Gary Rowett’s combative demeanour after Derby County’s latest draw showed his desire to promote an “us against the world” mentality at Pride Park, which could serve the Rams well, with nine games left to play.
Rowett has railed against refereeing decisions in recent weeks and Lee Tomlin’s successful gamesmanship gave him another incident to protest, after Tom Huddlestone was wrongly sent off for what Jeremy Simpson deemed to be a second bookable offence.
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) March 12, 2018
Huddlestone had patrolled the area in front of Derby’s back four effectively all afternoon, but was eventually caught the wrong side of Tomlin, who took the opportunity to go down. Replays showed there was minimal contact between the two players, but the rotund Tomlin had got his man. Simpson had refrained from issuing yellow cards until booking Tom Lawrence (for a dive, ironically enough) on about the half-hour and yet dismissed Huddlestone with an unseemly haste which did him no credit.
Until that point, it looked like Derby were favourites to win it, as a Rams side revitalised by the introduction of substitutes Cameron Jerome and particularly Kasey Palmer camped out on the home side’s 18-yard line for a lengthy second-half spell.
Palmer’s omission from the starting XI was a major talking point before the game, with Rowett springing a surprise in favouring the hard-working shuttlers Ikechi Anya and Andi Weimann in wide areas, plus Tom Lawrence to support lone frontman David Nugent. The majority of fans I polled prior to the match were hoping to see both Palmer and Matej Vydra start (Vydra’s groin injury was undisclosed), so for neither of them to be named was something of a shock to the system.
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) March 8, 2018
Lawrence made a virtue of chasing back deep into Derby territory in the first half, but also popped up on the right repeatedly in his free-ranging support role. Some have referred to the shape for the game as 4-1-4-1 (Rowett described it as 4-3-3) and it was clearly slightly tweaked from the usual Rowett shape out of possession.
— Derby County Blog (@derbycountyblog) March 5, 2018
However, a glance at the touch map shows that Johnson and Huddlestone patrolled the midfield area as they usually would, with Lawrence typically floating higher up the pitch, or roaming wide.
Forest’s main problem in my view was that the young striker Brereton was too isolated. Curtis Davies and Richard Keogh didn’t really have much of a problem dealing with him, though the attacking midfielders Cash, Lolley and Tomlin were stopped by unfair means a little too often – on another day, a free kick might have dropped to the wrong feet in the box. Not that Forest were exactly squeaky clean themselves, with four players, including the rugged new defensive midfield duo of Colback and Watson, yellow carded. Watson in particular looked no stranger to the dark arts of the professional foul.
You don’t need a full match report from me, so in summary – I was much more encouraged by this performance than anything I have seen in a long time. As the away side, to prevent Carson from having to make a single save is an exceptional effort and if only Weimann’s feet could keep up with his legs, we could have won by two or three.
Palmer was outstanding when he came on and as much as Forest complained about Tomlin being fouled, they were soon reduced to doing the same to thwart the much more elegant playmaker. Cameron Jerome also gave the Reds’ defence a problem with his pace, after replacing a waning Nugent, but for all his honest endeavour, he still doesn’t look any nearer to scoring a goal.
Anyway, now that Forest’s season is over, it’s time to refocus on the bigger picture, which is the play-off push. The point inched us on to 62, still at least a dozen shy of where we will need to be this season to make the top six. I think Rowett will want to get to 75 points as soon as possible – Neil Warnock said last weekend that Cardiff’s total of 73 meant they’d hit his provisional target, before they moved on by thumping Brentford 3-1 at Griffin Park.
Rowett clearly sensed that avoiding defeat at the City Ground, particularly in the context of finishing a man light, offered him a chance to rally the troops ahead of the final push. Cardiff feels like a really big game and if the fans can get up for it, as they do in derby encounters, they can help a Rams team which will need to dig deep against opposition who will be very direct, physical and tough to break down.
