Leeds United 2 Derby County 4 – The Rams are going to Wembley

Cards on the table – I didn’t give us a prayer.  I kept my mouth shut after the first leg, because in honesty, I had nothing positive to say.  We had been managed so comprehensively, so easily, at Pride Park that what grounds for optimism were there at Elland Road?  The Spymaster had us sussed.  Frank Lampard was too green a manager to find a way to ruffle the legendary Marcelo Bielsa.  They were a fearsomely drilled stormtrooper unit with the tactical edge over us.  They were not unbeatable, far from it – and their players seemed to be dropping like flies, despite (or maybe because of) the brag that they had ‘run more than ever’ in the first leg of this semi-final – but we simply were not the team who could beat them, not this season, anyway. 

So I expected nothing. 

What I got was far and away the best football moment of my lifetime of supporting Derby County – a delirious, ‘I was there’ evening, which I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to witness.  The 5-0 was a once-in-a-lifetime event (probably), but the intensity was not the same that day, because it became so easy so quickly.  This was a very tough game, which could easily have gone the other way, yet panned out as such a dramatic and deeply satisfying triumph for the Rams that we couldn’t have scripted it better if we’d tried.   Neutrals have been approaching me all day to talk about this game – all with massive smiles on their faces, because they were entertained, royally. It will go down as a one of the classic encounters in the history of two famous clubs with a mutual emnity stretching back over decades.

I reached my ‘seat’ in the John Charles Upper seconds after kick-off and the atmosphere was immediately on a different level to anything I have experienced before.  The Derby fans were absolutely rocking – this was a big game and the fans were determined to rise to it. 

And for 20 minutes, the pendulum threatened to swing ever so gently towards the visitors. 
This was nothing like the Pride Park game.  Leeds were unable to settle on and hog the ball, as they had so contemptuously at times in the first leg.  An intriguing gambit from Frank Lampard was the selection of Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence as centre forwards, with Harry Wilson playing as a number ten, at the tip of a midfield diamond.  Bielsa, banned from spying, definitely had not seen this system change coming.  And his side suddenly weren’t so sure of themselves.

Until they were handed an absolute gift.  I didn’t realise in real time what a cock-up Richard Keogh had made of defending the free kick, but it was obvious that something had malfunctioned horribly, an appallingly soft goal given away at the worst possible time.  And that, I couldn’t help fearing, was probably that.  Suddenly, those free white scarves, which had been under the seats for the previous twenty minutes, created a white wall and for a few minutes, it seemed as if the tie was destined to be ripped away from us.  It probably would have been all over had the shot which ricocheted off Keogh’s noggin and clipped the underside of the bar been a few millimetres lower and nestled.  The margins between success and failure are always thinner than you think and on this occasion, they were as gossamer.

Lucky breaks don’t matter unless you capitalise on them, though.  And when, after the greatest substitution in football history, Marriott gleefully gobbled up a freebie put on a plate for him by Kiko Casilla – who is quite mad – I have to inform you that I charged up and down the aisles, screaming “COME ONNNNN” at anybody within range.  I was not smiling. I was possessed in that moment.  And everyone was screaming right back at me.  That devil was in all of us and from that moment on, we all believed that it could happen.

And so it felt natural enough when Mount levelled the tie within seconds of the restart.  Because it was happening, basically. After one of Derby’s four goals, I took an elbow in the kisser – I think it was when Wilson buried his penalty, a la Sam Winnall.  Wilson went to his own right, this time – Casilla had done his homework and dived the way Wilson usually goes.  What a player Harry is – regardless of the centre backs’ ever-presence and consistency, I stand by my vote for him as player of the season.

I think Mount’s goal was my favourite of the four.  When that went in, it didn’t matter who you were – black, white, Asian, young, old, you were getting hugged.  A pile of Derby fans rolled out of the aisle and arrived at my feet and I think I was standing on the seat above them, or surely not standing on them, or… floating?

