Football is funny for its coincidences and our visit to Pride Park tonight, our first league visit for several decades, is no exception, writes Tom Morton.
For example, in September we came very close to playing Accrington, Derby, and Bristol in succession. In the end, the Accrington game was postponed and we walked away with six points and eight goals from the remaining fixtures.
Fast forward to February and we get to complete that original trilogy of games (admittedly in a different order) with a final game against Derby tomorrow night.
By rights, then, we need four goals to make up the numbers. That might be a bit ambitious. Back in September, I commented that Derby looked in a rocky place. The squad had rotated significantly over the summer and, although they had clocked up a few home wins, they struggled to pick up results away from home. In fact, it took them until early October to get an away win.
Since then, though, the Rams have gone from strength to strength. Until Saturday they hadn’t lost a game since 1st October and were clearly demonstrating an ability to smash teams lower down the league (they’ve scored three or more goals in six out of the last fifteen fixtures). It’s easy to see that a change in manager, from Liam Rosenior to Paul Warne, has had an impact.
In contrast to their away form, Derby are very solid at home. In fourteen games they’ve drawn twice and lost twice. Two of those games were against Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich. That performance leaves the Rams fourth in terms of home performances this season – and to be blunt a win tomorrow night would put them second in that table only to Plymouth (who incredibly have only lost one home game this season by the way).
Anyway. That doesn’t bode well for us. They’ve scored multiple goals in over half of their games and have hit the net thirty times (to just eleven concessions) at home. Their xG demonstrates overperformance in front of the goal. From a pretty high xG of 1.78, they are managing an average of 2.14 goals per game at Pride Park.
Of course, we have a pretty solid defence. So this is a bit of an interesting test. Pitting the sixth-best defence against the fourth-best attack of the league. Coupled with the fact that we’ve stepped up against the top teams this season it’s enough to say that today’s game is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The Rams have had a fairly quiet January window. In fact, pretty much the only changes they’ve made is to bring in loanees from the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham. Those are to replace bench players recalled by their home clubs. So nothing too exciting to note. They’ve also inexplicably loaned in Luke McGee (Forest Green’s first-choice keeper during the first part of the season) to sit on their bench after Joseph Anang was recalled by West Ham.
How do you beat a team like the Rams? Based on Wycombe’s performance at the weekend. First, you stop them playing and then you beat them at their own game. Derby play with real pace and essentially want to be playing Championship football. In interviews, Warne complained that the referee broke up the game. But it looks like Wycombe were as much responsible with Warne describing the latter part of the game as a “scrap”.
Going forward the Rams manage an average of fifteen shots per match – which is a pretty high rate. They have four players with more than five goals to their name, including David McGoldrick on twelve league goals. We’re not going to stop that activity so the plan needs to be to hold the line firmly and keep the threat down.
We need to be strong and industrious, especially in midfield. Derby has a large squad, and I don’t mean numbers. They are physically capable of dominating big portions of the pitch. Teams that have done well have had to stand up to this and hold a bit of possession. Indeed that is exactly how we approached it last time out by putting bodies on the line and throwing everything at them at the right moment.
What will work well is the pace we seem to want to turn the game around. It was really positive to see how quickly we broke back against Bristol. Notably, this was from a variety of sources – playing out, quick balls from Rushworth, and a few route-ones. Looking at how Derby play, the more varied we can be the more it will stretch their defence. It will be just as tough an ask as last time. Derby retained some key names from their Championship squad, including Craig Forsyth who has a decade of experience with Derby in the second tier.
Overall I see people describing this encounter as a free hit. But in a sense I think it’s important we do well this evening. Turning performance around is a long-term investment and we have a reputation of doing better against stronger teams. Would you trade the Ipswich and Sheffield games for four wins against lower teams? Possibly some would.
However, and not to get ahead of ourselves, this team is starting to look like one that could in the future challenge for a playoff place. To do that we need to continue to be competitive against the top teams. What we have seen this season is that this is a team that can beat Derby. The Rams are a team who have changed little but are playing better. But the basic DNA of beating them remains the same. All of which makes for an intriguing encounter this evening.