Tactical Traumas and the Death of a Season

One of the most notable features of the current barren run is that Nigel Clough has been obliged to alter his starting formation in three of the recent defeats.  In two of them, however, the damage had already been done.

Firstly at Barnsley, where our 4-4-2 failed so badly that by the time we matched Barnsley’s midfield three and stopped making them look like Barcelona, they were already out of sight.  Secondly, against Reading, when a 4-3-3 simply didn’t offer enough punch against the visitors (who lined up 4-4-2) and thirdly against Leicester, when a lurch back to 4-4-2 gave Neil Danns an embarrassing amount of space in midfield.

Barnsley 3 Derby 2

In the first half of the Barnsley game, we simply weren’t able to get near the home side, who passed it around with hideous ease.  Jeff Hendrick cut a miserable figure on the right flank and Ryan Noble was entirely redundant up-front.  Eventually, Noble was shifted to the right, with Hendrick moving to his natural central midfield berth, but the game was already effectively over by then.  What made it even more galling was that once Derby were set up properly, the game swung in their favour.

Note that this was the game – Carroll’s debut, with Bailey left on the bench – in which Derby suddenly regressed from a solid, tight unit who had conceded just one goal in their previous five league games into a porous mess who conceded three times by half-time.

Derby 0 Reading 1

Reading were simply too defensively solid and strong for Derby.  The 4-3-3 we fielded looks good on paper, but on the day, Callum Ball could get no change out of the experienced Royals back four and Clough changed to 4-4-2 before half-time, with Tyson up-front and Bryson on the right – without causing Reading many more problems.  In this game, maybe the formation wasn’t the deciding factor.

Derby 0 Leicester 1

Against Leicester, the problem was embarrassingly obvious from very early on – neither Hendrick or Bryson were capable of acting as a shield for the back four and while Nugent and Beckford were kept pretty quiet by Shackell and Barker, they got no help against the runs of Danns, who was free to romp across the pitch and pepper Frank Fielding’s goal with shots at will.

Not until Carroll was shifted into central midfield to make a three did we gain any kind of foothold in the game and by that point, Leicester had already scored from a counter-attack, after Carroll lost the ball on the edge of the box in a central position and was left hopelessly out of position, exposing Green to the pace of Lloyd Dyer one-on-one.  Hey presto, Green was roasted and Danns won the game in a moment of vicious clarity.

Carroll, Bailey and a loss of balance

When Tom Carroll joined on loan from Spurs and was promoted straight into the first team at the expense of James Bailey, we started losing.  This may be coincidental, but my old mate Tommo made the point very quickly that in his view, Carroll was the wrong player at the wrong time.  Despite the fact that I like the look of Carroll as a player, it seems at this stage as if Tommo was right.

When Paul Green didn’t leave in January, as the club had clearly anticipated, it meant that central midfield was one of the few parts of the team where we didn’t need strengthening.  And what about the oft-repeated PR line about developing our own young players and not relying on loanees?  Carroll’s place in the team necessarily comes at the expense of one our own lads – Bailey.

If Carroll plays in the centre with Hendrick, there’s not enough cover for the defence.  Meanwhile, Bryson is obviously hurt, suffering with a heel injury and ‘playing through the pain’.  But Bailey, a natural holding midfielder with good positional sense and an excellent range of passing, wasn’t even on the bench for the Leicester game.

Clough has had a dig at Bailey in a couple of recent interviews, suggesting that he started training harder after Carroll’s arrival and also that he didn’t play well at Southampton (I didn’t see that game, but am reliably informed Clough was right on that) – but in doing without him, we are struggling very badly indeed.

Back to October and November, when our form was dreadful, we were missing Bailey.  And the season’s results with and without Bailey in the starting line-up make for very interesting reading: –

League Record with Bailey starting – P 12 W 8 D 1 L 3 F 13 A 10 GD +3 Pts 25
Points per Game 2.083 

Points per Game when Bailey did not start – P 20 W 4 D 5 L 11 F 20 A 33 GD -11 Pts 17
Points per Game 0.85

The difference is absolutely staggering.  When Bailey has started, we’ve won 75% of the games – promotion form – and two of the three defeats were away at the top two, West Ham and Southampton (the draw was at Burnley, when Bailey was withdrawn through illness at half-time).  Without Bailey starting, our win ratio plummets to 20% – relegation form.

It would be much too simplistic to suggest that bringing Bailey back would suddenly solve everything.  Brayford’s absence at right back has been telling and Bryson is clearly also injured, which weakens the side considerably – but it makes no sense for one of our best prospects to be completely left out of the squad in favour of someone else’s prodigy.

