The search for synergy – Rowettism, part 2

Part one looked at the overall tactical shape of the team under Rowett and went into a bit more detail about the Rams’ attacking performance.  As promised, here is part two…

Goals conceded

1. Cardiff – 14
2. Wolves – 17
3. Aston Villa – 18
4. Middlesbrough – 20
5= DERBY, Millwall – 21

Defensively, Derby have been pretty sound under Rowett, with more than half of the goals they’ve conceded this season having been shipped in just three aberrant defeats.

Shots conceded per game

1. Middlesbrough – 10.1
2. Sheffield U – 10.4
3. Preston – 10.5
4. Wolves – 10.6
5. Cardiff – 10.8
(11. DERBY – 12.5)

The Rams’ good defensive record has been in part assured by the form of Scott Carson, who has proved a reliable, reassuring presence between the sticks.  Derby have wasted millions on some serious shite in the past decade, but snapping up Carson after Wigan’s relegation has turned out to be one of their smarter moves.

Goalkeeper was one position Rowett didn’t have to worry about when he arrived, but he does take full credit for the signing of Curtis Davies for a bargain fee from Hull – undoubtedly great business, which has strengthened the team and had the additional benefit of making Richard Keogh look like a new signing.

Ben Mayhew of Experimental 361 produces a really useful graphic to measure defensive effectiveness, neatly splitting teams into four categories:-

  • Formidable: Teams which concede few goals and allow few shots on goal
  • Competent but busy: Allow more shots on goals, but less likely to concede when they do
  • Avoiding the issue: Allow few shots on goals, but are more likely to concede when they do
  • Pushovers: Allow more shots on goals and concede more goals

Defensive effectiveness scatter chart – courtesy of Ben Mayhew (@experimental361)

Cardiff, Villa and Wolves are all much more ‘formidable’ than the Rams.  But Derby have maintained a relatively good defensive record despite coming under more pressure than most of the top teams.  Davies’ appetite for defending – he has the most interceptions of any Championship centre back, according to Sportdec – and Carson’s competence have helped Rowett’s team enormously.

First half goal difference

Home 7-4
Away 9-5
Overall 16-9

Derby’s delirious 4-0 first-half romp against Hull masks a wider pattern of slow starts at home, which is starting to feel significant.  In the other nine home games this season, Rowett’s men have scored a grand total of three first-half goals.  They have only conceded four first-half goals in those games, which is great, but the balance has arguably become a little too “safety-first”.  Why, for example, did the doughty Chris Baird play at home against Burton and Birmingham, matches where the opposition set out to defend and extra attacking width to stretch them was desperately needed?

On the road, however, the first-half goal difference of 9-5 is excellent.  Derby have been ahead at the break in six of their eleven away games so far, compared to four out of ten at home – and this adds weight to the suspicion that Rowett’s game is more suited to away games, where the opposition are more motivated to push forward and inevitably allow the attacking players a little more space to break into.

Second half goal difference

Home 9-4
Away 8-8
Overall 17-12

We usually do get there in the end at home.  As nerve-shredding as it may be for supporters, a cagey performance is of course justified if the goals and points eventually arrive.  Nevertheless, too many important points have been dropped at Pride Park this season so far.

Rowett is getting bored of being asked about it, but the home fans need to see a bit more to get excited about.  The away faithful are clearly loving their season, as team after team are upended on their own turf – but the football at Pride Park has undeniably been far from vintage, most of the time.

But look at it from Rowett’s perspective.  His job is to win and win only.  If a manager who is being criticised for being too cautious tells his players to charge forward and then they get caught out on the break and lose, who gets it in the neck?  McClaren drove us all insane with a series of ridiculous 3-3 and 4-4 draws, even 4-3 defeats, whereas Rowett drives us mad with a gameplan, which yields far fewer crazy results, but demands far more patience and can lead to sterile football at times.  At the latest Fans Forum, Rowett spontaneously brought up his decision to pull everyone back at set plays – it was, he said, a reaction to Derby’s seemingly ingrained habit of conceding goals from those situations.  Safety first.

The bottom line is, you can’t win, unless you win – and even if you do win, you will still never please everyone.

Faith in youth?

As he points out at every opportunity, Rowett has a very large squad of senior players and this limits opportunities for young players to come through.  However, this is not entirely the doing of other managers.  Rowett has signed several veterans (Davies, Huddlestone, Ledley) and also extended the now nearly 36 year-old Baird’s contract last season, when he could have chosen to move on to a younger player (he is even being egged on by the Derby Telegraph to retain Baird beyond this season, which in my opinion is absolutely bonkers at this stage).

