Frank Lampard starts the bounce at Derby County

Six games in and the international break has provided a respite from the frantic Championship season, giving us all the chance to reflect on how Derby County and their rookie manager Frank Lampard have started their 2018/9 campaign.

The headline is very much a positive one.  Twelve points from a possible eighteen equates neatly to two per game – automatic promotion form and then some over a full season.  Derby have done extremely well to win four out of six league games, including striking very late to win at Reading and Hull, courtesy of Mason Bennett assists on both occasions.  Those two dramatic clinchers made the difference between the Rams sitting fourth in the embryonic league table and 14th (in which case, they would still have been a place and point ahead of Nottingham Forest).

It’s worth pointing out that, the four clubs Derby have beaten have all started badly and, at the time of writing, all sit in the bottom six.  This factor, combined with the manner in which Leeds comfortably beat us at Pride Park and the dithery defending which led to a disappointing loss at Millwall, do pose questions about whether our current lofty league position is something that Lampard will be able to sustain in the face of difficult tests ahead, or whether the flurry of early wins have masked a few underlying problems.

However, the more positive way of looking at it is that so far, they have scored maximum points against the dross and if you continue to do that, then you can get away with the odd slip-up, or setback against stronger teams – which happens to everyone – and still climb the table.

Another positive sign is the amount of goals and assists contributed by substitutes.  Bennett’s dramatic impact prompted an ecstatic Lampard to declare his outright love for the local boy.  Elsewhere, there was an ultimately fruitless goal set up by sub Craig Forsyth for fellow sub David Nugent at Millwall, while ‘Deadly’ Joe Ledley clambered off the bench to score the opener against Ipswich (with the help of a deflection).  Two goals and three assists from substitutes in six games is good going and points to a factor which could well help Derby to sustain a strong season – squad depth.

The sheer amount of players Lampard has to choose from has caused some observers, including the academic Kieran Maguire, to predict that Derby may eventually come a cropper under the EFL rules which cap the amount clubs are allowed to lose without being sanctioned.  So far, the Rams have avoided any punishment, but it’s surely impossible for that to continue unless several well-paid players currently on the books leave.

Of the players who are contributing, the most immediately successful Lampard signings have been the two England U21 internationals he borrowed from Chelsea – Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori.  Mount has quickly become Derby’s key creative threat and arguably also the chief goal threat so far – like Craig Bryson in his pomp, he is a midfielder who lives to break into the opposition penalty area and such is his desire to raid forward that he even accidentally blocked a Bryson shot from within the six-yard box against Preston.

Mount has had more shots from inside the box than any other Derby player, but one challenge still facing the team is to get him on the ball more often and affecting games more.  Such is the way with any team’s star player, but surprisingly, Mount is currently averaging only 26.3 passes per game, at 69.6% success.  For context, Villa’s Jack Grealish is averaging 45 passes pg, at 87.8%.  Part of Mount’s education at Derby will be working out how to deal with being closely marked and kicked and yet still continue to find ways to change games.

So far, so good, though:-

KEY PASSES (Chances created) – Top Championship players

Barry Bannan, Ben Marshall, Jack Grealish, Lee Evans – 15
Pablo Hernández – 14
Chris Brunt, MASON MOUNT – 13

At the other end of the pitch, Tomori has slotted into the team well after Curtis Davies’ hamstring injury.  He endured a very difficult debut against Leeds, but even in the face of that battering, Tomori earned positive reviews from many supporters for his whole-hearted defending.  His pace is an asset and, as my good buddy Chris Smith pointed out on the latest Derby County BlogCast, he has sprayed some eye-catching passes (although overall, Richard Keogh is a significantly more accurate passer than the teenager).  

Lampard’s squad size leaves him with tough selection decisions to make all over the pitch – and even for the bench, with Jack Marriott omitted altogether at Hull – but a particularly interesting question is, what happens when Davies returns?

Although the majority of those I polled would drop Keogh, another and probably more likely option would be to move Tomori to right back.  Andre Wisdom has looked clunky at times and has not been convincing on the ball, which is not helpful when the manager wants his defenders to provide the first line of attacking impetus.  18 year-old Jayden Bogle has already been preferred to Wisdom, so it wouldn’t be a major shock if Tomori moves across once the main man is back.

Under Lampard, Derby have returned to being one of the division’s more dominant ball-playing sides – passing it much more, keeping it much more – to the extent that Keogh has completed more passes than anyone else in the Championship, except for Sheffield Wednesday’s playmaker Barry Bannan.  Lampard wants his side to pass out from the back where possible, rather than launching more direct balls into the corners of the pitch and this style will always make some fans unhappy – impatient protests against ‘tippy-tappy’ football and shouts of ‘get rid’ will always abound from some corners, it seems.  

It’s all about what you fear.  Gary Rowett feared having the ball in case his players lost it and was happier letting the opposition take the ‘risk’ of  possession – this is also part of José Mourinho’s philosophy.  Lampard, on the other hand, wants his players to be braver than that, as he made clear after the Mansfield Town friendly, when Kelle Roos’ bad pass gifted a goal to the Stags.  After the game, Jody Morris said: “The first thing the manager said to Kelle was ‘don’t be worried about that… Don’t care whatsoever, we want to try to play the right way.'”

Short passes per game 

Leeds 411 (56.3% possession)
Brentford 405 (54.6%)
DERBY 384 (54.6%)
Preston 379 (54.4%)
Norwich 365 (52.9%)
Derby 2017/8 333 (48.1%)
Lowest – Rotherham 182 (40.5%)

It’s tempting to label advocates for more direct, old-fashioned English football as dinosaurs in an era when ‘playing through the thirds’ is largely accepted as the ideal form, but the first half at Reading was, let’s be honest, a bit of a disaster, as a rattled Davies and Keogh repeatedly passed the ball straight to opposition players in terrifying areas.  

