich, Hull).  Away from home, they haven’t faced anybody higher up the table than 16th-placed Bolton yet.

In other words, while Derby have done OK so far, it’s mostly been against the dross – they haven’t really seen the best of the Championship yet.  With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder if they’re a few points short of where they really should be, if they are going to be a genuine contender.  As I mentioned in the latest BlogCast, losing at Bolton, Rotherham and Millwall just doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that a promotion team does.  

The big wins against Brentford and Man United eased those fears temporarily – which is why the loss at Bolton was so gutting.  For every encouraging step forward so far in Lampard’s debut season, there has been an instant wobble backwards.

There is an argument that Derby have struggled to create enough because they have come up against a lot of teams whose only ambition was to defend against them and that’s certainly a fair point to make.  We will find out plenty about this team’s genuine calibre in the next few days though, because they are about to test themselves against three of the top four.

The early leaders Sheffield United at home is just the start – after that come second-placed West Bromwich Albion, the top scorers in the league by a street (that one will doubtless be billed as Mount versus Harvey Barnes), then it’s Middlesbrough, managed by the infamous Tony Pulis and as miserly a side as you will ever face in the second division (six goals conceded in 12 matches).

Of the three games, the one I fancy our chances in most is tomorrow’s.  We’re at home, of course, but also, the Blades will come to take us on rather than stifle and that will give our attacking players the opportunity to counter at speed.   

The good news when it comes to assessing how we might do in what is undoubtedly a massive game against Sheffield United is that a new blogger, Jay Socik, came to my attention this season, tweeting as @blades_analytic.  He has been using data to assess not only the Blades, but also the whole Championship and as a result, is currently my “go-to guy” for evidence-based insights on how this season is panning out.

Derby County Blog: What are the strengths which have propelled SUFC to the top of league?

BA: Our tactical setup is well known to anyone who has seen us play – 3-4-1-2, with very attacking wing backs and two wide centre backs who also join the attack.  The biggest feature of our play is our ability to work the ball in wide areas, create overloads and extra men to make 2 v 1 situations and play the ball around the opposition defence.

We are an excellent passing team with some very good technical players and we tend to dominate the territory, playing much of our football in the opposition final third.  This is demonstrated by the fact that we have had the most touches in the opposition box and the most completed passes in the opposition final third in the league.  We don’t waste our possession on long shots either, we are patient and look to create high-quality chances in the penalty area, as our strikers suit those opportunities with the runs they make.

DCB: Does the underlying evidence say SUFC could sustain a real push this time?

BA: Yes. SUFC rank highly in most of the various metrics and stats anyone could use to look at a team’s performance.  Anyone who follows me on social media knows my best source of performance data is my own expected goals metric.  With xG, we can assess a team’s ability to create chances and how many chances they concede to the opposition.

In terms of xG, SUFC rank as the joint best team in the league.  For chances conceded, we are fourth best in the league.  We’re creating lots of high-quality chances at the moment and don’t give away many at all – although with the caveat that our next run of games looks on paper to be much more difficult, starting with our trip to Pride Park.

Although we don’t average many shots per game (17th ranking in the league overall), our conversion rate on the shots we do take is the fourth best in the league and again, this points to the fact that most of our efforts come from the penalty box [Amen – DCB].  12% of all our shots come from within the six-yard box, the second highest number in the league and we are also second highest in the league forshots within the penalty area [for comparison Derby have managed a grand total of four shots inside the six-yard box all season – worse than anyone except for Hull – DCB].  We’re dead last in the league for shots outside the area, so expect a team that pass and probe and look for the right time to take an effort at your goal, rather than shooting from distance! 

DCB: Hallelujah… I’ve been banging the drum about shots from downtown being a waste of possession, territory and time for ages now.  It annoys me that our current team are so prone to taking them (direct free kicks excepted…)

Which players are the key men who make your team tick?

BA: We play such a bespoke system that certain players are imperative to make it work.  Without doubt, one of the key men and our best piece of summer transfer business, has been Oli Norwood in a deep lying playmaking role.  Norwood has been an absolute revelation for us.  We lost Paul Coutts at a similar time last season (when we were also top of the league!) and he had been our best player to that point, which might be a weird one for Derby fans to hear.  To be honest, we never really recovered from that.  Norwood has added outstanding passing range, set-piece quality delivery, effective forward passing from deep and generally ensured we have complete balance in our play.  

