“Goals are over-rated.” So wrote The Blizzard‘s Jonathan Wilson, a phrase so intriguing that it’s since been turned into a t-shirt.
I think he meant that the last thing we want is for football to be tilted too far in favour of the striker – mad 4-4 draws, like the one we had that time under McClaren at Huddersfield, are so memorable partly for their extreme scarcity. “The beauty is in the struggle”, Wilson concluded – evoking the satisfaction we feel as fans when a side’s determined, sometimes grim efforts to find a crucial winner in a tight game are rewarded, the release of tension in the ground as the home side make it 1-0.
But coming into their match against Blackburn Rovers, Nigel Pearson’s Derby had tested both Wilson’s maxim and their defenders’ abilities to the limit. Two goals in eight league games was the staggeringly awful return – and it was to the back four’s credit that the Rams had scrabbled together even six points by this stage. Goals may be over-rated and overly craved by the social media / highlight reel generation (of which, we’re all a part) – but they remain the fundamental point of the game and if you can’t score any, you’re fucked.
In a relatively open start to today’s match – which was, by any lights, a must-win for Nigel Pearson and Derby County – the nearest thing to a goal came when Bent failed to connect with one of many Christie crosses. But for the first ten minutes or so, Derby failed to really assert themselves and dominate their visitors, who looked competent on the ball without carrying any obvious threat. This was not the fiery start you might have expected from a team in dire need of a win.
Derby’s shape was not quite a straight 4-4-2, as Butterfield floated across the pitch, popping up centrally and even occasionally on the left, leaving Christie to carry the attacking threat from his flank. Vydra also floated, behind Bent -a pairing which didn’t really put the Blackburn centre backs under any pressure when they had the ball.
Hughes’ first corner on 15 caused chaos in the Blackburn box, but nobody was able to capitalise. Bent then tried an overhead kick, after Vydra’s scuffed shot from a decent position – generated when Anya nodded down Hughes’ fizzed ball – reached him via a looping deflection. It was the Rams’ first real chance, following a spell of moderate pressure, as Blackburn retreated into their shape.
Hughes then released Anya, who completely over-cooked his cross when a cool head could have provided Vydra with a tap-in, as Derby enjoyed what would prove to be their best spell in the match. Seconds later, Blackburn looked to have been decisively undone, as Vydra released the rampaging Anya, who slotted past Steele only for his celebrations to be curtailed by the linesman – offside.
Chances were coming to Derby thick and fast, with Blackburn rather hanging on, but there was a nagging sense that the Rams needed to capitalise on this period of dominance. Butterfield’s strike from 20 yards was palmed wide, as Derby knocked on the door without making the crucial breakthrough, although Steele took an age to clear the ball after claiming the resulting corner – a sign that the away side were feeling the pressure.
Lowe was then booked for pulling down Anya just outside the box as he threatened to streak away – but Butterfield’s curling free kick lacked the power to beat Steele.
Blackburn had their first meaningful shot on the half-hour, Marshall driving towards the box but missing with a tame effort from a decent position, after Pearce gave the ball away with a poor pass.
At this stage, Derby’s mobility in forward areas was providing a test for Blackburn, but there was a certain openness to the Rams in midfield which raised concerns that they could be got at on the counter, if Blackburn could find the right pass. Frankly though, at this stage, that seemed unlikely – one particularly dreadful pass by Hoban leaving Conway visibly frustrated.
Blackburn had managed to ride something of a storm, it seemed, although Bryson popped up to toast a sweetly struck volley, unfortunately too cleanly, picking out Steele.
Next, a brilliant tackle by Hughes stopped a Blackburn attack and sent Butterfield hurtling forward, with only a crude professional foul from Evans curtailing his forward motion.
Derby had been generally dominant, but disaster struck in the 38th minute, when they conceded a penalty. Emnes, who had been ineffectual until this point, chased a ball into the box and was upended, leaving the referee with no choice.
But Derby experienced a rare stroke of luck, with Marshall rolling his spot-kick against the post, then inexplicably side-footing the rebound wide of an open net. Perhaps it would be Derby’s day, after all.
Or maybe not, as Bent rose towards a dangerous cross from Christie, only succeeding in flicking it away from Bryson, who was arriving in the box behind him, intent on striking the dropping ball. It was a moment which summed up Derby’s performance and season to date – a team threatening to look good, but seemingly just not able to click.
You got the sense at this stage that if they could just get one goal, then the floodgates could open against such limited opponents.
But from the start of the second half, a sense of drift was pervasive and you got the sense that Derby needed somebody, anybody, to step up with a moment of game-changing class. Anya, who had been bright throughout, tried to provide it with a quick turn and direct burst forward which forced a corner, but the Rams’ clear desire to force an opening led them to commit bodies forward – sometimes overly so, with Conway at one point allowed to run the length of the field to win a corner, after Butterfield lost possession on the edge of Blackburn’s area. Soon after that, the otherwise anonymous Gallagher was almost released clean through. In trying to win it, Derby were looking in danger of being caught out at the back.
