Nottingham Forest v Derby County preview

“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

19.DERBY 197
(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:-

(Graphic courtesy of

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.

Goalscorers (league)

Grabban 15
Wilson 10
Marriott 7
Lolley 7
Cash 6
Lawrence 5

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….

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The Derby County BlogCast, Episode 7 – The Dreaded February

The latest Derby County BlogCast is now live.

This month, Chris and I spoke to David, who created the DCFCFans forum.  David told us a little bit about how much he has learned in the last decade of running the forum and reading the thoughts, jokes and rants of thousands of Rams fans (including a lesson in the legal implications of being a publisher, courtesy of Mel Morris….)   When you think about it, the internet is a very different place now to what it was back then.  If Derby had a season like 2007/8 now, the toxicity of Twitter and the message boards doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Another thing I’m glad we talked about this month is the ‘scapegoating’ culture which has developed online – again, this seems to affect all walks of life and football is no different.  Chris was justifiably forthright about how pathetic he finds it when supporters decide en masse to get on the back of one individual and blame them for all the team’s failings.  So many players have had their turn in the past couple of years and at the moment, it seems to be David Nugent who is attracting the Twitter trolls.

Constructive criticism is absolutely fine, in any walk of life – football is no different to that. And we all get wound up after a defeat, but the point Chris and David both made was how counter-productive it is.  I’m sure Nuge doesn’t give a flying one about them, but other players may not be as grizzled and thick-skinned as him.   They’re all individual human beings.  It’s obvious that Tom Lawrence, for example, felt it – that cupped-ear celebration to his own ‘fans’ against Preston said everything about how the abuse had affected him.

This stuff matters and it has an effect on individual people, but also on public discourse in general.  As a (trifling) example, I recently wrote a piece on ‘Spygate‘, the scandal which broke after a Leeds United spy was identified at Moor Farm and apprehended by Derbyshire Police.  However, I chose not to tweet it – the first and only time I haven’t tweeted one of my stories.  This was because I tweeted an opinion on their conduct after our defeat at Elland Road and spent the next three days being abused by Leeds fans.  After a while, the only thing to do was to either mute or block them, depending on the severity of the abuse.  I can deal with this crap, but other people have experienced far worse levels of trolling and hatred.  It’s not acceptable (Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is a great book on this subject, for anybody who wants to look into it.)

Back to the football and we discuss the disappointing performance at Ipswich, the disappointing performance at Brighton….  And the bigger picture, which is one of a decent season overall, which has set us up for a big run-in – with plenty of home games against the strugglers to come, starting with a big opportunity against Millwall – but also some trickier games, not least the next East Midlands Derby at the City Ground.

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Derby County’s season assessed (part 2 of 2)

(ICYMI, here is part one of this post)

In recent games, Derby have created barely anything inside the box, as the shot count since the defeat at Sheffield United demonstrates:-

Shots taken from inside penalty area

Sheffield United (A) 2-10
Norwich City (A) 9-16
Middlesbrough (H) 2-8
Leeds United (A) 2-12
Reading (H) 7-3
PNE (A) 2-17

Total 24 – 66

This alarming recent lack of any genuine creativity is being reflected in a growing gulf between Derby’s goal tally (40) and that of the top four (57, 50, 50, 59).  The ‘stattos’ I follow are picking up on this, pointing out that Derby’s ‘expected goal’ tally, which has never been very high this season anyway, has dropped off significantly lately, making them look less like promotion contenders.

That said, it cannot be forgotten that the recent run of league games has included some of the most testing fixtures of the season, plus three tough cup games fitted in around them.  It has been an extremely difficult period and Derby have done well to get through it, picking up eight points from the 18 on offer, while also progressing to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

But they lost Mount to a hamstring injury in the process of beating Accrington Stanley, Marriott is struggling with an ankle problem and they have not been dominating games since Christmas, or anything like it. 

