Frank Lampard’s defensive dilemma

Derby County’s unexpectedly busy summer transfer window has left Frank Lampard with selection decisions to make all over the pitch, so long as everyone is fit.  He is certainly not short of forwards, to the extent that after the 1-1 draw with Norwich, he was able to change both wingers and his striker for the 1-1 draw with QPR.

Lampard also brought in Craig Forsyth in place of Scott Malone at left back for the trip to Loftus Road.  At right back, however, despite having the option of Andre Wisdom, Lampard has seemingly settled on the exciting talent of Jayden Bogle as first choice.  The 18 year-old is much less physically imposing than the ex-Liverpool man, but is far closer to the template of a modern Premier League full back – swift, agile, technically competent, keen to get on the ball and motor forward.   These are the attributes which give him a real chance of a big future.

On the opening day of the season, Lampard’s centre back pairing was, as expected, the hugely experienced duo of Richard Keogh and Curtis Davies.  Lampard described the men as his “two captains” before the start of the season, although in the end, he favoured Davies with the formality of the armband.  

Keogh and Davies’ jitters on the ball in the first half of that game caused  a few hearts to flutter, but the Rams eventually settled down and won that match – only for news to then break that Davies was injured and would miss the next game, against Leeds United at Pride Park.

Davies started every league game last season and was rightly hailed by fans as the team’s natural leader.  The statisticians at ranked him as the second best player in the Championship for 2017/8, behind only Adama Traoré.  Other than Scott Carson, he was the last player in this Derby squad I wanted to see injured.  

You don’t need me to remind you about the outcome of the Leeds game.  But surprisingly, given the four-goal thrashing the Rams took from one of their auldest enemies, the young man who stepped into Davies’ boots on debut earned some good reviews for his all-action defending.  

20 year-old Fikayo Tomori is a member of the vast, possibly soon to be regulated out of existence, Chelsea loan army and this is already his third temporary spell in the Championship.  The first was at a promotion-bound Brighton, where Tomori was mostly used as a substitute.  He featured much more regularly at Hull City last season, as they battled successfully to stay in the division, where he was chiefly deployed as a right back.  

Tomori’s pace is his stand-out attribute and, having watched older defenders like Keogh, Davies, Alex Pearce and Jason Shackell in recent seasons, is something of a breath of fresh air for Derby fans.  His ability to catch up to attackers means that he can recover from mistakes – either his own, or those of colleagues – and even get away with the occasional lapse of concentration.  Naturally then, in a pairing with Keogh, Tomori is the defender who makes more tackles and interceptions on the ground.  

However, Tomori has proved to be less effective in the air than Keogh and has lost more than half of his aerial duels.  One of the attributes which made Davies one of the Championship’s stand-out players last season was his aerial prowess:-

Aerial duels contested and won, per 90 minutes
Defenders (Championship 2017/8)

  1. Sean Morrison (Cardiff)  Contested 11 Won 7.5 (68%)
  2. Harlee Dean (Birmingham) Contested 8.7 Won 6.4 (74%)
  3. Shaun Hutchinson (Millwall) Contested 9 Won 6.1 (68%)
  4. Curtis Davies (Derby) Contested 9.1 Won 6.1 (67%)
  5. Adam Webster (Ipswich) Contested 9.1 Won 5.9 (65%)

To compare, here are this season’s numbers for Keogh and Tomori, again, per 90 minutes played:-

Keogh Contested 6.4 Won 3.8 (59%)
Tomori Contested 5.1 Won 2.5 (49%)

The Rams are having more of the ball this season and coming under less sustained pressure, but when we do, Tomori is marginally losing more headers than he is winning.  For a centre back, that is clearly not ideal.