There is no doubt that Carroll is talented, but his only previous meaningful first team experience has come in League One with Leyton Orient – and it shows.  Bailey is already a good player for us, but he won’t get any better if he’s not picked.

This said, Clough has already mentioned the possibility of Carroll returning next season, which makes you wonder if all those Sky Sports reports about Bailey being set to leave are as wide of the mark as we all assumed.

In the meantime, it’s a bloody mess.  The starting XI seems to be wrong for every game at the moment and things are going badly against us.  The balance the side had when Bryson and Bailey played in central midfield together has been completely lost.

Green, Naylor and the right midfield void

The best moments we had against Leicester came when Paul Green was able to forge into the box.  Which reminded you – he’s actually a good midfielder.  What if we had a right back and he could go back to, if not his natural position of centre mid, at least right mid, where he was doing a good job?

We somehow appear to have arrived at a situation where there is nobody to play right midfield.  Carroll, Bryson and Hendrick have all been tried there unsuccessfully and Ben Davies has seemingly been completely cast aside.  So the reality is that, considering the players who are currently thought of as viable starters by Clough, Brayford’s absence has at a stroke made it virtually impossible for us to play 4-4-2 successfully.

In the brilliant run over Christmas and New Year, when we beat Leeds, West Ham, Hull and Coventry, we generally played 4-4-2, with Bailey and Bryson in the centre and Hendrick left out.  At that time, Brayford was fit, which allowed Green to play right midfield.

So if we’re not going to loan a right back, why not give Tom Naylor a chance, at least for one game?  It can’t get any worse than it’s been of late and we’re still 14 points – four wins and two draws – above the bottom three.  Clough recently muttered something about giving Naylor a go ‘if we had five or six more points’.  Fuck it!  Give him a go now.  He would have Barker and Shackell to talk him through the game, plus Green in front of him to offer support – and of course Green could move back to a midfield berth, where he’d be much more useful.

Naylor might struggle and we might lose, but hell, we’re doing that anyway – and we’re not involved in the relegation dogfight.  If the master plan is to blood the young players with a view to their long-term development, Clough may as well throw him in*.

(*Since I started writing this piece, the Derby Telegraph have reported that Clough is now considering giving Naylor his full debut)

The magic sponge approach

Against Leicester, Clough preferred Bryson on one leg to Bailey, who wasn’t even named among the subs.  After the defeat, Clough told the Derby Telegraph, “If you think how many second balls [Bryson] usually picks up, but in the first half against Leicester he couldn’t get any of those, which is mainly down to him not being 100 per cent at the moment.”

Which begs the question, why pick him?  The answer – “It’s easy to say ‘if he’s injured don’t play him’, but we still need him out there and he wants to be out there.”

That Clough went onto admit that Bryson’s injury ‘is the sort that gets worse during games’, leaving Bryson struggling within an hour and causing hamstring and calf complications, suggests irresponsible management.  It is indeed easy to say, if he’s injured, don’t play him, especially if you have other options available.  We might well ‘still need’ Bryson out there, but if he isn’t fit, we aren’t seeing the real Bryson anyway – and we run the risk of losing him for most of the rest of the season if he damages his hamstring.

After the injury crises of previous seasons, things have improved generally this season, but we are now missing Brayford probably until next season – after he broke down at Southampton, with Clough admitting that he had come back from his thigh injury too soon – and if Bryson doesn’t recover from his heel injury properly but continues to play, it seems likely that he will go the same way.

The death of a season

It wasn’t too long ago that Tommo and I were driving back from Turf Moor reflecting on a good point well-earned, which stretched our unbeaten run in league and cup games to six matches and left us 11th in the table, just two points off sixth.  Since then, it’s been a very different story.

Everybody is desperate for us to just win a game, but the team selection seems to be sabotaging any chance we have, week in week out.  Barnsley away could have been a comfortable victory, if we’d got the tactics right from the get-go.  Reading had far too cosy a time against lone striker Callum Ball and we weren’t even giving Leicester a game until we adjusted our formation to make up for the fact that, in a straight 4-4-2 shooting match, we couldn’t live with them.

The season is effectively over.  Another four wins and we’ll be safe and that is clearly the only aim, along with ‘giving the young lads experience’.  Unfortunately, in a team with an unbalanced, unsettled front six, all they seem to be experiencing at the moment is the taste of defeat.

What happens next season?

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