“FC Mendes” v Derby County preview

In the build-up to this game, Gary Rowett has repeatedly spoken about “controlling games without the ball”, something which José Mourinho also talks about.  When Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford despite having been outshot 14-5 and commanded only 32 per cent possession, Mourinho said: “You can be in control without having the ball, you can be in trouble when you have the ball.”

It’s a counter-attacking philosophy – counter-intuitive, you could say – but it is the Mourinho mindset as summed up by Diego Torres, which I mentioned pre-Fulham (a game Derby deservedly lost, with 42 per cent of the ball):-

1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors

2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition

3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake

6. Whoever has the ball has fear

7. Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger

Graphic courtesy of KickOff.co.uk

Wolves’ players are operating at a higher level than the Championship and point six, if it is correct at all, is certainly irrelevant here, as the home side should have no fear whatsoever ahead of this one.   It’s clear that ‘trying to be superior’ to Wolves at Molineux would be to invite disaster, so we will just have to hope that Derby can defend well enough to dig out a result on the night.

There’s always hope of course and while there’s no logical reason to suggest that the Rams will win, they are probably in with as good a chance of sneaking something from this match as anyone in the division.  Derby have 19 clean sheets this season – more than anybody except Wolves – and have a better away record than anybody except Wolves or Fulham.  Only Wolves and Cardiff have conceded less goals on than the road than Derby, who I reckon have three players who would be in with a chance of getting a game at Wolves (Scott Carson, Curtis Davies, Matej Vydra).

Wolves have only lost once at home since August – but that was to Forest, which shows that even the best team can have an inexplicable off-day.  Bristol City, Sunderland (0-0!), Norwich and Hull have all held Wolves at Molineux, so they are far from perfect, for all their clear superiority to the rest of the division.

Wolves have a remarkably settled team.  Nuno Espirito Santo has fielded a 3-4-3 all year, with Conor Coady, Matt Doherty, Diogo Jota and Rúben Neves more-or-less ever-present and Willy Boly, Barry Douglas, Romain Saiss, Ivan Cavaleiro and Léo Bonatini all regular starters.  Benik Afobe and Hélder Costa are more-than handy options to play in the front three as well, so the sheer amount of goal threats they possess is enough to give any opposition manager a massive headache:-

Wolves goals plus assists, 2017/8

Cavaleiro – 21 (9 goals)
D. Jota – 19 (14 gls)
Douglas – 18 (4 gls)
Bonatini – 17 (12 gls)
Costa – 10 (5 gls)

Derby goals plus assists, 2017/8

Vydra – 22 (19 goals)
Lawrence – 11 (5 gls)
Weimann – 10 (5 gls)
Nugent – 9 (6 gls)
Johnson – 8 (4 gls)

With an average possession of 52.8 per cent, they are not massive ballhogs, but their pass completion rate – 81.1 per cent – is second highest in the Championship.  It seems that they are doing what Rowett talks about wanting Derby to do, which is not keeping the ball for the sake of it, but getting it forward quickly and accurately, creating opportunities to score and taking them with ruthlessness.

Short pass accuracy
Wolves 85.7% (14,891 / 17,356)
Derby 80% (10,821 / 13,510)

Long pass accuracy
Wolves 51.4% (1,431 / 2,782)
Derby 42.4% (1,166 / 2,749)

Wolves’ success, deserved as it is in footballing terms, has always been tainted by criticism of the methods they have adopted.  According to the Telegraph‘s John Percy, Derby are among several Championship clubs who have raised concerns about the involvement of Jorge Mendes at Molineux.

It is frankly bizarre that players of the calibre of Neves and Diogo Jota are strutting their stuff in an unglamorous adjunct to Birmingham and there is absolutely zero chance that they would be, were it not for the close partnership between Mendes and Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate which controls Wolves.  Fosun have a minority stake in Mendes’ Gestifute agency and the flourishing relationship between the two parties has clearly benefited Wolves to an immense degree on the pitch.

A bunch of Portuguese players joined last season, including Cavaleiro for £7m and Costa for £13m – but most of the rest weren’t particularly successful.  Fosun and Mendes simply doubled down by getting rid of Paul Lambert, replacing him with one of Mendes’ clients and upping the quality of the recruits.

