Truth be told, I didn’t expect us to get this far. Certainly not when I realised at the end of March that to reach 73 points – the long-term average tally for sixth place – Derby required two points per game from their remaining fixtures. A sudden acceleration to automatic promotion form from a side which had never been consistent in 2018/9 felt like too much to hope for. True, we had a run of mouthwatering home games to come against some of the division’s basketcases, but there were plenty of tough away assignments too. We had been the definition of ‘there or thereabouts’, without ever stringing together many wins. So why should it suddenly happen now?
Well, it did. In the final nine games, Derby collected an impressive 18 points – two per game, the magic number. They plundered goals ruthlessly against Rotherham and Bolton, before scrambling past QPR in a frenzy of raw emotion. Yes, they tripped over their feet away from home – throwing three leads away at Brentford, remaining in their trailer for the duration of an awful loss at Blackburn, not quite good enough to hang on at Swansea – but they showed big, hairy balls to withstand the challenge of Bristol City and come away with the win in a genuine six-pointer at Ashton Gate. In doing so, they left themselves in command of their own destiny on the final day, against a West Brom side whose motivation to win could have gone either way and totally evaporated after Harry Wilson’s penalty made it 3-1.
For Leeds United, third place – which I’ll bet they’d have snapped your hand off for at the start of the season – has turned out to be a bitter disappointment. They were the early pretenders to the Championship title, starting strongly before really hitting their stride with seven straight league wins from the end of November to Boxing Day. In January, they eviscerated Derby on a Friday night at Elland Road and although the score was only 2-0, it was one of the most complete Championship performances I’ve seen. It seemed that there would be no stopping them – that the legendary Marcelo Bielsa had wrought another squad into a ferociously competitive unit, with boundless energy to press the ball, plus the quality to play silky football once they had it.
LEEDS UNITED 2 (Roofe 20, Harrison 47) DERBY COUNTY 0
Peacock-Farrell; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski; Forshaw; Clarke (Davis 79), Hernández, Klich, Harrison (Shackleton 63); Roofe
Carson; Wisdom (Nugent 46), Keogh, Tomori, Lowe; Mount, Evans (Jozefzoon 61), Bryson; Lawrence, Marriott (Waghorn 73), Holmes
Leeds’ side has not changed hugely since January. They brought in the experienced Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid to replace academy product Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal. Holding midfielder Kalvin Phillips was absent that day, but has been otherwise almost ever-present. Gjanni Alioski, who played as an attacking left back at Elland Road, is injured and Bielsa has struggled to find somebody to nail down the slot in his absence – another converted winger, Stuart Dallas, played there at Ipswich. Kemar Roofe, who scored in both league encounters with Derby this season, has recently recovered from injury and returned to the starting line-up, in place of the suspended Patrick Bamford.
When you look at the Derby side from that January evening, on the other hand, it is significantly different from the one which, injuries allowing, is likely to play tomorrow. Of the starting XI from Elland Road, only Keogh, Tomori, Mount, Lawrence and possibly Holmes if fit can be expected to turn out again tomorrow.
Jayden Bogle has seen off the cumbersome Andre Wisdom to become Lampard’s chosen right back. George Evans played the holding role that day, in one of a handful of unimpressive midfield appearances from a player who was threatening to go the way of Julien de Sart, before his redemptive emergency centre back duties during the run-in. Johnson has taken the slot for the run-in. Max Lowe started at left back, but had a difficult time and was sent back to Aberdeen for a second loan spell within days. Jack Marriott has been dropped for Martyn Waghorn (who at least put in one satisfyingly meaty challenge during his brief sub appearance – more than anybody else had done up to that point). Florian Jozefzoon came on as second change at Elland Road, but has dropped entirely out of the picture since, with Mason Bennett now acting as Lampard’s go-to ‘super sub’.
On top of all that, there was no Harry Wilson. Determining whether Wilson was fit or not was of course a key piece of information that Bielsa wanted to gather by sending a spy to snoop on Derby’s training sessions ahead of the game.
So, while Derby will play basically the same system as they did in January, the starting XI will be a different animal and should – touch wood – be considerably more able to compete with Leeds, both in and out of possession.
That is not to make light of Leeds’ threat. Pablo Hernández is their obvious star, floating wherever he likes and contributing a dozen goals, plus a dozen assists. Ever-present Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich has ten goals and eight assists to his name. Liam Cooper, Pompous Jansson, Luke Ayling and Kalvin Phillips have been the defensive bedrock and Bielsa acknowledges that their quality is the main reason that Leeds didn’t fall further off the promotion pace. They conceded 50 goals in the regular season, a record bettered only by Sheffield United and Middlesbrough (Derby conceded 54).