Tom Huddlestone was introduced to try to shore things up, but Leeds levelled it up on aggregate straight away. Oh, for an away goals rule.  A lad next to me, hands behind his head, had a thousand-yard stare that wouldn’t have looked out of place in ‘Nam.  At times, Leeds were slicing through our midfield much too easily for comfort and extra time could have been a real test – which is why it was so utterly brainless of their defender Gaetano Berardi – already on a yellow – to go sliding recklessly into a challenge that wasn’t even in the same timezone as the ball and get himself dismissed.  Thank you very much, you utter bellend. Of course, Berardi wouldn’t even have been playing had Pompous Jansson, who spent the pre-Pride Park press conference bragging that he would play in a wheelchair if necessary, had been declared fit enough to start.

Still, Leeds tried to play their way through Derby, but a Rams winner was on the cards, with Wilson striking the inside of the post before that sumptuous finish from Marriott proved a fitting end to the tie.  We don’t have anybody else who would have scored that goal – he was born to score and I absolutely love him.  I have been worrying and worrying about his spell on the bench and praying for him to come back into the side.  It is a surprise to absolutely nobody that his goal took us to Wembley – all he needed was that one chance.

To walk into that ground without even a thought of Wembley, but to have been galvanised immediately and believed so strongly with a group of people and to see it unfold in the manner it did was staggering.   My voice was utterly shot by the 300th rendition of Joy Division, but it didn’t matter.   Eventually, I just stood there miming the injection of the overwhelming atmosphere into my veins

For the supporters to generate the atmosphere they did and to celebrate with the team, manager, staff and chairman as they did is a moment that has to mean something bigger than just that one night at the Home of Hubris.  It is a moment for us to build on as a club, regardless of what happens at Wembley – yes, Wembley, let it sink in.

Remember Chris Martin talking about “the monster of expectation”? Last night was the opposite of that.  I can’t speak for others, but I felt truly liberated by not expecting a thing.

Which was why the post-game celebration was so wonderful.  To see Lampard stride forward and pump his fist at the fans in the manner of a man who felt and meant it with every fibre of his being and then, inevitably, give us The Bounce – this moment of togetherness has to mean something more than just a great, historic victory.

Regardless of the result at Wembley, the way in which everyone – players, staff, manager, chairman/owner, supporters – were so tightly bonded has to have a meaningful legacy.  It has to be a platform that we build on as a club for seasons to come. 

If we lose in the final, so be it – the cash from the play-off final gate receipts will at least be a bit of a boost for the transfer kitty and we go again. 

If we win, then that is a different story altogether. But that is a big if. 

It is also a subject for a different article (and maybe for a podcast, too…)

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All you need is love – Derby County v Leeds United play-off preview

Truth be told, I didn’t expect us to get this far.  Certainly not when I realised at the end of March that to reach 73 points – the long-term average tally for sixth place – Derby required two points per game from their remaining fixtures.  A sudden acceleration to automatic promotion form from a side which had never been consistent in 2018/9 felt like too much to hope for.  True, we had a run of mouthwatering home games to come against some of the division’s basketcases, but there were plenty of tough away assignments too.  We had been the definition of ‘there or thereabouts’, without ever stringing together many wins.  So why should it suddenly happen now?

Well, it did.  In the final nine games, Derby collected an impressive 18 points – two per game, the magic number.  They plundered goals ruthlessly against Rotherham and Bolton, before scrambling past QPR in a frenzy of raw emotion.  Yes, they tripped over their feet away from home – throwing three leads away at Brentford, remaining in their trailer for the duration of an awful loss at Blackburn, not quite good enough to hang on at Swansea – but they showed big, hairy balls to withstand the challenge of Bristol City and come away with the win in a genuine six-pointer at Ashton Gate.  In doing so, they left themselves in command of their own destiny on the final day, against a West Brom side whose motivation to win could have gone either way and totally evaporated after Harry Wilson’s penalty made it 3-1.

