“Is this a good time?”
Gary Rowett called it “bollocks”, Frank Lampard dismissed it with less industrial language, but it’s February and yet again the Rams’ form has deserted them. Fatalists and those who read runes or tarot cards probably never liked the look of Nottingham Forest away at the end of February. And Derby go into the game in the sort of form which we have become accustomed to, in what is starting to feel like the cruellest of months.
Dreadful performances against two of the weakest sides in the division have resulted in five points dropped, sapping many supporters’ morale. That’s no surprise. We saw a similar movie last season, when academic arguments about the remaining fixtures being more or less ‘winnable’ than those of our competitors collapsed in the face of Derby’s stunning ineptitude.
Derby did limp over the line into sixth last year, but they were plummeting from a much greater height back then. This season, the Rams’ form has generally been solidly top six, but at the lower end of that bracket – top two has never genuinely seemed like a proposition. And so sitting here now, if any Ram was offered a guaranteed sixth place, I think they would take it. And for the first time, Frank Lampard has to accept some criticism for his part in performances and results falling short of what is expected. A manager’s honeymoon always ends at some stage, no matter how high-profile they are. We’ve enjoyed the sprinkling of stardust Lampard brought, we’ve had a bit of bouncing, we’ve won at Old Trafford. Now it’s just about grinding out sufficient results and points to get to where we want to be come May.
And it’s important not to get too down after a couple of (admittedly unacceptably) poor performances. Things are nowhere near as alarming as they became last February under Rowett and Derby still have the fifth best home record in the division (and seventh best away record). The top four teams are effectively goners who will duke it out for the top two, unless a dramatic turnaround in results starts pretty much now. But Derby still haven’t lost back-to-back league games since August and will overtake the division’s flyers, Bristol City, to go back into sixth if they can beat Nottingham Forest tomorrow.
The ever optimistic Chris’ cheerful pre-Millwall prediction that the Rams would finish fourth this season looks less glass-half-full than goblet-overflowing at the moment, but it would only take one big performance at the City Ground to lift everyone’s spirits and get us looking up the table again, instead of down over our shoulders to Forest and the rest of the chasing pack.
Ipswich, the division’s bottom side, are doomed and let’s be honest, everybody had last Wednesday’s trip to Portman Road mentally ticked off as three points there for the taking, especially after after Tom Lawrence’s early goal. But Ipswich have drawn more games at home than they’ve lost this season (including against the current top two, Norwich and Sheffield United) and refused to do the decent thing and roll over.
A major problem on the night was that Derby’s midfield pair of Bradley Johnson and Andy King – both of extremely short of match practice – struggled to maintain control of the game, but the equaliser, when it came, was from a Derby mistake enabling a counter-attack. It was sloppiness that cost us the win. But Lampard had brought two rusty players into the side, changing from the line-up which had beaten Hull comfortably enough the Saturday before, with the aim of keeping certain players fresh for the Brighton tie.
Fundamentally, the cups are only ever an added bonus for Derby these days and while the dramatic League Cup win at Manchester United was so memorable and enjoyable – with FA Cup progress at the expense of Premier League Southampton also giving an encouraging glimpse of what the team is capable of – ultimately, the additional miles in the legs caught up with us and have had an undeniable effect on the Rams’ recent league form.
The best thing to happen to us in the cup this season was to win at Old Trafford. The worst thing to happen to us in the cup this season was the injury to Mason Mount, which occurred at Accrington Stanley in the fourth round. With Mount missing, Derby’s main source of creativity has gone and nobody else has really stepped up to replace him.
Key passes (aka shooting chances created)
1. Mount 54 (2.1 per 90 mins)
2. Wilson 41 (1.8 p90)
3. Bogle 27 (1.1)
4. Lawrence 27 (1.4)
5. Bennett 19 (2.3)
With players rotated out of the side and points lost at Portman Road, Derby departed meekly from the FA Cup at Brighton. It was a disappointing day. But I think too much was made of the fact that Chris Hughton had made eight changes. The team he put out was still much stronger than any Championship side and probably still better than the Southampton side the Rams eliminated. As Chris pointed out in the latest Derby County BlogCast, it was just about the worst draw Derby could have had. In my opinion (and I accept that this unromantic view will not be universally popular), it’s a bonus that we’re out of the cup now, because with Derby having only won three of the eleven league games since they last faced Forest, distractions of any kind are the last thing they need, if they are to force their way back into the top six reckoning.
Stattos hate Derby. Not in general, or on principle, but certainly this season. The more analytical commentators on Championship affairs have long predicted that the Rams would not go the distance this season, because of the relatively low quality of chances they are creating.
Too many of our shots are from long range, not enough from inside the box, where you’re actually likely to score – barely any attempts have been from inside the six-yard box (Derby are worst in the Championship for close-range attempts on goal, but top for shots from outside the area).