Norwood has three assists (joint third highest in the league), is fourth in expected assists per 90 minutes and third for key passes (passes that setup a shot) per 90.  I could go on, but I think another player worth highlighting is Mark Duffy, quite simply our creative fulcrum at number ten.  

Normally, if we score a goal or create a good chance, Duffy has been involved in the passing sequence before it and without Duffy we have struggled.  He’s so good that he’s keeping highly-rated Liverpool youngster Ben Woodburn out of the team.  

The final key man worth mentioning is the manager – he’s absolutely outstanding and with him, we always have a chance.

DCB: Any weaknesses about SUFC which are bothering you at the moment?

BA: The fact we seem to concede goals on a regular basis.  We are such an attacking unit that, even though we have good defenders, we seem to concede regularly.  We’ve only kept four clean sheets this season, despite having a defence doesn’t concede many chances (we only allow on average 11 shots per game, which is the third best rate in the league).

The only other thing that comes to mind is that we tend to score first in a game, but when we don’t, our win ratio isn’t good at coming from behind. The way we play will always leave us open, especially when chasing a game and this season, although we have only been behind in three games, we’ve lost two of those.

DCB: In terms of Derby, in your reading of the numbers, how decent are we at the minute and do you think we’ll do ok this year?

BA: More than decent, especially defensively.  My expected goals data has Derby as the best defensive team in the league in terms of chances conceded.  Derby also hold the sixth best record in the league at allowing opposition shots per game (only 11.7 per game).  I feel there is a strong defensive base there, with a good blend of experienced heads and younger, more athletic players filling a void I felt Derby had last year in terms of energy and dynamism.

Offensively though, the data suggests a different story.  15 goals scored with an xG of 14.1 shows Derby are performing slightly above expectations in terms of finishing ability, but their xG is only 18th best in the league, which shows a lack of high-quality chance creation.

No doubt there is some outstanding talent at Derby – Mount the pick obviously, but Wilson, Lawrence, Nugent, Waghorn and Marriott are clearly all capable on their day – perhaps it hasn’t clicked as a unit so far, but this is the main weakness I see with Derby at the moment.

One particular metric that does reflect well on the Rams is their pressing stats – the second highest in the league behind Leeds.

From personal views of watching Derby, I see a highly organised, motivated and focussed team who are set up well and clearly have quality but are yet to find their creative freedom within the system, hopefully it doesn’t present itself on Saturday!

DCB: Based on the stats, are there any Derby players who worry you on Saturday?

BA: Yes!  Mason Mount!  Overall this year, Mount has created the highest number of chances in the league (27), just ahead of the Blades’ Norwood. Mount also has the ninth highest expected assist tally in the league.  Clearly someone who is dangerous in the final third.  Mount’s three goals are also the joint second highest tally for a midfielder in the league.  The kid can clearly do it all!

The only other worry (and this is not data-based) is Martyn Waghorn.  For much of the summer, we Blades thought Waghorn was coming our way, until Derby got involved and blew us out of the water.  This meant that we went and got Waghorn’s team mate at Ipswich, David McGoldrick – which has turned out to be a masterstroke, actually – but I have a sneaky feeling Waghorn might show us what we missed out on.

DCB: He’ll need to be picked, first…  
Care to hazard a guess at the result?

BA: Heart saying one thing, head another!  We have the best away record in the league and confidence is high being top of the league; however, I really rate this Derby side and feel it has potential moving forward.  A 1-1 draw just like last season is my prediction.

DCB: I also have this game down as a potential draw, on paper, though I expect it will be a much more entertaining encounter than last year’s, which was a bit of a dog.   

While we’re talking Championship numbers, some of my readers might be interested in your take on our auld enemy Nottingham Forest.  Unfortunately, they are gradually creeping up the table, but does the data suggests that they will stay in the top six?

BA: I actually have Forest’s expected position based on performance as 11th.  They have scored 17 goals, but have an xG of 13.1 (fourth worst in the league).  This either shows they have some quality finishers over there, which could be the case, or that shots are flying in that will eventually start to fly wide.  They’ve conceded 13 goals, but with a conceded xG of 16.1, which means that their attack and defence are both over-performing relative to expectation at the minute.  At the minute, I’m not sure a Forest play-off challenge is sustainable and they look more like a 10-12th type of team – although it’s still early doors, Derby currently project slightly better.

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