Wolves’ position is that Mendes is acting in an advisory capacity, that he is not in control of their recruitment and they are not breaking any rules.  But it is a cosy situation indeed and one which has unarguably distorted this season’s Championship as a competition. Parachuting in players of such a high calibre in has given Wolves a gigantic advantage over the rest of us.  They lost more than £23m in 2016/7 and have reportedly gone on to spend £35m on players this season, but their promotion will render any Financial Fair Play problems irrelevant, as the Premier League aren’t interested in the EFL’s rules.

So whether it’s rubber-stamped tonight or not, congratulations to “FC Mendes” on going up.  I’m sure that they will continue to benefit from the Mendes / Fosun relationship as they stabilise in the Premier League, but in honesty, the way in which it has been achieved doesn’t sit right when it ends up with fans chanting the name of an agent, instead of their own manager or players.

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Derby County v Bolton Wanderers preview

If you read my post-Sunderland article, you’ll know that how shocked I was at the performance and entirely deserved 4-1 defeat.  It wasn’t a nice thing to write and I made the point after publishing it that I took no pleasure from giving the club both barrels for its failings.  But given the feedback the piece received, I think its fair to say that what I wrote struck a chord with many other Derby fans.

Gary Rowett bracketed Sunderland with the early-season away performances at Sheffield United and Bristol City and his tactical response at Preston was exactly the same.  Just as they did at Brentford and Cardiff, Derby sat in a rigid 4-4-1-1 shape and asked the Lilywhites whether they could break it down.  Alex Neil said that Derby “came not to lose” and it’s impossible to argue with that.  Certainly after a first half in which the Rams, despite a few promising breakaway positions, failed to muster a single shot, it was impossible to see how they could win.

But apart from a few nervy scrambles following set pieces, they looked largely comfortable in the second half and much credit for that goes to player of the season contender Curtis Davies and his new defensive partner, Alex Pearce.

The headline change was the omission of Richard Keogh and Rowett deserves credit for grabbing the bull by the horns and doing it.  And while his decision to persist with the struggling Tom Lawrence seemed like stubbornness to me at the time, hopefully scoring the winning goal will give the Welshman a new lease of life.  His manic cupped-ear “celebration” in front of the Derby faithful said a lot about the pressure he has been feeling and just how much the criticism can sting.

At Deepdale, Derby went negative and went direct – a wince-inducing 54% pass ‘success’ rate proves they weren’t remotely bothered whether they kept the ball or not.  And I’m struggling to think of a game in recent Rams history in which they only shot twice – a 1-0 defeat at Swansea in which Nigel Clough’s team mustered only one shot is the only occasion that comes to mind.

They rode their luck for a win which came as a huge relief and Rowett was right to say that nothing other than the result mattered, given his team’s awful form.  But they can’t play the same way against Bolton Wanderers, mostly because they’re at home and the atmosphere will be completely different, but also because the Trotters, with their desperately poor away record – the worst of any team in the Championship – will not come to Derby and try to play us off the park.

Graphic courtesy of KickOff.co.uk

The home form has dropped off considerably since Christmas, with only seven points collected from the 21 on offer since Derby beat Millwall 3-0 on 23 December, so the home fans are craving victory first and foremost – if that means another “ugly” win, then so be it.

But I think the Sunderland fiasco hurt so much because on top of missing out on the three much-needed three points, in honesty it felt like a huge chance to bang a few goals past floundering opposition and enjoy a bit of entertainment for a change.  Bored of lumpy Championship gruel, I was hoping for some red meat – I wanted the players to smell blood and rip into the vulnerable, limping animal in front of them.

Rowett talks about the “resilience” the team have showed by not losing many away games, but resilience is also shown through handling the pressure that comes with the demands of 25,000+ and not hiding – showing your talent on a big stage, whether you’re a tough defender, a technical midfielder, or a flying winger.  That hasn’t happened for this team for too long now and it’s time to put it right.

