What the hell is wrong with Derby County?

Understatement – things are not going to plan.  So much so that the pre-season expectations of promotion have now been officially replaced in the club’s communications by a rather desperate repetition of the word ‘transition‘ (a transition, on the face of it, from good to bad).

After the shattering defeat on Saturday, I thought it was time to see if the stats can tell us anything about more about what on earth is going on – perhaps, I hoped, there might even be some much-needed reasons for optimism.

Fair warning – if you don’t like stats, then this post is not for you – go and do something else.  Cheers.

Shooting

Derby’s catastrophic lack of goals is not for a lack of trying.  They have taken 14 shots per game, the seventh highest average in the Championship – more than league leaders Norwich (13.2) and second-placed Huddersfield, who have taken only 9.9 shots per game (the lowest figure in the division).

Derby have had more shots than their opponents in six out of nine league games to date, taking 57.7 per cent of the total shots – 124 (for three goals) to the opponents’ 91 (for nine goals)

total-shots

For context, last season, under Paul Clement and Darren Wassall, Derby’s total shots ratio was lower – about 54.5 per cent – and under McClaren in 2014/5, it was lower still, at 50.7 per cent.

However, the Rams’ average of 3.6 shots per game on target is distinctly underwhelming – 16th best in the division.  Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and Tammy Abraham Bristol City currently lead the way, with more than five shots on target per match.  Ben Mayhew, blogger at Experimental 3-6-1 and head of sports data visualisation for the Press Association, points out that Derby’s shot accuracy (25.7%) is among the worst in the division.

An important factor is where the shots are being taken from.  Too many of Derby’s ‘dips’ are coming from outside of the penalty area, from where, you are unlikely to score.  The analyst Ted Knutson has calculated that a player shooting from a central position outside the box has only a three per cent chance of scoring.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to try your luck from distance, if the chance arises – but the vast majority of goals are scored from inside the box, so it’s something of a worry that 53 per cent of Derby’s shots so far have come from long range.  Only the bottom club Wigan have a worse record on that front.

Even so, Derby have still had more shots on target than their opponents in total this season – 31 (for three goals) to 27 (for nine goals).

Mayhew describes the Rams’ lack of goals as “something of a mystery”.  It is downright freakish that Derby have scored so few, based on the amount of shots they’ve taken. By no means do the stats describe a side which genuinely deserves such an abysmal record.

Defending

Even after losing four of the last five league games, Derby retain one of the better defensive records in the Championship.

When it comes to shots conceded per match, Derby (10.1) are better than anybody else in the division, except for Norwich (10).  They have played an average of just 26 per cent of each game within their own third of the pitch – the joint best record in the division, with Brighton.

In other words, the Rams are not being peppered with shots, not giving up huge amounts of chances and not being put under sustained pressure in games, with Carson often largely untroubled.  It is simply gutting to note that in the last three games, Derby have allowed the opponents only six shots on target – from which, four goals have been scored.

Passing and possession

The Rams’ average possession advantage has decreased under Pearson, but not massively. Although the figure is a shade lower than it was under McClaren or Clement, it remains the fifth highest in the division.

What has decreased is the number of passes per game – or more accurately, the number of short passes per game.

passes-comparison

The number of long passes per game is basically the same as in previous years, but the number of short passes has dropped noticeably.  This means that the proportion of long balls has increased, from about 14.75 per cent to 17.5 per cent, and this has led to a notable decrease in pass success – from more than 78 per cent in each of the last three seasons (when we were always among the best in the division), to below 75 per cent (which is about average for the division).

Derby cross the ball as much as anybody else – which could be seen as a positive, except that it’s now considered that crossing is the least efficient way of trying to create goals.  According to a study by Jan Vercer, from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, a goal results from only one in every 92 crosses, on average.  Derby currently deliver 23 crosses per match, so you could reasonably expect a goal to result once in every four games, if Vercer is right (so far, we’ve seen Forsyth’s goal from Hughes’ cross and, off the top of my head, there was Hughes’ big chance at Bristol City, from Anya’s ball in).

Players who bang in cross after cross tend to get accused of being ‘wasteful’ – Christie, for example – but it’s the imprecise nature of crossing itself which is the issue, not so much the player involved.  Vercer’s analysis suggest that, in theory, teams would score about half a goal more per game if they stopped crossing altogether and just kept passing it short instead (so maybe Louis van Gaal has him on speed dial).

When you consider everything that has to fall into place for a cross to result in a goal – the execution of the ball in, the positioning of the attacker, no defender getting in the way, the execution of the shot or header, the goalkeeper not making a save – it’s no surprise that academics deem it an inefficient use of possession, especially as most crosses end with the attacking side losing the ball, which means having to work hard to get it back again.

And it doesn’t surprise me in the least to note that the statistically canny Huddersfield Town and Brentford are among the teams who have crossed the ball least this season.  Both clubs are punching well above their financial weight at the minute, while Derby flounder.

Individuals

I spoke to Dustin Böttger, CEO of Global Soccer Network, who was kind enough to prepare the following graphic, giving GSN’s assessment of each Derby player’s performance this season.

derby-county-performance-score-mid

The GSN Index is developed by tracking and rating more than 150 different categories of actions within every game – both positive and negative – to give an overall performance score for each player.

The Derby players, in GSN’s assessment, are not actually playing that badly – not brilliantly, but not so badly that you would expect them to be struggling at the bottom, or scoring five goals less than anybody else in the division.  For context, Böttger also provided me with graphics for sixth-placed Brentford and mid-table Sheffield Wednesday – and Derby’s team average score was higher than either of theirs.

Forsyth is rated as Derby’s top performer (albeit from only three appearances), with Olsson among the worst, suggesting that Forsyth’s injury has affected the team.  I would not be shocked if Max Lowe was called into the side tonight, based on Pearson’s comments after Blackburn and the fact that Olsson has been substituted in three of the last four matches.

Of the players who have featured more or less all season, Christie scores highest on the GSN Index, followed by Hughes, Shackell and Keogh.  Anya and Vydra have also done relatively well.  At the other end of GSN’s scale, Johnson scored the lowest of any Derby player, for his nightmare hour against Brighton, while Bent, Ince and Blackman have all underwhelmed and Wilson has not got started yet – in part, due to the knee injury he has suffered – nor has Weimann, again, returning from injury.  There is a dire need for somebody to step up and partner Vydra effectively, assuming that Pearson is planning to persist with his 4-4-2.

CONCLUSIONS

While the points tally and goals total are completely unacceptable, it appears that the problems in front of goal are not so severe that you could reasonably expect the current barren run to continue indefinitely.  There is no underlying reason that I, or the two professional analysts I asked, can see that would suggest that the Rams deserve to have scored so infrequently.  That said, they need to create more shooting opportunities inside the box, instead of taking so many hopeful shots from range.

Although the team has been negatively affected by the absence of Forsyth and Shackell, the defence has still performed well overall.  Another positive is that Vydra and Anya have improved the team’s level since arriving – but this has to be weighed against the fact that the Rams have not seen anything like enough from any of the other forwards, so far.

Morale in the stands may be at rock-bottom and every error may seem to be getting punished at the moment – but at some point, the Rams’ luck should start to turn. Eventually, a few shots have to start sneaking in – and the results should start to pick up.

Tonight’s game at Cardiff would be a very good place for the turnaround to start…

To explore Championship statistics to your heart’s content, go to whoscored.com, who don’t pay me for the link – I’m daft enough to do it for free

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