With the exception of the game against Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough, Derby have not dominated the ball in recent weeks: –

Possession (%)

Sheff U 50-50
Norwich 38-62
Boro 62-38
Leeds 38-62
Reading 36-64
PNE 45 – 55

(Average 45% – 55%)

It may not be the whole story, but Tom Huddlestone’s absence from the side in recent weeks is surely a big part of the reason why Derby have suddenly stopped controlling games in the way they were towards the end of 2018.  Huddlestone averages more than 50 passes per game at an accuracy rate of 81%, whereas George Evans, who is seemingly being groomed as his replacement, has averaged less than 25 passes per game, with a much worse pass success rate (73%). 

Successful short passes per 90 minutes

Huddlestone 36.7
Bryson 34.1
Mount 26.8
Wilson 21.4
Evans 15.7

Huddlestone’s lack of mobility is always raised as his main shortcoming, but he has still won broadly as many tackles per game as any of the other midfielders, while also winning more headers than any of the others (he is less effective at making interceptions than either Bryson or Evans, however).   

Another factor which was painfully obvious in the Preston game was the lack of physical presence in the eleven, which meant that almost every corner the Lilywhites flighted in led to chaos in the six-yard box.  Eventually, Wisdom had to be brought on, seemingly for his size alone – an alarming defender-for-striker change which helped to avert what had begun to seem like the inevitable concession against limited opponents.  Huddlestone, however, remained on the bench, as did Bradley Johnson (and Florian Jozefzoon), with Lampard opting not to use his third change – a surprising, maybe even revealing decision, in the context of a game which hadn’t exactly gone to plan.

The smallest player of all, Duane Holmes, is gradually becoming one of the real plus points of this season.  I doubt he is being ear-marked as our future right back, but Holmes was nevertheless game enough to cover there in Jayden Bogle’s absence and is the one player in the squad who you fancy to take on and beat a player.  It’s still early days, but his successful dribbles works out as 2.9 per 90 minutes, which is pretty much as good as anyone in the division (Fernando Forestieri’s rate is 2.5, for example).  In these days of telephone number transfer fees, to find a player with Holmes’ potential for £700,000 was an impressive move by Lampard.   

In summary, it felt good that, after a game which the Rams clearly struggled to affect, Lampard had eight days without a fixture, to reflect and reassess his tactics and team selection, ahead of a potentially tricky home game against an almost ludicrously resurgent Hull City. 

If Marriott is still unfit – a previously disclosed illness has now been supplemented by acknowledgement of an ankle injury – then I am not sure that Nugent deserves to start in his place.  Waghorn (again, if fit) or even Bennett would represent a more energetic, quicker and stronger option, who could be relied upon to at least ask the Hull defence more physical questions.  Nugent has been a reliable player for as long as I can remember and nobody would ever question his attitude, but Steve McClaren’s decision to award a 30-month contract to a 31 year-old striker was always debatable.  We now live in the hope, rather than expectation, of an Indian summer from a forward whose best days look to be behind him. 

The same could be said (and is being said) of Bryson, although action has been taken there, with the loan recruitment of a (slightly) younger replacement in Andy King.  The Welshman, however, has barely played football since the end of his loan spell at Swansea City last season, so it feels unwise to expect too much from King too soon.

As for Ashley Cole, he has played regularly in the MLS for the last three seasons and is reportedly more or less ready to make his Rams debut.  It will be faintly surreal to see one of the nine players with more than 100 England caps playing in the black and white, while one of the others patrols the Pride Park touchline.  I don’t quite know what to make of it.  He is nearly as old as me, but unlike me, he was one of the greatest English left backs of all time, in his heyday.  Whether he will end up playing regularly, or is simply going to serve as experienced cover for Scott Malone, we will have to wait and see.

With Norwich flying, Leeds still in a strong position (even if their spying spree has been rumbled and curtailed), Sheffield United looking robust, West Brom having strengthened massively on deadline day and Boro continuing with their miserly pursuit of the play-offs, Derby are in my view genuine outsiders for promotion as things stand.  But with a bit of luck on our side, it remains entirely possible. 