Leeds dominate the ball to an extreme level (59.7% average possession, by far the highest in the division), create a lot of chances (17.2 shots per game, by far the highest in the division) and create much better quality chances than Derby (ten shots within the penalty area per game, compared to just seven for Derby). Neither team had a twenty-goal striker this season, although Roofe might have got there had he played more. Bamford, who will be available for the second leg at Elland Road, chipped in with nine goals in Roofe’s absence. They have done almost everything right, as Bielsa points out when referring to his side’s statistical dominance even in games they have lost.
But with the Premier League beckoning, they choked in the final stretch. Their defeat at home against ten-man Wigan on Good Friday – they even took the lead, before throwing it away – was unfathomable, before an impish Brentford, who can be brilliant on their day at Griffin Park, gleefully played the part of spoilers by beating them 2-0.
Then came chaos in the infamous home draw against Villa – in which Bielsa was forced to order his players to atone for their unsportsmanlike behaviour in scoring a goal after feigning to put the ball out, before Bamford was retrospectively banned for deceiving the referee. Their error-strewn final-day embarrassment at the hands of bottom club Ipswich would have seen them drop into fourth place and a re-run against Villa, had West Brom beaten Derby.
In the final nine games, while the Rams claimed 18 points, Leeds picked up only ten – ending the season six points shy of Sheffield United in second position.
Bielsa is a deep thinker, an intellectual giant in coaching terms, who creates wonderful football teams. He has some thirty years of managerial experience to draw on, on top of a lifetime of intense football obsession. But that intensity clearly leads him to brood on things that go wrong – hence his cross response to an obviously silly question from a journalist about whether he would spy on Derby again, then his announcement that his team will not kick the ball out if a Derby player goes down injured in these matches. This is his way of ensuring that there is no repeat of the farce against Villa (as it happens, I agree with him that it should be the down to the referee to stop the game or not).
That intensity and drive to push his players to new heights has been a double-edged sword throughout his career. Ander Herrera recently gave an interview about to Graham Hunter about the season when Bielsa’s Athletic made it all the way to two cup finals, only to lose them both. As reported at Training Ground Guru, he told Hunter:-
“We had three or four months when we were literally flying, from November to February/ March, we were unbeatable. I talked to Alexis (Sanchez). He faced us when he was at Barcelona and said ‘my god, how much you guys were running’. No-one was able to run as much as us, it was impossible.
“It is quite a romantic view about football, but I can’t lie to you, in the last months we couldn’t even move. We had five games to play in the league and were in two cup finals and I think we lost all of them. Our legs said ‘stop’. We used to play always with the same players and were not at our best in the finals. We were a completely different team than we had been before because, to be honest, we were physically fucked.
“We couldn’t run any more….And if you see the stats, Bielsa used to play with the same players… so you can imagine how we finished the season.
“I am not blaming the manager, because he did amazing for us and we should be very thankful because of the beautiful football, but the last month we couldn’t even move and that is the reality.”
In our dugout, Lampard may still be in the early stages of his coaching career, but he spent his playing career in winning environments, surrounded by serial winners. He is more than used to being a key figure in the dressing room before the biggest of all cup finals. And he has learned a lot in a short space of time – not least how to adapt his plans to build a team which may not perfectly suit his personal preferences, but which gets the best out of the resources available to him.
Derby’s most obviously lethal striker has been left out for balance reasons, with the sturdy Waghorn preferred (and repaying Lampard’s faith with nine league goals, in a run of increasingly confident performances). David Nugent clambered off the bench when Waghorn suffered an achilles injury against West Brom – and so would seem to be in Lampard’s thoughts as the deputy of choice, should Waggy not recover in time. That would be a big decision, if it comes to it – but Lampard has not shied away from those and has got more right than wrong over the course of the season.
He discarded Tom Huddlestone, Derby’s gifted midfield technician, in favour of Johnson, an inferior ball player with better physical qualities. Scott Carson, the club’s undisputed number one for a long time, has been dropped for the rookie Kelle Roos, who grabbed the chance and blossomed. Perhaps his biggest decision had a disastrous short-term effect – fielding a dramatically weakened team at Villa Park to rest players ahead of a home triple-header against Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke. That didn’t quite work out, but was part of a policy of squad rotation, presumably designed to prevent the kind of burnout which Bielsa risks through his strict dependence on a small core group who play as often as possible.