The desire for entertainment is of course behind the hope that Rowett will at some stage see fit to unleash Kasey Palmer, who is a cut above anyone around him in terms of sheer ability.  The starting XI will not be radically different from the one which won at Deepdale – more than likely, it will be exactly the same – but this time, they need to create a hell of a lot more than the two shots they managed on Easter Monday.  And that’s where Palmer could come in handy.  When you look at Derby’s season overall, it doesn’t take long to realise that turning just a handful of those 14 Ds into Ws is all it would have taken for us to be up their with Wolves.  To do that, we needed just a few more goals – defensively, we’ve been as good as the four clubs above us, but offensively, they have all pulled away and scored more than the Rams.

 

So, does Rowett pick the team that ground out the 1-0 at Preston and hope that they can show a hell of a lot more threat going forward, or does he make a change, in the hope of giving us more attacking impetus?  Probably not, based on his pre-match comments to BBC Radio Derby:-

“I’m not suggesting we’ve got to perform in a way that makes everyone feel good… we’ve got to go and win the game.   We’re at the stage of the season where, yes, we’re in an entertainment industry, but I’ll choose the three points before the entertainment… that’s bells and whistles.”

Which is fine, as long as you get the three points.  If the football is bad, but the results are good, the manager keeps his job.  If the football is good, but the results are bad, eventually, the manager loses his job.   Since February, the football has been mostly bad and the results have been mostly bad – a fatal combo, if it goes on for too long.  But the margins are usually so fine.  Mel Morris has quite rightly refrained from exercising his trigger finger and it’s still too soon for the season overall to be judged a success or a failure.

I said after Sunderland that any realistic prospect of this team being promoted to the Premier League was gone and I stand by that prediction – on paper, you can’t really look past the top four for the three who are going up.  But even if I’m right, it doesn’t change the fact that it should be a point of pride for the club to finish the season as strongly as possible – to fight off the teams below, finish in the top six and give the best possible account of themselves in the play-offs (almost certainly against Fulham or Villa).  If that takes us to a Wembley final, then what an amazing achievement that would be after yet another season which has not exactly been the smoothest of rides.

A play-off finish and a competitive post-season performance would be enough for all of us to look forward to next season with renewed optimism.  In time, we could even come to see the Sunderland game as a watershed moment, after which the club was able to face some hard realities, make some tough decisions and finally move on from an era overshadowed by Wembley 2014.  The home fans have endured some crap lately and deserve better – but without a doubt, all but the very youngest among us have seen a lot worse in the past.

Rowett grasped the nettle and made changes on Monday.  Whatever happens next, many more changes are coming in the summer.  Whoever plays between now and May needs to earn the right to remain a part of it come August.

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Derby County 1 Sunderland 4

This was a performance to end careers and although Gary Rowett isn’t responsible for all of the terrible decisions which have led us to this mess, he is responsible for enough of them to know that he has to take the blame. “The buck stops with me”, he told BBC Radio Derby. “I know my neck’s on the block.”

 

Having stubbornly continued his bizarre policy of benching Kasey Palmer, Rowett could only watch in horror as two players he has furnished with lengthy contract extensions – Craig Forsyth and Richard Keogh – let him down with errors so shocking that they would have made a Sunday league player blush.

A Sunderland side widely considered to be doomed and so obviously vulnerable to a bit of skill instead dealt with the pathetically ineffectual wide play of the willing but limited Andreas Weimann and the wretchedly poor Tom Lawrence, without batting an eyelid. Matej Vydra was swamped with midfield markers, while Cameron Jerome continued to flounder horribly up front.

 

It wasn’t a surprise to see George Thorne substituted, but replacing him with David Nugent instead of Joe Ledley was a decision which helped to turn an embarrassing situation into a humiliation. Suddenly, Derby had no midfield whatsoever and Rowett had turned it into a basketball game. It was a panic call, a decision which made no logical sense and was more about being seen to do something to attack. With half an hour to go against the worst team in the league, pulling two goals back and rescuing a point actually wasn’t inconceivable – but it was once the “formation”, if you can even dignify it with that description, changed to something like 4-0-1-3-2.

 

Sunderland could barely believe their luck. They will never get an easier three points than that at any level and frankly, they will probably still go down.