Much has been made – maybe a little too much – of the fact that Derby have an ‘easier’ run-in than most, with Boro and Bristol City in particular having plenty of tricky-looking  games to come, while Derby look forward to plenty of home games against teams from the lower half of the table.  The schedule looks OK, on paper.

And the manner in which Lampard’s side have approached the cup games shows that they can get themselves up for big, ‘winner-takes-all’ games (granted, a pessimist could point to unimpressive showings at Elland Road and Bramall Lane as evidence that this Derby side are just as capable of flunking key tests as they are at passing them). 

Nevertheless, if Mount and Marriott can be nursed back to fitness soon and the rest of the most important players make it through the season unscathed, a top six finish remains a reasonable ambition.  We will talk more about what happens next season nearer the time.

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Wilson’s Worldies help to ease the ‘transition’: Derby County’s season assessed (part 1 of 2)

If folklore is anything to go by, right now is about the time when Derby County start to bottle it.  So I thought I’d have a look at where we’re up to with the dreaded February ahead…  This is the first instalment of a two-parter.

Turns out Frank wasn’t bluffing.  There was no money to spend in the January transfer window and Derby County will finish the season with what they had, plus Andy King – whom Leicester “helped us to get”, according to Lampard – Ashley Cole, on mates’ rates, helping his old Chelsea buddy out until the end of the season and, hopefully, a free agent centre back, with the Nigeria international Efe Ambrose revealed as a possible new signing on Thursday.  Andre Wisdom is currently the only recognised senior cover for the centre backs and although a couple of personae non grata were shifted out on deadline day, the squad remains imbalanced – the word ‘transition’ seems to crop up more and more on my Twitter feed these days, as fans adjust to the reality that this time, it really will take multiple transfer windows for the Rams to recalibrate.

And yet, Derby remain in contention for promotion, just as they have been for the last five seasons.

A lot of fans seem to be looking ahead to next season already, excited about the fact that a raft of players will be out of contract and presumably released.  It’s certainly the end of the road at Derby for Marcus Olsson, Bradley Johnson, Jacob Butterfield, David Nugent and Nick Blackman (Butterfield and Johnson’s departures at least give closure to what is now widely recognised as the most ill-conceived transfer splurge in the club’s modern history).  Craig Bryson and Tom Huddlestone are also out of contract and seem more likely to leave than to stay. 

So the wage bill, which had ballooned to the point of representing 120% of turnover by June 2017, can finally be subjected to a little control.   It’s impossible to think too much about what might happen next season though, because we still don’t know what division we will be in.   If it’s the Premier League, then the club will have far more leeway to spend, without having to worry about incurring the wrath of the EFL.

That said, for anybody who suffered through the rather fortunate 0-0 draw at Preston North End last Friday night, the Championship will have felt the more likely outcome, because the side which Lampard lined up at Deepdale did not, in all honesty, look like promotion contenders. 

The magical left boot of Harry Wilson aside, there was zero goal threat for the entire 90 minutes, with David Nugent toiling inadequately up-front and a midfield duo of Craig Bryson and George Evans providing little in the way of either defensive screening or creative prompting.  Tom Lawrence and Martyn Waghorn had almost no impact from wide areas, in what was a disjointed, unimpressive team performance (admittedly on a dreadful pitch and with the unpleasant Ben Pearson lucky to have stayed on the pitch). 

In the circumstances, the point was a bonus.  The overall display highlighted how heavily dependent Derby have been on certain key players to magic up the goals for them this season.  Two of those players were missing at Deepdale – Mason Mount has been the chief source of creativity and Jack Marriott the only reliable penalty box predator.  Without them, Derby looked nothing like as threatening a side.  

