Leaving aside the frustration from Saturday that we were a harsh penalty decision away from taking all three points from the league leaders, five points from the last three games has put us in a healthy position ahead of a run of five games against mostly bottom-half sides. We now have an opportunity to pull away from danger if we can pick up three or more wins from this run, although, anything less than two wins will drag us back into the mire.
Starting with this trip to Derby County, we are going to have to adopt a slightly different mentality than we’ve had for much of the season. This recent run of form has been down to making ourselves tougher to beat and waiting for opportunities at the other end. If we want to string wins together over the next few games, we’re going to have to work on our plan as an attacking unit, which carries the risk of sacrificing some of the defensive solidity we’ve built recently.
The return of Sam McCallum for selection for this game provides Mark Robins of returning to the back four system that has helped improve our defensive performances. Although we only conceded from a penalty against Norwich at the weekend, the team looked more vulnerable while playing with a back three and I would expect Mark Robins to move away from it for this game.
The downside of reverting to a back four is that we haven’t yet found an effective line-up in attack that accounts for the change in defensive shape. The key issue is a lack of natural wide players, which has left Tyler Walker isolated for long periods of recent games. It may be an idea to bring Maxime Biamou into the side to help Tyler Walker out, but that would come at the cost of dropping either Liam Kelly, Ben Sheaf, or Gustavo Hamer in central midfield. For now, the hope is that more time on the pitch together will help Tyler Walker, Jordan Shipley and Ryan Giles develop an understanding as an attacking unit.
In goal, Ben Wilson did enough against Norwich City to earn another start. It is a concern in this crucial run of fixtures that we have a goalkeeper that we’re waiting for a mistake from to take out of the team, but every solid performance from Ben Wilson will make it increasingly harder for Mark Robins to drop him and risk the uncertainty that integrating another keeper into the side would bring.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting with Derby County was one of many narrow defeats in our last season in the Championship that suggested that a better manager, or two or three players, could well have kept us up and we may have avoided the following eight years in lower league purgatory.
The day after Lukas Jutkiewicz’s sale to Middlesbrough, Andy Thorn’s Sky Blues were probably the better team in the first-half at Pride Park. However, a familiar toothlessness in front of goal eventually allowed Derby County to find a winner through future Coventry City loanee, Callum Ball, to secure a win that helped move them into play-off contention under Nigel Clough.
The Manager – Wayne Rooney
Having been seen as play-off contenders heading into the season, the combination of issues caused by Financial Fair Play and a potential takeover meant that Derby County were unable to strengthen the squad over the summer. With former manager, Phillip Cocu, utilising a pedestrian brand of passing football, Derby were a soft touch over the opening weeks of the season, which saw him lose his job.
There is little clarity over how soon a permanent replacement for Cocu will be appointed. Having initially utilised a team of Liam Rosenior, Shay Given and player-coach, Wayne Rooney, the latter has taken it upon himself to take sole charge of this interregnum period for Derby County. Adopting a more direct approach than under Cocu, Rooney oversaw an improved performance at the weekend against Wycombe Wanderers – although, the team were unable to see out the win. This game appears crucial in Rooney’s fledgling managerial career, a win could allow him time to earn the job, a defeat could lead to another change-up in the dug-out for Derby.
Who To Look Out For
Derby County’s status as play-off candidates heading into the season was justifiable given the squad at their disposal. In particular, the talent available to call upon in attacking midfield areas has the potential to make Derby an exciting team if properly utilised. In Tom Lawrence, they have a player who has shown in recent years that he can win games on his own in this division through his individual brilliance. Duane Holmes provides energy and intelligence in attacking areas, while Poland international winger, Kamil Jozwiak, has shown plenty of promise since joining in the summer.
What has been most exciting, potentially, about this Derby County side is the emergence of a generation of academy players who look like making it to the very top. Ireland international, Jason Knight, is the most established, capable of playing anywhere in midfield and popping up with goals. Sitting midfielder, Max Bird, has also proven himself to be an effective Championship player at a young age. The most exciting of Derby’s current crop of youngsters is attacking midfielder, Louie Sibley, who showed in flashes last season that he has the dribbling ability and eye for goal to light up games in this division with his individual skill.
The youth and flair in this Derby County should have been backed up by a solid defensive unit. Goalkeeper, David Marshall, kept 15 clean sheets last season at Wigan Athletic, while a central defensive partnership of Curtis Davies and Matt Clarke should be among the best in this division. With the presence of the fit-again, Krystian Bielik, shielding the back-line, Derby’s porousness at the back has been just as concerning as their struggles in front of goal.
Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost
The big issue for Derby County this season has been an inability to score goals in open play. The inability to effectively replace target-man, Chris Martin, has made it difficult for the team’s talented attacking midfielders to get into games. Against Wycombe Wanderers at the weekend, journeyman forward, Colin Kazim-Richards, showed he could be an effective replacement for Martin, but he is short of fitness and may only have a limited role in this game.
Whoever plays up front for Derby, it is crucial that we mark them tightly to avoid them being able to bring Derby’s midfielders into play. The way in which Kyle McFadzean, Dominic Hyam and Liam Kelly dealt with Kieffer Moore against Cardiff City last week is an encouraging sign in that regard. While Derby have players who can produce individual moments to win games, if we can keep them from getting the ball in central areas, their ability to threaten our goal is likely to be limited.
With the results we’ve picked up recently, this is a ‘must not lose’ game rather than ‘must win’. That means that we can continue to focus on keeping things tight at the back while being patient in waiting for opportunities to present themselves in attack. If we were to fall behind, then we’ll need to find a fluency going forward that we haven’t had in quite a while.