The good, the bad, the ugly and the East Midlands Derby

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Thanks a lot to Trev for keeping these GIFs coming!

As the two clubs have been marooned in division two for years now, East Midlands Derbies have become useful as regular milestones, moments to take stock of where we are as a club.  Over the last couple of years, we’ve generally been the favourites to win and free to aim a few smug darts at Fawaz, over his dysfunctional reign at the City Ground.  That sense of superiority departed around the time that Clement was sacked.  The bizarre ‘Interim Derby’ of Wassall v Paul Williams came at a time when things at Derby looked just as chaotic as they did down the road.

But things have finally calmed down a bit, with McClaren’s latest return steadying the ship and I make Derby slight favourites for this one.  However, despite the superb run of five straight wins – four of which were pretty tough games – we are not in what you would call sparkling form offensively and it can’t be ignored that Forest are also improving.  With Montanier left in post for more than five minutes, they have found a system which works for them and are starting to climb the table.

The history of the fixture suggests that it will probably be a tense, grim grind of a game, but a classic encounter could just erupt – it really all depends upon how soon the first goal goes in.

Graphic courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

Graphic courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

It is by no means a given that both teams will score in this fixture.  That 5-0 sticks out like a sore thumb (sorer for them than us, of course).

Here’s my EMD infographic (best viewed here, where you can hover over the individual bars to read the values)

derby-v-forest_18717072_3dd62d5cacfb0912a5b5d56fdcaa23979a99968cForest certainly look the more threatening attacking force so far this season.  Not only have the Red Dogs scored double Derby’s paltry tally of 17, they also lead the Championship for shots on target and are far more likely than the Rams to work shooting opportunities inside the box.

Derby are much improved since that horrendous goal drought under Pearson, but are still only averaging 13.2 shots per game – ninth in the division – and too many of those efforts are still being taken from long range.

The Rams’ most dangerous attacker this year by far has been Tom Ince, who has hit the target as much as almost anyone in the division, but behind him, there aren’t too many other players who have been testing the goalkeeper regularly.  For Forest, Vellios, Lansbury and Kasami have all been goal threats, with Assombalonga returning to fitness as well.  The latter has been on the pitch for less than 400 minutes this season and has scored six times already.

And then there’s Nicklas Bendtner, a man who famously broke the scale on Arsenal’s psychological tests when it came to ‘self-perceived competence‘ – who, in other words, genuinely believes that he is God’s gift.  A man like that would of course love to become a hero for Forest fans by scoring tomorrow and it would be horrible for such a thing to happen.

With all that said, it’s worth adding that Derby’s goal tally for the last ten games is 14, not far off Forest’s 17 goals over the same spell.

Graphic courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

Graphic courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

And then there’s the defence.  Four goals conceded in the last ten games is a simply outstanding record and the Rams’ most recent test against a top attacking side, Norwich, was passed with relative ease.  They have become so mean this season that Carson has by his own admission hardly been busy.  On such foundations, success is built.  The attackers can get away with not being particularly silky on the day when guys like Alex Pearce are behind them, snuffing out even the merest hint of danger.  I thought Pearce was excellent at Wigan, along with the rest of the back four.

If Forest could defend, they would certainly be in contention for a play-off spot, but they have leaked more goals than anyone but Rotherham, keeping only one clean sheet all season to date.  Cavalier wins against Wigan (4-3), Burton (4-3) and Barnsley (5-2) have to be weighed against less impressive results at the better sides – losses at Brighton (0-3), Reading (0-2) and Sheffield Wednesday (1-2).  Yes, they beat Newcastle, but the two red cards suffered by the Toon last Friday night have since both been rescinded by the FA, which says a lot about how fortunate they were on the night.

For this game, I suspect we will see the return of the Forestbuster himself, Craig Bryson. OK, we won at Wigan, but four shots in the game is an unacceptable return and McClaren may well look to shuffle his pack in a bid to add more attacking impetus.  Bryson has been introduced from the bench in the last four games and it might be time to let him off the leash, in the hope that he can get up and support Bent or Vydra more than Hughes or (more likely) Butterfield.

If we can win this, I will finally genuinely believe that a play-off push is back on for Derby this season.  I still remain to be convinced about us as an attacking force in the absence of Martin, or a like-for-like replacement.  But if the defence can play as calmly and competently in the hostile atmosphere of the EMD as they have in more run-of-the-mill Championship battles this season, then that will say a lot about the Rams’ ability to climb further up the table.

There are plenty of stats to pore over in this article – I do hope you like stats – but perhaps the one that says the most about the sheer unpredictability of this match between a team who score and concede freely and a team who keep clean sheets but haven’t scored enough is the goal totals metric.  Forest’s games have produced a total of 67 goals this season – more than anybody else in the division – whereas Derby’s have produced only 30 – less than anyone else.

