Stoke City v Derby County preview

Like his spiritual father Tony Pulis, Gary Rowett sees himself as a pragmatist.  His reactive brand of football may not be very popular, but Pulis and Rowett argue that it’s necessary to play less-than-scintillating football sometimes to get results.  The trouble for this type of manager comes when the promised results don’t materialise, because then, there’s very little there for fans to get behind. 



Just like José Mourinho, another key influence, Rowett is very fond of statistics – at least, his own personal reading of them, which he uses in press conferences to influence reporters and defend himself against criticism, either of his overall record or of his playing style.  He couldn’t help, for example, telling reporters in the press conference before this game that “The reality is, we had more goals and points (with Derby) at this stage last season than [this season’s] side has currently got.”

This serves only to remind Rams fans a) how badly the arse fell out of Derby’s season under Rowett once 2017 ended and b) how petty he is, that he obviously can’t stand to see the infinitely more popular Frank Lampard getting the plaudits and affection that he never did.

For Rowett, the top line at the moment will be that Stoke City have only lost one of their last nine league games.  Superficially, that sounds decent, but the run has included five draws, resulting in a tally of 14 points from a possible 27.  Not awful, but not play-off form – and this is Stoke, freshly relegated, swimming in Bet365’s money and parachute payments, carrying an England goalkeeper and internationals wherever you care to look.  The expectation was for much, much more than this.

Rowett had big money to spend – signing Ryan Woods, Tom Ince, Peter Etebo, James McClean (who feels like the ultimate Rowett signing, somehow) and Benik Afobe, plus Ashley Williams on loan, with the idea of building an experienced force which would be too strong for this league.  A better chance of Premier League football was, after all, what Rowett left Derby in the lurch for last summer.

Stoke’s wage bill last season was in excess of £90m and while relegation means an inevitable financial haircut, their parachute payment for this season is £42m – far higher on its own than any normal Championship club’s total turnover (Derby, who are obviously one of the division’s bigger clubs, turned over £29m in 2017).

So, surely pretty much every Derby fan has felt huge schadenfreude at Rowett’s struggles – particularly the Potters’ damaging home losses to Wigan, Blackburn and Birmingham – and the current gap of eight points between the two clubs is, even at this stage of the season, quite a chasm.  

Their problems haven’t come because they’re being thrashed every week, however – it’s because they can’t stop drawing.  They’ve been held by Brentford, Middlesbrough and QPR at home, while away, they picked up what Rowett probably perceives as valuable points at Sheffield United, Forest, Preston, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham (Rowett’s Derby drew 15 times last season – the high for the division was 16).

Too many draws, not enough points at home, not enough goals (21, with a goal difference of -1).  For shots per game, they rank 17th in the division, for shots on target per game, 20th.  Nobody is scoring heavily, although the big names Afobe (four goals), Ince (three), Joe Allen (three) and Saido Berahino (two) have at least chipped in.  37 year-old Peter Crouch is still on the wage bill and acting as Rowett’s “Plan B” from the bench (while he’s not busy producing podcasts for the BBC).

The godlike Jack Marriott has outscored all of those big name high-earners, despite only having started seven league games – less than half as many as Afobe.

In short, Stoke are not performing to expectation, or anywhere near it.  As the Stoke Sentinel’s Martin Spinks put it after the 2-2 draw with Steve McClaren’s QPR: 



“The sad truth is – and much as some of us are desperately trying to convince ourselves otherwise – there is a mid-table look about a Stoke team that just can’t hit the floor with the throttle.  We have rarely seen the ruthlessness required of a team able to sustain a top-six challenge, or even kickstart one, and it seems an awfully long time since anyone in and around Stoke City was heard uttering the phrase top two, at least without an expletive either side.”


Supporters, meanwhile, lined up to criticise Rowett for his “slow negative football with strange tactics and substitutes, no creativity in attack, very few shots on target and the inevitable draw at the final whistle.”



Stoke fan and football writer James Whittaker summed up the local dissatisfaction with Rowett in a series of agonised tweets after the QPR draw:



“Reflecting on our season so far, I’ve got to admit I’m starting to lose faith in Rowett.  Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s walked into a club riddled with disease on and off the pitch and nothing was going to change overnight or even in a few months.  My main issue is the fact that when I watch us, there is no apparent plan on the pitch whatsoever…



“I was expecting there to be some kind of identity shining through or at least a style or approach to recognise, but alas we are sitting here in 13th place with 5 wins from 18 games with no idea what to expect week to week.  There’s no way of predicting a game or forecasting what might happen logically other than you know it will be disjointed.  We’re getting results by luck rather than design at times and that’s not scalable over a season or, God forbid, the entire length of his contract.

“No, we had no right to remain in the Premier League indefinitely but the manner of our demise and the complete and utter ineptitude of managing it puts my blood pressure through the roof.  We won’t go up this year and I’ve seen nothing to suggest there’s even any hope beyond that.”



The sense of utter despair engendered by watching a Rowett team regularly is one which rings bells….   At least last season, I was only in a position to pronounce Derby’s season as dead in the water in March.

Regardless of the result of this particular game, you can’t help but wonder if Rowett has been rumbled.  Granted, he probably felt that he was leaving Derby before he was inevitably pushed out, but in gambling on a jump to Stoke, he looks to have bitten off more than he could chew.  As it stands, a dismissal and brief furlough, followed by a newly circumscribed career firefighting for smaller Championship clubs battling to stave off relegation and not too fussy about how that looks seems to beckon. 