Lampard has now identified an increasingly coherent team from a squad of players with obvious flaws and only partly of Lampard’s own design. I don’t think that Johnson, for example, is a player Lampard would have signed, but the manager has nevertheless got something resembling a tune out of him and it’s hard to see him being left out of the side on Saturday. He will be there, causing me to have kittens whenever he receives the ball, but also sitting behind the attack-minded five, hopefully winning his headers and disrupting Leeds’ attacking patterns – and, again hopefully, not getting sent off for biting anyone.
Interceptions per game
Lampard first hit upon the template for his best team in that brilliant week back in October, against Sheffield United, West Brom and Middlesbrough. Injuries and fixture congestion have not always allowed him to field that team, or at times anything like it – and he struggled to identify an effective “Plan B”, particularly after losing Mason Mount. But all being well, he can execute near enough his ‘Plan A’ on Leeds this weekend and see whether Bielsa’s players can deal with it.
Leeds will be briefed to the eyeballs – they will have had Bielsa’s dossier drummed into them back to front. Other than the fact of which players are fit and training for the game on this occasion, there is nothing they won’t know about Derby. But knowing and doing are two separate things.
Nobody has ever questioned Bielsa’s status as a coach, but his puritanical intensity has burned out bigger clubs than Leeds before and for Derby, the hope is that what happened to Athletic under his management will happen again.
After Leeds’ defeat to Wigan, Bielsa told the press:
“Remember what I say now because you’ll be able to verify it. You won’t find a single player in our team who would be able to reproduce the same level of performance in another season because we’ve been very demanding with them.
“They’ve given everything and they have figures I’m checking all the time which show what I’m saying is true. The players won’t be able to reproduce the levels they have shown in another season.”
As the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Leeds scribe Phil Hay has pointed out, there was a similarly downbeat message from Bielsa after the Brentford defeat, when he talked about how his squad had masked their ‘hidden limits’ to overachieve through sheer physical effort.
In his pre-match press conference, Leeds captain Pompous Jansson chose to talk to the press about hate. What has been notable this season is how often Lampard, on the other hand talks above love. One of his earliest headline-capturing comments as Rams manager was his gushing declaration of love for Bennett – it is a word he uses all the time. Even in his conversation with Rams TV before this game, he talked to Colin Gibson about his love for the game in general, in the context of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur’s dramatic Champions League comebacks. He came out at Derby’s lowest points in the season to rail against what he saw as the ‘negativity’ surrounding the club, without ever naming names, but swiping at dark shadows lurking in the corners, trying to clear the air and get everyone together and pulling in the same direction.
Of course, Derby v Leeds is not as simple as love v hate, good v evil, light v shade, guilelessness v cynicism. Our lot forever sing about f***ing hating Leeds, after all (lord knows, we’re not alone in that). But this does feel like a contest between one club which is in a positive place and another whose outlook is currently much more negative.
Speaking for myself, I am enjoying – no, let’s just say, it, loving following Derby at the moment. I love watching Mount, with his smart movement and skill and energy and blatant Premier League quality. I love Wilson’s magnificent striking of the ball and how nervous he makes defences – he is the fourth most heavily-fouled player in the Championship, behind fellow dangermen Jack Grealish, Daniel James and John McGinn. I love the emergence of Bogle as a thoroughbred modern full back, at the age of 18. I love the fact that Roos, who was plucked from Nuneaton Borough long ago, has risen to the challenge of replacing an ex-England goalkeeper. I love Fikayo Tomori’s uninhibited passion for football. I love the way Lawrence scythed through the West Brom defence in a way that makes me dare to dream that he is ready to step up and become a big player for the club. I love Bennett’s absolute drive to do well and the way that Lampard has constantly encouraged him and shown belief in him. I could go on and on.
For Derby, if we don’t go up, well, were we ever seriously expecting it to happen this season? For Leeds, given how they started the season, even having to play in these game clearly feels like a failure.
As recently as mid-April, my Twitter poll found that 79% of 242 fans would rather have faced Sheffield United than Leeds at this stage. But that fear factor has since absolutely evaporated. The psychological balance could shift very quickly, depending on how things go tomorrow. But the way things have been going lately, right now, I would much rather be bouncing along in Lampard’s shoes than squatting pensively on Bielsa’s bucket.