If anybody wins a bet on the correct final score tomorrow, then fair play to them…

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Derby County v Norwich City preview

Expectations brutally mown down under the inflexible Nigel Pearson have started to flower again, the players performing with flair not fear.  Ince has responded with a fusillade of goals, Bent has applied himself the lone striker role – statisticians have been quick to point out the incredible goal returns of these two players under McClaren – Johnson has grasped the opportunity to make the holding role his own and looks like a new man…

I could go on.  All over the pitch, players who previously looked either hopelessly short of confidence or shot, are gradually rediscovering and in some cases redefining what they’re capable of – liberated as they are from Pearson’s mindless pressure to turn them into something they were not.  For all that Mel Morris has made some strange and bad decisions in the last couple of years, sacking Pearson may well turn out to be his best.

Almost as soon as Pearson left and results began to turn around, eyes drifted away from the relegation zone and longingly back to where they should always have been resting – the top six.  To make up the lost ground remains a difficult challenge and McClaren is dead right when he refuses to discuss anything but the next game – but in this case, the next game has huge symbolic value.

Norwich are currently sixth.  One of the big guns, their parachute payments have allowed them to maintain a squad of internationals from their failed Premier League campaign.  But Alex Neil, who won them promotion in 2015, is now under huge pressure to repeat the trick and a run of four successive league defeats, triggered by a farcical 5-0 drubbing at Brighton, has more than scared the horses.

derby-v-norwich-recent-form-overall

Graphic courtesy of kickoff.co.uk

It’s pretty easy to name the Derby side for Saturday – fitness allowing, you’d expect an unchanged eleven.  Neil, on the other hand, made six changes for the defeat at QPR, including the goalkeeper.  His plans were then ruined by Martin Olsson’s bizarre first-minute dismissal and so it is hard to know how he will respond. Does he go again with the team he thought could beat QPR, including the former Forest loanee Nélson Oliveira, or restore experienced pros like Cameron Jerome and Wes Hoolahan to the starting line-up?

There is perhaps an element of too many options to choose from for Neil – not that many other managers at this level would sympathise.

Norwich 2 Leeds 3 (5 November)

McGovern

Martin
Bennett
Klose
Olsson

Dorrans
Thompson

Brady (Jacob Murphy)
Hoolahan
Pritchard (Lafferty)

Jerome

QPR 2 Norwich 1 (19 November)

Ruddy

Martin
Bennett
Bassong
Olsson (sent off)

Tettey
Dorrans

Jacob Murphy
Naismith (Josh Murphy)
Brady

Oliveira (Jerome)

derby-v-norwich_18309516_b0a25509f6a65cb2de0c474a1f7cbcf74c34ca3e

Statistically, there are incredible similarities (infographic best viewed online) in the two clubs’ records on many measures.  They have had exactly the same average possession, shots on target and shots conceded.  Yet despite this eerie parity, the two clubs have had completely different seasons so far.

Norwich have one of the division’s worst defensive records – they have conceded an eyebrow-raising 20 goals in nine away matches, which is clearly not good enough for a supposed promotion contender – and they have not kept a clean sheet in the league since 16 August.

derby-v-norwich-ultimate-form-guide

It’s also very interesting to note that seven of Norwich’s eight wins so far have come against the division’s current bottom seven sides – the other being a 1-0 home win against Bristol City in August.

Norwich v bottom seven

P 7 W 7 F 19 A 8 Pts 21 GD +11 PPG 3

Norwich v Championship from 17th upwards

P 10 W 1 D 3 L 5 F 10 A 21 Pts 8 GD -11 PPG 0.8 

Norwich have been laudably ruthless against the relegation candidates, but against the better sides, they have routinely been found out – most infamously that 5-0 thrashing at Brighton, but also an embarrassing late collapse to lose 4-3 at Newcastle, a 3-0 loss at Birmingham and a late set piece sickener to lose at home to Leeds.

The Canaries have made up for the leaks at the back by scoring freely – albeit mostly against the division’s weakest teams – while the Rams are still recovering from their freakishly goal-free start to the campaign, although they have at least now scored more goals than Wigan and Ipswich.

Prior to Pearson’s departure, Derby were averaging more shots from outside the area (7.6) than from within it (6.4), a disastrous state of affairs, which shows the lack of creativity we endured during that barren spell.  That has turned around considerably since McClaren’s return.

Defensively, on the other hand, Norwich have looked distinctly vulnerable, despite the fact that they have been by no means peppered with shots.  Lax defending and a string of strange mistakes – not least goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s serious meltdown at the Amex – has been damaging to their season.