 

Rowett’s January signing Jerome simply has not settled, not helped by the fact that he has no ball control or passing ability whatsoever. In the first half, he was presented with a simple chance to play in Vydra for a sitter, but duffed a straightforward square pass which you’d expect a trainee to make. You could look the other way if, as a striker, he looked remotely likely to score, but he doesn’t. All he looks capable of doing is chasing down aimless hoofs. Play the ball to his feet and you may as well forget it. And we’re stuck with him for another season.

 

Jerome is the second player Derby have taken from Norwich for a ridiculous amount of money. I would give Bradley Johnson a free transfer in May, or cancel his contract, anything, just to get him out of Pride Park. It isn’t Johnson’s fault that Derby paid so much over the odds for him, but his complete lack of technical ability is embarrassing. Of course Johnson got booked in injury time – he always does that when a game has gone, ranting and kicking people like a petulant child. He is very, very lucky that his front-post miskick didn’t fly into the net for what would have been an even worse own goal than Forsyth’s. Derby were very, very lucky that the in any case jaw-dropping scale of this shambolic defeat wasn’t significantly worse. They were an absolute disgrace.

 

I defended Forsyth a few weeks ago and said that despite his limitations, he remained the best option until the end of the season. That’s no longer a valid position for anyone to take and after his execrable errors last night, he simply can’t be considered for selection at Preston. If Marcus Olsson isn’t fit, then Chris Baird, one of few players to emerge from this rancid turd of a display with relatively little blame, will have to fill in there. His lack of pace and ability to get forward was a predictable factor in allowing Sunderland to sit smugly in their compact shape – one which Rowett bizarrely seems not to consider relevant for home games such as this – but Baird is at least relatively competent in defence.

 

Then we come to Thorne, who has long been one of my favourite players. I was delighted when he got an extension, because I assumed it meant that Rowett had seen enough in training to show that he was going to get back to the kind of standards we saw back in 2013/4. That now feels like nothing but a naive dream. A player who used to dominate matches, who could play any kind of pass and and who scored at least two of my favourite ever Derby goals now looks touch-and-go about finding a white shirt five yards away. With sadness, I can’t defend him anymore, because I just can’t see how things are going to turn round for him anymore – not after that performance.

 

Speaking of the class of Wembley 2014, we also have to talk about Keogh. He has taken his share of the plaudits this season for Derby’s defensive improvements and I will never criticise a player who tries to play out from the back instead of hoofing it. But there is something telling about the fact that it was Curtis Davies and not Keogh who was sent out to front up after last night’s humiliation.After a result and performance as pitiful as that, you expect the captain to take responsibility – Keogh was apparently not considered a suitable candidate to do so and therefore cannot be considered a viable leader for the future. He has tried his hardest for Derby County for years now, but it hasn’t happened. Rowett discarded Will Hughes on those grounds – there is no logical reason why the club should not now thank Keogh for his efforts and let him go too. There comes a time.

 

After a result and performance as pitiful as that, you expect the captain to take responsibility – Keogh was apparently not considered a suitable candidate to do so and therefore cannot be considered a viable leader for the future. He has tried his hardest for Derby County for years now, but it hasn’t happened. Rowett discarded Will Hughes on those grounds – there is no logical reason why the club should not now thank Keogh for his efforts and let him go too. There comes a time.

So, where on earth does this benighted, gaffe-addicted, farcical clown-show club go next? Well, in the immediate future, Preston North End, unfortunately. For that game, Rowett has no option but to drop as many of the eleven who shat themselves in public last night. If at all possible, Keogh, Forsyth, Johnson, Thorne, Lawrence, Weimann and Jerome should all be dropped. Palmer should have started against Sunderland and now, Rowett will have to decide whether to take the alleged “gamble” of starting him in a very difficult away game.

 

But let’s zoom out and look at the bigger picture. This week, the club’s accounts for 2016/7 were released to media outlets, who reported a wagebill of £34m+, around 120% of turnover. Not the worst ratio in the Championship (hello, Forest) and in fact, unsustainable wagebills are all too common these days at this level, but still – it is clearly not financially sensible and it is also very clear that the club simply have not got value for the funds that have been invested.