Shots from inside six-yard box (total)
20. Bolton Wanderers 25
21= Ipswich / Nottingham Forest 23
23. Reading 22
24. DERBY 20
Shots from inside penalty area (total)
1. Norwich City 290
2. Leeds United 284
3. West Bromwich Albion 252
4. Sheffield United 248
(20= Forest 194)
24. Ipswich 167
The answer “Yes, but Harry Wilson” doesn’t really cut it, unfortunately. How many blinding goals is Wilson going to score? Nobody would back against a few more crackers this season, but that won’t be enough on its own.
Lampard shuffled his pack for the Millwall game, changing to 3-5-2, with Jayden Bogle serving as a right-sided centre back, Ashley Cole and Duane Holmes working as wing backs and the returning Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn paired as a central strikers. Unfortunately, they never received any bullets to fire. Marriott almost scored from a long pass by Fikayo Tomori, but other than that, there was nobody to pick the lock of a strenuously organised Millwall back nine.
Allowed time and space until they reached the halfway line, Derby were feeble, slow and looked entirely devoid of confidence. I found it a seriously worrying performance, although Lampard was outwardly relaxed in his latest press conference with Rams TV and told the media that he was happy with the shape of the team. It’s not impossible to imagine him sticking with a back three for this game (in which, the Rams will presumably have to actually defend for more than five minutes of the 90).
But Forest will play in the same negative way as Millwall, if they have to and their fans won’t care if it gets them the result they want against Derby. Forest beat Brentford recently with just 30 per cent possession, at home. That is almost as bad as Derby’s fabled Rowett-era draw at Griffin Park, in terms of ball share. If you think that Martin O’Neill’s side won’t shithouse just as shamelessly as Millwall (or Rowett) did, think again.
O’Neill has left £13.2m Joao Carvalho on the bench, while starting the 21 year-old academy graduate Ryan Yates, who earned his stripes on loan at Scunthorpe. O’Neill also has hardy midfield veterans Jack Colback, Ben Watson and Claudio Yacob to call upon, none of whom are exactly proponents of jogo bonito. They have the worst disciplinary record in the division, with 79 yellow cards and five dismissals. Forest will make it horrible and nasty if they need to. And as Chris and I discussed in the latest BlogCast, Derby simply don’t have nasty players these days (unless you count the booking-magnet Bradley Johnson).
Possible Forest XI (courtesy of a mole within their blogosphere)
Janko, Benalouane, Milosevic, Robinson;
Watson, Colback, Yates;
Lolley, Grabban. Osborn
Possible Derby XI
Who knows? Will it be 3-5-2 again, or will Lampard revert to a midfield three? Will he try to shore up with two sitting midfielders, for example asking King or even Johnson to play a holding role alongside Huddlestone? Will Big Tom even start, after his strangely off-it showing against Millwall? Will Scott Carson return in goal, after Kelle Roos’ first major mistake? All we can say for sure is that Keogh, Tomori, Wilson, Waghorn and Marriott will start (plus presumably Bogle and Cole). Beyond that, I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at what Lampard is going to do.
When we look at the overall statistics between the two sides for the season, they are really quite evenly matched, which is reflected in their proximity in the league table (and status as play-off chasers). Their form in the last ten games is also very similar, with three wins each and similar numbers of goals scored and conceded:-
For both teams, perhaps, there has been an over-reliance on certain key players to step up with a moment of magic. For Derby, it’s been all about Wilson, Marriott and Mount (hence his absence being so sorely felt). Forest have been purring over Joe Lolley’s long-range strikes, but for bread-and-butter finishes, it’s been Lewis Grabban’s responsibility to get the job done.
On the face of it, there is so little to choose between the two teams that there is no outright favourite on paper, although Derby’s recent ‘wobble’ and Forest’s home advantage could play into Keane and O’Neill’s hands. Another good point Chris made in the BlogCast is that Lampard’s chopping and changing has meant a stream of new partnerships on the pitch of late, which hasn’t helped the team at all as they struggle for consistency.
Who knows? All hell could break loose and the game could become bizarre, as it has done on more than one occasion in the last few years – or it could be another grim stalemate.
To win this match, Derby are going to have to show much more creativity than they have done in recent weeks, but if they can do it, all the jitters over recent away performances / Millwall / the February curse will be dispelled and everyone will feel much more confident about the final push. For Forest, a win would potentially light the blue touch paper for Martin O’Neill and reignite their hopes of a play-off charge. Chris confidently wrote off the Red Dogs’ chances in the BlogCast and while I’d love to believe he’s right, the wrong result here would drag them to within a point of us and three points off Bristol City.
As the away side, the current holders of the symbolic Brian Clough Trophy and after the dent caused to morale by a few ropey performances, a draw would be a much better result for Derby than for Forest.
There’s a lot riding on it, not much to choose between the two sides and no love lost. If we put in the sort of second-rate, second gear performance we have seen too frequently of late, then we run the risk of a hiding. If we can play to something like our potential, however, then we might just see Frankie starting the bounce at the City Ground. And I have a strong suspicion that they would not like that at all….