Back in the shape that suits them best, the Rams have started to remind everyone of how dangerous they can be.  Certainly, they took advantage of Wolves’ and Rotherham’s frailties and if Norwich defend as sloppily as they have done in recent games, there’s every chance that Derby could produce a real statement result and call time on Neil’s reign at Carrow Road.

On the other hand, I can’t help but remember a certain game in McClaren’s last spell, when the form book and all rational thinking pointed to a Rams win leading to the end of Stuart Pearce at Forest. It didn’t work out that way.

For all of their current problems, Norwich still have plenty of attacking threats and could ask serious questions of Keogh and company.  Much depends, literally, upon which Norwich side turns up – but regardless, with McClaren’s style coming up against porous opponents, a low-scoring, attritional affair feels unlikely.  If Derby are a good enough side to haul themselves back into promotion contention despite giving everyone else such a head-start, then Saturday is the right time to prove it.

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Huddersfield Town v Derby County: Pre-match infographic

Best viewed online.

huddersfield-to_17295245_c52fe462d8c203f9dae93e063ec61efe41562cce

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Poll: Derby County fans concerned over Mel Morris’ performance as Rams owner

42 per cent of more than 800 voters said they were unsatisfied with Mel Morris’ performance as Derby County owner, in a recent Twitter poll.

A further 40 per cent of voters said they were ‘on the fence’, while 18 per cent said that they were satisfied.

mel-graph

The poll was conducted using the hashtags #dcfc and #dcfcfans and with 806 people having responded, the overall picture is one of deep reservations and serious concerns over the future direction of Derby County, rather than of a happy camp.

And this is no surprise, with Nigel Pearson’s inevitable departure from the iPro Stadium having finally been confirmed.  The first report from a national newspaper – filed at exactly the same time as the club’s official announcement – claimed that Chris Powell will now be appointed until the end of the season.

Powell would certainly be a huge upgrade on last season’s stopgap head coach, Darren Wassall, but inherits a much more difficult situation.  The Rams’ start to the season has been appalling.  Chris Martin is gone and linchpin midfielder George Thorne remains sidelined.  Supporters have endured five home league games with only one goal, leading to nervous tension and negativity around the iPro Stadium.  Next up is a visit from the Damned United – which could end in cathartic relief, or a bit of a nightmare – and then a trip to the division’s surprise package, Huddersfield Town, top of the league under Jürgen Klopp’s former assistant David Wagner.

On the plus side for Morris, 40 per cent of voters remain ‘on the fence’ about his stewardship of the club and 18 per cent declared that they are satisfied with how he has done.  Doubtless, these loyal fans are mindful of Mel’s proven financial commitment, which has built up the club’s infrastructure and its Category One academy – even if the cash lavished on new players did not have the expected immediate impact.

However, on the whole, the wild positivity which accompanied the local lad Morris into Derby just 18 months ago has since been replaced with deep nervousness about the long-term direction of the club.

The main problems:-

Turnover of managers

Paul Clement’s dismissal followed a relatively iffy run of results, but still came as a shock.  A simple explanation was recently offered by Clement’s brother Neil: –

Listen facts are under my bro you where top at xmas and slipped to 4th in Jan.  And your chairman had a panic up cos he’s a nugget…   And that was because the season before you slipped up under mclaren toward the end of the season.

But if Neil Clement is right and Morris thought that promotion was slipping away again, then that leaves the question of why he didn’t look to appoint an experienced hand straight away – and then we come back to Mel’s infamous statement that promotion was not the main aim…

…And then we end up going back down the rabbit hole.

Whatever the reason, we ended up with Wassall until the end of last season – with a never-fully explained role invented for Harry Redknapp, after the shameful 3-3 draw at Rotherham.  This was a bit of a shambles all round and there was a general feeling that a golden opportunity to go up had been wasted.

Pearson’s appointment this summer was met with sage nods from the pundits and the majority of supporters, but it was always clear that it would mean a fundamental shift of emphasis – from the passing football we’d come to know, love and sometimes moan about when clubs frustrated us with a deep-lying defensive blob, to something more functional. Pearson spoke stirringly about playing good football ‘when possible’.

From the outside, it seems to me that well-run clubs have an identity and a clear vision in place for the type of manager (or head coach) they want and that this ensures continuity of appointments.  Swansea and particularly Southampton spring to mind – whoever is in charge, they seem to put out neat, passing teams, remain fundamentally stable and progress incrementally up the football pyramid, recruiting well to replace those players who are pinched by bigger clubs.  And if the club wants to play a certain type of football, then it needs a manager who will buy into that.

