At the time of writing, the home howlers against Bristol City and Cardiff have the feeling of a period which defines this as another season of underachievement – the week when Derby fluffed their lines again.
The disastrous events of last week have left Derby 11 points off the play-offs, with only 15 games left to play. Anything can still happen and three points on Tuesday would be a start towards repairing the damage, but clearly, this is a gap which is going to be very difficult to claw back.
So, what happens next? In the short term, changes to the side are inevitable and over the longer term, there may well also be repercussions for some players too.
Firstly, the changes which McClaren can and probably will make immediately.
Christie and Lowe
McClaren’s formation works best with full backs who raid. Even Christie’s surprisingly vocal detractors have to accept that he does this better than Baird, while Lowe should be seen as a seriously promising talent who deserves to be nurtured and developed, as Hughes and Hendrick were.
Baird has had a really good run and surprised me by showing how effective he can still be as a Championship full back. However, the whole rationale for him being there was as a ‘steady eddie’ to help shore things up. That is no longer working – Derby have struggled defensively for a few weeks now, not just in the past two games – and so I believe it’s now time to look to the future by bringing back Christie.
On the other flank, Olsson has presumably been preferred to Lowe for his experience, but why hold a potential star player back any longer for the sake of a competent journeyman? I don’t think Lowe is that much worse than the Swede at the minute anyway and he has so much more scope to improve. Have faith in Lowe, bear with his growing pains and reap the long-term rewards. What have we got to lose?
After his impressive performance against Leicester, one or two fans put their heads above the parapet to suggest that maybe it was worth bringing him back into the side. These voices were soon shot down by the majority, who favour the cult hero Pearce, with my recent poll showing 75 per cent of fans who responded choosing a centre back pairing of Pearce and Keogh.
Derby still have one of the best overall defensive records in the division, but the topline stat masks a genuinely alarming decline in performance in recent weeks. The Rams have conceded 120 shots in their last seven league matches, which averages out at an unsustainably awful 17.1 shots per game. For context, Rotherham give up an average of 17.8 shots pg and they are plunging out of the division like a stone.
Eventually, some of those shots were going to start creeping in and this was the week when the levee broke. Meanwhile, we have an experienced, quality centre back kicking his heels on the bench, having put in accomplished performances against two Premier League teams in the FA Cup.
This is no way about ‘scapegoating’ Pearce – defending properly is about much more than just the back four and there are issues with the midfield balance for McClaren to chew on as well – but now is the time to restore our most talented defender to the side, in my opinion.
Those are the obvious options for changing the team’s fortunes in the short-term, but how about next season?
Prepare for summer clearout
Several players simply have to be moved on as soon as possible, for their own good. Top of the list is Vydra, closely followed by Blackman and I’d say Camara (although McClaren has made encouraging noises about the latter, despite his horrendous performance against Bristol City). Russell is ticking down to the last 12 months of his contract and given the amount of speculation there has been already, I think he’ll be offski – again, it’s probably right for him to move on at this stage of his career.
We have to accept that we’re going to lose quite a lot of money on some players and that will make recruiting replacements more difficult – but it is what it is. Mac can’t use them.
With Forsyth coming back and Lowe emerging, I’d consider letting Olsson go. I would allow Johnson to leave, if we could drum up any interest. I don’t see him as a player who fits into McClaren’s system – he is not a natural holding player and not technically adept or quick enough to play further up the pitch in the 4-3-3.
Assuming we don’t go up, Ince is going to be in high demand. Clubs coming down from the Premier League immediately start to hoover up the best Championship talent and Ince will be near the top of the list for any clubs looking to yo-yo. Much will depend upon the player and whether he feels the grass looks greener elsewhere, or whether he wants to continue his love affair with The Mac.
Identify new midfielder(s)
The midfield three is a problem area at the moment, simply because the available players aren’t functioning as a coherent unit. Possession and pass success are miles down on where we expect them to be, the defence is not being shielded effectively and we are heavily, overly reliant on Hughes for creative spark from this department.
Johnson has tried his best to adapt to the holding role, but it doesn’t really suit him. De Sart is another Mascarell type – a wispy, technically nifty playmaker, who struggles to win the ball. Of course, Thorne was perfect for the role and it will be hard to find another player of his calibre without spending a lot of money. Ideally, the man himself would return in full effect, but in any case, we will certainly need effective cover for him.
But before all that, it’s Burton and the return of Nigel. You can see this going wrong, can’t you? We know what he’s like – he loves the drama of these locally significant clashes – we always beat Leeds when he was here and there was the ‘ten men’ victory at Forest, which left some bloke called McClaren in ‘shock’. There’s Shaun Barker to come back, who everyone loves. Kightly is a decent player, then there’s the time-honoured ‘law of the ex-player’, which covers Luke Varney and Tom Naylor.
Four more wins should just about see the Brewers safe and they’ve racked up three in their past six matches. My reading of the stats – via my crude, but surprisingly effective model ‘The Thing’ – calls this game a draw, but you can imagine how the atmosphere could turn anxious and awkward for the Rams if it’s still level (or worse) after 75 minutes.
This strange, sort-of derby has banana skin written all over it and it will take cool heads for the undoubted extra quality Derby possess to prevail.