Frank Lampard’s quest for cohesion

I’m not sure who Frank Lampard was referring to when he expressed his frustration at the ‘negativity’ he perceives as surrounding Derby County last week.  Whoever his comments were aimed at, though, Lampard certainly got a big reaction and from what I saw and heard, the overwhelming consensus was that supporters wanted to rally around him and distance themselves from whoever it was who was perceived to be sowing the ‘negativity’.  It certainly moved the conversation on from what had been a pretty awful performance at Nottingham Forest – maybe that was the point.

Three points shuts everyone up, as Radio Derby will tell you when they’re programming a Monday night talk-in after a Saturday victory, but Derby haven’t won many league games in the last couple of months – and that builds tension.  Which is why it’s worth remembering that Derby’s fixture list around Christmas, New Year and into January was freakishly difficult.  Consecutively, the Rams played an East Midlands Derby, Sheffield United away, Norwich away, Boro home, Southampton in the FA Cup at home, Leeds away and then Southampton in the FA Cup again (going to extra time).  They followed that up with back-to-back wins, against Reading at Pride Park and then at Accrington Stanley in the cup.

That was an incredibly taxing run of matches and Derby only lost two of them, at Sheffield United and Leeds.  The problem was that they only won two of the league games and so started to tread water, as Bristol City surged up the table on a seemingly endless run of victories. 

Having watched the team battle through the challenge of playing all of the promotion contenders bar West Brom in a row, I couldn’t help but look at the run of Preston, Hull, Ipswich and Millwall as an enormous opportunity to pile on the points.  Surely, we would be good for at least two, maybe even three wins out of those four ‘easier’ games? And that would have acted as a much-needed pressure release after the difficult run we’d endured.

But as we all know, it didn’t happen like that.  Five points were all that was collected from the four games and performances have since slumped further, with the Paul Clement-esque defeat at Forest followed by the embarrassment of the worst result of the season at Villa.  And there is hardly time to pause and think, because the next game is tomorrow night.

Lampard tried a new midfield partnership at Ipswich, a back three against Millwall and then sent everybody’s eyebrows through the roof with a selection at Villa Park which Chris of Ramspace summed up as ‘suicidal’.  None of these changes have worked and they have started to look a little desperate, with Lampard seemingly chasing a mirage. Form has eluded Derby and the more the manager twists instead of sticking, the worse performances seem to get.

While trying to make sense of the array of team changes and formation tweaks which Lampard has been unsuccessfully deploying in recent weeks, I came across an article published by Training Ground Guru, which made complete sense, when applied to Derby’s current problems. 

TGG interviewed an Australian analysis company, Gain Line Analytics, who have developed a method for measuring team cohesion.  There’s science behind it, but essentially, it comes down to the basic common sense that a settled squad who’ve had time to develop relationships with each other on the field will enjoy greater success than one which is constantly being tinkered with.  The longer players work together, the better they get to know each other’s game, the more cohesive a unit they become, the better they perform. 

Analyst Simon Strachan summed it up by telling TGG: “If you are a low cohesion team, it doesn’t matter what the quality of the new player is, they won’t look very good.  They will be developing relationships with guys who are developing relationships with each other.” I’m sure that Strachan would have looked at Lampard’s team selection and the result against Villa and nodded sagely, as his point was proved pretty much exactly.  

Lampard of course takes responsibility for choosing to make so many changes for that game, but the underlying point Strachan was making is not that managers should select the same XI week in, week out regardless, but that it can take several seasons – three years on average, according to Gain Line – for a player to reach his peak with a club. 

Of the team that started against Villa, only Carson, Keogh and Bennett had been with the club for that long. It’s Wisdom’s second season here (in his second spell), but he has barely featured this term. Three of Lampard’s less high-profile signings started – Holmes, Jozefzoon and Evans, of whom, only Holmes has had a run of appearances lately. Max Bird was handed his full league debut. Ashley Cole may be the most experienced player you’ll ever see, but only arrived at this club in January.

With Gain Line’s findings in mind, expecting a new manager – who has made twelve new signings while allowing twelve senior players to leave – to find a cohesive team in his first season is not necessarily realistic. Viewed in this context, Derby’s flurry of early-season success starts to look much more impressive – their recent struggles more understandable.  

Lampard did hit on a team which worked earlier in the season – the hub being Harry Wilson and Mason Mount partnered together in midfield, with Tom Huddlestone sitting and an ideal front three of Martyn Waghorn, Tom Lawrence and Jack Marriott.  When fixture congestion started to take its toll and injuries started to bite, that line-up was disrupted. Of the entire midfield and attack which gleefully savaged West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, only Marriott started at Villa Park (although Huddlestone and Waghorn were not injured, to my knowledge).

Without some of those key players, Lampard has been reaching for an alternative winning formula that he just can’t find in recent weeks.  The team, whatever personnel or shape Lampard adopted, has been terrible – incoherent, incapable of creating a chance, let alone scoring a goal.  There’s a run of four successive home games to try to start putting things right, but as of now, it seems highly unlikely that Derby will be promoted this season.

But the truth is, there is no fast forward button.  Success will not happen overnight.  As painful as it is and as tiresome as it is to be promised ‘jam tomorrow’ again, we simply have to tough out this difficult phase, continue the rebuilding job in the summer and seek to emerge from it as a better club, in the long-term.   

In the social media era, where everything has been accelerated and success is demanded instantly, the idea that a team would be allowed to build and grow over three seasons feels unrealistic. But given that Derby have changed manager every season since 2013/4 without enjoying much success, you’d like to think that perhaps it would be worth trying.  That’s assuming that Lampard hasn’t been so turned off by the ‘negativity’ that he loses heart and decides to move on.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and Brian Clough isn’t on this particular job…

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