A win against Middlesbrough in midweek would have put us in a strong position heading into a crucial run of fixtures against teams in the bottom-half – three of which are likely to be direct rivals for relegation. Instead, the pressure is on to win at least two of these next four games, as well as to avoid handing as many points as possible away.
We look tired, short on confidence and without the ability to inject further quality or fresh legs into the starting line-up. This first game of this run, against an improving Derby County side, may well be the most testing of the four to come because it comes at the end of a run of seven games in the space of 21 days. However, it is one of the most important, offering the opportunity to drag a team below us in the table – well, if we win by two goals – or at least prevent a relegation rival from pulling away from danger.
Given the importance of this game, it was something of a surprise that Mark Robins named his strongest available team on Tuesday night – which our opponents, Derby County did not. Whether it was a deliberate decision or reflective of our lack of squad depth, failing to get the win against Middlesbrough with our best XI not only adds to the importance of this game but has left a few key players looking jaded.
Gustavo Hamer and Tyler Walker are probably the two most important players of concern heading into this game. Hamer put in one of his worst performances in a Coventry City shirt on Tuesday night – although was still one of our most threatening players – and looks like he could do with a longer break than the one game he was afforded last week. Walker has been increasingly uninvolved over the past few games, which may well be the result of a lack of fitness after his recent injury, and would probably benefit from a spell out of the side as well.
However, the problem with dropping Hamer or Walker is the drop-off in quality between them and any potential replacement. Matty James for Gustavo Hamer is probably not as sheer a drop-off as Walker for either Gyokeres or Bakayoko (or one up front), but it underlines that any change to most of our current starting line-up would weaken a side that is already one of the weakest in the division. With a week’s rest coming up after this game, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Mark Robins persevered for now with players he would ideally rest.
Elsewhere, it is probably quite a straightforward decision to bring Leo Ostigard back into the team following his suspension, with Michael Rose doing little on Tuesday night to command a starting role ahead of the more mobile Norwegian.
Last Time We Met
It was at the height of our post-November international break defensive bunker retreat when we took on a Derby County side at close to their nadir at Pride Park. In a game of few chances, our lack of ambition allowed Derby to gradually build confidence and exert pressure on our goal as the game wore on. They eventually took the lead with seven minutes to go via Colin Kazim-Richards.
A key moment of the game was a miss from Derby youngster, Jack Stretton, that should have made it 2-0. On one of our few forays forward that night, Gustavo Hamer swept home from just outside the area to secure a pretty fortuitous share of the points for a sub-par Sky Blues.
The Manager – Wayne Rooney
In sub-optimal conditions for England’s record scorer to begin his managerial career – at a side rooted to the bottom of the Championship, with players wages being paid late and unable to do much in the transfer market – Wayne Rooney has done an impressive job at Derby County since taking the reins in late November. With nine wins, five draws and six defeats, Derby would be eighth had the season begun when he took over.
Rooney has taken what was a passive and underperforming team and made them more resolute and aggressive across the pitch. It has rarely been eye-catching, free-flowing stuff, but with an impressive defensive record – the joint-fourth-best in the division since Rooney took charge – Derby have become an effective team unit. Recent form has tailed off a little bit – just two wins in six – but even when they aren’t at their best, Derby are resolute enough to keep themselves in games.
Who To Look Out For
One player in particular has been vital in Derby County’s turnaround under Wayne Rooney, that is the nomadic striker, Colin Kazim-Richards. Signed as seemingly a panic buy late in the summer, Kazim-Richards has proven himself to be one of the more complete forwards at Championship level. Strong but surprisingly quick and skilful, Kazim-Richards is a real handful for defenders to deal with. While he’s not the best of finishers, he creates so much danger and gets into so many good positions that he’s still been a pretty reliable goalscorer for Derby.
Elsewhere, the other key figures for Derby County at the moment are at the back. The experienced David Marshall is a solid presence in goal (but may miss this game, with former Nuneaton man, Kelle Roos, his replacement), while central defender, Matt Clarke, provides class and composure in front of him. Making up that defensive line tends to be the versatile and solid Andre Wisdom and youngster Lee Buchanan, who are reliable performers. If Derby want to be more expansive, they tend to utilise the pace and skill of the diminutive Nathan Byrne at right-back, shifting Wisdom into central defence.
In front of that defence, Derby tend to focus on further solidity and energy, with the Scottish midfielder, Graeme Shinnie a key figure – particularly in the absence of Krystian Bielik. Going forward, Derby have players such as Patrick Roberts, Tom Lawrence and Louie Sibley who, on their day, can win games on their own in this division but have been out of form this season. Instead, Polish winger, Kamil Jozwiak, has carried a lot of the creative burden with his evasive dribbling and directness out wide that can stretch defences.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
This is likely to be a game of few chances, but one which Derby County will look to be the protagonists in. Having rested key players on Tuesday night in their 4-0 defeat at Cardiff City, they have clearly targeted this game as one to win. While they have been fairly goal-shy this season, they showed in a 4-0 at St Andrew’s against Birmingham City in December that they can take teams apart when they are at their best.
As for specific details, containing Colin Kazim-Richards is likely to be our biggest concern in this game. The striker’s mobility and physicality caused us a lot of problems in the previous meeting between the two sides. In addition, that wide threat of Kamil Jozwiak and the enterprising runs of Nathan Byrne will be something we’ll have to wary of – which is how Blackburn caused us problems last week.
From an attacking perspective for us, being able to get both strikers in the game against a resolute Derby County unit will be important. The support that Callum O’Hare can provide in opening up space is likely to have a key role in making our attacking unit work, as will getting hold of the ball and being more purposeful with it.