Over the past couple of seasons, it’s fair to say that certain players have come to be considered as automatic picks. That’s fine – every squad has its star players – until it becomes a matter of near panic when particular players are unavailable, or struggling for form.
The obvious two to mention are Chris Martin and George Thorne.
Derby became so dependent upon Martin that the idea of ever resting, dropping, or even subbing him became unthinkable, even when he was enduring a barren spell.
Likewise with Thorne. He has never had a reliable deputy for his specialised holding role, yet the Rams have never seemed able to adapt their shape to cope when he wasn’t fit. In the final home games of the past two seasons, we’ve ended up with Stephen Warnock and Will Hughes picked in the holding role – and lost 3-0 both times. Those selections, performances and results are symbolic of the inflexibility that has held the club back in its bid to gain promotion.
So, with Thorne during pre-season, it’s good that Nigel Pearson has not simply shoved someone else into ‘the Thorne role’, but changed to a 4-4-1-1 formation instead. That affects Martin – while opening the door for Darren Bent.
Whereas Martin likes to be involved in the build-up play, Bent lives to be released, to get on the end of passes and score. His best work is always done off the ball, confusing and eluding defenders with quick, anticipatory movements in and around the box. If he does receive the ball with his back to goal, he wants to lay it off quickly and move again.
Because of these strengths, he needs supporting players closer to him – he doesn’t revel in holding off defenders and waiting for runners, or performing ‘the wardrobe’ trick.
Tom Ince, meanwhile, can cut a peripheral, sometimes visibly frustrated figure on the wing, but look at Derby’s ‘key pass’ figures from last season:-
More than any other Rams player (with the arguable exception of Hughes, who only returned to fitness in the final few games last year), Ince unlocks defences. He can also beat a man and has a decent shot. The ‘number ten’ role, playing behind a centre forward, therefore suits him perfectly – and he will wear that number this season.
Martin’s habit of dropping off the front rather than stretching defences out is why, I guess, he and Ince haven’t been tried in tandem too often. So, the new 4-4-1-1 gives Ince and Bent an opportunity to shine – but at Martin’s expense.
It may be that when Thorne returns, Pearson will think about reverting to 4-3-3 – but that is by no means assured.
Six central midfielders cannot fit into any formation, but the selection headache becomes even more pronounced if you want to play a variant of 4-4-2.
And the virtues you’re looking for in a midfielder change a little when you aren’t seeking to dominate the ball through having an extra man in midfield.
So the choice of who to pick in midfield becomes the most difficult and potentially controversial of all. The big question, as far as I’m concerned at least, is – does he start Will Hughes?
Pearson has said repeatedly that he will be shifting the emphasis at Derby, which has been – a little snootily, you could argue – on style of play since 2013/4. Now, it’s just about winning, however we can. Pearson has also said he wants to see more pace and athleticism in the team.
In terms of physical presence and/or dynamism, the obvious three midfielders to look at are Bryson, Hendrick and Johnson, whereas Hughes and Butterfield are the more creative ball-players (let’s leave the injured Thorne to one side, for now).
However, appearances can be deceptive. I took a look at the players’ defensive contributions last season (as measured by whoscored.com) and came up with a very crude Defence Rating for each of them (this Defence Rating is each players average tackles, interceptions and blocks per game added together and then their average fouls per game deducted from that total):-
Thorne is king here, of course, but Hughes comes second. Granted, he only played half a dozen or so games, so I calculated his Defence Rating for 2014/5 and it was 2.4 – still pretty good.
Despite his awkward gait, Hughes is actually far more defensively active than you might think, while the taller, quicker, more obviously athletic Hendrick makes fewer tackles, interceptions and blocks. I was surprised to see Hendrick rate worst by this metric, but the facts whoscored.com presents are that Jeff averaged only one tackle per match in 2015/6 – and 0.8 fouls per game, to boot.
And that of course doesn’t take into account the most important bit, which is use of the football in possession. Maybe Hendrick covers more grass than Hughes – I don’t have the data to prove it either way – but as I’m constantly reminded by my betters when it comes to possession, it’s what you do with it, not how much of it you have. And I’d argue that the same applies to running around. If you see the pass before you make it, nobody can run fast enough to cut it out, if you play it right.
The same goes for defending – I’m sure a lot of people reading this will have seen Paul McGrath playing sweeper for Derby, at a time when he could barely run. It didn’t matter, because he knew where to be – sheer anticipation gave him a head-start on the other players.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I sincerely hope Hughes isn’t sacrificed for the sake of a new tactical shape, because I believe that he is good enough to adapt his game to play in any system.
I polled the Derby fans on Twitter and 81 per cent of 600 voters believed that Hughes would play on Saturday. I certainly hope they’re right.
But whoever is named in the eleven, there will be plenty of players left out who will feel unlucky and unhappy not be starting. Having so many options is a far better problem than not having enough – but it still requires very careful management.