The Derby County Blog 2019/20 season preview

The season preview returns, after a break last season. As usual, I have split the various runners and riders into four categories, rather than putting my neck on the block and going for a thorough ‘1 – 24’ – although several pundits have done this and for what it’s worth, the guys I follow with interest all had Derby finishing outside of the top six, but in the top half of the table (I might go for a 1 – 24 on Twitter… TBC)

I also crowdsourced a #dcfcfans league table, with polling conducting after the Burton Albion friendly. At that point in time, most of those who responded were very optimistic about how the season might pan out:

#dcfcfans Twitter poll, taken after the Burton friendly. Arguably, I should have put Cardiff above Derby here, but nevertheless, it was clear that a majority of fans were predicting a strong season at that stage.

Interestingly, a poll conducted by Owen Bradley with similar categories saw the fans return a much less confident result – this poll came after the Rams had lost to Girona and at Glasgow Rangers, scorelines which led to a much gloomier outlook from the faithful:-

That much less bullish result would have plunged Derby to about 10th or 11th in my predicted table. But I’ll bet a repeat poll taken after news of the Rams’ interest in signing Krystian Bielik from Arsenal broke would have been more optimistic again.

This preview piece should ideally be read in the context of our recent preview BlogCast, in which myself, Chris and the excellent analyst Ram Srinivas took a look at where we felt Derby needed to strengthen this season:

Here goes nothing.

THE CONTENDERS

Brentford

The Bees will be preparing to punch above their weight as one of the division’s financial minnows yet again.  Quality recruitment the Moneyball way has got them so far, but hasn’t pushed them through the glass ceiling yet – however, bigger fish are always ready to help them turn a profit by pushing through moves for Brentford’s best players.  Romaine Sawyers was sold to West Brom for a mere £3m, but the bumper £12m sale of Ezri Konsa to Villa could really help them kick on.  David Raya, a £3m buy from Blackburn, is a highly rated goalkeeper, while Pompous Jansson’s move from Leeds was arguably the most sensational Championship development of the off-season and their Danish recruits, Mathias Jensen and Christian Nørgaard, are reportedly very promising.  At the time of writing, Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins are still on the books. The Bees’ statistical performance last season was much better than their actual performance, so they will feel that they deserved success (where Derby didn’t).  If they live up to their billing – or even just get the rub of the green in a few games – this could well be a big season for them.

Bristol City

The stattos swooned over the Robins’ summer recruitment, which included Jay Dasilva and Tomas Kalaš from Chelsea, plus a coveted attacking midfielder from League 2 Colchester, Sammie Szmodics.  Defender Adam Webster became a wanted man, but with no pressure to sell, the club rebuffed interest until Brighton forced the issue with a walloping offer.  They are having a go – and have a stable ship under the stewardship of Lee Johnson.  They could crack the play-offs, just as long as they can score more goals this time.

Cardiff City

Neil Warnock refuses to retire, Cardiff stuck with him despite relegation and so here we are again.  A promotion specialist who smirks in the face of pretentions about ‘playing the right way’, Warnock will have no fears as he looks to keep Cardiff yo-yoing.  This time, getting them up will presumably turn out to be a final, pyrrhic victory, but he won’t care about that so long as he wins.  Aden Flint from Middlesbrough is a signing to make him purr, while striker Robert Glatzel arrives from Heidenheim with strong references.

“Aden Flint has agreed to sign for us, Mr Warnock.”

Fulham

Dumped back in the Championship despite relatively huge investment in their playing squad last season, the Cottagers have doubled down, pushing the boat out to try to bounce straight back.  We know what to expect from them – lots of goals ,hopefully at both ends of the pitch.  They still have Tom Cairney, plus Ivan Cavaleiro on loan from Wolves, while Aleksandar Mitrović signed a new contract and ominously, Anthony Knockaert has joined on an initial season loan from Brighton.  That front four could batter anybody at this level.  They need to shift out some players and carry out a wider rebuild, which may take them more than one window, but they will be ferociously dangerous opponents in the meantime.