 

Recruitment since 2013/4 has been almost uniformly atrocious and even the slight improvement managed by Rowett – bringing in Tom Huddlestone and Davies, for example – has to be weighed against the negatives of Lawrence, who has failed to live up to his billing and Jerome, who simply makes no sense whatsoever. There’s also the point that Rowett readily sacrificed Hughes for a poxy £4.5m – or “a Butterfield”, as it’s colloquially known – and seemed to think it would be a good idea to replace the England U21 international with Mike Kieftenbeld (the dependable Ledley was apparently never considered during the window, while Rowett instead fussed over surplus players from his old club Birmingham.)

If you really want cheering up, remember that the aforementioned Butterfield is still a Derby player and will be reporting back next season. It’s possible that he could be shifted out, but you have to ask who would take him – Paul Clement at Reading, perhaps? – and even then, it would be for an embarrassing loss. While we’re on the subject of Clement, perhaps he could also be persuaded to take Nick Blackman back to the Madejski – another misfit who will be back on the books come the summer and one who could quite conceivably have to be paid to leave.

We can now safely rule out any possibility of promotion – it simply isn’t happening. So what we need to do is work out what should happen instead next season.

 

Morris is now preaching financial discipline and seeking to distance himself from the profligacy of the past by highlighting Rush’s role in the decisions which were made. The High Court will have its say on that grisly sideshow, so lets say no more about it until a judgement is reached.

 

Rowett’s recruitment so far has been very much for the short-term – bringing in players he thought could be trusted to help him this season, to protect his position. That can’t be allowed to continue. The veterans have got to be largely managed out and we have to build a new team, one with more energy, pace and potential.

I’ve no idea if the youngsters on the books will be good enough to cut it at Derby – we won’t know until they are tried in the Championship. Young men will make mistakes, of course they will, but what we have seen all too painfully in recent weeks is that old farts are just as capable of messing up and when they do, you don’t even have the comfort of hoping that they will learn from it.

 

I think about what we have lost in recent seasons – Hughes and Jeff Hendrick spring straight to mind, Nigel Clough’s legacy, utterly squandered for no obvious benefit. Chris Martin, Derby’s number nine, rejected by Nigel Pearson and Rowett, but replaced by players never likely to emulate his feat of scoring 20 goals in a season (and who were older than him, to boot). He is still a Derby player, but why would he want to stay on after the chaos of the last few seasons?

Craig Bryson, now 31 and apparently seen as over the hill by Derby, now playing regularly for Premier League-bound Cardiff – having been replaced by players of the same age at PP. Also still a Derby player and who knows, he may be back in the squad for next season, unless Warnock wants to keep him. Tom Ince, who was too good for this level. Derby at least profited from his sale (even taking into account the vast “scouting fee” reportedly paid to his mother), but the bulk of that money was spent on the hapless Lawrence.

 

And I think we can safely wave goodbye to Vydra. His goal last night was a moment of high quality embarrassingly at odds with the incompetent fumblings of his useless teammates. There is no reason why a player of his calibre should be expected to hang around with losers like those who shamed Derby County last night and I would be flabbergasted if he is still at Pride Park come August. The only positive there is that the club should command a big fee for him – though whether we will get value in the transfer market when it is spent is another matter….

 

Enough.

There is a massive job to do at Derby and the final question is whether anyone at the club is up to it or not. For this season, Rowett tried to patch together a squad that could compete at the top of the table, but the plan has failed. So now he will have to manage through a major squad rebuild – while convincing supporters that it’s worth sticking with it. Can he identify players who will improve Derby for the long term and get enough results out of them to keep the club on an even keel as they develop?

With Wolves, Villa, Boro and worst of all, that smug troll Warnock on the horizon, the reality is that things could be about to get much, much worse for Gary before this season finally comes to a merciful end.

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East Midlands Derby recap, plus Cardiff City preview

Gary Rowett’s combative demeanour after Derby County’s latest draw showed his desire to promote an “us against the world” mentality at Pride Park, which could serve the Rams well, with nine games left to play.

