Too little, too late – Derby County 1 Aston Villa 2

Somebody has to grab a game of this magnitude, take it by the horns and wrestle it into submission.  At least, that’s an easy platitude to reach for.  In this case, however, nobody ever really did.

Instead, Villa profited from a defensive lapse and a goalkeeper’s howler, then held on in the face of a furious, vainglorious late rally from Derby, which only served as an exasperating pointer to what might have been for the Rams – who now have the ‘honour’ of being the joint longest-serving Championship club with Nottingham Forest, following Ipswich Town’s relegation.

After the inevitable frenzy of fouls, it started to settle as the adrenaline eased and the players got their bearings.  And it was Villa’s players who adjusted to their surroundings more quickly and with more authority.  They deserved to win, because they had the edge in terms of attacking quality, at least for the first hour of the game.

But what is galling from a Derby perspective is that such a highly-talented Villa side didn’t create any clear-cut opportunities and both of their goals were effectively gifted to them – for the first, what should have been an unthreatening, routine deep cross was not defended by young Jayden Bogle.  The second, sadly, came from a potentially career-defining gaffe from Kelle Roos. 

You wouldn’t mind as much if Jack Grealish had scored a corker, or if Tammy Abraham had proved simply too hot to handle for the Rams’ defence, but no. Instead, Villa had the lead and ultimately promotion to the Premier League, with all the fabulous riches that status confers, handed to them on a plate. For us to work so hard to stifle them for the most part, only to be killed by two lapses of concentration, rather than moments of overriding quality, is hard to take.

I played in goal as a kid and have huge sympathy in the vast majority of cases when a ‘keeper makes a big error in a big game. In this case, even having had time to cool off, I am really struggling to sympathise with Roos, because I just cannot understand what was going through his head when he didn’t reach for the ball.  It should have been a routine claim, one you would expect any professional goalkeeper to make almost in their sleep.  The dice are so loaded in the ‘keeper’s favour in these situations that I had half looked away, before I realised the disaster which was unfolding.  It beggared belief.

Since taking over from Scott Carson, Roos has looked good, in some aspects – he’s agile, tall, a fair shot-stopper – but a vital part of any keeper’s game is his ability to command the box by dealing with crosses, without brooking any argument. In this regard, Roos has never looked convincing, especially for a guy of his height and sadly, in the end, this flaw was the chink in the black-and-white armour which turned out to be our downfall.

It came at a time in the game when Derby desperately needed somebody to send out a message of calmness – that it was OK, we were still in it, only a goal adrift.  Nothing was settled. 

Tom Huddlestone had been presumably selected to try to ensure a measure of control and prevent Villa from dominating the ball too much.  Judging from his comments after the match, Lampard would have started Duane Holmes, had he been available.  But he clearly felt that using Wilson and Mount as twin central midfielders and starting Marriott (with Waghorn not quite fit enough to make the XI) was too much of a risk.   Which was a shame, because I’ve always thought that Derby look rubbish when they try to play safety first. 

And the first-half pattern was something we’ve seen and not particularly enjoyed before this season – Derby trying stubbornly, laboriously, to move the ball out from the back, not quickly enough, not getting it to the dangermen with enough regularity. Huddlestone clipped a few of his trademark, admirably measured and aesthetically beautiful passes around in the first half.  But Derby created nothing and Villa’s tactic of pressing high to prevent us from building momentum was generally successful. 

In truth, until Jack Marriott and Martyn Waghorn finally appeared, the game had been a total non-event from a Derby perspective.  There had been occasional promising moments, mostly down the right flank through Bogle’s raids, but the build-up play was usually too slow for Derby to at all ruffle a Villa side who remained compact and disciplined out of possession. And with a front two of Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett, there was nobody there you would back to actually get onto the end of a move and finish it.

Villa wouldn’t leave Abraham out.  They built their team around him and he rewarded them with a sackful of goals. In my opinion, Derby should do this with Marriott next season. Perhaps Lampard’s newly-discovered midfield diamond should become the default system, because it would give Marriott and Waghorn the opportunity to gradually form a productive partnership.

Switching to a diamond would put a lot of emphasis on the full backs to push forward and provide the attacking width.  In Bogle, we have a perfect player for that system and he was always a likely source of attacking joy at Wembley.  If he stays, which I hope he will, I believe he’ll soon be widely recognised as one of the best full backs outside of the Premier League.

However, Ashley Cole was never going to provide the same vigour on the other flank, which was why the addition of Florian Jozefzoon as a late sub on that flank was necessary to stretch Villa’s defence.  Whenever he got on the ball and ran at his full back, he threatened to make a difference. But as has been the case with the Dutchman all season (unless he was playing against Hull), there was ultimately little end product.

It’s easy to be critical of Derby’s milky attacking performance for the first hour and to question a team selection which only served to hand Villa the initiative, but it’s worth remembering that they are a very good, very expensive side, which is still stuffed with Premier League players.  And to Derby’s credit, they did not create very much at all.  A dodgy Roos kick gave Grealish a massive chance early on; an Abraham surge into the box almost ended in what would have been a magical floated finish into the top corner; Anwar El Ghazi got his goal by picking off Bogle with ease and was a thorn in the side throughout, floating into dangerous pockets of space. 

But Villa finished with only nine shots – none from the dangerous Conor Hourihane, none from Albert Adomah, only one from the 26-goal striker Abraham.  While Derby did look slightly shakier than their opponents at the back for the first hour or so, they were never ripped apart, for all of the guile and trickery at Dean Smith’s disposal.

Maybe the gravity of the situation got to Villa late on, because from 70 minutes, they looked vulnerable every time Derby picked up the ball.  Suddenly, chasing a lost cause and forced to commit to it, Derby were working the ball through the lines, playing with width and more pace, loading the box – in short, playing the game we knew that this team was capable of.  They got a goal – through Marriott, of course – but all it sought to do was underline what pretty much the whole of Derby (and most neutrals I’ve spoken to) had been thinking, which is that Marriott should have started.  

Lampard said none of his four strikers had 90 minutes in them due to fitness or personal issues (the latter referring to Lawrence) and he held Jack back as an impact sub. To me, that only made it feel worse.  Yes, it was a good idea in theory – the night-and-day transformation of the Rams’ performance after 70 minutes showed what he was driving at – but his gameplan depended upon Villa not taking the game away from us before the substitutes could be introduced. Given that Derby hadn’t kept a clean sheet in any game against a top six side all season, that was a massive gamble and even without Villa firing on all cylinders, it didn’t pay off.

So, very sadly and reluctantly, that’s it, then – another season is over. A positive to take is that in this case, it’s a very hard season to say goodbye to, because there have been so many great moments. I wasn’t ready for it to end, at least, not with such a sour taste as this. And we will be losing the three loanees, all of whom have been absolutely outstanding. How can we replace three players of such quality, while also continuing the wider squad rebuilding job Lampard began last summer and keeping the wage bill at a manageable level?

Hopefully, Lampard himself will remain, although exasperatingly, we won’t know for sure under Chelsea work out what they’re doing about their (actually rather successful) misfit manager Maurizio Sarri.  You can’t help worrying that is not just two players who will be returning to their parent club from a season-long loan.

But those are questions for another day.  For now, it’s a sad farewell to the boys of 2018/9, a team which flickered briefly, promisingly, but has now been confined to the history books by Wembley defeat. 

It was a huge low, but again, looking forward positively, we are in for a very eventful summer and I don’t think it will be very long before a major squad overhaul begins in earnest. Retained lists, new signings and pre-season friendlies will be announced before you know it and the next chapter will begin.

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