Unless Powell is appointed and makes a real go of it, long-term, the club might now looking for somebody who is more of a continental-style head coach – possibly a foreign appointment – and certainly somebody who plays football in ‘the right way’.  For example, at the time, his reputation was at a low ebb, following his sacking by Everton but it’s unquestionably the case that Roberto Martínez would have been a better fit for the current squad than Pearson was (although it may not have gone down well with Steve Nicholson!)

Recruitment

To put it bluntly, the money put in to strengthen the squad since Mel took over has not translated into improved performances.  Chris Evans’ tenure as Head of Football Operations resulted in a slew of underwhelming signings and it is only recently that new Directors of Recruitment have been brought on board.  Unfortunately, the money has already been spent and Financial Fair Play constraints are undoubtedly a factor.

The new manager, whether it’s Powell or somebody else, will not have access to a blank chequebook and will probably have to sell before he buys, or rely on the loan market.  That is not necessarily a disaster, as there is a good squad of players in place and one or two loanees, hopefully with the impact of a Jordon Ibe or a George Thorne, could be just the boost we need in January.  Derby are a club that can attract the top young prospects from the elite clubs and this is a market we can profit from.

Also, Will Hughes’ contract situation is one that will become more pressing as the days tick down.  At the moment, I can see no reason why he would pen an extension and that might force the club to cash in, at some stage.  It would be awful to lose him – but unless the player can see a clear direction and vision for progress, leading to the opportunity to play in the Premier League, then why would he stay?

Communications

Things have got a bit weird of late.  The club refused to allow Chris Powell, or anybody else, to speak to BBC Radio Derby after the Reading game and since Radio Derby tweeted this, there has been no further mention of the incident, as far as I am aware.  Presumably, things will be back to normal for the Leeds game next Saturday, but it was a very unusual thing for the club to do, to say the least.

I’ve seen it suggested that this was because Owen Bradley introduced his coverage of the game with the line: “The Derby County soap opera continues…” and if it is really the case that this mild and objectively reasonable comment led to a ‘power play’ from the club, then that seems like an incredibly heavy-handed response.  Subscribers to Rams Player may also have noted that the Radio Derby commentary, which used to be overdubbed onto the match footage, is no longer played on ‘Full 90’ videos.  I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

*********

For what it’s worth, although I will never understand why Morris’ sacked Clement, I don’t disagree with him on this one.  Pearson was in place very early in the summer and had plenty of time to assess the squad, both through video analysis and then during pre-season.  He decided that the players he’d inherited would be able to play his way and that no changes were required – a policy reversed only in the dying moments of the August transfer window, by which time, it was abundantly clear that we were in a spot of bother. Morris watched all this unfold, watched the team die on its arse against Blackburn and then in the aftermath, whatever happened, happened.

In an interview with the Derby Telegraph this week, Richard Keogh seemed to make it pretty plain that the squad were not exactly devastated to see Pearson go.  “Our season started against Cardiff”, he said, adding that it was clear that 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1, if we must call it that) “probably does suit us a lot more [than 4-4-2].  We’re getting our ball players higher up the pitch and they can affect games more.”  Hallelujah.

But while I don’t disagree with Morris’ latest decision, that doesn’t mean that I am prepared to defend an owner who has now appointed and then sacked two managers in such a short space of time.  It is undignified and unsettling for everyone who cares about the club – some people will have voted ‘unsatisfied’ in my poll precisely because they disagreed with Pearson’s sacking – and without doubt, unsettling for the players as well. It’s been pointed out to me that if Powell is appointed until the end of the season, then the Rams could be in a position of a new man coming in next summer as the club’s sixth manager in two years. Even by the standards of today’s trigger-happy game, that is insane.

What happens next is far more important than knowing the gory details of why Pearson has gone.  But it cannot be denied that having another manager depart so swiftly is another black mark against the owner.  It is hard to think why any promising, highly-rated manager would risk coming to Derby now – and also hard to see how the club could afford to pay compensation for an in-work coach, given that pay-offs for Clement and Pearson have been added to the wagebill.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Rams fans are still willing Mel to succeed with Derby County, but are desperately keen for him to bring the stability we need in order to progress.  We all want to talk about performances on the field, not rows behind the scenes – and points on the board, not rumblings in the boardroom.

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Derby County Podcast – on Pearson, Powell, Morris and where we go from here

I was pleased to be asked to take part in another Derby County Podcast, this time with Joel, Chris Smith (AKA Ramspace) and Matt Bregazzi.  The guys talk a lot of sense and it’s always interesting to get their perspectives on events.

In this episode, there was a hell of a lot to talk about – so we did well to keep it down to an hour.

http://www.dcfcpodcast.uk/podcast/podcast-four

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