Is the annual Derby County meltdown happening all over again? Interview
Monday, 5th Mar 2018 14:59 by Clive Whittingham
Derby have taken over Cardiff’s mantle as Championship chokers in recent years and, despite the arrival of experienced players and Gary Rowett, Rams fan Ollie Wright fears it’s happening again.
One win in nine, it's not happening again is it? What do you attribute this dip in form to?
OW: There are a lot of problems, as you'd expect when the team is experiencing such a poor run. In short and in no particular order, the problems have been: bizarre defensive lapses, a lack of pace in defence and midfield, no real clarity on what our strongest team is, allowing Johnny Russell to leave without signing a direct replacement and a bad injury to Sam Winnall, which has left us with no in-form number nine.
A bit more flesh on those bones. Defensively, a string of amateurish errors have marred the past four games and made wins impossible to come by. Derby presented a moribund Leeds with two appalling goals, then offered up two more to a very beatable Reading. Both of Fulham's goals on Saturday were preventable and all of a sudden, what had looked like one of the most competent and solid defensive units in the division seems slow and clumsy, frail and uncertain. It's really, really odd. Scott Carson continues to be the best goalkeeper in the Championship, in my opinion, but he isn't getting much help at all from the blokes in front of him.
The most exasperating thing is that we were told the experienced pros recruited this season - Curtis Davies, Tom Huddlestone, Joe Ledley, Cameron Jerome - would add the 'know-how' needed to avoid the late-season meltdowns of previous seasons and see us through. Then we get into February second in the league, et voila - we see a pissy defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, the frankly stupid 2-2 with Leeds, a chaotic 3-3 at Reading - exactly the sort of results that ruined us in 2014/5, under Steve McClaren, against clubs who are going nowhere.
Left back has become a problem area, because neither Craig Forsyth nor Marcus Olsson can nail down the slot. Up-front, neither David Nugent nor Jerome are in goalscoring form and so Matej Vydra is carrying too much responsibility to win matches on his shoulders. In wide areas, Andi Weimann tries hard, but can't be relied upon to score, while Rowett's marquee signing Tom Lawrence has contributed only three goals (Rowett cheerfully told the media pre-Fulham that he is "probably the only person in Derbyshire who thinks Tom is having a good season" and without claiming to speak for the county at large, I think he's right). Kasey Palmer, on loan from Chelsea, looks our brightest hope, but Rowett hasn't yet worked out what to do with him - apparently not seeing him as a viable option to play wide and therefore only really able to use him as cover for Vydra in the ten role.
So, there is plenty for Rowett to sort out, but despite these gripes, we have significant quality in the squad and I remain hopeful that this is just a blip - albeit one that has gone on for too long now.
How would you assess the season overall?
OW: The start was distinctly average and only after a scratchy home win against Forest in October did we build any momentum. After that, we went on a fine run up until Christmas - but since then, have only won three games in twelve. The saving grace until lately was that if we didn't win, we at least drew, but the draws don't help when you start losing games. Defeat at Hillsborough was disappointing and now an unbeaten, albeit draw-laden, home run which stretched back to the end of November has been broken as well.
There's a growing sense that the January window didn't go well. When I did my preview piece for Fulham, I pointed to "a tale of two Januarys". Whereas they recruited the players who were the missing pieces in their jigsaw, we contrived to emerge weaker (particularly after Winnall's injury, which came at the start of February and was horrifically bad luck for the player and the club).
So, chins are on the floor at the minute and we desperately need a win at your place to get going again.
Natives getting restless? Lots of talk about style of play on Twitter. Rowett's teams always have been 'functional'.
OW: I've written a lot about possession and style of play, because Rowett is adamant that keeping the ball doesn't matter. That is a big sea change for Derby, who flourished under McClaren's passing philosophy and then recruited Paul Clement, who also believed in dominating the ball. Some people tell me that 'tippy-tappy' is bollocks, but over a season, there is a link between average possession levels and pass success and the better teams. People say: "Yeah, but Leicester", but when is that ever going to happen again? There's always an exception to every rule. It's also fair to suggest that when you drop below elite level, the link between possession and points is less strong - but it's a factor nevertheless.
But people only complain about style of play when the results aren't coming. Our home form has been poor since Christmas, the team didn't look very good against Sheffield United, Norwich or Fulham at Pride Park and so people naturally start to ask questions about what is going on. It was risky for Rowett to get rid of our best footballer Will Hughes and replace him with Ledley (it actually would have been the undistinguished Birmingham plodder Maikel Kieftenbeld, were it not for a clerical error on summer deadline day). It also feels symbolic that Chris Martin, who is capable of some superb touches and passes, was sent to Reading to make room for the faster, stronger, but much less technically able Jerome.
Derby are in the top six and at the start of the season, that didn't seem particularly likely. So Rowett deserves credit for keeping us in contention for promotion. But the home crowd aren't getting much bang for their buck of late and so naturally, questions will be asked about whether it's all going south again.
To be honest, I think Rowett prefers away games, where there is less expectation for us to dominate and we can play his counter-attacking style without it provoking anxiety from twenty-odd thousand people, who of course ideally want to see us play everyone off the park. Our away form is strong and so maybe the trip to west London comes at a good time.
Player of the year candidates?
OW: It has to be Vydra, with honourable mentions for the dependable Carson and the excellent Davies. Vydra has scored or assisted more than a third of our goals this season.
Weak links in the side?
OW: As mentioned above, left back is the most talked-about position, but striker is also becoming an issue, unless Jerome or Nugent suddenly start banging in the goals again.
Do you think you'll go up? Consequences, FFP or otherwise, of not?
OW: On current form, we have no chance, even if we get our act together and secure a play-off place. It's galling to admit it, but we have to accept that there are clearly three or four better teams in the division at the moment, so it'd be a turn-up for the books if we did sneak up. I wasn't expecting promotion this season, but for us to go into February challenging for the top two, only to slip away - again - is frustrating beyond belief.
FFP has been a factor this season, in the sense that we've actually tried to work within the restrictions and this limited our spending power. The money Rowett spent was more than recouped (mostly by selling Tom Ince) and he made only two signings in January - Jerome and Palmer - while letting four senior players leave. This is because Mel Morris went nuts when Clement came in 2015/6, the club spent millions on a load of substandard players, didn't get promoted and is now being forced to deal with the legacy of those poor decisions.
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