Rowett has railed against refereeing decisions in recent weeks and Lee Tomlin’s successful gamesmanship gave him another incident to protest, after Tom Huddlestone was wrongly sent off for what Jeremy Simpson deemed to be a second bookable offence.

Huddlestone had patrolled the area in front of Derby’s back four effectively all afternoon, but was eventually caught the wrong side of Tomlin, who took the opportunity to go down.  Replays showed there was minimal contact between the two players, but the rotund Tomlin had got his man.  Simpson had refrained from issuing yellow cards until booking Tom Lawrence (for a dive, ironically enough) on about the half-hour and yet dismissed Huddlestone with an unseemly haste which did him no credit.

Until that point, it looked like Derby were favourites to win it, as a Rams side revitalised by the introduction of substitutes Cameron Jerome and particularly Kasey Palmer camped out on the home side’s 18-yard line for a lengthy second-half spell.

Palmer’s omission from the starting XI was a major talking point before the game, with Rowett springing a surprise in favouring the hard-working shuttlers Ikechi Anya and Andi Weimann in wide areas, plus Tom Lawrence to support lone frontman David Nugent.  The majority of fans I polled prior to the match were hoping to see both Palmer and Matej Vydra start (Vydra’s groin injury was undisclosed), so for neither of them to be named was something of a shock to the system.

Lawrence made a virtue of chasing back deep into Derby territory in the first half, but also popped up on the right repeatedly in his free-ranging support role.  Some have referred to the shape for the game as 4-1-4-1 (Rowett described it as 4-3-3) and it was clearly slightly tweaked from the usual Rowett shape out of possession.

However, a glance at the touch map shows that Johnson and Huddlestone patrolled the midfield area as they usually would, with Lawrence typically floating higher up the pitch, or roaming wide.

Forest’s main problem in my view was that the young striker Brereton was too isolated. Curtis Davies and Richard Keogh didn’t really have much of a problem dealing with him, though the attacking midfielders Cash, Lolley and Tomlin were stopped by unfair means a little too often – on another day, a free kick might have dropped to the wrong feet in the box.  Not that Forest were exactly squeaky clean themselves, with four players, including the rugged new defensive midfield duo of Colback and Watson, yellow carded.  Watson in particular looked no stranger to the dark arts of the professional foul.

You don’t need a full match report from me, so in summary – I was much more encouraged by this performance than anything I have seen in a long time.  As the away side, to prevent Carson from having to make a single save is an exceptional effort and if only Weimann’s feet could keep up with his legs, we could have won by two or three.

Palmer was outstanding when he came on and as much as Forest complained about Tomlin being fouled, they were soon reduced to doing the same to thwart the much more elegant playmaker.  Cameron Jerome also gave the Reds’ defence a problem with his pace, after replacing a waning Nugent, but for all his honest endeavour, he still doesn’t look any nearer to scoring a goal.

***

Anyway, now that Forest’s season is over, it’s time to refocus on the bigger picture, which is the play-off push.  The point inched us on to 62, still at least a dozen shy of where we will need to be this season to make the top six.  I think Rowett will want to get to 75 points as soon as possible – Neil Warnock said last weekend that Cardiff’s total of 73 meant they’d hit his provisional target, before they moved on by thumping Brentford 3-1 at Griffin Park.

Rowett clearly sensed that avoiding defeat at the City Ground, particularly in the context of finishing a man light, offered him a chance to rally the troops ahead of the final push.  Cardiff feels like a really big game and if the fans can get up for it, as they do in derby encounters, they can help a Rams team which will need to dig deep against opposition who will be very direct, physical and tough to break down.

The blue dots are teams promoted from the Championship since 2014 (the two which are significantly lower than the others are both Burnley). The black dot is #dcfc this season. The red dots are teams relegated to League 1 since 2014 and… the green dot way down south is Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City this season

To get promoted to the Premier League, it typically helps to have players who can pass it to someone the same coloured shirt.  Unless…  You are managed by either Sean Dyche or the daddy of them all, Neil Warnock.

