I wrote this season preview for my Uncle Rupert, free of charge – anything for my Uncle Rupert.
Maybe he’ll remember me in his will?
Rams to raid top half
‘Continental’ formation should excite Pride Park
It’s not been the most memorable of off-seasons for Derby County.
Our transfer business was conducted in a low-key, unfussy fashion before everybody got all worked up about the World Cup.
In fact, one contributor to a fans forum described it as the most boring pre-season for the Rams he could remember. I say that’s a good thing.
Derby’s tumultuous recent past has provided more managerial changes, squad overhauls and boardroom shenanigans than anybody with the club at heart would care to remember.
So it’s refreshing to go into a new season with a feeling that what is required is not revolution, but simply a continuation of the evolutionary process Nigel Clough is attempting to foster.
That said, our squad is still light on numbers, especially given the poor fitness record of many of our first teamers, so it seems inevitable that Clough will be obliged to dip into the loan market again.
He actually used it well last season, with the likes of Freddie Stoor, Lee Johnson, Paul Dickov and DJ Campbell all making useful contributions. However, it would be much better if our own players were able to fill the first-team positions regularly, with our youngsters used as back-up.
Clough has already outlined that he wants to bridge the existing gap between the youth team and the first team. To this end, young players such as Ben Pringle are being nurtured in the reserves, but it will take time to develop the kids and in the meantime, the first eleven must not struggle in the way they did last term.
The signs in that regard are no better than OK, if, as is inevitable over the course of a gruelling Championship campaign, we lose a couple of players to injury.
The main change for the new season is set to be the formation, rather than the personnel. At the suggestion of coach Johnny Metgod, who spent the World Cup scouting for the Netherlands, Clough has decided to adopt a 4-2-3-1 system, as notably deployed by the Dutch, Germans and Spaniards in South Africa.
Of course, Derby’s players are nowhere near as technically adept as the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi but we do have a squad of players who like to pass the ball, and in Kris Commons, we have an individual talent tailor-made for the modern ‘Christmas Tree’ set-up.
Playing with two holding midfielders – on Saturday at Leeds the positions will be filled by Robbie Savage (now 35) and his 21-year old protégé James Bailey – theoretically allows the forward thinking midfielders to concentrate on attacking.
Hence the likes of Paul Green, Commons and the young Pole, Tomasz Cywka, who has joined from Wigan Athletic after a successful loan spell last season, will be allowed to roam and search for space in between the lines, as Derby look to build from the back.
The full-backs have an important role in the 4-2-3-1, as in addition to their defensive work, they need to get forward to support the attack. New players have been brought in this summer to fill these roles. John Brayford, an adventurous young right-back Clough developed at Burton Albion, was signed from Crewe Alexandra at the same time as Bailey.
Veteran left-back Gareth Roberts has joined from Doncaster Rovers and has already treated Pride Park to a thumping goal, smashing in from range during the friendly against Birmingham City.
All has been calm at Derby since the end of last season, with only the irritation of the continuing speculation about Rob Hulse’s future causing a ripple on the otherwise placid surface.
Clough would have liked to have signed Gary Hooper from Scunthorpe but was unable to match the financial muscle of Glasgow Celtic, so we go into the season with what we’ve got and the possibility of a long-term loan to replace the luckless Steve Davies, who is sidelined yet again with knee ligament damage.
A young, talented, albeit slightly lightweight squad will go into this season unfancied and that could help them. I believe that the Championship is wide open this season and whilst I think the play-offs are beyond us, my expectation is a top-half finish with some attractive football along the way. Hopefully good results against the likes of Leicester, Leeds and most importantly Nottingham Forest will also be achieved.
I would also like to see Commons’ contract extended – it runs out at the end of the season – on the proviso that he can keep himself fit, as he has been far too susceptible to injury over the last couple of seasons.
As for Saturday’s clash with Leeds, I’m looking forward to stepping into Elland Road for the first time as our old muckers make their comeback to the second tier. I expect a real bearpit atmosphere, which will provide a tough test for our new system – and for the youthful trio of Brayford, Bailey and Cywka.
The more experienced players, like Savage and the centre backs, Russell Anderson and Dean Leacock, will need to stand up to the ‘Dirties’ and help the younger lads through the game. It’s a great chance to put down a marker and three points would be a magnificent way to start the new season.
Bring it on.