For Leeds United, third place – which I’ll bet they’d have snapped your hand off for at the start of the season – has turned out to be a bitter disappointment.  They were the early pretenders to the Championship title, starting strongly before really hitting their stride with seven straight league wins from the end of November to Boxing Day.  In January, they eviscerated Derby on a Friday night at Elland Road and although the score was only 2-0, it was one of the most complete  Championship performances I’ve seen.  It seemed that there would be no stopping them – that the legendary Marcelo Bielsa had wrought another squad into a ferociously competitive unit, with boundless energy to press the ball, plus the quality to play silky football once they had it. 

LEEDS UNITED 2 (Roofe 20, Harrison 47) DERBY COUNTY 0

WHITES (4-1-4-1):
Peacock-Farrell; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski; Forshaw; Clarke (Davis 79), Hernández, Klich, Harrison (Shackleton 63); Roofe

RAMS (4-3-3):
Carson; Wisdom (Nugent 46), Keogh, Tomori, Lowe; Mount, Evans (Jozefzoon 61), Bryson; Lawrence, Marriott (Waghorn 73), Holmes
Leeds’ side has not changed hugely since January.  They brought in the experienced Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid to replace academy product Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal.  Holding midfielder Kalvin Phillips was absent that day, but has been otherwise almost ever-present.  Gjanni Alioski, who played as an attacking left back at Elland Road, is injured and Bielsa has struggled to find somebody to nail down the slot in his absence – another converted winger, Stuart Dallas, played there at Ipswich.  Kemar Roofe, who scored in both league encounters with Derby this season, has recently recovered from injury and returned to the starting line-up, in place of the suspended Patrick Bamford. 

When you look at the Derby side from that January evening, on the other hand, it is significantly different from the one which, injuries allowing, is likely to play tomorrow.  Of the starting XI from Elland Road, only Keogh, Tomori, Mount, Lawrence and possibly Holmes if fit can be expected to turn out again tomorrow.

Jayden Bogle has seen off the cumbersome Andre Wisdom to become Lampard’s chosen right back.  George Evans played the holding role that day, in one of a handful of unimpressive midfield appearances from a player who was threatening to go the way of Julien de Sart, before his redemptive emergency centre back duties during the run-in.  Johnson has taken the slot for the run-in. Max Lowe started at left back, but had a difficult time and was sent back to Aberdeen for a second loan spell within days.  Jack Marriott has been dropped for Martyn Waghorn (who at least put in one satisfyingly meaty challenge during his brief sub appearance – more than anybody else had done up to that point).  Florian Jozefzoon came on as second change at Elland Road, but has dropped entirely out of the picture since, with Mason Bennett now acting as Lampard’s go-to ‘super sub’.

On top of all that, there was no Harry Wilson.  Determining whether Wilson was fit or not was of course a key piece of information that Bielsa wanted to gather by sending a spy to snoop on Derby’s training sessions ahead of the game. 

So, while Derby will play basically the same system as they did in January, the starting XI will be a different animal and should – touch wood – be considerably more able to compete with Leeds, both in and out of possession.  

That is not to make light of Leeds’ threat.  Pablo Hernández is their obvious star, floating wherever he likes and contributing a dozen goals, plus a dozen assists.  Ever-present Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich has ten goals and eight assists to his name.  Liam Cooper, Pompous Jansson, Luke Ayling and Kalvin Phillips have been the defensive bedrock and Bielsa acknowledges that their quality is the main reason that Leeds didn’t fall further off the promotion pace.  They conceded 50 goals in the regular season, a record bettered only by Sheffield United and Middlesbrough (Derby conceded 54).

Leeds dominate the ball to an extreme level (59.7% average possession, by far the highest in the division), create a lot of chances (17.2 shots per game, by far the highest in the division) and create much better quality chances than Derby (ten shots within the penalty area per game, compared to just seven for Derby).  Neither team had a twenty-goal striker this season, although Roofe might have got there had he played more.  Bamford, who will be available for the second leg at Elland Road, chipped in with nine goals in Roofe’s absence. They have done almost everything right, as Bielsa points out when referring to his side’s statistical dominance even in games they have lost.