Cardiff proudly boast the worst pass success of anyone in the Championship and are even worse on that measure than last season’s Rotherham.  But it doesn’t matter, because the Bluebirds are still second in the league for total shots per game (14.1) and shots on target per game (5).

If they have the ball, it goes towards the opposition goal as quickly as possible, either directly from the back, or via a cross from one of their dangerous wingers.  With eight goals and ten assists, Junior Hoilett has been one of the Championship’s best players this season, while the converted attacker Callum Paterson has been raiding forward from midfield to feast on the crosses in recent weeks – playing in what you might call a Craig Bryson role (they have Bryso too, of course, but the goals have dried up for him since his heyday under Steve McClaren).

Then there are the corners to worry about.  They’ve scored 18 goals from set plays this season, joint highest in the division with Wolves.  Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba have contributed four goals apiece – last season, Morrison had the most shots on target of any centre back and more for Cardiff than anyone except Kenneth Zohore.  The received wisdom is that a corner is so unlikely to end up in a goal that it’s effectively a failed attack – but nobody ever told Warnock that.

Defensively, they have been exceptional, conceding less goals than anyone else in the Championship.  The backline is led by Morrison, whom the journalist and Cardiff supporter Owain Thomas describes as a ‘cut above’ even the impressive likes of Bamba and Bruno Manga.  “He takes control of situations, is rarely out of position and wins countless headers and tackles and clearances – not to mention chipping in with the odd goal.  If Warnock could forge his own custom-built player, I suspect it would look a lot like the Cardiff captain.”

The Brentford blog Beesotted, who are very proud of the Bees’ attractive short passing style (and why not), agonised over the triumph of ‘anti-football’ at their place in midweek as they suffered  ‘death by a thousand hoofs’.  Thomas explains it in more sympathetic terms: “The strategy is designed to clear balls from Cardiff’s defensive third quickly and put pressure on opposing defenders with strong, quick wingers or forwards chasing down.  Most of these don’t work, admittedly, but the tactic does not allow defenders to switch off or make a mistake at any time in the game.

“Think you’re in good shape with the ball on the edge of Cardiff’s area?  Bang!  Seconds later, you’ve got a winger and forward bearing down on you with a ball bouncing around in no-man’s land.  Do you stick or twist? Get that wrong and another second later, it’s in your net.”

It wouldn’t work against Manchester City, but let’s face it, this is the second division.  Warnock has simplified things for his players and they have responded by overachieving relative to what anyone, even the club themselves, expected.  Interestingly, Rowett pointed out in his pre-match press conference that nerves are less of a factor for teams who don’t try to play out from the back.

But in a way – and I say this in the full knowledge that it could come back to bite me on the arse – I’m less worried about a strong, long-ball team like Cardiff than I am about a technical, possession team like Fulham, because I think we’re better equipped to cope with the Warnock approach.  Curtis Davies said after the 0-0 at Cardiff that he enjoyed marking a “big lump” like Zohore, while in full backs Craig Forsyth and Andre Wisdom, we have tall players who will put their head on crosses like additional centre backs if required (I’m going to go ahead and assume that the dainty Marcus Olsson won’t be selected for this one).  Bradley Johnson prefers a physical tussle to a passing contest and so we should – fingers crossed – be relatively well equipped to compete with them in open play and from set pieces.

The question, though, is whether the current injury situation will prevent us from putting out a strong enough attacking unit to find the quality (or luck) to create enough chances at the other end.  If Vydra is genuinely fit, then that would be a huge bonus – if not, will Rowett finally unleash the hugely promising Palmer from the start at Pride Park?

Whoever is available for selection and whichever system Rowett adopts, this will be a very, very tough assignment and I wouldn’t be surprised if the game ends in yet another draw, rather than the relief of a badly-needed home win.

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Posted in Derby County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on East Midlands Derby recap, plus Cardiff City preview

Nottingham Forest v Derby County preview

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 blue dots are the promoted teams (The two towards the bottom of the graph are both Burnley, in 2013/4 and 2015/6).  The black dot is 2017/8 Derby County.  The red dots are the teams relegated to League 1

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:

Image courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

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.

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Posted in Derby County, Derby v Forest, Match Previews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Nottingham Forest v Derby County preview