Indeed, the standard to which Lampard’s two young loanees have played is basically above the rest of the squad, with the possible exception of Marriott.  In total, Mount and Wilson have taken a third of Derby’s total shots for the season and also created a third of all of the Rams’ chances:-

Chances created

1. Mount 54 (2.1 per 90 minutes)
2. Wilson 36 (1.8)
3. Lawrence 21 (1.2)
4. Bogle 20 (0.9)
5. Bennett 18 (2.4)
6. Bryson 16 (0.8)

Shots taken

1. Mount 66 (2.6 per 90 minutes)
2. Wilson 65 (3.2)
3. Lawrence 56 (3.1)
4. Marriott 47 (3)
5. Nugent 25 (2.3)
6. Bryson 18 (1)
7. Waghorn 17 (1.5)

Wilson and Mount are much better players than the club, or any Championship club for that matter, could possibly buy and without them, the “transitional” nature of the Derby squad would be much more obvious – the league position probably considerably lower.

Of course, any Championship club is dependent on certain star players, but the clubs at the very top of the table seem to have that bit more attacking depth to call upon – and that gives them a clear advantage as they look to sustain their promotion bids.

I double-checked the shot total for Waghorn and it really is that low.  When you consider this is a player who had an excellent goal involvement record at Ipswich last season – 16 league goals, plus 11 assists – it’s fair to say that we are not getting anything like the best out of him.  Perhaps he has not been entirely comfortable in the wide role he’s been asked to play and maybe the stop-start nature of his involvement has hindered him, too. 

When Marriott has been absent, Lampard has thus far persisted with Nugent as the second choice striker, but the Nuge has failed to score since 22 September and barely touched the ball at Deepdale, let alone causing the home side any problems.  Age is catching up with the 33 year-old and Derby at least looked a bit more lively at Preston when Mason Bennett came on to put himself about a bit. 

Wilson’s remarkable goalscoring record has rightly attracted plenty of attention and he leads the Championship for goals from outside of the box.  He is already one up on where Rúben Neves was last season in terms of goals from range and you wouldn’t bet against him reaching double figures purely in worldies, at this rate.  I have written before about the issue that Derby take too many of their shots from distance and not enough from locations where you could realistically expect them to score.  But Harry is not interested in your puny human limitations:-

Goals from outside of the penalty area, Championship 2018/9

1. Harry Wilson 7
2. Joe Lolley (Forest) 5
3. Six players 4

(I wrote a bit more in depth about Harry for The Liverpool Way recently)

However, we need a lot more than just the Welsh Wizard’s tremendous finishing if we are going to collect enough goals and points to finish in the top six.  When we refine the list of Derby’s top shooters down to shots taken from within the box, we get:-

1. Marriott 38
2. Mount 29
3. Lawrence 17
4= Nugent / Wilson 16

No other player is yet into double figures for the season and by way of comparison, 11 Norwich and Leeds players have at least ten shots from within the box this season, with Sheffield United and West Brom both on nine players, Boro on eight.

Interestingly, the two Derby centre backs have managed considerably less attempts than many others from the leading teams, which says something about their comparative lack of aerial dominance.  Blades defender John Egan, for example, has had as many efforts at goal this season as Nugent:-

Total attempts on goal (centre backs only)

1. Jake Cooper (Millwall) 42
2. Aden Flint (Boro) 36
3. Daniel Ayala (Boro) 28
4. Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn) / Semi Ajayi (Rotherham) 27
6. John Egan (Sheff U) 25

36. Richard Keogh 10
57= Fikayo Tomori 5

Defenders’ shots, of course, tend to come from within the box, or even the six-yard box, as they’re nearly all generated from set plays.  In recent games, Derby have created barely anything inside the box, as the shot count since the defeat at Sheffield United demonstrates.

(This is the first half of a two-part blogpost.  Part two to follow…)

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On Spygate

By now, you will have read an awful lot, probably even too much, about ‘Spygate’, the story which unfolded after a Leeds United employee was caught spying on a Derby County training session ahead of the Championship fixture between the two sides at Elland Road.   Every pundit and his dog issued a verdict on the incident, with opinions ranging from the reliably cantankerous Guardian scribe Barry Glendenning declaring that Leeds had done ‘nothing wrong’ to – of all people – Stuart Pearce claiming that the result of the game should be reversed and the points awarded to Derby.