As for Derby, they come into this game on the back of a win at Sheffield Wednesday which in truth came from a fairly uninspiring performance. Mason Mount, missing from the Villa defeat, was back, but only managed an hour of the game, in which he was far from his influential best. 

 Lining up alongside Mount in midfield was the tiny, lightweight Duane Holmes, a player capable of wriggling away from a tackle like an eel, but not of winning the ball.  He is learning at the deep end, having played well in the second half against Birmingham, struggled to impact the game against Villa and revealing moments of exciting quality and serious naivety in equal measure at Hillsborough.


Immediately before the opening goal, look at the way Holmes loses the ball and then compounds the error by leaving his man to press the defender:

Yes, pressing is a key part of Lampard’s game, but decision-making is also key at this level and Holmes went for a ball he was never going to win, probably goaded by his own sloppiness in conceding possession and looking to make amends.  He might have got away with it while playing League One football for Scunthorpe, but the player he was leaving unmarked was Barry Bannan, who had the quality to take advantage with an accurate long pass.  The goal was an extremely poor one to concede and the defenders certainly could have done better in dealing with the ball in, but the original situation came from Holmes’ rash decision.

Another example was the sitter which Fernando Forestieri missed in the second half.  With Derby 2-1 up, Holmes won a throw-in on the right, which Andre Wisdom trundled up to take – only to be befuddled to suddenly find that Holmes had sprinted to collect the ball and thrown it neatly to his feet.  Wisdom, who is frankly not a player you would want to be put in that position, manifestly wasn’t ready, miscontrolled it and was robbed.  Seconds later, Forestieri was clean through and really should have scored.
  


The point of this is not to rag on Holmes, who, at 24, has his best years ahead of him and will hopefully learn from his early mistakes at Championship level.  I just wonder whether Lampard will be keen to reinstate Craig Bryson to the side, following his return from the bench on Saturday.  Bryson was a key figure until sustaining an injury against Sheffield United and when it comes to “doing it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke”, perhaps it’s time to go for the more experienced option in midfield.

The goals against column for Derby remains low, but a bothersome stat is the Rams’ ongoing lack of clean sheets.  Adam Reach’s goal meant that they have now only kept one clean sheet in their last 13 games – thanks to an exasperating habit of conceding once every time (Villa aside) – and in those circumstances, I imagine Curtis Davies must feel extremely frustrated not to be named in the side.  This was an issue I first wrote about a while ago, when Fikayo Tomori emerged as a popular, speedy option in defence – the Chelsea loanee is clearly a player Lampard believes in.  But he had a bit of a nightmare at Wednesday and forced the manager into subbing him at half-time.

Tomori’s virtues are his pace and relative composure on the ball – these attributes mean he is naturally suited to the game Lampard ideally wants to play – but he also has a fiery temperament and a young man’s impetuous desire to ‘nick’ the ball, meaning that he can get himself into trouble against canny centre forwards.  He never did enough to merit being sent off at Hillsborough, despite the howls of the home players and fans, but having got himself booked, he then got involved in a tangle of legs while on the attack in the Wednesday half and from that point on, his (yellow) card was marked.  The slightest indiscretion after that would have forced the referee’s hand and there was little option for Lampard but to make the change.

With a powerful, experienced unit to face in Stoke and with that failure to keep clean sheets in mind, surely Lampard must at least be considering making a change and bringing the club captain back into the team.  In Bryson and Davies, Lampard can call upon two seasoned campaigners who will not be fazed by the atmosphere in the Potteries and for this game, I’d be tempted to give them the nod over the promising but green Holmes and Tomori.  

That said, Lampard has consistently shown that he is not afraid to trust young players and if he decides to stick to his guns and show faith in youth, then so be it.  Derby have gained enough results and points to justify the manager’s approach and with what was threatening to become something of an injury crisis now abating, hopefully he has enough depth in his squad to cope with the exacting Championship winter.

****

Rowett would love it, love it, if his team beat Derby, while Rams fans would be howling with laughter if they condemned him to another defeat and the boos of the disaffected supporters.  But whatever happens in this game, one stat I did notice, which Rowett really wouldn’t like, sums up the difference in approach between the two managers and why Derby are in better hands now than they were under the Villa-supporting Brummie. 

At Sheffield Wednesday, Derby recorded nine shots in the game.  This was interesting because it was the first time all season Lampard’s Rams had failed to hit double figures for their shot tally.  Rowett’s Derby mustered less than ten shots in a match 13 times last season – getting on for once every three games.  

I was so appalled by Brentford away (three shots) that I was moved to write a two-part blog on what the hell was going on, but it got even worse when the team, spooked by their hideous humbling at the hands of Sunderland, had two shots in the entire game at Preston.  Two!  OK, they won the game 1-0 thanks to Tom Lawrence’s drive (the less said about his celebration, the better), but the beautiful game, it was not.  

And it wasn’t exactly a one-off – it was a regular tactical choice of Rowett’s to sit back, let the opposition have the ball and negate them.  Whereas Lampard demands something very different, which is that his side attacks the opposition and actually tries to win – not just not to lose.

Lampard does not spin the facts and snipe about trivial stats to prove a point, he’s not insecure enough to need to do that.  His understanding of football is infinitely richer, he has more personality, more stature and much, much more of a future as a manager than Rowett.   We will lose Lampard one day – but it will not be to Stoke.

Whatever happens in this game, it’s clear that Rowett did Derby County a massive favour by walking out on the club.  And should a legion of inflatable snakes be launched into the Potteries sky as the home fans jeer in their droves and Lampard starts the bounce, then if I’m being really honest, the reality is that I would absolutely love it.  

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