But with the Premier League beckoning, they choked in the final stretch.  Their defeat at home against ten-man Wigan on Good Friday – they even took the lead, before throwing it away – was unfathomable, before an impish Brentford, who can be brilliant on their day at Griffin Park, gleefully played the part of spoilers by beating them 2-0. 

Then came chaos in the infamous home draw against Villa – in which Bielsa was forced to order his players to atone for their unsportsmanlike behaviour in scoring a goal after feigning to put the ball out, before Bamford was retrospectively banned for deceiving the referee.  Their error-strewn final-day embarrassment at the hands of bottom club Ipswich would have seen them drop into fourth place and a re-run against Villa, had West Brom beaten Derby.  

In the final nine games, while the Rams claimed 18 points, Leeds picked up only ten – ending the season six points shy of Sheffield United in second position. 


Bielsa is a deep thinker, an intellectual giant in coaching terms, who creates wonderful football teams.   He has some thirty years of managerial experience to draw on, on top of a lifetime of intense football obsession.  But that intensity clearly leads him to brood on things that go wrong – hence his cross response to an obviously silly question from a journalist about whether he would spy on Derby again, then his announcement that his team will not kick the ball out if a Derby player goes down injured in these matches.  This is his way of ensuring that there is no repeat of the farce against Villa (as it happens, I agree with him that it should be the down to the referee to stop the game or not).  

That intensity and drive to push his players to new heights has been a double-edged sword throughout his career.  Ander Herrera recently gave an interview about to Graham Hunter about the season when Bielsa’s Athletic made it all the way to two cup finals, only to lose them both. As reported at Training Ground Guru, he told Hunter:-

“We had three or four months when we were literally flying, from November to February/ March, we were unbeatable. I talked to Alexis (Sanchez). He faced us when he was at Barcelona and said ‘my god, how much you guys were running’.  No-one was able to run as much as us, it was impossible.

“It is quite a romantic view about football, but I can’t lie to you, in the last months we couldn’t even move.  We had five games to play in the league and were in two cup finals and I think we lost all of them.  Our legs said ‘stop’.  We used to play always with the same players and were not at our best in the finals.  We were a completely different team than we had been before because, to be honest, we were physically fucked.

“We couldn’t run any more….And if you see the stats, Bielsa used to play with the same players… so you can imagine how we finished the season.

“I am not blaming the manager, because he did amazing for us and we should be very thankful because of the beautiful football, but the last month we couldn’t even move and that is the reality.”

In our dugout, Lampard may still be in the early stages of his coaching career, but he spent his playing career in winning environments, surrounded by serial winners.  He is more than used to being a key figure in the dressing room before the biggest of all cup finals.  And he has learned a lot in a short space of time – not least how to adapt his plans to build a team which may not perfectly suit his personal preferences, but which gets the best out of the resources available to him.

Derby’s most obviously lethal striker has been left out for balance reasons, with the sturdy Waghorn preferred (and repaying Lampard’s faith with nine league goals, in a run of increasingly confident performances).  David Nugent clambered off the bench when Waghorn suffered an achilles injury against West Brom – and so would seem to be in Lampard’s thoughts as the deputy of choice, should Waggy not recover in time.  That would be a big decision, if it comes to it – but Lampard has not shied away from those and has got more right than wrong over the course of the season. 

He discarded Tom Huddlestone, Derby’s gifted midfield technician, in favour of Johnson, an inferior ball player with better physical qualities.  Scott Carson, the club’s undisputed number one for a long time, has been dropped for the rookie Kelle Roos, who grabbed the chance and blossomed.  Perhaps his biggest decision had a disastrous short-term effect – fielding a dramatically weakened team at Villa Park to rest players ahead of a home triple-header against Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke.   That didn’t quite work out, but was part of a policy of squad rotation, presumably designed to prevent the kind of burnout which Bielsa risks through his strict dependence on a small core group who play as often as possible.