It was interesting and actually quite dizzying to follow the national media as they sank their teeth into a story emanating from Moor Farm.  Football’s journalism establishment, like the New York Times‘ Rory Smith and the Times of London‘s Henry Winter, tweeted their two-pennorth.  Managers from Pep to Pulis were asked about it in press conferences.  And as far as I can tell, your take on the seriousness of the incident really came down to your existing biases.

The incident was confirmed when Derby issued a terse statement stating that a man working for Leeds had been acting suspiciously outside their training ground, that Derbyshire Police had been called and that the two clubs were in contact to discuss what had happened.  Next out of the traps was the Telegraph’s John Percy, who reported that the man had been carrying a change of clothes and a pair of pliers, which he had used to cut through wires and make his way inside the training ground, in order to watch what Lampard’s squad were doing.

Since the initially sensational report of wrong-doing, the details of what actually happened have become blurred.   We now know for a fact that the Leeds employee was not arrested and was merely sent on his way.  A Derbyshire Police Twitter account sent out a picture of the man in their van, with a comment ending “#spyingischeating“, but after heavy shelling from Leeds Twitter, rowed back from this and sought to make nice, saying that the comment had been meant in jest.

Regardless of the fact that no arrest was made – which has led many Leeds fans and even some pundits to declare that the club are in the clear – Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani formally apologised to Mel Morris.  Based on Leeds’ official statement, which acknowledged that the actions of their coach had lacked “integrity and honesty”, we can assume (or at least hope) that there will be no more spying from now on.

More importantly, the FA and EFL both confirmed that they would be launching investigations into the incident and 11 Championship clubs wrote to the EFL to formally register their displeasure at what happened.

In the face of all this, Bielsa did the precise opposite of what any orthodox public figure would do.  He not only fessed up, he laid all of his cards on the table.  Yes, he sent the spy – and he’d been doing the same thing all season, to all Championship clubs.  It was part of his standard working practice, it wasn’t illegal and he had no idea that it was frowned upon here in England, he said.  Bafflingly, he claimed that doing so gave him no advantage, but was simply something he felt obligated to do because of his extreme need to analyse the opposition as thoroughly as possible.  A presentation he gave to journalists, at which he invited them to have a peek at his full analysis package of Derby County, swiftly became the stuff of legend.  The media (at least those parts of it that I tend to read) swooned.

Suddenly, the narrative was not that Leeds had done something very out of the ordinary at best, completely unacceptable at worst, had changed.  Bielsa was a hero and was simply ‘owning’ the Championship by being much more professional, diligent and hard-working than everyone else – without breaking any laws of the land.  Some reporters, like the Guardian’s Paul Wilson and Jonathan Wilson, even sniffed at Lampard for having had the temerity to complain about the incident.  Paul Wilson praised Bielsa for his “disarming frankness”, while sneering at Lampard’s “attempts to gain the moral high ground”, given that that José Mourinho, he said, would have been up to much the same tricks during his tenure at Chelsea, while Lampard was on the playing staff (this ridiculous accusation is akin to blaming a son for his father’s indiscretions.  It’s not as if Lampard would have had any say or influence on how Mourinho chose to operate and there is absolutely no suggestion that Derby under Lampard have behaved in a remotely comparable way to Leeds under Bielsa.)

It’s unsurprising that reporters with a keen interest in global football – the best example probably being Jonathan Wilson, author of “Inverting the Pyramid”, a history of football tactics – have a deep and abiding respect for Bielsa and were keen to defend him from what is perceived as an English media mob keen to jump on a ludicrous moral high horse against what they perceive as foreign ‘cheating’.

As with any story, there are elements of truth to both sides.