Gallagher was replaced by Danny Graham shortly after the hour and it felt like the right time for Nigel Pearson to shuffle his pack too, with the Rams’ performance in real danger of petering out. But the double change that came was a head-scratcher. Blackman for Bent was no shock, but Weimann for Bryson meant that Butterfield would move across to partner Hughes in a creative but undeniably lightweight central pairing.
With the subs having only just trotted on, Derby suddenly led 1-0. It was as easy as pie when it came, Blackburn switching off from a throw-in, allowing Vydra enough time and space to compose himself in the box and slide the ball beyond Steele.
The relief around the ground was huge. The beauty, like Jonathan Wilson said, was in the struggle – and Derby had finally cracked it.
Except for that the narrative as we understood it – that Derby just needed to get their noses in front and they would then settle down and go on to win – was suddenly, shockingly, hideously exploded.
With the lead barely a minute old and with the celebrations barely dying down, Graham completely mugged Pearce in an aerial challenge, helping the ball on to Emnes, who advanced menacingly into the box and saw his drive deflected unerringly (of course) into the corner of Carson’s net.
Derby tried to seize the lead back instantly, with Blackman’s cross saw Vydra force Steele into a flying save. But seconds later, the ball was in the Rams’ net again – and they were staring down the barrel.
The goal was absolutely pathetic, embarrassing. A pedestrian Blackburn, who had looked blandly competent on the ball throughout without carrying any real threat, were allowed to play a lengthy sequence of passes around Derby’s final third at their leisure, with Hughes, Butterfield and the rest apparently mesmerised, reduced to useless spectators, not quick enough to put in a tackle or anticipate the next pass. The ball was eventually flicked beyond a static back four, releasing Graham, who couldn’t miss. A glance at the linesman to check he was OK and he wheeled away in celebration. It was a truly awful goal to concede -Derby’s passive, rabbit-in-the-headlights ball-watching getting exactly what it deserved.
Here was where Pearson’s decision to withdraw Bryson was shown up as deeply flawed, at best, with the threat of a real disaster looming.
There was time left – but the belief had simply drained out of Derby and they floundered horribly. It was painful to watch, in truth, with many supporters quite sensibly deciding that they had seen enough with ten minutes or more to go.
A penny for Mel Morris’ thoughts as he watched the supporters streaming out. More walked away when Weimann made a complete mess of a defensive throw-in and almost forced Carson into conceding another penalty.
Pearson’s last throw of the dice was to change Olsson for Ince, with Hughes apparently asked to nominally fill in at left back – another incomprehensible decision by the manager.
The final minutes ticked down – the game was dusted. Ince’s dismal pass out of play on 84 minutes was the cue for more departures, the emptying stands a damning indictment for Pearson’s Derby.
With time ebbing away as steadily as the crowd, Blackman stabbed a low shot narrowly wide from the edge of the box, a half-chance which was the nearest Derby would come to an equaliser. A better side than Blackburn might have inflicted pain on the counter, as Derby desperately but ineffectually committed bodies forward.
This deeply depressing and hurtful defeat leaves Pearson with many questions to answer, about his team selection, his tactical decisions and his transfer activity. His inability to handle criticism during Leicester’s difficult 2014/5 season led to a string of bizarre on and off-field incidents and it is hard to know how he will react in the coming weeks, with the club’s former reputation as a Championship heavyweight being steadily unpicked, stitch by stitch, setback by soul-sapping setback, defeat by morale-shredding defeat.
In my last article, I said that change takes time. And it does – but my call for optimism was undermined by both the failure to win at Bristol City and has now beem further derailed by this disastrous and pathetic defeat to one of the Championship’s worst teams, at home. This was a game from which anything less than three points was simply not acceptable.
While it is abundantly clear that some of the current players are not part of the solution – and their FFP-busting recruitment is not on this manager – Pearson must accept that his attempt to introduce a new playing style, without making any changes to the squad until the very last moments of the summer window, has backfired horribly.
He chuntered in the DET this week that he didn’t see why changing the shape (and disposing of one of the Championship’s best proven goalscorers in the process) was such a big deal – well, unfortunately, Mr Pearson, it is.
As a result of his decisions, Derby County have staggered not just a step, but a country mile backwards since even last season (which was bad enough in itself) and are apparently incapable of snapping out of their current malaise.
Derby have not been relegated to the third tier since 1984, but results as bad as this – and the lack of any fightback after they went behind – mean that not since the tenure of the incompetent Paul Jewell have they looked so vulnerable to such a fate. It is still relatively early in the season, but the current form, results, standard of performance and lack of goals are cumulatively terrifying.
Derby are in trouble and it is difficult to see how they are going to fight their way out of it, when on today’s evidence, they do not look like they could punch their way out of a paper bag.
We are a fifth of the way through the season and we are in the relegation zone. We are 13 points behind automatic promotion (remember that as an ambition?), ten points off the play-offs and five points behind 16th.
Given the money spent and the club’s stated ambitions, this is an absolute disgrace.