Eight out of ten ain’t bad! McClaren’s fast start reviewed

Steve McClaren’s record as DCFC manager
P10 W8 D1 L1 F24 A9 GD +15 Pts 25

Unbelievable, sensational, ridiculous.  I keep looking at the numbers and thinking ‘I must have written them down wrong.’  Plenty of Derby fans will have spent Monday morning gazing admiringly at the league table, or chortling at the graphic which showed the Rams to be fourth-top of the European form league.

Points per Game 2.50

This graph shows how our PPG has progressed through the season so far: –

Obviously, the flat spot on the graph is the point of Nigel Clough’s sacking.

To my mind, there have been a few factors which have helped McClaren to start in such a spectacular fashion – some very much within his control, others outside of it, although that takes nothing away from what is a splendid achievement.

Turning the disorganised, demoralised rabble who shipped four in 45 nightmarish minutes to an Ipswich side accurately described by my father as ‘shite’ into the well-oiled, gleaming machine currently slicing through the Championship’s lesser lights with such ease, McClaren has rapidly dispensed with any doubts about his coaching and managerial credentials.  His job now is just to continue steering us in the right direction.

Here are a few of the reasons he has succeeded so far, as far as I can see: –

Recruitment: It’s tempting to say that McClaren sorted out our defensive shortcomings by signing Andre Wisdom – so I will say it.  McClaren sorted out our defensive shortcomings by signing Andre Wisdom.

The Liverpool man’s power, presence and technical qualities mean that he is manifestly a cut above at this level and securing him on a season-long loan was a serious coup for Derby County.  The Wisdom deal highlights the point Sam Rush made about ‘football relationships’, after he sacked Clough.  Liverpool knew that when they sent Wisdom to us, the defender would benefit from top-class coaching.

Simon Dawkins was an imaginative signing and is getting stronger all the time, adding a different dimension to our play and fitting into the system nicely on the left of the front three.  Unlike Wisdom, it seems likely that Dawkins’ deal could be made permanent, either in January or next summer and I don’t think any Rams fan would argue that he has strengthened the team.  26 and yet still relatively inexperienced, his is a unique story in English football.  Hopefully, he will have the chance to spend his best years at DCFC and develop further with regular playing time.

These two deals were, it has to be said, rather better than some of the bizarre signings that McClaren made when he was at Forest.  At that time, The Mac was seemingly rather out of touch with English football and ended up bringing in players who were good when he was last around – Jonathan Greening, the pensionable George Boateng and Matt Derbyshire spring to mind.  On the other hand, that athletic paragon Andy Reid proved worth his not inconsiderable weight in gold, so even at that point, McClaren’s compass wasn’t totally leading him astray.

After spending a few months coaching under the Del Boy of English football, Harry Redknapp, it now seems that McClaren has more of a handle on the domestic transfer market.  He will also be helped in his recruitment decisions by the new head of football operations, Chris Evans. It’s worth remembering that Clough kicked against the idea of a ‘technical director’ or ‘director of football’, wanting to retain control himself – mind you, McClaren will retain the final say on player signings, rather than handing responsibility over to Evans or anybody else – hence Evans’ rather curious title.

Player availability: With the exception of Johnny Russell’s leg-break and Zak Whitbread’s calf problem, we have managed to avoid any serious injuries in the McClaren era so far (touch wood).  Jeff Hendrick is back after the “bad ‘un” he suffered at Yeovil, Jamie Ward’s hamstrings have held up and nobody has been poleaxed by a demonic two-footed lunge lately.  Long may this continue.

The only players still out are those returning from long lay-offs, like Whitbread, Mark O’Brien and Paul Coutts.  As a result, McClaren has been able to call on the same players consistently and not really had to chop and change: –

Starts under McClaren

Grant 10
Keogh 10
Forsyth 10
Bryson 10
Martin 10
Eustace 9 

Hughes 9
Ward 9
Wisdom 8
Buxton 8
Dawkins 8
Whitbread 2

Smith 2
Cissé 1
Hendrick 1

Russell 1
Bennett 1 

The core of the team have played week in, week out – and played bloody well, too.

Tactics: McClaren instantly chose to play 4-3-3 and has stuck to it. Fielding a defensive midfielder behind the attack-minded Hughes and Bryson allows them to go forward with more freedom and has always been the best way of fitting both of those players into the team.

I like this heat map from whoscored.com, which illustrates Hughes’ ramblings across the pitch: –

He pops up on either wing, when he isn’t dropping into the centre circle to conduct proceedings from deep.  I think the small red dot in the centre of the pitch outside the opposition box is where you want him to receive the ball – and where his markers are instructed in no uncertain terms to deny him any space.

Bryson, meanwhile, has become an absolute beast in the 4-3-3, terrorising lumbering centre backs and holding players into surrendering possession and creating goals galore in the process.  His DGI* score of .417 (in other words, he has either scored or assisted 41.7 per cent of Derby’s 48 league and cup goals, by my reckoning) is hugely impressive.

In terms of substitutions, the most obvious example of a positive change that ultimately turned a game for us was the deployment of Conor Sammon at Watford.  McClaren has also been far more prepared to use Mason Bennett than Clough was; however, his attitude towards Michael Jacobs – who was promptly loaned out to League One Wolves, where he has made two starts and two sub appearances – perhaps sheds some light on Clough’s reluctance to use the young winger earlier in the campaign.

The fixture list: I said at the start of the season that the opening run of games looked pretty tough and that if we got through it in half-way decent shape, we’d have a platform to build on for the rest of the season.  We did that and with respect to recent opponents like Charlton, Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday, they are not of the same calibre as Burnley, Forest and Leicester and came into this season with very different aims.

That doesn’t lessen the achievement of winning eight of the last ten in any way and with struggling Doncaster next up at home, followed by mid-table Huddersfield and bottom-club Barnsley away, you get the feeling that the excellent run could continue for a while yet.

Luck: No team can go on a long winning run without enjoying their share of good fortune.  The most recent example is Jamie Ward’s free kick against Charlton, a typically milky effort which would not have troubled Ben Alnwick without the help of a nick off the wall.  ‘The football gods were smiling on that free kick’, said McClaren after the game.

Blackpool at home would have been a much more difficult game if the Tangerines had been able to field even one natural centre back.  As it was, stand-ins Neal Bishop and Chris Basham, both midfielders by trade, did their best, but ultimately could not cope.

Catching Wigan just after a Thursday night Europa League game gave us another real opportunity. Knowing how much the night game would have taken out of the Latics, McClaren encouraged his side to start fast.  It worked like a dream.

Little breaks like those have been going in our favour of late and have helped us to put together this startling run of victories.

Reason says that the run of form has to end some time – that one afternoon, our luck will just be out – but after six wins on the trot, you feel like it is just destined to go on forever, that you’ll never lose again.

(* DGI = Direct Goal Involvement, a player’s goals + assists / team’s total goals)


And with that, I’m signing off until the New Year.

This feels like a genuinely important moment in the club’s history.  Much is possible and January’s transfer window represents a huge opportunity to cement the club in the top six.  The Chelsea home game in the cup will bring substantial extra revenue and Derby will now be seen as an attractive place for players to come, so who knows – there might be a surprise new signing or two in the works next month.

Until then, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!



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