Firstly, nobody questions Bielsa’s reputation as a coach.  Pep Guardiola has always sung his praises and he has clearly done more than his due diligence on the Championship, adjusting to this league without any problems and very rapidly creating an impressive team.  Pretty much any coach in world football could learn a lot from Bielsa.  Lampard was clear before the first home game of the season that he considered it an honour to be up against him.  The respect he feels for this legendary “coach’s coach” surely accentuated his disappointment over what transpired at Moor Farm.

There’s no doubt that Derby’s preparation for the game was interrupted by the spy and also no doubt that he gained valuable information that Leeds had no right to be privy to.  Learning that Harry Wilson, one of Derby’s key players, was not involved in training would have been a very nice tip, for starters.  So when Bielsa claimed that there is actually nothing to gain from doing these surreptitious missions – that he only orders them out of some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, effectively – he is being economical with the truth, to put it politely.

Because Bielsa admits that he has had clubs watched covertly all season, the EFL now have a job on their hands.  If it can be demonstrated by any club that their grounds are not publicly accessible, for example, then it’s perfectly possible that Leeds’ staffer would have had to trespass to gain the views he needed.  If it can be proved that the man went out equipped to trespass – which some reports maintain he was when he was caught at Derby – then that is a much more serious matter than simply poking your head over the fence, which, while, unsporting, is harder to object to.  Guardiola, a huge Bielsa fan, was completely unfazed by the incident, but then, he is sitting pretty in a private training compound these days and cannot be spied on.  If no further action is taken by the powers that be, then sadly, maybe Mel Morris will just have to dip back into his pocket and build walls around Moor Farm, assuming planning permission for such a change could be sought.

English football has undoubtedly been caught off-beam by this incident.  There is no formal rule that dictates that clubs cannot observe their opposition in training – the nearest edict to it is the EFL rule which says that clubs should behave towards each other in the utmost good faith, a vague catch-all which could be interpreted as relevant to any shady activity, or none.  From the general bemusement this story has been met with, it feels that there has been a sort of unspoken “gentlemen’s agreement” on the subject.   But Bielsa either didn’t know or didn’t care about that.

With half of the Championship having now written to the EFL demanding a proper investigation, it’s pretty clear that from next season, we will have one rule for everyone to adhere to in future.  Given the widespread disgruntlement which has been expressed, it feels impossible that nothing will happen as a result.

As a coach with a wealth of experience and passion for the game, Bielsa clearly has a lot of wisdom to pass on.  English football could learn a lot from him and it will be very interesting to see how he does in the Premier League, if he completes the job this season and wins promotion.

Would he be happy to invite the rest of the Championship’s coaches to an analysis masterclass, so that they can all benefit from his wisdom?  How about inviting them in one by one to watch Leeds train on the eve of their games, so that they can understand his approach and how he is planning to set up his teams?  Such insight into his methods and specific information about his gameplan for the coming match would be hugely appreciated by any coach, from a Nathan Jones who is just stepping up to Championship level, to the grizzled Pulis, who is in his umpteenth season (Pulis, when asked, was scathing about the spying, while Jones took the precaution of moving Stoke’s final training session before their game against Leeds to the Potters’ stadium, to foil any spies.  Stoke won 2-1).

Of course, in the aftermath of all this, Leeds’ vociferous fanbase have done everything from carrying out their own quasi-judicial cross-examination of our local constabulary to calling me a bellend (and every other name under the sun).  As Jonathan Wilson rightly pointed out: “Leeds fans who hark back to the glory days of skulduggery and dossiers will feel they have their club back.”

We’re all tribal and we all rally to defend our clubs or causes when we perceive them to be under attack, but as a group, the Leeds lot do seem to relish the feeling that there is a global conspiracy against them and will only have taken this incident as further proof that everyone from the EFL to the FA to the FBI to the Illuminati are plotting their downfall.  Should any punishment be handed down, they will only take this as further confirmation that “the Football League’s corrupt”.

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United.   A match made in – well, not in heaven, exactly.  Brian Clough’s nemesis Don Revie must be chuckling happily in his grave.

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Posted in Derby County | Comments Off on On Spygate