Everybody makes mistakes… James O’Connor’s ‘utility role’

Tribulations – LCD Soundsystem

As a bit of an anorak, I was very impressed by a recent piece of analytical work done by a chap named Ben Mayhew, who blogs under the name of Experimental 3-6-1.  Ben, who’s obviously very dedicated to this stat game, took it upon himself to study every single Football League club over their first ten games of the season, producing this comprehensive 84-page PDF document giving visualisations of their offensive and defensive performances so far this season.  It’s well worth a look.

On the Rams’ page, Mayhew points out that ‘while Derby don’t take all that many shots, they tend to make them count’, classifying our attack as ‘languidly clinical’.  Compared with other clubs in the Championship, it turns out that Derby have taken less shots per game on average than anyone else except for Leeds United – which somewhat undermines the conception of the Rams as a freewheeling attacking team that was created after the first four home games yielded an incredible 25 goals.

At the other end, we have limited our opponents to less than nine shots per game – a better performance than all but three other clubs (Brighton, Blackpool and Leicester) – which just makes it all the more frustrating that we haven’t been able to keep enough clean sheets.

It turns out that the majority of the goals we have conceded have come late in either half, which Mayhew suggests usually points to ‘either fitness or concentration issues’.  Clough often proudly claims that our fitness stats match up with anybody else in the division, so perhaps it’s the latter.

A further interesting titbit comes in the fact that 50% of the goals we have conceded have come from our left flank, compared to 40% through the centre and only 10% from our right.  Mayhew therefore wonders if perhaps left back is a problem position for us.

This last statistic will immediately alert the band of Derby fans who think that Gareth Roberts is the team’s weak link.  I personally think that Roberts is a solid and reliable defender, so to find out if Mayhew’s metrics give the lie to my opinion, I did a very quick analysis of the league goals we’ve conceded this season, to see where, if any, the blame lay in each case.

2-1 v SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY – Brilliant curling shot from edge of area.  Error? None.
2-2 - Cross from the right headed back across goal and turned in from close range.  Error?  Jeff Hendrick was dispossessed too easily in the build-up to the goal, on Derby’s right-hand touchline.

0-1 v BOLTON WANDERERS – Volley on rebound, after header from corner parried by Fielding.  Error? Not really.  Keogh claims he was pushed over by Kevin Davies as he got the initial header in.
0-2 - Attempted clearance ricochets to Eagles on the edge of the box, he nicks the ball past O’Connor and finishes with ease.  Error? A case of bad luck, although O’Connor may feel he should have tackled Eagles.

0-1 v WOLVES - A ball across the box from close to the byline, O’Connor can’t cut it out, easy finish for Doyle.  Error?  The ball just eluded O’Connor – looking back at the footage,  you can’t help but think he could have blocked it off, but he couldn’t seem to get his feet sorted out.

5-1 v WATFORD – O’Connor’s lazy chipped pass from deep in left back territory is blocked, allowing Watford to spring an effective attack.  Error?  O’Connor.

0-1 v HUDDERSFIELD TOWN – Sammon loses possession in an innocuous area, but Town work the ball to Hammill on the right.  Hammill is allowed to run from almost halfway into a crossing position by a furiously backpedalling O’Connor, before delivering the centre on a plate for the striker.  Error?  At no point did O’Connor get near enough to Cristiano Hammilldo (apparently) to affect his run or cross.

3-1 v CHARLTON ATHLETIC- An absolute thunderbolt from miles out after a corner was cleared.  Error?  None.
3-2 - Throw in on the right, free header allowed by Roberts and  O’Connor, resulting in low cross which is turned in from close range.  Error?  Roberts and O’Connor half each.

1-1 v BURNLEY – Ward bizarrely spoons an attempted clearance backwards and straight to Charlie Austin, who smacks it into the net.  Error?  Ward.
1-2 - Not much was done to stop the cross, as Brayford stood off and Bryson wasn’t able to get back in time, leaving Austin to easily beat the much-smaller Roberts to the header.  Error?  Collective failure.  My initial instinct was to blame Fielding, but looking at replays, the scrum of four players in front of him would have made it very difficult for him to come for the inswinging cross.

1-1 v Middlesbrough - Fielding unable to hold on to a fairly tame-looking free kick, the rebound is poked in.  Error?  Fielding.
1-2 - Hendrick’s weak defensive header falls straight to a Boro player, who crosses for Jutkiewicz to nod home.  Error?  Hendrick, with a dishonourable mention to Robinson for not making an effort to stop the cross.

So it seems that overall  O’Connor’s mistakes have been punished the most.  This isn’t to say that he has necessarily made the most mistakes – it may just be that the other defenders have been lucky enough not to see their howlers turn into goals – but I do feel that O’Connor is the most gaffe-prone of our defenders.

Beyond the mistakes that have been directly punished, I can think of a couple more glaring examples which could well have led to goals – at Wolves, when he failed to cut out a routine cross, from which Ebanks-Blake inexplicably failed to score; and against Brighton, when he gave the ball away, then sold himself farcically cheaply in trying to recover, sliding out of play as the forward checked back and set himself to cross.

In O’Connor’s defence, he is a right back by trade, so has never played in his natural position for Derby.  Nevertheless, when you look at it, he’s been at fault to some degree for a lot of the goals we’ve let in this season.

While it’s useful to have a ‘utility’ defender who is prepared to muck in and play wherever he’s needed, it’s undeniable that when a player is in a position he is not naturally suited to, he will make more mistakes.

Anyway, that’s all for now, folks….  Bring on Blackburn Rovers!

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