Preview: Derby County

It would be foolish to write off Coventry City’s play-off hopes just yet, but Wednesday night’s defeat to Hull City is a blow that leaves the team with significantly less wiggle room than before. A failure to take all three points in this upcoming fixture, against Derby County, would put the Sky Blues in the territory of requiring a truly remarkable run of form to make up the gap to the top six.

Derby County themselves are in a similar boat, at the other end of the table, setting this fixture up to be one of the most important of the season for both teams. With each side low on confidence, missing some important players, and more than matched the Sky Blues in previous encounters this season, these are two very similar sides who just so happen to be fighting for two very different end goals.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Moore; Hyam, Sheaf, Clarke-Salter; Dabo, Allen, Hamer, Maatsen; O'Hare; Godden, Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

Coventry City have moved a little closer to down to the absolute bare bones, after the absences of Kyle McFadzean, Todd Kane and Michael Rose added to those of Jake Bidwell, Josh Eccles, Liam Kelly and Jodi Jones. With Ben Sheaf called into the defence and very little on the bench on Wednesday night, whoever takes charge of this game for the Sky Blues is going to have very little to pick from.

The keenest area of interest in terms of team selection for this game will be just how the defence lines up. As well as Ben Sheaf played as a stand-in centre-back, his inclusion in the back three coincided with a very shaky defensive performance. Unless either Michael Rose or Kyle McFadzean become available for this game (with the seriousness of their absences on Wednesday unclear), it is a choice between hoping that the makeshift back three can quickly develop an understanding, or the more radical move of switching to a back four.

A switch to a four still feels the more unlikely move, especially given the lack of training time and available senior coaching staff to enact such a change. Coventry City have been accustomed to playing with a back three for the best part of three seasons now, so it won’t be as easy as telling the players to line up in a different shape. It requires both the centre-backs and the full/wing-backs to take up very different positions, and really would be a more radical move than asking Ben Sheaf to fill in for another game in slightly uncomfortable position for him.

The only other potential area for change would be in attack, with Matt Godden possibly due a rest after starting three games in a row after returning from a month-long absence. It is the one area of the pitch where Coventry City have options to change things up, with Martyn Waghorn and Fabio Tavares waiting in the wings. With the international break after this fixture, however, there may be less of a need to rest Godden than otherwise.

Last Time We Met

After what had effectively been a mid-season break, due to a series of Covid-enforced postponements, Coventry City looked more than a little rusty in their FA Cup Third Round tie with Derby County at the CBS Arena. In a game that is best-remembered for Derby’s Festy Ebosele absolutely destroying Fankaty Dabo for pace and skill in a series of one-on-one encounters, the Sky Blues were second-best for much of the 90 minutes.

However, Derby struggled to translate their dominance of proceedings into clear-cut chances and goals, with a Dominic Hyam header from a corner, and one or two excellent Ben Wilson saves, proving to be enough for Coventry City to advance to the next round of the cup.

The Opposition

The Manager – Wayne Rooney

It has been a refrain oft-recited this season, but Wayne Rooney really has been doing a remarkable job at Derby County. With the club in administration and with little prospect of an end to it, Rooney has had to cobble together a team from youngsters, veterans and the few remaining big purchases from a previous era at the club. Despite a 21-point deduction and constant uncertainty over Derby’s future existence, the Rams are just six points from survival.

However, recent form has been less impressive, with the continued spate of player departures and injuries really starting to take effect. It feels as if Derby County are on the verge of running out of belief – not helped by fellow relegation-battlers, Barnsley, putting together some strong recent form – but Wayne Rooney has shown over the course of this season that he will not allow his players to give up until relegation is mathematically certain, as well as being able to get the team playing some very attractive, possession-based football.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Allsop; Byrne, Davies, Cashin, Buchanan; Bielik, Bird; Ebosele, Morrison, Lawrence; Plange.
Possible Line-Up

Attacking midfielder, Tom Lawrence, has taken on the mantle of leader of this Derby County side. A player who has frustrated and delighted in almost equal measure in the early part of his career, Lawrence seems to have relished the responsibility of being his team’s driving force. A supremely technically skilful player with the ability to produce something out of nothing, Lawrence has added a work-rate to his game to act as a reference point in attack.

Another key leadership figure in this Derby side is Curtis Davies in central defence. The 37 year-old has played every minute in the league campaign thus far, which is no meant feat given injury issues last year. Originally forming a tight partnership with another veteran, Phil Jagielka, Davies has more recently helped shepherd youngster, Eiran Cashin, into the fires of regular Championship football. Other important experienced figures at Pride Park are Ravel Morrison in midfield and Nathan Byrne at right-back, while the return from injury of Poland international, Krystian Bielik, as a screening presence in front of the defence has been a huge boost for the Rams in recent weeks.

Derby County’s academy has stepped up for the first-team in its greatest moment of need this season, with youngsters continually popping up out of seemingly nowhere to plug gaps in the side. Right-back/winger, Festy Ebosele, looks the most exciting of the bunch (and is already off to Udinese in the summer), while striker Luke Plange stepped up mid-season to solve a goalscoring crisis, and more recently, forward, Malcolm Ebiowei, has made the step up to the first-team, filling the void left by the sale of Poland international, Kamil Jozwiak. The more established academy graduates, Jason Knight and Max Bird in midfield, and Lee Buchanan at left-back, are relative veterans compared to many of those who have emerged this campaign.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Derby County have tended to rely on their home form this season, with the desperation to pick up a win to prevent the teams above them in the relegation battle from pulling away only likely to increase their desire to claim a result in front of their own fans. Coventry City are going to have to manage a largely partisan atmosphere while being without some of the team’s key leadership figures.

It is Derby County’s threat in wide areas that is likely to be of most concern to Coventry City. While Festy Ebosele hasn’t been starting games of late, Derby have two full-backs, in Nathan Byrne and Lee Buchanan, that can overlap effectively, creating space for Tom Lawrence and Ravel Morrison to open up the play in the final third. The Sky Blues lack of natural width may allow Derby’s full-backs to gain a head of steam, with it being important that the midfield is well-positioned to avoid them bombing onto the byline.

As desperate as Derby County are likely to be, they are hamstrung at the moment by the lack of a fit, senior centre-forward, with Colin Kazim-Richards looking to have picked up a season-ending injury on Tuesday night. As a team that like to dominate the ball, a number of games have passed Derby by simply because they lack a reference point in the penalty area to turn possession into clear-cut chances. Youngster, Luke Plange, has seen his scoring form drop-off as a result of having to lead the line on his own, with Derby often resorting to playing a ‘false 9’ (either Ravel Morrison or Tom Lawrence) instead of having a centre-forward looking to get into the box.

For Coventry City, Derby’s desire to dominate the ball could well play into the Sky Blues’ hands. The difference in threat between last Saturday and Wednesday highlighting that this is a team that looks more dangerous on the counter-attack than having to play through a deep-lying defence. If there is energy left in the legs of Viktor Gyokeres, Callum O’Hare and Gustavo Hamer, they may well show what they are capable of in this game, with the benefit of space to run into on the break.

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