Davies also led the league for interceptions per 90 minute last season:-

Interceptions per 90 minutes
Championship (2017/8)

1= Curtis Davies (Derby) 2.7
1= Sol Bamba (Cardiff) 2.7
3. Bruno Ecuele Manga (Cardiff) 2.4
4= Joey van den Berg (Reading) / Jack O’Connell (Sheffield United) 2.3

In terms of passing from the back, which is a key part of Lampard’s playing style, Keogh and Tomori have a very similar and respectable passing accuracy rates of more than 80 per cent (Keogh 83.8%, Tomori 81.4%).  Both are a bit better on this measure than Davies (78.3% last season).

Like Bogle, Tomori has the pace to get himself or his team-mates out of trouble, but I feel that he occasionally lacks the positional sense required by a top defender.  This is not to criticise him, as he is clearly only going to develop this through experience and get better.

 When he’s in full flow, Jayden Bogle’s flying runs into the penalty area cause havoc and get you off your seat.  His passing accuracy of more than 80% is good and in terms of chances created, Bogle shows up very well, which emphasises both his technical ability and attacking instinct:-

Key passes (Chances created) per 90 minutes
Championship full backs, 2018/9

1. Barry Douglas (Leeds) 1.7, 11 appearances
2. Cuco Martina (Stoke) 1.6, 8 apps
3. Reece James (Wigan) 1.2, 11 apps
4. Jayden Bogle (Derby) 1.2, 9 apps
5. Darnell Fisher (Preston) 1.1, 11 apps

Bogle has a reasonably good tackling success rate, but in terms of interceptions, he ranks 43rd out of the 44 Championship full backs who have made five or more appearances: –

Interceptions per 90 minutes
Championship full backs (2018/9)

1. Kristian Pedersen (Birmingham) 3.7
2. Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford) 2.3
3. Luke Ayling (Leeds) 2.0

26. Craig Forsyth (Derby) 1.1

42. Mahlon Romeo (Millwall) 0.6
43. Jayden Bogle (Derby) 0.5
44. Martin Olsson (Blackburn) 0.4

A big part of the game is decision-making and at the moment, Bogle is very much still learning the ropes.  In the last couple of games, I can think of a wild shot from a crazy distance when a pass was the better option against Norwich and an easy overlap pass to Florian Jozefzoon at Loftus Road, overlooked in favour of a more difficult ball into a congested central area.  From a defensive perspective, the way he was caught so far out of position by Anthony Martial at Old Trafford for Juan Mata’s goal sticks in the mind as an example of the young man switching off, for a fatal split-second.


Lampard chose to leave Davies on the bench at Loftus Road, but tougher tests than QPR are coming.  Derby’s next three games are against teams in the top four – league leaders Sheffield United at home, followed by two of the most difficult away trips of the season, back-to-back – West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough.  I don’t think that Lampard will want to go into these games with his best defender on the bench.  But incorporating Davies would unfortunately mean dropping somebody else.

Lampard has referred to Keogh as one of his two captains and although it is the fervent wish of a vocal minority, he is unlikely to be benched.  Keogh is the only player to have played every minute of every game this season, so it would be a shock if Lampard was to suddenly jettison a player who has been perfectly solid as the senior member of a defence which has conceded a respectable 13 goals in 12 games.  Keogh’s highest-profile gaffe this season was at Old Trafford, when he stumbled and presented Romelu Lukaku with a one-on-one chance on goal.  Fortunately, the gods were smiling on him on that occasion.

Bogle has praised Keogh’s role in his development, saying:

“He’s been a massive, massive help for me.  Even last season, just in training, he was always talking to me and we’d go through some clips sometimes.  So he’s been a big part in my development, I think, especially defensively.  He’s really helped me and I’m grateful for that.”

Tomori has been very good and is deservedly popular – touch wood, maybe there will be a chance for the Rams to sign him permanently after this season – but I would question whether he is as defensively switched on and positionally aware as Davies at this early stage in his development.  Certainly, he is not as commanding in the air.

One possibility – although it was heavily shelled when I unwisely floated it as ‘the obvious thing to do’ on Twitter recently – would be to move Tomori across to right back, if only for the coming few matches.  My thinking was roughly along these lines – Tomori is already experienced in that position, has pace and is a stronger defender than Bogle.  