To get promoted to the Premier League, it typically helps to have players who can pass it to someone the same coloured shirt. Unless… You are managed by either Sean Dyche or the daddy of them all, Neil Warnock.
Cardiff proudly boast the worst pass success of anyone in the Championship and are even worse on that measure than last season’s Rotherham. But it doesn’t matter, because the Bluebirds are still second in the league for total shots per game (14.1) and shots on target per game (5).
If they have the ball, it goes towards the opposition goal as quickly as possible, either directly from the back, or via a cross from one of their dangerous wingers. With eight goals and ten assists, Junior Hoilett has been one of the Championship’s best players this season, while the converted attacker Callum Paterson has been raiding forward from midfield to feast on the crosses in recent weeks – playing in what you might call a Craig Bryson role (they have Bryso too, of course, but the goals have dried up for him since his heyday under Steve McClaren).
Then there are the corners to worry about. They’ve scored 18 goals from set plays this season, joint highest in the division with Wolves. Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba have contributed four goals apiece – last season, Morrison had the most shots on target of any centre back and more for Cardiff than anyone except Kenneth Zohore. The received wisdom is that a corner is so unlikely to end up in a goal that it’s effectively a failed attack – but nobody ever told Warnock that.
Defensively, they have been exceptional, conceding less goals than anyone else in the Championship. The backline is led by Morrison, whom the journalist and Cardiff supporter Owain Thomas describes as a ‘cut above’ even the impressive likes of Bamba and Bruno Manga. “He takes control of situations, is rarely out of position and wins countless headers and tackles and clearances – not to mention chipping in with the odd goal. If Warnock could forge his own custom-built player, I suspect it would look a lot like the Cardiff captain.”
The Brentford blog Beesotted, who are very proud of the Bees’ attractive short passing style (and why not), agonised over the triumph of ‘anti-football’ at their place in midweek as they suffered ‘death by a thousand hoofs’. Thomas explains it in more sympathetic terms: “The strategy is designed to clear balls from Cardiff’s defensive third quickly and put pressure on opposing defenders with strong, quick wingers or forwards chasing down. Most of these don’t work, admittedly, but the tactic does not allow defenders to switch off or make a mistake at any time in the game.
“Think you’re in good shape with the ball on the edge of Cardiff’s area? Bang! Seconds later, you’ve got a winger and forward bearing down on you with a ball bouncing around in no-man’s land. Do you stick or twist? Get that wrong and another second later, it’s in your net.”
It wouldn’t work against Manchester City, but let’s face it, this is the second division. Warnock has simplified things for his players and they have responded by overachieving relative to what anyone, even the club themselves, expected. Interestingly, Rowett pointed out in his pre-match press conference that nerves are less of a factor for teams who don’t try to play out from the back.
But in a way – and I say this in the full knowledge that it could come back to bite me on the arse – I’m less worried about a strong, long-ball team like Cardiff than I am about a technical, possession team like Fulham, because I think we’re better equipped to cope with the Warnock approach. Curtis Davies said after the 0-0 at Cardiff that he enjoyed marking a “big lump” like Zohore, while in full backs Craig Forsyth and Andre Wisdom, we have tall players who will put their head on crosses like additional centre backs if required (I’m going to go ahead and assume that the dainty Marcus Olsson won’t be selected for this one). Bradley Johnson prefers a physical tussle to a passing contest and so we should – fingers crossed – be relatively well equipped to compete with them in open play and from set pieces.
The question, though, is whether the current injury situation will prevent us from putting out a strong enough attacking unit to find the quality (or luck) to create enough chances at the other end. If Vydra is genuinely fit, then that would be a huge bonus – if not, will Rowett finally unleash the hugely promising Palmer from the start at Pride Park?
Whoever is available for selection and whichever system Rowett adopts, this will be a very, very tough assignment and I wouldn’t be surprised if the game ends in yet another draw, rather than the relief of a badly-needed home win.