Leeds United

Convincing Marcelo Bielsa to stay for a second season was the first order of business for Leeds and keeping him on board should, in theory, give them a great chance of going at least one step further than last time.  But Pompous Jansson’s move to Brentford was an eyebrow-raiser, with the club reportedly forced to consider at sales to help keep them above the financial fair play threshold.  The sale (and immediate loan-back) of Jack Clarke to Tottenham helped to free funds to strengthen a team which Bielsa felt had hit its performance celling last season.  Hélder Costa was an eye-catching loan addition from Wolves and they still have to be considered as promotion favourites – but the delicious prospect of another meltdown is never far away. 

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies have gone for a relatively high-profile appointment in Slaven Bilić and will expect the Ígor-era Croat to guide them back to the promised land.  But they managed to miss out last season under Darren Moore and Jimmy Shan, despite having two 20-goal strikers – neither of whom will be returning.  Dwight Gayle was only on loan from Newcastle and Jay Rodriguez has been sold to Burnley.  Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore, who Curtis Davies once dismissively described as a ‘big lump’, has joined as a first replacement and I’m placing them in the Contenders pile solely in the expectation that they will bring in more players before the deadline. Bilić has demanded signings publicly and it wouldn’t seem to make sense to bring in a coach with his reputation and then not back him… Would it?

THE HOPEFULS

Derby County

Frank Lampard’s departure left a void, but just as significant was the loss of the three loanees who helped propel the Rams to Wembley. With a group of senior players also (rightly) released on free transfers, it will be difficult for the Dutch legend Phillip Cocu to replicate that play-off run, but having arguably overachieved last season, we live in hope of repeating the trick (and of signing more players before the deadline).  Graeme Shinnie was signed by Lampard to add energy to the midfield, while Kieran Dowell, on loan from Everton, will be tasked with replacing some of Mason Mount’s guile and Harry Wilson’s goals. Centre back Matt Clarke comes with rave reviews from Brighton and will hopefully be a fine replacement for Fikayo Tomori, while defender / holding midfielder Krystian Bielik, who has cost a packet from Arsenal, is a signing which just makes sense. Other players in the squad, such as mighty mouse Duane Holmes and Tom Lawrence (who had a difficult 2018/9 season), will need to step up and much still depends on what happens before the window closes.

Ram’s graphic for Matt Clarke, star defender at Pompey last season. By this analysis, he was one of the best headers of the ball in League 1 last season. And he can pass….

Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield’s improbable promotion and even-more improbable survival in the Premier League couldn’t last, so now they go again under David Wagner’s much less noteworthy replacement, Jan Siewert.  Their largely foreign squad was miles short of Premier League quality – Aaron Mooy and Phillip Billing aside – and the embarrassing stunt they allowed a certain bookmaker to inflict on their supporters in pre-season made them look like a small club, despite the largesse of Premier League parachute payments.  Billing promptly left for Bournemouth and while they have some cash to spend and a hotly-tipped striker in Karlan Grant, it would surprise me if they cracked the top six again.

Middlesbrough

The division’s self-appointed financial policeman Steve Gibson turned to the untried ex-Boro player Jonathan Woodgate after parting with Tony Pulis.  Gibson’s rants about financial sustainability have become notorious, but Boro have had their own issues with overspending and this could be a season of reconciliation.  Aden Flint was sacrificed, joining Warnock at Cardiff and they have recruited promising young players like Marc Bola and Marcus Browne, while letting misfit striker Martin Braithwaite and veteran winger Stewart Downing go.

