It’s not a great place to be when you still feel like you’re waiting for your season to get going in November. But not much has gone right for Phillip Cocu since he touched down in Florida to take over the reins from Frank Lampard in July. From the extreme weather which disrupted Derby’s pre-season friendly against Bristol City onwards, it feels like the fates have been conspiring to make life as difficult as possible for the Rams’ first-ever foreign manager.
Nevertheless, even with extenuating circumstances and shameful off-the-field issues for which the manager cannot be blamed factored in, results and, in the main, performances have been undeniably underwhelming.
The positive take on the results to date is that Derby have clocked up four consecutive home wins and three consecutive home clean sheets. It could also be argued that draws against West Brom, Swansea and Leeds, all of whom are in the current top four, count as respectable results.
On the negative side, there has been no away win since the opening day, with four of the last five away games having been lost to nil. Two of those losses – Brentford and Charlton – were among the worst Derby County performances we’ve endured in a long time.
And in truth, the home wins have been pretty sketchy, on the whole. Luton were beaten thanks to two outrageous fluke goals, while the Wigan performance was pretty ordinary, before Graeme Shinnie wrenched us out of jail at the death. Even the 3-2 win against Birmingham, in the first game after the drink-driving scandal, was a game in which Derby mustered a mere seven shots on goal. Factor in a meek cup exit at Forest – for which Cocu disregarded local rivalry and made eleven changes, in stark contrast to Frank Lampard’s prioritisation of the cup of last season – and there has been very little to savour all season.
As it stands at the time of writing, Derby haven’t recorded a win against anybody in the top half of the table. They have, however, picked up 18 points from five wins and three draws in games against teams in the current bottom half.
This quirky breakdown of results points to a side which has enough about it not to worry about going down, but which is certainly not good enough to harbour any realistic ambitions of going up.
Derby have had problems at the back, where there is now no Richard Keogh, with goals and chances have been leaked too readily. The latest expected goals table produced by the Press Association’s Head of Data Analysis, Ben Mayhew, shows Derby as having the fifth worst defensive xG record in the division:-
Meanwhile, the attacking players have struggled to create enough chances. Derby are ranked 20th in the Championship for shots per game and 20th for shots inside the penalty area, 17th for key passes per game and bottom of the whole division for the amount of game-time spent in the opposition’s third of the pitch (25%). The problem is clear – a worrying lack of penetration and creativity.
This bluntness has been apparent despite Derby having plenty of the ball in almost every game, being ranked fourth in the division for pass success, sixth for total passes per game and sixth for average possession. The Charlton game – 61 per cent of the possession for a dismal tally of four shots – was the nadir so far, as Derby were completely dominated by Lee Bowyer’s Addicks, despite constantly having the ball. Only Leeds have had significantly more possession than Derby across 90 minutes this season, but the majority of the Rams’ opponents have nevertheless managed more total shots on goal and, crucially, more shots in the 18-yard box.
So the issue Cocu must urgently address is how to get the team creating significantly more and significantly better quality chances. Kieran Dowell was signed to replace some of the guile Derby lost when Mason Mount and Harry Wilson left, but the Everton loanee has hardly featured since the loss at Brentford. Statistically, however, he remains the player in the squad most likely to set up a shot – the delightful lobbed pass he played to set up Tom Lawrence at Hull was a particularly eye-catching example of this creativity and something I’m not sure any other member of the squad could have conjured.
Key passes per 90 minutes
Dowell 1.9 (568)
Shinnie 1.5 (523)
Martin 1.5 (614)
Lawrence 1.3 (1,242)
Bogle 1.2 (792)
Marriott 1.1 (595)
Paterson 1.1 (493)
Waghorn 0.9 (1,077)
Holmes 0.9 (774)
Lowe 0.7 (952)
Malone 0.7 (886)
Jozefzoon 0.6 (574)
Huddlestone 0.4 (856)
Bielik 0.2 (1,118)
For division-wide context, the top players in the division for key passes per 90 are Izzy Brown (4.0), Niclas Eliasson (3.9), John Swift (3.8), Fran Villalba (2.9), Pablo Hernandez, Stewart Downing, Matheus Pereira and Said Benrahma (2.8 each). It’s painfully clear that Derby currently have nothing special on the books, compared to those creative midfielders.
A positive to take though is that three of the players in the top five of Derby’s key pass list – Shinnie, Martin and Bogle – are recent additions to the team, having been out of favour or injured earlier in the season. Martin’s clever play in and around the opposition box needs no introduction, while Bogle is a genuine attacking threat from right back. Shinnie, who is more readily associated with hard graft and the defensive side of the game, has also added some creativity as part of his all-action role. Cocu may have favoured Tom Huddlestone until injury struck, but Shinnie grabbed his chance when it finally came and must now be considered one of the first names on the team sheet – if not the first.
Shots inside penalty area per 90 mins
Dowell / Jozefzoon 0.6
Shots on target per 90 mins
Marriott / Lawrence / Shinnie 0.9
Huddlestone / Paterson 0.4
The players most likely to score are Waghorn, Marriott, Martin and Lawrence, while the three most likely to create an opportunity are Dowell, Martin and Shinnie. It would be very difficult to put together a team which fitted all six of them in – but we need as many of them starting as possible. These are the players we rely on in an attacking sense, with Bristol City loanee Jamie Paterson and Frank Lampard’s worst signing, Jozefzoon, having underwhelming seasons and perennial ‘supersub’ Mason Bennett out of favour, particularly since the crash.