Lampard has now identified an increasingly coherent team from a squad of players with obvious flaws and only partly of Lampard’s own design.  I don’t think that Johnson, for example, is a player Lampard would have signed, but the manager has nevertheless got something resembling a tune out of him and it’s hard to see him being left out of the side on Saturday.  He will be there, causing me to have kittens whenever he receives the ball, but also sitting behind the attack-minded five, hopefully winning his headers and disrupting Leeds’ attacking patterns – and, again hopefully, not getting sent off for biting anyone.

Interceptions per game

Jansson 2.3
Cooper 2.3
Johnson 1.7
Tomori 1.6
Malone 1.5
Phillips 1.4
Ayling 1.2
Keogh 0.9
(Huddlestone 0.9)

Lampard first hit upon the template for his best team in that brilliant week back in October, against Sheffield United, West Brom and Middlesbrough. Injuries and fixture congestion have not always allowed him to field that team, or at times anything like it – and he struggled to identify an effective “Plan B”, particularly after losing Mason Mount.  But all being well, he can execute near enough his ‘Plan A’ on Leeds this weekend and see whether Bielsa’s players can deal with it. 

Leeds will be briefed to the eyeballs – they will have had Bielsa’s dossier drummed into them back to front.  Other than the fact of which players are fit and training for the game on this occasion, there is nothing they won’t know about Derby.  But knowing and doing are two separate things.

Nobody has ever questioned Bielsa’s status as a coach, but his puritanical intensity has burned out bigger clubs than Leeds before and for Derby, the hope is that what happened to Athletic under his management will happen again. 

After Leeds’ defeat to Wigan, Bielsa told the press:

“Remember what I say now because you’ll be able to verify it. You won’t find a single player in our team who would be able to reproduce the same level of performance in another season because we’ve been very demanding with them.

“They’ve given everything and they have figures I’m checking all the time which show what I’m saying is true. The players won’t be able to reproduce the levels they have shown in another season.”

As the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Leeds scribe Phil Hay has pointed out, there was a similarly downbeat message from Bielsa after the Brentford defeat, when he talked about how his squad had masked their ‘hidden limits’ to overachieve through sheer physical effort. 

In his pre-match press conference, Leeds captain Pompous Jansson chose to talk to the press about hate.  What has been notable this season is how often Lampard, on the other hand talks above love.  One of his earliest headline-capturing comments as Rams manager was his gushing declaration of love for Bennett – it is a word he uses all the time.  Even in his conversation with Rams TV before this game, he talked to Colin Gibson about his love for the game in general, in the context of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur’s dramatic Champions League comebacks.  He came out at Derby’s lowest points in the season to rail against what he saw as the ‘negativity’ surrounding the club, without ever naming names, but swiping at dark shadows lurking in the corners, trying to clear the air and get everyone together and pulling in the same direction.

Of course, Derby v Leeds is not as simple as love v hate, good v evil, light v shade, guilelessness v cynicism.  Our lot forever sing about f***ing hating Leeds, after all (lord knows, we’re not alone in that).  But this does feel like a contest between one club which is in a positive place and another whose outlook is currently much more negative. 

Speaking for myself, I am enjoying – no, let’s just say, it, loving following Derby at the moment.  I love watching Mount, with his smart movement and skill and energy and blatant Premier League quality.  I love Wilson’s magnificent striking of the ball and how nervous he makes defences – he is the fourth most heavily-fouled player in the Championship, behind fellow dangermen Jack Grealish, Daniel James and John McGinn.  I love the emergence of Bogle as a thoroughbred modern full back, at the age of 18.  I love the fact that Roos, who was plucked from Nuneaton Borough long ago, has risen to the challenge of replacing an ex-England goalkeeper. I love Fikayo Tomori’s uninhibited passion for football.  I love the way Lawrence scythed through the West Brom defence in a way that makes me dare to dream that he is ready to step up and become a big player for the club.  I love Bennett’s absolute drive to do well and the way that Lampard has constantly encouraged him and shown belief in him.  I could go on and on. 

For Derby, if we don’t go up, well, were we ever seriously expecting it to happen this season?  For Leeds, given how they started the season, even having to play in these game clearly feels like a failure. 