Stoke City

Stoke moved fast to revamp a failing squad this summer, bringing in an unspectacular but solid group of proven Championship players, who should make them much more effective at this level.  Lee Gregory and Stephen Ward hint at a return to the unrefined Potters’ style of old, but Nick Powell is a talented attacking midfielder.  Bolstering and renewing a squad which already included good players in Joe Allen, Peter Etebo, Sam Vokes and Tom Ince should help them to improve on an embarrassing 16th place finish last season, but still might not be enough to push them into the top six, especially after the loss of Ryan Shawcross to serious injury.  With eight surplus players having been ostracised from their pre-season tour, there is still a lot of work for Nathan Jones to do to turn the ship around.

MID-TABLE

Blackburn Rovers

Will continue to be solid under Tony Mowbray and have more than enough to be safe. Bradley Dack will continue to be a pain to come up against, while Mowbray got the best out of journeyman striker Danny Graham, who netted 15 goals last season (joint top-scoring with Dack) and Stewart Downing has signed on for a season. However, with Bradley Johnson joining on a free, it’s impossible for me to back them to finish in the top six.

Luton Town

Having lost Nathan Jones to Stoke, the Hatters were promoted under temporary boss Mick Harford and will now try to consolidate under another Jones, Graeme.  Defender James Justin’s move to Leicester provided funds to bring in Brendan Galloway, Callum McManaman and Ryan Tunnicliffe, all on free transfers and while they won’t be fancied, they will look at survival as a realistic target after last year’s excellent season. Jacob Butterfield has also joined, in search of a fresh start.

Nottingham Forest

Football dinosaurs Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill were rightly jettisoned, but their replacement, Sabri Lamouchi, is very much unheralded on these shores – his main virtue apparently being that he is represented by the infamous Jorge Mendes.  Greek owner Evangelos Marinakis’ latest attempt to curry favour with the Portuguese agent led to a fresh influx of Portuguese signings to add to an already bloated squad – full back Yuri Ribeiro, plus midfielders Alfa Romeo and Tiago Silva being the latest, plus Rafa Mir on loan from FC Mendes and another one since then (I’ve lost count) – but whether Lamouchi can actually mesh a team together before Financial Fair Play starts to bite (or Marinakis gets twitchy) is quite another thing.  The signing of Sammy Ameobi, who you might have expected to take the plunge into League 1 along with Bolton, was odd, while utility man Ben Osborn has been snapped up by Sheffield United. 

Forest’s sprawling (and gradually Mendesifying) squad, prior to the signing of Rafa Mir – depth chart created by @DavidMarples

Preston North End

I’ve never warmed to Alex Neil, but he is an effective manager.  Star forward Callum Robinson has gone to Sheffield United, but they still have some good players – not least in midfield, with that nice Ben Pearson complemented by veteran Paul Gallagher, goalscorer Alan Browne and much-hyped new signing Tom Bayliss – it’s not impossible to see them cracking the play-offs, although their move for the veteran David Nugent does make me wonder whether they will have enough quality. At the very least, they will continue to be really awkward opponents.

Queens Park Rangers

It would be unkind to base my prediction for QPR on Bob Mortimer’s Athletico Mince podcast, but really, Bob’s wicked joke that Steve McClaren was sacked for failing to meet Tony Fernandes’ target of finishing 15th was perfect.  Star midfielder Luke Freeman left for Sheffield United, while in a gently surreal twist that Mortimer would doubtless appreciate, giant striker Matt Smith left for his spiritual home of Millwall, only for another Matt Smith – a 19 year-old midfielder – to promptly join on loan from Manchester City. Jordan Hugill is a potentially decent signing on loan from West Ham, but there are concerns over their ability to keep the ball out of the net and “Mr Fernandes” would probably be happy if Mark Warburton steered them to the calm waters of lower mid-table.

Swansea City

An encouraging campaign under Graham Potter only led to the Englishman being poached by Brighton and so the Swans go back to square one, under former England youth coach Steve Cooper.  They have the benefit of a consistent club philosophy of playing attractive passing football to guide their recruitment policy, but under the chairmanship of financial troubleshooter Trevor Birch (who had a brief spell at Derby when we were in a spot of bother years ago), they have sold off their stars – winger Dan James to Manchester United and star striker Oli McBurnie to Sheffield United.  

