I enjoyed this. This was good.
Gary Rowett had been at pains to stress that we shouldn’t read too much into his team selection for this game and that shirts were still up for grabs, but in reality, on this showing, the team for Sunderland will be pretty adjacent to this one.
Curtis Davies will come in, presumably for Alex Pearce, while there’s still the possibility of a new wide attacker to compete with Andi Weimann and Johnny Russell for one of the forward berths. But I’d be shocked rigid if the system for the Black Cats game isn’t 4-3-3, because Tom Huddlestone, in playing what can now only be called “the Huddlestone role”, completely transformed the team.
Afterwards, Chris Martin said that a lot of the players had been looking forward to playing with Huddlestone and it only took about eight minutes to see why, when he delivered the first magic ball of his afternoon.
It is important not to get carried away in pre-season and the long, gruelling Championship season soon puts paid to unrealistic optimism. But when you have a player who can evaporate an entire defence with a single caress of the ball, from inside his own half, you’ve got every chance, haven’t you?
In George Thorne’s absence, Steve McClaren tried his best to recruit players to do the ‘controlling’ job, but simply couldn’t find anybody who was up to the job. Within a few months of taking over, Rowett has found the perfect player for the position, certainly in terms of when we have the ball. No, he’s not exactly Usain Bolt and he will get skinned by nippy forwards at times, but, Lord have mercy, his passing is nothing short of outrageous.
His influence on the team was obvious – the quality he shows on the ball rippling through the team, bringing a transfusion of confidence. Butterfield and Johnson, neither of whom shine in deeper roles, were happier roaming further forward – Rowett has mentioned Johnson in this regard repeatedly in recent times and it was clear to see why. He has driven me insane with his struggles in a ‘holding’ role, but probably, the demands of that position have driven him insane too. Much as a right back can ‘do a job’ at centre back for a game or two, but gets found out over time, Johnson has done his best in a central two, or as the deepest midfielder of three, but it is not where he naturally belongs.
Meanwhile, finally, Chris Martin has been replaced, by Chris Martin. Thank God. Now, injuries allowing, we have quality players to play the crucial positions in the 4-3-3 system. Nothing is proven at this stage, but the first half against Kaiserslautern was immensely enjoyable. At times, it felt like watching Derby when they were in their 2013/4 pomp, confident, dominant, creative. The Rams breached their hosts’ defence four or five times in the opening half and given that this was the Red Devils’ final friendly of pre-season, their coach will surely not have been at all pleased with what he witnessed.
Kaiserslautern had better quality on the counter and forced the defenders to work at times, but overall, there was no doubt that Derby deserved to win on the day. Understandably, the Rams struggled in the heat second-half and a raft of substitutions were necessary on 70 minutes, but this was an incredibly encouraging performance on the whole.
In the early stages, Butterfield learned that the referee was fussy, when he awarded a soft free kick after the midfielder seemingly legitimately robbed Kaiserslautern in a dangerous position. Huddlestone was then caught in possession, leading to a rapid Red Devils counter, but soon, he was showing exactly what he is capable of when his delicious pass from a defensive position shredded the offside trap, with Martin laying off to Johnson, who should have scored but could only strike the ball at the exposed goalkeeper, striving to take the chance with his left foot, when a right-footer would surely had driven the ball home. But the point is, he was there in the box and will score goals if he can get in there regularly enough.
Butterfield was then told off sternly by a ref who clearly didn’t want any tackles flying in, before Johnson nearly released Weimann with a clip over the top which was just too high. It was a nice idea and all three midfield men were relishing their work at this stage, with Huddlestone demonstrating his top class range of passing. It had been an aggressive (in a good way) opening from Derby and Forsyth won a header before taking possession of the loose ball and slipping Martin through on the left side of the box, from where his low drive was saved by the onrushing ‘keeper.
But it wasn’t long before another Huddlestone magic ball gave the Rams the goal their start had merited. Again, he was very deep, but picked out Weimann perfectly and the Austrian’s simple nod-down put Wardrobe in behind the defence -he couldn’t miss, he didn’t miss, cool finish, 1-0. Twice in 23 minutes, Huddlestone had rendered the entire Kaiserslautern defence irrelevant with his mind-bending technique. And these were both passes from about the halfway line, mind you. Unbelievable.
Russell then saw his looping header from nearly the edge of the box tipped over the bar. It’s rare to see a headed goal from that range, but the ‘keeper needed to work and with confidence clearly flowing through the players’ veins, anything seemed possible.
That confidence almost became overconfidence when Butterfield tried to engineer a shot from range which was blocked out to set up another quick counter, which ended with Wisdom showing his strength to defend from almost within his own six yard area. The return of Wisdom, Forsyth and Martin, plus Huddlestone of course, makes the Rams a different animal when it comes to defending or attacking set plays, with much more height and power to call upon.
Carson hadn’t really been called upon in the first half, but was worried by a well-flighted free kick from Atik, which flew just wide. At the other end, Huddlestone took over a free kick from an awkward range, central, 40 yards out, and contrived an ‘assist’, by scooping the ball onto the chest of Martin, who helped it into the path of Russell under pressure, who had the goal gaping six yards out only to fall over instead of putting it into the net. It was an unbelievable miss, but not to worry – Martin soon won another free kick and while Kaiserslautern surrounded the ref to moan – they thought he might have dived, I think – Derby took it quickly, allowing Weimann the freedom to square it to Johnson, who swept a first time, left-footed strike authoritatively home from 15 yards. Lovely! 2-0 at half-time, in what had been an excellent 45 minutes from the Rams.
Early in the second half, Huddlestone played it to Butterfield, whose throughball picked out the arcing run of Weimann, who slotted coolly, only to be flagged offside. It looked OK in real time and Chris Martin wagged a finger in admonishment. Replays, to my eye, show that Andi was probably onside and at the very least highly unfortunate.
From there, Kaiserslautern then began to get on top. Forsyth was told off for a late, lunging tackle which seemed to betray a little tiredness, before Pearce produced an excellent recovery tackle to prevent a Red Devils counter attack from turning into a shooting opportunity. Wisdom was forced into action, blocking shots and winning challenges and it was clear that the home side had been the better side for most of the second period, albeit they had made several substitutions before Derby made any.
They missed a big chance when a low cross from the right gave Kastaneer a clear sight of goal from close range, only for the Dutch forward to miss his kick with the goal gaping. At this stage, it was clear that Derby needed to make changes and four players were withdrawn on 70 minutes, including Huddlestone, who had been far less influential after the interval. Not that it mattered – he still has fitness to build up and had shown more than enough quality for one afternoon.
Kaiserslautern continued to push for a goal back in front of their home fans, but there were no more clear scares and the Rams held on for a great clean sheet and excellent victory. Yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, but this was highly encouraging stuff.