Speaking to the Hull Daily Mail last season, Tomori explained that he would be happy to play anywhere across the back line – even at left back – and wasn’t sure what his best position was:-

“I’ve been asked the question a lot really and different parts of my game are suited to different positions.  I’m quite quick so that suits me at right-back but at centre-back that’s good as well. I can link up play and cover, which comes through at centre back as well.

“At the moment I don’t really see myself in one position. I’m happy to play in a variety of positions. As I play more games and develop, that one position that I play will become clearer to me. I don’t know it yet.”

However, from speaking to folks at the Hull end, I’m told that he is more one who ‘does a job’ at right back than one who looks natural in that position.

Peter Johnson, editor of the Hull City fanzine Tigerlink, said: “Tomori had a patchy but at times impressive time at Hull, typical of many loanees.  He played in around 25 league games and spent a lot of time on the bench.  He appeared to be in direct competition with [fellow Chelsea loanee] Ola Aina for the right back berth, but also covered at left back, centre back and even in midfield.  Plus he played in a variety of formations as Leonid Slutsky and later Nigel Adkins searched for success from a struggling side.

“On occasions, he linked up well as an attacking threat, this included work down the flanks with Harry Wilson, who had a very successful loan spell at the KCOM last season.

“One vital point is that he only played as a centre back in the early part of 2017/18 under Slutsky.  The rest of his time was largely at right back.  So a return to that berth might be a natural move for him.  But perhaps Tomori himself might prefer the centre back role, or it may be too early in his career, to decide with certainty where his best position is.  He’s worth a try at right back, but Lampard may be aware he never really made the position his own during his stint at Hull City.

“Certainly Tomori has potential and it will do Curtis Davies and Derby no harm at all to have a promising youngster to make Curtis look over his shoulder a bit.  Davies is the finished article and Tomori the young up and coming player looking to establish himself.

“In conclusion, Tomori’s worth a go at right back. Like any young player he needs a long run in the side to prove consistency and at Hull, he played in a defence with constant changes in formation and personnel. It may take a while to find the best fit for him. The jury is still out, but he never let us down and if he has a successful career at Derby or elsewhere, it would be no surprise.

“Many Hull fans will watch Tomori’s progress with interest and of course, Davies probably had his best days at Hull and few fans would have anything but high praise for him.”

Another maverick suggestion from a good friend of mine was to move Tomori to a holding midfield role – but his comparative lack of experience there would make that a real gamble, particularly when a seemingly reborn Bradley Johnson and Tom Huddlestone are both available.

Another idea (and certainly one which is regularly brought up on Twitter) would be to change to a back three and wing backs.  Bogle and Scott Malone certainly fit the profile for a more advanced full back-cum-wide midfielder and Tomori’s speed across the ground could in theory help to fill the spaces left by having three at the back.

But such a change would be a radical shift from the default shape which the team have worked on since pre-season.  Gary Rowett only changed to a back three because he was forced to when the arse fell out of his season.  Derby’s form and performances under Lampard have not been bad enough that you would necessarily suggest that a different system is required – and naming three centre backs would only intensify the selection squeeze in the already over-subscribed forward areas, forcing Lampard to leave out a Harry Wilson, or Tom Lawrence.  As it stands, Derby’s attacking record has been no better than so-so this season (perhaps this should be the topic of my next post) and so reducing our attacking fire-power would not be ideal at this point.

For a defence containing a 20 year-old and an 18 year-old to have been as basically sound as Derby’s this season is huge credit to Tomori and Bogle (and Keogh, as the defensive leader).  It would be extremely harsh to drop one of the youngsters – but does Lampard really want to go to the Hawthorns and the Riverside with Davies on the bench?   

I don’t claim to have the answer to Lampard’s defensive dilemma, but I do feel strongly that, particularly for the challenge of the forthcoming games, we need our best defenders out there – and Davies is our best defender.

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