Goalkeeper Scott Carson then mis-weighted a pass for Craig Bryson at Millwall, which ultimately led to a (freakishly fortunate) deflected goal for the home side.  After that game, the Racing Post’s Mark Langdon gave Derby a real roasting for their tentative approach, as they passed the ball around the back without creating enough opportunities to ever threaten victory.  

In his article, Langdon quoted the icon of passing football, Pep Guardiola, on the problems caused when defenders play too safely and don’t get anywhere, moving the ball across the pitch in a futile ‘U shape’:-

“Gentlemen, this is tiki-taka and it is s***. We’re not interested in this type of possession.  It’s totally meaningless.  It’s about passing for the sake of it. We need our central midfielder and our defenders to move out with an offensive mentality and break the opposition lines in order to push the whole team high up.  The U needs to go.”  
(Quote from Pep Confidential, by Marti Perarnau)

In other words, you can’t just keep knocking the ball from centre back to full back to centre back to goalkeeper and expect to get anywhere.  OK, sometimes, playing in this U-shape is simply about resting, keeping the ball to catch a breather, or to take the sting out of a difficult situation in the game.  There’s definitely a place for that.  But it is not productive football.

The important thing is for defenders to bring the ball forward – as Keogh so often tries to do – and also (this latter part includes the goalkeeper) to play passes which have an element of risk, not just short and sideways.  This could be a switch of play to the opposite flank, but the key thing is to  bypass the pressure of the opposition forwards, rather than allowing them to simply shuffle from side to side, blocking your progress without much effort.  The midfielders need to be showing for those passes, creating passing angles through constant movement, as without sufficient off-the-ball movement, the player with the ball at his feet can get bogged down – particularly if he is not the quickest of thinkers.  These are Championship defenders, after all.

It might be easier to just go Graham Taylor and ‘knock it’ for the likes of Nugent, Jack Marriott or Martyn Waghorn – all of whom are very willing runners – to chase it.  And there’s an argument that, over time, Lampard will need to recruit players more suited to his preferred style than Davies, Wisdom, Craig Forsyth – even Carson, if it is to be taken to the extreme.

However, it’s worth pointing out that Bradley Johnson – whose poor pass success of 67.4% underlines how unsuited he is to playing in a possession-based team – continues to feature in Lampard’s squad, while Butterfield and Thorne, both much better technical footballers than Johnson, have been marginalised.  While I doubt Johnson will be at the club beyond this season, I’d suggest that his presence in the squad affirms Lampard’s ability to be pragmatic and play the limited hand he’s been dealt, rather than being an inflexible purist in unrealistic pursuit of perfection.

Whatever system or style Derby play, ultimately, they have to create chances.  The main worry so far is that they’ve not been great in terms of taking shots from within the box – averaging only 5.8 per game, which is among the lowest in the division (only QPR, Reading and Swansea have managed less).

Despite this lack of high-quality chances, they are scoring a decent amount of goals – ten is the eighth highest and they have hit the target at least once in every game, which, when measured against the relatively bad shot count, suggests a bit of luck along the way (for example, Mount’s long-range strike which squirmed under Vito Mannone at Reading, Keogh’s header which Preston’s goalkeeper somehow missed); but also points to a real element of quality and ability to take advantage of the rare opportunities which come along (e.g. Lawrence’s fantastic header at Reading, Nugent’s cracking strike at Millwall).

The expected goals models I’ve seen produced by analysts thus far tend to show that Derby look defensively pretty sound, but haven’t been enough of a consistent goal threat to look like convincing promotion contenders at this stage.

This kind of goes against the ‘eye test’ which had convinced me that Lampard’s Derby had a problem with a soft midfield underbelly, with being ‘get-attable’.  That was definitely a problem against Leeds and at Hull, both of whom comfortably out-shot the Rams, but in the other games, they have been generally pretty secure – particularly in the back-to-back home games against Ipswich and Preston, when they were largely unruffled.

Some clubs have produced a hatful more chances than Derby – notably Wigan, Brentford, Sheffield United and Norwich – but without scoring many more goals.  Over time, you would expect them to score more, based on their stats – but only if they have the strikers who are capable of doing the job.  Derby certainly aren’t short of good finishers – including Lawrence, who underlined his credentials with a lethal finish for Wales during the international break.  If they can get those players into dangerous areas more often, then in the end, they will all score plenty.

As Chris Smith has said on the BlogCast, you can see somebody getting a real hiding at some stage –  but we haven’t quite created enough yet for this to happen.

All in all, Lampard has achieved plenty in his first months as a manager – engaging with the fanbase, beginning the difficult process of revamping the squad and, most importantly of all, nicking a few results, to his obvious delight.  There will be difficult times ahead – for god’s sake, nobody mention February – but with every victory, Lampard seems to grow in confidence and his readiness to praise the players and supporters alike is fostering a real feeling of optimism around the club.  His heart is on his sleeve and his emotional openness and easy charm have rapidly endeared him to pretty much everyone, even, dare I say it, some of the skeptics who felt that handing him such a high profile role for his first managerial appointment was an unholy gamble.  

And of course, they were right – it was a risky move.  But the alternative was almost certainly Mick McCarthy and he would not, to put it mildly have provided the breath of fresh of air which Lampard has turned out to be.

Lampard has the gravitas to inspire players, particularly young ones – “When he talks, you listen”, said Max Lowe recently – but also the youthful exuberance of a man who has started a new chapter in life and is genuinely enjoying himself in the process.  

He has started the bounce – and right now, the fans are bouncing with him.

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