(ICYMI, here is part one of this post)
In recent games, Derby have created barely anything inside the box, as the shot count since the defeat at Sheffield United demonstrates:-
Shots taken from inside penalty area
Sheffield United (A) 2-10
Norwich City (A) 9-16
Middlesbrough (H) 2-8
Leeds United (A) 2-12
Reading (H) 7-3
PNE (A) 2-17
Total 24 – 66
This alarming recent lack of any genuine creativity is being reflected in a growing gulf between Derby’s goal tally (40) and that of the top four (57, 50, 50, 59). The ‘stattos’ I follow are picking up on this, pointing out that Derby’s ‘expected goal’ tally, which has never been very high this season anyway, has dropped off significantly lately, making them look less like promotion contenders.
That said, it cannot be forgotten that the recent run of league games has included some of the most testing fixtures of the season, plus three tough cup games fitted in around them. It has been an extremely difficult period and Derby have done well to get through it, picking up eight points from the 18 on offer, while also progressing to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
But they lost Mount to a hamstring injury in the process of beating Accrington Stanley, Marriott is struggling with an ankle problem and they have not been dominating games since Christmas, or anything like it.
With the exception of the game against Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough, Derby have not dominated the ball in recent weeks: –
Sheff U 50-50
PNE 45 – 55
(Average 45% – 55%)
It may not be the whole story, but Tom Huddlestone’s absence from the side in recent weeks is surely a big part of the reason why Derby have suddenly stopped controlling games in the way they were towards the end of 2018. Huddlestone averages more than 50 passes per game at an accuracy rate of 81%, whereas George Evans, who is seemingly being groomed as his replacement, has averaged less than 25 passes per game, with a much worse pass success rate (73%).
Successful short passes per 90 minutes
Huddlestone’s lack of mobility is always raised as his main shortcoming, but he has still won broadly as many tackles per game as any of the other midfielders, while also winning more headers than any of the others (he is less effective at making interceptions than either Bryson or Evans, however).
Another factor which was painfully obvious in the Preston game was the lack of physical presence in the eleven, which meant that almost every corner the Lilywhites flighted in led to chaos in the six-yard box. Eventually, Wisdom had to be brought on, seemingly for his size alone – an alarming defender-for-striker change which helped to avert what had begun to seem like the inevitable concession against limited opponents. Huddlestone, however, remained on the bench, as did Bradley Johnson (and Florian Jozefzoon), with Lampard opting not to use his third change – a surprising, maybe even revealing decision, in the context of a game which hadn’t exactly gone to plan.
The smallest player of all, Duane Holmes, is gradually becoming one of the real plus points of this season. I doubt he is being ear-marked as our future right back, but Holmes was nevertheless game enough to cover there in Jayden Bogle’s absence and is the one player in the squad who you fancy to take on and beat a player. It’s still early days, but his successful dribbles works out as 2.9 per 90 minutes, which is pretty much as good as anyone in the division (Fernando Forestieri’s rate is 2.5, for example). In these days of telephone number transfer fees, to find a player with Holmes’ potential for £700,000 was an impressive move by Lampard.
In summary, it felt good that, after a game which the Rams clearly struggled to affect, Lampard had eight days without a fixture, to reflect and reassess his tactics and team selection, ahead of a potentially tricky home game against an almost ludicrously resurgent Hull City.
If Marriott is still unfit – a previously disclosed illness has now been supplemented by acknowledgement of an ankle injury – then I am not sure that Nugent deserves to start in his place. Waghorn (again, if fit) or even Bennett would represent a more energetic, quicker and stronger option, who could be relied upon to at least ask the Hull defence more physical questions. Nugent has been a reliable player for as long as I can remember and nobody would ever question his attitude, but Steve McClaren’s decision to award a 30-month contract to a 31 year-old striker was always debatable. We now live in the hope, rather than expectation, of an Indian summer from a forward whose best days look to be behind him.
The same could be said (and is being said) of Bryson, although action has been taken there, with the loan recruitment of a (slightly) younger replacement in Andy King. The Welshman, however, has barely played football since the end of his loan spell at Swansea City last season, so it feels unwise to expect too much from King too soon.
As for Ashley Cole, he has played regularly in the MLS for the last three seasons and is reportedly more or less ready to make his Rams debut. It will be faintly surreal to see one of the nine players with more than 100 England caps playing in the black and white, while one of the others patrols the Pride Park touchline. I don’t quite know what to make of it. He is nearly as old as me, but unlike me, he was one of the greatest English left backs of all time, in his heyday. Whether he will end up playing regularly, or is simply going to serve as experienced cover for Scott Malone, we will have to wait and see.
With Norwich flying, Leeds still in a strong position (even if their spying spree has been rumbled and curtailed), Sheffield United looking robust, West Brom having strengthened massively on deadline day and Boro continuing with their miserly pursuit of the play-offs, Derby are in my view genuine outsiders for promotion as things stand. But with a bit of luck on our side, it remains entirely possible.
Much has been made – maybe a little too much – of the fact that Derby have an ‘easier’ run-in than most, with Boro and Bristol City in particular having plenty of tricky-looking games to come, while Derby look forward to plenty of home games against teams from the lower half of the table. The schedule looks OK, on paper.
And the manner in which Lampard’s side have approached the cup games shows that they can get themselves up for big, ‘winner-takes-all’ games (granted, a pessimist could point to unimpressive showings at Elland Road and Bramall Lane as evidence that this Derby side are just as capable of flunking key tests as they are at passing them).
Nevertheless, if Mount and Marriott can be nursed back to fitness soon and the rest of the most important players make it through the season unscathed, a top six finish remains a reasonable ambition. We will talk more about what happens next season nearer the time.