Running through the data, one name consistently fails to turn up where I was hoping it would do and that is Duane Holmes. He is ranked fourth equal for dribbles completed per 90 minutes, behind Paterson, Bogle and Lawrence, but other than that, he is yet to have a shot on target this season and averages less than one key pass per 90. For all of his eye-catching flashes of speed and technique, there has been almost no end product – the moment when he killed a long pass stone dead and then shot wide from 20 yards instead of releasing a clean-through Marriott against Middlesbrough feels like a summary of his season to date. If Cocu is basing his selection on statistical analysis, which to some extent, all coaches do in the data era, then Holmes might be feeling a little anxious at the moment, because he is not producing the goods.
Into all of this, in a few weeks’ time, steps Wayne Rooney.
Rooney was undoubtedly the best player in DC United’s MLS team this year, leading them for goals, assists, shots per game and key passes. His rate of 2.9 key passes per 90 minutes for DCU is particularly encouraging for a Derby side in dire need of creativity.
The question remains of course over how the 34 year-old’s MLS form will translate into Championship form. Johnny Russell, for example, produced similar numbers of goals and assists to Rooney for Sporting Kansas City last season. However, Rooney’s dead ball quality alone will certainly make him a significant asset for a team which currently can’t score from set pieces and whose most regular penalty taker has missed two out of four.
If Cocu carries on with a two-striker system, either with a diamond or traditional flat 4-4-2, then my guess is that Rooney will probably play as one of the front two, alongside either Waghorn or Marriott, with Lawrence continuing as a number ten in the diamond. Rooney would fill a similar niche to Martin, dropping deeper to pick up the ball and make things happen, rather than popping up in the box to take advantage of throughballs and crosses, as Marriott and Waghorn look to do.
While the mediocre results and performances haven’t given us much to shout about, it does feel like a core of players that Cocu can rely on is gradually emerging, while certain other players fall by the wayside. The Dutchman can count upon experienced pros like Shinnie, Davies, Martin and Waghorn, while Bogle, despite his inexplicable howler at Forest, is established as a quality attacking right back at this level. Cocu has Malone and Lowe to choose from at left back and retains a firm belief in Lawrence, which has translated of late into more focused performances (hopefully, the penny has dropped). Kelle Roos may not have been forgiven for Wembley by some fans, but he retains Cocu’s confidence for now. Marriott will score goals. Krystian Bielik’s qualities as a midfielder are becoming clear – strength to hold onto the ball, ability to surge past an opponent and open up space, solid passing, aerial ability – his all-round game will make Derby better in the engine room (unless of course, it turns out that Matt Clarke has sustained a bad knee injury, which would be a major blow and force the club into the transfer market in January).
Those players represent the basis of Cocu’s best team this season and they have enough ability to do well at this level. If Rooney can emerge as the leader we badly need on the field, then we can look to the future with cautious optimism, despite the mediocrity which has reigned so far in the Dutchman’s era.
Another plus is the gradual progress of several academy products towards the first team. Lee Buchanan and Jason Knight may have receded from the first-team reckoning in recent weeks, with Cocu wisely opting for more experience to help the team through a rough patch, but they have at least made their league debuts, as has the promising Morgan Whittaker, with Louie Sibley also rated as a star in the making. As I write this, Sibley has just netted a hat-trick for the under 23s in an 7-1 romp against Leeds United. All four of these 18-year olds have been called up to represent their countries at age-group level this season.
The under 23s sit joint top of the Premier League 2 Division 1 table with Chelsea, while the under 19s (last season’s under 18s English champions) are making short work of the early rounds of the UEFA Youth League. They have the chance of a ’round of 32′ play-off game, potentially against one of Europe’s big guns, so long as they can finish the job against Icelandic champions ÍA Akranes at home later this month.
However, it would be unfair to heap expectation onto the young players, who must be carefully nurtured. With the odd exception, such as Bogle, they will emerge slowly and get minutes here or there at first, with the hope that they can eventually replace older players as they leave. A group of senior pros including Curtis Davies, Huddlestone, Craig Forsyth, Ikechi Anya, Bennett and Martin are currently due to leave Derby at the end of the season, along with the loanees Clarke, Paterson and Dowell. That outflux could create opportunities for the youngsters in the longer term, if they can prove their worth and take their chances as they arise.
The gap to sixth place in the Championship has now edged up to seven points, which may not seem unbridgeable with 30 games to go, but the 74-point mark – the long-term average for sixth – is a long, long way off at this stage for a side who are yet to win back-to-back games. Unless Rooney, plus other new additions in January, can give the current squad the infusion of quality they need, the likelihood of Derby making the play-offs for the fourth time in six seasons is already receding fast.
And the trouble with waiting for Wazza is that there are still nine more matches to go before he can be registered. After each defeat, the club issues another message about Rooney’s impending arrival and by all accounts, he is itching to get started – he is even enthusiastic enough to be recommending players the club could sign, if chatter this week is to be believed – however, Derby’s form needs to improve before Christmas, or this season could be more or less over by the time Rooney pulls on the Rams’ shirt for the first time.