As recently as mid-April, my Twitter poll found that 79% of 242 fans would rather have faced Sheffield United than Leeds at this stage.  But that fear factor has since absolutely evaporated. The psychological balance could shift very quickly, depending on how things go tomorrow.  But the way things have been going lately, right now, I would much rather be bouncing along in Lampard’s shoes than squatting pensively on Bielsa’s bucket.

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The Derby County BlogCast #8 – Mad March hares running wild

It’s March and hares are running wild all over the place, with national media running scare stories about the future of Derby County’s points tally, ownership and management. What better time to take stock and refocus, with my regular compadre Chris and this month’s special panellist, Jamie Thrasivoulou, the poet behind the brilliant ‘We Are Derby’.

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Frank Lampard’s quest for cohesion

I’m not sure who Frank Lampard was referring to when he expressed his frustration at the ‘negativity’ he perceives as surrounding Derby County last week.  Whoever his comments were aimed at, though, Lampard certainly got a big reaction and from what I saw and heard, the overwhelming consensus was that supporters wanted to rally around him and distance themselves from whoever it was who was perceived to be sowing the ‘negativity’.  It certainly moved the conversation on from what had been a pretty awful performance at Nottingham Forest – maybe that was the point.

Three points shuts everyone up, as Radio Derby will tell you when they’re programming a Monday night talk-in after a Saturday victory, but Derby haven’t won many league games in the last couple of months – and that builds tension.  Which is why it’s worth remembering that Derby’s fixture list around Christmas, New Year and into January was freakishly difficult.  Consecutively, the Rams played an East Midlands Derby, Sheffield United away, Norwich away, Boro home, Southampton in the FA Cup at home, Leeds away and then Southampton in the FA Cup again (going to extra time).  They followed that up with back-to-back wins, against Reading at Pride Park and then at Accrington Stanley in the cup.

That was an incredibly taxing run of matches and Derby only lost two of them, at Sheffield United and Leeds.  The problem was that they only won two of the league games and so started to tread water, as Bristol City surged up the table on a seemingly endless run of victories. 

Having watched the team battle through the challenge of playing all of the promotion contenders bar West Brom in a row, I couldn’t help but look at the run of Preston, Hull, Ipswich and Millwall as an enormous opportunity to pile on the points.  Surely, we would be good for at least two, maybe even three wins out of those four ‘easier’ games? And that would have acted as a much-needed pressure release after the difficult run we’d endured.

But as we all know, it didn’t happen like that.  Five points were all that was collected from the four games and performances have since slumped further, with the Paul Clement-esque defeat at Forest followed by the embarrassment of the worst result of the season at Villa.  And there is hardly time to pause and think, because the next game is tomorrow night.

Lampard tried a new midfield partnership at Ipswich, a back three against Millwall and then sent everybody’s eyebrows through the roof with a selection at Villa Park which Chris of Ramspace summed up as ‘suicidal’.  None of these changes have worked and they have started to look a little desperate, with Lampard seemingly chasing a mirage. Form has eluded Derby and the more the manager twists instead of sticking, the worse performances seem to get.

While trying to make sense of the array of team changes and formation tweaks which Lampard has been unsuccessfully deploying in recent weeks, I came across an article published by Training Ground Guru, which made complete sense, when applied to Derby’s current problems. 

TGG interviewed an Australian analysis company, Gain Line Analytics, who have developed a method for measuring team cohesion.  There’s science behind it, but essentially, it comes down to the basic common sense that a settled squad who’ve had time to develop relationships with each other on the field will enjoy greater success than one which is constantly being tinkered with.  The longer players work together, the better they get to know each other’s game, the more cohesive a unit they become, the better they perform. 

Analyst Simon Strachan summed it up by telling TGG: “If you are a low cohesion team, it doesn’t matter what the quality of the new player is, they won’t look very good.  They will be developing relationships with guys who are developing relationships with each other.” I’m sure that Strachan would have looked at Lampard’s team selection and the result against Villa and nodded sagely, as his point was proved pretty much exactly.  

