This is the last game that will mean anything for Forest this season, because the Brian Clough Trophy aside, they’re done. Before today’s games, they had somehow managed to position themselves 14 points short of the play-offs and 14 points clear of relegation – as the last word in Championship mediocrity, in other words. Our league position has been so much better than theirs since last we met that they’ve never been relevant, other than for the occasional chortle as they dipped a bit closer to the bottom three, or sacked Mark Warburton.
If we’re upset about the possibility of our season heading south, well, at least it headed north for a while in the first place. Forest’s current run of five games unbeaten – against Burton (0-0) Reading (1-1), QPR (2-5), Birmingham (2-1) and Norwich (0-0) – is their longest of the campaign without defeat.
For them, this is a free hit, with the added incentive of contributing to the old enemy’s downfall.
Derby have scored more goals than Forest, but not by creating more chances. The difference, in a nutshell, is Matej Vydra, the microcosm of course being the 2-0 at our place, which was won through moments of quality from Vydra (and Nugent), not through sustained dominance.
For possession and pass success, Forest have been better than us and before you roll your eyes and tell me that doesn’t matter, have a look at this analysis.
The only team to have been promoted to the Premier League with less than 50% average possession or 75% pass success in the past five years is Burnley (twice) – like Leicester City, they are the exception to the rule that better teams, over a season, tend to have more of the ball and use it better. So unless Rowett has a plan to eventually emulate Sean Dyche’s team, the current signs aren’t looking all that good.
As well as struggling to hit the net, Forest have also seriously struggled in defence, with a goals against tally as bad as anyone’s, except for Burton and Sunderland. But since
Aitor Karanka’s frantic squad overhaul on deadline day, with seven new signings and six players leaving, they are a different proposition. Essentially a new team, their form has picked up, with (the possibly injured) Lee Tomlin and Joe Lolley already contributing five goals and four assists, a new midfield pairing of Jack Colback and Ben Watson on board – Watson has been given the captaincy – and the giant goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, replacing young Jordan Smith. Likewise, a new Portuguese centre back, Tobias Figuereido, is now playing instead of Joe Worrall (even with two young players replaced, the Forest academy is well represented at first-team level, with celebrity Rams fan Ben Osborn, Ben Brereton and Matty Cash all likely to feature tomorrow).
Looking at the ten-game form stats, although Derby are slightly better on most measures, there isn’t actually too much to choose between the two teams at the minute:
Karanka is happy with how things are going and expects to field a similar side to the one that drew 0-0 at Norwich. Rowett, on the other hand, is struggling for a fit eleven, let alone one that is in form. A bunch of youngsters were withdrawn from U23 duty last night and other than Luke Thomas, none of them have been anywhere near the first team before. The East Midlands Derby would be some game in which to make your senior debut
Before Christmas, we had four strikers, now we have two, both struggling with back injuries and neither looking like scoring. Sammy Winnall, who had become a popular addition and was desperate to play and earn a contract at Derby, must be utterly distraught, as he would almost certainly be first choice by now, were it not for his awful luck with the injury.
Winnall and Johnny Russell had contributed ten goals between them this season. Kasey Palmer looks a real talent and could help to at least partially replace those lost goals, but Rowett has, up until now, had an issue with playing him in the same team as Vydra – dropping Lawrence and playing Palmer wide is apparently not an option, even though Rowett has said the Chelsea man can play anywhere across attacking midfield. Perhaps after Tuesday’s unconvincing performance at QPR, which was redeemed only by Palmer’s outrageous creation of a goal out of nothing, the manager’s hand will be forced.
I’m starting to suspect that Vydra will be a Premier League player next season, with or without Derby. It was his excellence that propelled the Rams up the league, but a lack of any reliable goalscoring back-up is now beginning to bite. He has endured a mini-drought by his own high standards in recent games, but nevertheless, has scored or assisted more than a third of our goals in all competitions. Where there’s Vydra, there’s hope.
Also, where there’s Palmer, there’s hope. It goes without saying that Vydra would be wasted out wide. Palmer, on the other hand, is an assist man, who wants the ball at his feet so that he can make something magical happen. I’d argue that he could be deployed wide, albeit with a bit of licence to drift around when we’re in possession.
I get the defensive risk associated with having a roaming wide man, who could leave that side a bit exposed when we don’t have the ball, or if an attack breaks down. But fundamentally, the forward players are there to create and score goals. Lawrence has scored three all season, Palmer has two since last month. On those grounds, I don’t see why Lawrence should be considered an automatic pick if Palmer isn’t.
This isn’t a dig at Lawrence. I’m simply pointing out that at the minute, our main goal threats are Palmer and Vydra and so it seems that the best way forward would be to find a way of combining their talents in the same starting XI. Rowett may not agree, or think that it’s possible.
Elsewhere, midfield injuries mean that Bradley Johnson will return to the team. Johnson is an attacking threat with his fierce shooting and aerial power, but I think by now, most people can see that in every game, he makes at least one terrifyingly awful mistake – either through a thoughtless pass, or by dawdling in a dangerous area, or a lapse of positioning at a set piece. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope that on this occasion, it doesn’t cost us a goal.
I’ve never heard Rowett sound as deflated as he did at Loftus Road on Tuesday. He came over as drained and demoralised. With Joe Ledley the latest man to break down, he acknowledged that his “ageing” squad was beginning to feel the pace. He admitted that they had lacked quality or composure on the ball at QPR, whereas in previous weeks, he has spoken blithely about how time on the ball doesn’t matter.
“I know football fans want to see a thousand passes… but the reality is, everybody uses their own style to their own effect… we try to be more incisive quickly, rather than make passes in the build-up”, he said, before Fulham, an excellent passing side, beat us 2-1 at Pride Park.
After QPR, which you have to work hard to remind yourself ended in a draw, Rowett’s demeanour was in stark contrast to his usual chipper, even cocksure self. Without doubt, this was a manager feeling the heat. He was back on form by the time of his pre-Forest briefing, but for a moment, the confident exterior was punctured by the pressure.
The bottom line – Rowett’s job is to pick a team that wins and that is all the fans are asking for, especially on Sunday. At the moment though, the old rule that you don’t fix what isn’t broken doesn’t apply.
Three points shuts everyone up and three points against Forest goes a lot, lot further than that. Over to you, Gary.