Wigan Athletic

Under a respected manager in Paul Cook, the Latics will look to build on their solid survival total of 52 points last season.  Everton loanee Antonee Robinson has signed permanently and Nigel Clough-era Ram Michael Jacobs is still on the books, but Nick Powell departed on a free transfer and Reece James, an outstanding loanee from Chelsea, has returned to Frank Lampard’s care. 


THE STRUGGLERS

Barnsley

Daniel Stendel’s successful season at Oakwell has seen him linked to bigger jobs, but Barnsley’s success was as much due to clever recruitment as the abilities of their German coach.  Unfortunately, they will have to do the trick again, as several of their promotion-winning players were quickly snapped up by bigger clubs (most notably Stoke).   Moneyball legend Billy Beane is a minority owner and so it feels safe to assume that the club has been taking advantage of all the analytics they can get their hands on.  Having signed a disparate group of new players, including several from Europe, the Tykes will now hope Stendel is able to mesh them into another successful side.

Birmingham City

Brum are struggling with the hangover from the monumental binge of overspending under Harry Redknapp.  The pressure may have been eased through the sale of ex-Ilkeston striker Che Adams to Southampton, but with Garry Monk replaced by his former assistant – Oxford United reject Pep Clotet – trouble could still be brewing at St Andrew’s.  On the bright side, they still have Lukas Jutkiewicz and picked up ex-Arsenal midfielder Dan Crowley for a bargain fee from Dutch football.  There is also a potentially special player emerging from their youth set-up in Jude Bellingham, who was picked out as a future star in Michael Calvin’s excellent book The Nowhere Men when he was still practically a babe in arms.

Charlton Athletic

Lee Bowyer’s achievement of promotion was quickly overshadowed by a bizarre public contract row started by the Addicks’ deeply-unpopular owner, Roland Duchatelet.  With rumours of Derby County interest swirling, the manager did get the new deal he deserved in the end, but with Duchatelet not interested in investing in the squad and players including young stars Krystian Bielik (on loan from Arsenal) and Joe Aribo (lost to Rangers for a compensation fee) leaving, Bowyer will have a big job on his hands competing at this level.

Hull City

Hull will be cutting their wage bill this season under Grant McCann, who earned the promotion to the Championship that his Doncaster Rovers side couldn’t quite achieve. With star midfield Jarred Bowen likely on the move and a thin-looking squad, McCann has a job on his hands to stabilise the Tigers at this level.

Millwall

They are what they are – old-fashioned lump ball, with very little quality, but awkward customers on their day.  Embarrassed Derby home and away last season, making it galling to see them scrape to safety on 44 points.  Whether they have enough to repeat the trick of survival is another question.  Lee Gregory has gone, but his replacement, the enormous Matt Smith, was at least a logical pick-up.  

Reading

Reading seem to be going nowhere but into a downward spiral.  Under a ‘soft’ transfer embargo for breaching financial rules, the Royals have little opportunity to strengthen, little connection with their Chinese owners and every chance of getting relegated.   Experienced pros Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Chris Gunter and Sam Baldock were excluded from the club’s pre-season training camp and asked to find new clubs – a distress signal from a club which is in difficult straits.  The one-year signing of Scottish veteran Charlie Adam was met with bafflement by neutral observers. On the plus side however, Portuguese manager José Gomes seems to be well liked and to have secured the fans’ backing.

Sheffield Wednesday

Financial woes and the stagnation this caused prevented Steve Bruce from pulling his usual promotion trick – so he pulled a McClaren, by leaving the club in the lurch to sip from the poisoned chalice at Newcastle United.  With the Owls continue to struggle financially from the legacy of previous overspending and with Lee Bullen left to act as caretaker manager for the start of the season, they cannot expect to do much this season other than survive.

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