Lampard of course takes responsibility for choosing to make so many changes for that game, but the underlying point Strachan was making is not that managers should select the same XI week in, week out regardless, but that it can take several seasons – three years on average, according to Gain Line – for a player to reach his peak with a club. 

Of the team that started against Villa, only Carson, Keogh and Bennett had been with the club for that long. It’s Wisdom’s second season here (in his second spell), but he has barely featured this term. Three of Lampard’s less high-profile signings started – Holmes, Jozefzoon and Evans, of whom, only Holmes has had a run of appearances lately. Max Bird was handed his full league debut. Ashley Cole may be the most experienced player you’ll ever see, but only arrived at this club in January.

With Gain Line’s findings in mind, expecting a new manager – who has made twelve new signings while allowing twelve senior players to leave – to find a cohesive team in his first season is not necessarily realistic. Viewed in this context, Derby’s flurry of early-season success starts to look much more impressive – their recent struggles more understandable.  

Lampard did hit on a team which worked earlier in the season – the hub being Harry Wilson and Mason Mount partnered together in midfield, with Tom Huddlestone sitting and an ideal front three of Martyn Waghorn, Tom Lawrence and Jack Marriott.  When fixture congestion started to take its toll and injuries started to bite, that line-up was disrupted. Of the entire midfield and attack which gleefully savaged West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, only Marriott started at Villa Park (although Huddlestone and Waghorn were not injured, to my knowledge).

Without some of those key players, Lampard has been reaching for an alternative winning formula that he just can’t find in recent weeks.  The team, whatever personnel or shape Lampard adopted, has been terrible – incoherent, incapable of creating a chance, let alone scoring a goal.  There’s a run of four successive home games to try to start putting things right, but as of now, it seems highly unlikely that Derby will be promoted this season.

But the truth is, there is no fast forward button.  Success will not happen overnight.  As painful as it is and as tiresome as it is to be promised ‘jam tomorrow’ again, we simply have to tough out this difficult phase, continue the rebuilding job in the summer and seek to emerge from it as a better club, in the long-term.   

In the social media era, where everything has been accelerated and success is demanded instantly, the idea that a team would be allowed to build and grow over three seasons feels unrealistic. But given that Derby have changed manager every season since 2013/4 without enjoying much success, you’d like to think that perhaps it would be worth trying.  That’s assuming that Lampard hasn’t been so turned off by the ‘negativity’ that he loses heart and decides to move on.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and Brian Clough isn’t on this particular job…

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Nottingham Forest 1 Derby County 0

RIP Mark Hollis

By the 70th minute, the game was as good as dead. Derby could do nothing to remotely affect Forest, who sat smug on the free gift they’d been handed in the second minute, like Smaug the dragon snoozing on his hoard of gold. We knew exactly how Martin O’Neill wanted to play, we fucked up straight from the kick-off and that is basically all she wrote.

To concede so early and then go on to muster two shots by half-time, just six shots by the final whistle, was shameful in a game of this magnitude. There was no rally, no real fight, no threat, nothing. Basically, there was nothing. I can take a defeat, but making it so easy for them in a loss this toothless, on top of a similarly toothless loss in the week, on top of a dreadful performance at bottom-of-the-league Ipswich, on top of a dreadful performance at Preston… Let’s just say that the honeymoon is well and truly over for Frank Lampard now, as he tries to work out how to get his squad out of their deepening rut.

It was surprising that, other than a different starting formation and Andy King replacing the injured Craig Bryson, Lampard didn’t see fit to make changes from the side which put in such an inadequate performance against Millwall. It was unsurprising when, just like against Millwall, Derby let their opponents control the game without the ball, shutting off spaces and ceding possession quite happily, challenging Derby to do something with it. What worries me is that Lampard said after these two 1-0 defeats that Derby ‘controlled the ball for long spells’. Yes, we did, but surely he must know that was a specific tactic the opposition were deploying. They let us have it, they were disciplined and organised and that is basically all it takes to beat Derby at the minute. As a bonus to their defensive wall of steel, Forest had Joe Lolley, who was brilliant in giving the defence a breather by carrying the ball up the pitch, often without any support at all.

