I was in Barcelona this week and we took a trip to the Camp Nou to watch the blaugrana, in what everybody assumed would be a standard thrashing of Deportivo Alavés.
What an arena. Imposing and quite beautiful, with our views from the top of the south-facing stand stretching all the way down to the castle at Montjuïc. Spots of rain and flashes of distant lightning, on an unseasonably warm night even for Barcelona, only added to what was a truly magnificent spectacle.
Barcelona rested Messi and Suárez, with only Neymar from the fabled front three starting the match. Iniesta was also on the bench. Still, here it was, the archetypal 4-3-3 possession system, in all of its elegant majesty. Barcelona probed endlessly, their goalkeeper regularly roamed almost to halfway, the centre backs pushed far on into Alavés territory, the ball forever rotating from man to man. Over and again, the spidery patterns were weaved.
Alavés sat deep, soaking up the pressure with admirable discipline and then, just as it seemed that all of the ominous Barcelona build-up play would inevitably lead to a break-through, the away team scored on the counter – neat wingplay buying room for a devillish low cross, which was bundled home.
Barcelona equalised seconds after the break, but then Javier Mascherano dropped a colossal bollock, duffing a routine clearance straight into the path of an Alavés forward, who romped through, barely able to believe his luck, to net what would be the winning goal. The introduction of Messi, Iniesta and Suárez from the bench came too late, despite the former two in particular demonstrating all of their mesmerising gifts.
No matter how good your attackers are, it is very, very hard for them if well-organised opponents defend properly. Even the greatest players in the world can be repelled by opponents who concentrate, track runs, throw bodies in the way of every shot and enjoy a little bit of luck along the way.
I’ve heard people suggest that Derby’s own 4-3-3 system had ‘failed’ and had to be junked. I don’t agree and think that our overall record for the past three years refutes any such suggestion. Controlling the game, hogging the ball and forcing the opposition to defend for long spells is a great way to play, if you’re technically able. And we have surely the best technical midfielder in the division, in Hughes.
I’ve kept schtum since the start of the season, mainly because it was not at all apparent to me what Nigel Pearson was driving at. Hughes and Martin were initially dropped, then there was the shocking performance at Barnsley and no wins or goals until both returned to the starting line-up, in what was described as a ‘4-1-4-1’ shape at Preston (definitely not a 4-3-3).
Then there was the alarmingly limp first half against Aston Villa, the wretched defeat at Burton and the last-minute transfer frenzy, with Vydra and Anya recruited as Pearson let Martin and Hendrick go. The loss of Martin was disconcerting – Without him to hold the ball up, or a recognised holding midfielder to prompt and probe from deep, how would we exercise any control over games? Wouldn’t we be weaker as a result? But now, having caught up with the games I missed while away, it is starting to make more sense to me.
With two attacking full backs, Anya charging down one flank, presumably Weimann once fit charging down the other, plus two swift forwards, Pearson is aiming to put together a whirling dervish of an offensive unit to blow opponents away. In contrast to McClaren-era Derby, who often calmly passed lesser teams to death, Pearson wants his Rams to overwhelm them with a high-tempo bombardment, forcing them onto the back foot and prevailing through relentless energy and movement. This is why the technically adept but ponderous Martin was discarded so casually. That was a huge decision, taken ruthlessly – nearly as big was the decision to drop Jason Shackell for Ipswich and then there was the pointed refusal to use Tom Ince from the bench, when Pearson had a spare change to make and desperately needed a goal.
But while certain players are not currently part of the plan, Pearson has praised others, most notably Craig Bryson, very highly – and this week, finally offered a word of encouragement for Hughes, who put in superb performances against both Newcastle and Ipswich. Hughes and Bryson remain as good as anyone at this level and I trust them to forge a strong midfield partnership, around which Pearson can build the rest of his team.
OK, we lost to Newcastle, but I firmly believe that they are going to win the title with 100 points. Look at what they did to QPR on Tuesday. 6-0, with 29 shots to seven. Derby restricted them to barely a chance in the 90 minutes – you can’t call Gouffran’s goal from a corner a proper chance, it was just an exquisite strike of the ball. Only later in the game did Derby start to look vulnerable to Newcastle’s counter, as they chased an equaliser they never quite did enough to deserve. I could launch into a rant about the farcically unfair ‘parachute payment’ system at this point, but that’s for another blogpost.
The Ipswich defeat was an entirely different matter. With even a modicum of luck, Derby would have won that game comfortably. It wasn’t perfect, by any means – and there was one spell in the first half where the football descended to park standard, the ball pinballing around randomly from head to boot to head – but as bravely as Ipswich defended, they know that they would have lost that match nine times out of ten.
Freak things happen in football. Teams go through bad spells, where nothing seems to go right. Barcelona can even lose to Alavés, on the one Saturday when I happen to be in town. But as long as the fundamentals are in place, good teams will prevail in the end.
This insane lack of goals will not continue. The defence has been among the division’s soundest so far and as long as that continues, we will be fine. A win will come soon – hopefully today – and things will gradually start to come together for Pearson. While the performances against Barnsley and Burton were absolutely awful – indefensibly so – the Ipswich performance was undeniably much better and offered the first indication of what Pearson is trying to achieve.
There is still a long way to go – and the disappointments of the first few games cannot simply be swept under the carpet – but change takes time. I now have real hope that something good is gradually emerging and that better things are just around the corner.