It’s hard to see where any academy products fit in and how this can change in the future – especially if Derby are promoted.  As Rowett and Mel Morris have both alluded to, would a 16 year-old Will Hughes have been thrust straight into Derby’s first team today?  How about if we’re in the Premier League, with tens of millions to spend?  Necessity is the mother of invention and the likes of Hughes, Hendrick and Mark O’Brien were blooded at a time when no money was available.  This season, in contrast, Rowett was able to respond to a shortage of midfielders by signing Joe Ledley, instead of being forced to call on an academy product like Elsnik, Hanson, Guy or Bird to fill the gap.

Rowett recently referred to the 23-year old Lawrence as a “young talent we should all get behind”.  Unless Mason Bennett is going to get another opportunity, it seems unlikely that anyone younger than Lawrence, certainly from within the current playing staff, will be given the chance to make an impression this season.

Media management

This is a difficult thing to get right, but on the whole, Rowett handles his media and public appearances pretty adroitly.  His pat-a-cake interviews with RamsTV are of course geared to allow him to say whatever he wants, but he makes his points consistently and simply.

Rowett is far more skilled at handling interviews than his predecessors.  He’s usually ready with a quip or witty aside – he will come across as matey with blokish “old-school” outlets such as Talksport, is happy to indulge old stagers like Colin Gibson by reminiscing about the good old days, strikes a more serious tone with weightier publications like The Guardian.

He can become a little spiky when challenged by genuine journalists and he certainly reads his own press.  Of late, Rowett has started to meet certain negative perceptions (particularly about his playing style) head on and he usually comes armed with statistics to support his case.

His frequent use of pseudo-scientific buzzwords like ‘synergy‘ tickles me (and reminds me of late eighties / early nineties ecstasy-toting pop-ravers The Shamen)….

Image courtesy of Manchester District Music Archive (… geddit?)

Overall, Rowett presents an approachable, affable public face, while giving enough detail in his answers to point to his obvious professionalism and intelligence.  Contrast this with McClaren, who too often came across as patronising in his refusal to deliver much beyond superficial phrases about “play our football”; Clement, whose stellar CV as a number two can’t cover for an unfortunate lack of charisma under the spotlight; or Pearson, who treated journalists and even the club’s comms staff as if their questions were either pathetic, or part of a global conspiracy to discredit him.

Conclusions

It’s easy to mock Rowett’s quest for ‘synergy’.  But according to oxforddictionaries.com, the word means: “The interaction or cooperation of two or more organisations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.”  Or put even more simply, it’s derived from the Greek word ‘sunergos’, which means “working together”.  Play Vydra in his best position and watch him flourish.  Add Davies and Ledley in roles which suits them, watch the whole team function better.

On the “roundhead – cavalier” spectrum which runs from the pragmatic Davies to the purist McClaren, there’s no doubt that Rowett would be placed more towards Billy’s end.  However, he is not dogged by Davies’ paranoia, or Pearson’s ugly mean streak, meaning that he is able to maintain a much more positive public image than those two managerial roundheads.

His style of play is reactive and you sense that his worst nightmare is seeing his team caught out by a counter-attack.  Rowett seeks to build from the base of a robust defence and midfield, but his team are not instructed to retain possession for possession’s sake.  Ceding more ball to the opposition means that they do sometimes come under pressure, which is why it’s helpful that Rowett has recruited savvy veterans to lead the team.

Davies and Tom Huddlestone, as well as being very capable players, conduct themselves well on social media, issuing sensible, positive messages after each game.  They help to create reassuring air of competence, both on and off the field.  The emergence of youngsters is undoubtedly exciting, but the dependability of a seasoned pro means that you know what you’re going to get, consistently.  That is what Rowett is banking on – and it is paying dividends so far.

It would be interesting to see how Rowett responded to a major “blip” in results, but the reality is, so far, there has been no prolonged run of defeats to rock the boat under his management.  Defeats have happened (including a couple of really bad ones), but they have been isolated within strings of wins and draws and up until now, an embarrassing reverse has never escalated into a full-blown slump.

Meanwhile, Rowett’s comparatively warm personal style has allowed him to take people with him – the players he needs, arguably the majority of fans (you can’t please all of the people all of the time, no matter who you are) and – most crucially of all, – his boss, Mel Morris.

All is calm.  After years of upheaval, the ship has been steadied.  That is no minor achievement and Gary Rowett deserves huge credit for it.

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