Despite their lack of attacking ambition, Forest could easily have scored two or three on the night. We haven’t scored or even really looked like scoring for nigh-on 270 minutes of league football now and you look around wondering where the next chance is going to come from, let alone the next win. Aston Villa may be mid-table and floundering, with an abysmal defensive record, but they will have been watching this game and licking their lips. Any opposition scout would have been.

Jack Marriott never had a shot. Harry Wilson started on the left, where he had no impact whatsoever, then was moved into central midfield, where he had no impact whatsoever, then was subbed for Mason Bennett, who had no impact whatsoever. By the time a free kick came along in ‘Wilson territory’, the Welshman was already off the field. Martyn Waghorn took it instead, lobbing the ball to Costel Pantilimon with all the force of an underarm throw – a futile act which doubled Derby’s shots on target for the evening.

Ashley Cole must be wondering what on earth he has let himself in for. He is still a class act and in dealing with Lolley, was really the only bright spot in an otherwise pitiful team performance.

Hooking Tom Huddlestone at half-time was a reaction to the fact that, just like at Millwall, Derby had been too slow and spent too much time passing the ball in front of Forest and almost no time playing anywhere near their goal. Losing Andy King to injury shortly after that was unfortunate, but I didn’t feel like King would have made a difference to the result in any case.

Bradley Johnson came on and did what he does – won the odd challenge and interception, clipped the odd nice-looking pass to the wing, blazed a shot over the bar, gave the ball away in midfield with mind-numbingly dreadful passes on two or three occasions. But Derby look so hopeless at the minute that I’m starting to think that he actually has a chance of starting at Villa.

I had no idea what team Lampard would pick before this game and after it was announced, I still wasn’t sure how he would line them up. Such is our lot, at the moment. Forest, on the other hand, looked comfortable in their skins and had a simple, solid gameplan, as negative as it was. You can’t complain or seek to inhabit the moral high ground when you play into the opponents’ hands and their tactics work as comprehensively as this.

So where do we go from here? Well, Villa Park, in the short term – where we haven’t won in thirty years – before a spell of home games against teams from the bottom half of the division. In theory, that March Pride Park residency is a huge opportunity to power back into the top six, but on the basis of their last few performances, Derby don’t look like a side who are capable of stringing enough wins together to do it.

I said at the start of the last BlogCast that the Rams’ season was ‘at a crossroads’. That was before Millwall. Zero points since then says that we have lurched a good distance down the wrong path entirely and while it’s by no means terminal at this stage, Lampard and the players have to somehow stop this rot as soon as possible, before they lose touch with the top six altogether

Points in last five league games

Norwich 12
Leeds 10
Sheffield U 13
WBA 10
Boro 10
Bristol C 12
Forest 8
Birmingham 8
PNE 11

The turmoil of recent years has resulted in a mish-mash of a squad, with players signed by half-a-dozen or so managers still on the books, some of whom (Bryson and Nugent, for example) are clearly past their best. As Chris pointed out on the pod, what kills you is that there are surplus players in Chris Martin, Ikechi Anya and poor George Thorne who still have a year left before they can be released. But Lampard did make plenty of signings last summer and most of them (with the exception of George Evans) are featuring now. The front five who started at Forest and who looked, in the words of Jay of Blades Analytics ‘like they didn’t know each other’, all joined last summer.

The squad will look radically different before the first game of next season – which could still, in theory, be in the Premier League, although that prospect is rapidly receding by the game. Lampard pointed out after this loss that everybody had been talking about a ‘transitional’ season before a ball was kicked, rather than a promotion push and that gives you a pretty broad clue as to where his head is at.

There’s a lot of chat at the moment about the many players who are out of contract at the end of the season and the opportunity for renewal that brings. When you take out the loan signings as well, plus the retiring Cole, then the need for a big overhaul is huge. We will come back to that a bit nearer the time (as soon as promotion is ruled out, in fact).

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