We’re often told that when it comes to possession, it’s not how much you have, but what you do with it. My take is that average possession percentage over a season acts as a good gauge for a team’s overall quality – same with pass success percentage.
An individual game’s possession stat is not reliable in terms of predicting the result – shots on target and particularly shot location are far more reliable in that regard – but when a side keeps the ball for less than a quarter of the game, it’s nevertheless a real eyebrow-raiser. Especially when it’s Derby County in the Championship. Teams can and very often do get away with a result despite having drastically less of the ball in a game, but I’m confident in saying that if the Rams averaged 24 per cent possession for the rest of the season, they would be relegated.
24 per cent. It was a real shock. After all, we have been known for seasons now as a relatively cultured, ball-playing outfit, prone to episodes of brilliance and inept capitulation in about equal measures, but keen to keep the ball on the deck and basically competent to do it.
That may have been the Derby Way in previous seasons, but it is not the Gary Rowett Way.
Lowest DCFC possession figures in last six seasons
Brentford A 17/18 – 24 (Rowett) 1-1
Fulham H 16/17 – 26 (Rowett) 4-2
Forest A 16/17 – 34 (Rowett) 2-2
Rowett flagged that a shift to a counter-attacking approach could happen during pre-season. Discussing his philosophy with Owen Bradley, he said he was more inspired by pragmatic managers like Diego Simeone of Atlético Madrid than by any idealised notion of “total football”. So when his side made prats of themselves at Sheffield United and Bristol City in consecutive away games, he rightly said that he would be “pretty stupid” not to change things – especially when the next game was against Brentford, who had humiliated Derby at Griffin Park a few months earlier. That game was so embarrassing that the club refrained from posting the full 90 minutes on its website – to my knowledge, it’s the only match that hasn’t been added to the record in the past few seasons.
Rowett was clearly (and quite rightly) hellbent on preventing a repeat of that humbling defeat, which is he reverted to an approach more associated with his relatively successful Birmingham City – an underdog mentality of stifle first, counter second, clear the ball up-field, rather than play out from the back. This ethos took over almost as soon as Joe Ledley scored and had been drummed into the Rams so hard that Vydra felt the need to apologise for the sin of trying to pass the ball in the middle third of the pitch when he could have cleared it.
Rowett’s defensive formation – stationing Johnson as a kind of “anti-ten” behind Winnall in a strictly regimented 4-4-1-1 – limited space for quicker, spritelier, younger Brentford, but sorely limited Derby’s attacking capability. Presumably, the idea was that Johnson would be liberated to get on the end of a cross – but with the full backs barely advancing over halfway, we never put in any crosses (surely this, rather than Brum at home, was the game for Baird). Rowett sacrificed any technique or dexterity in that area, which was at least partly responsible for the team’s worrying inability to control the game, even for a short space of time. If the possession thing doesn’t bother you, the fact that Derby only had three shots in the whole game – none at all between Ledley’s 15th minute goal and injury time – really should. Hopefully, the anti-ten thing will be written off as a failed experiment and Rowett will quickly move on.
There was only one side out there which looked remotely like promotion contenders. And yet it finished 1-1, with both teams having the same amount of shots on target.
Brentford equalised late, which was a huge disappointment – but a point is hell of a lot better than losing 3-1 or 4-1. Rowett can argue that his spoiling tactics worked better than taking the Bees on at their own game would have done – and his job is dependent not upon flair or style, but results (at least I think so).
For all that Brentford were clearly the superior team, they actually asked almost no questions of Scott Carson. The problem here was not at all with the defence, who showed excellent discipline and competence in restricting the Bees to barely a single clear sight of goal. It was the dismal lack of any play at all in the opposition half. Weimann is presumably favoured for his diligence, but is technically poor; Lawrence flickered occasionally, but had no help around him; Winnall, credit for the assist aside, barely had a kick and Johnson was Johnson, in a role which doesn’t suit him any better than holding midfield does.
Meanwhile, Chris Martin, whose hold-up play and free-kick winning abilities might have helped to relieve the ceaseless Brentford pressure, kicked his heels on the bench and Ikechi Anya and Johnny Russell continued their exile in whatever Derbyshire’s equivalent of Siberia is (I assume that Rowett is planning to sell much of his remaining Scottish contingent in January).
The results so far have been the epitome of average – three wins, three draws, three losses, goal difference zero. But it’s only three weeks since Derby steamrollered Hull 5-0 and the season is still in its early stages. As discussed in the latest podcast, this is a club which is going through a genuine, necessary transitional period and variable performance levels are absolutely to be expected at this stage. The defence looks OK and there are some good attacking options at Rowett’s disposal – but he needs to find ways to balance his desire for solidity (especially on the road) with sufficient attacking intent to break teams down (especially those who try to sit deep and dig a trench at Pride Park).
The Championship has changed. No longer are Derby the chief ball-hogs, nor are we anything like the neutral’s favourite. That tag passed to others long ago, teams like Fulham and Brentford, who play much more vivacious, eye-catching football. Brentford, in particular, can point to the moral high-ground of being one of the smallest clubs in the division. Derby no longer have a team capable of passing the opposition into the ground – mostly by design. It isn’t what Rowett wants to do. But there is more than one way to skin a cat (and hopefully to fell a tree, in a couple of weeks time – more on that later).
The last three performances have been inadequate, but there is more to come from the new players and there is scope for further squad overhaul in a few weeks’ time. Cardiff will be a very different type of examination – much bigger, much nastier, much less skilful, much more direct – and the defence will have to be even more dogged and tougher than they were at Griffin Park if they are to emerge with another creditable result on the road. Rowett could really use a win – but another point against Neil Warnock’s league leaders would keep things ticking over ahead of the derby.