I’ve heard some negativity about the decision to re-sign Darren Bent. Bent, it’s been said, is the wrong fit for Derby, because you don’t get the best out of him in a 4-3-3. When the team is built around Chris Martin, the logic goes, it makes more sense to have a player in a similar ilk to slot into the team should anything happen to the main man. Last season, once Martin was injured, our performances were nowhere near as good and the team was never as cohesive with Bent leading the line. Therefore, why sign him?
The problem last season was never Bent, though. The guy appeared in 15 league games (11 starts) and scored ten goals, including three after being introduced as sub and three penalties. Tom Ince scored 11 in 18 and I doubt that many people would object if he returned to the iPro this season.
The problem was that McClaren tried to get through the whole season with only two strikers who have completely different characteristics – perhaps best illustrated by looking at the amount of free kicks each player won for the team: –
Martin’s average of 2.8 free kicks per game was the highest of any player in the Championship last season, whereas Bent was barely fouled. One relished the physical challenge and was canny enough to manipulate defenders into making contact – the other treated the ball as a hot potato and simply tried to lay it off, ideally first-time, on the rare occasions when he received it:-
It was unfair on Bent to ask him to fill in for Martin, but the head coach hadn’t given himself any other options. The two-striker policy was set at the start of the season, with Leon Best originally the only cover for Martin. Bent was a massive upgrade on Best and nobody lamented Best’s departure, but the decision not to carry a third centre forward, or at least get one on loan when injuries struck, ultimately helped to undermine the season.
Of course, it’s hard to justify strengthening in a position which is already strong when you’re working with limited resources and have to ensure you’re covered all over the park. But look at the three teams who went up last season – all three regularly used three senior strikers:-
Watford – Deeney (21 goals), Ighalo (20), Vydra (16)
Bournemouth – Wilson (20), Kermorgant (15), Pitman (13)
Norwich – Jerome (20), Hooper (12), Grabban (12)
I hoped last season that Mason Bennett might have been ready to act as third-choice striker, but he is still only 18 and had a campaign to forget – embarking on an unproductive loan spell at Bradford before suffering injuries in the latter part of the season.
Everything is now geared towards Derby getting promoted, which means that the attitude can no longer be about blooding youngsters. At least, not our own youngsters. If we’re going to continue to take England U’21 players from the richest clubs’ academies to supplement the squad, then it follows that our own youth-teamers will have to go elsewhere – usually at least one tier down – to get an opportunity to cut their teeth.
One of Nigel Clough’s best qualities was his willingness to give the club’s academy products the opportunity to play, but with the development of lads like Hughes, Hendrick and O’Brien came variable team performances. Bearing with the kids’ growing pains while pootling along in mid-table is no longer an option, in a situation where even a comparatively modest wagebill left the owners with annual losses of £7m – 8m to cover.
So, in order to have a real shot at promotion, a bigger pool of senior players to choose from is required. That has to include at least three quality strikers. Signing the arch-poacher Bent is no mistake – but not bringing in another centre forward with more physicality certainly would be. That would give Paul Clement a different option and besides, who knows, he might even want to start with two strikers rather than one in some games. 4-3-3 suits Martin down to the ground, but other formations are available.
Had Bent not suffered the hamstring injury in March, I am sure that we would have at least made the play-offs. However, it was bad planning by the former head coach to fail to ensure that a team gunning for promotion was sufficiently covered in the position that ultimately counts.