Three years of ‘what could of been’ have finally taken their toll on a beleaguered Derby County squad, with manager Nigel Pearson taking the brave decision to begin breaking up the team that had been so near, yet so far, on three occasions.
When the former Leicester man was hired, Foxes fans warned Rams fans that Pearson was not afraid to make big changes, cutting fan favourites and popular players from the team and replacing them with players that were a better fit for his model and style of play. Some of this foresight was written off by those of a black and white persuasion, but now it seems to be bang on the money with Pearson certainly going about making his mark on a long suffering and slowly declining squad.
Upon Nigel Pearson’s hiring in the early summer, many speculated over how he may go around changing – or rather fixing – the large squad at the iPro. Early press conferences suggested that no heavy recruitment nor notable leavers were to be expected, with a quiet summer ahead for Derby in regards to the transfer market.
The first to leave the East Midlands were various fringe players, almost all on free transfers, mostly consisting of u21 players who had failed to make the grade after their time in the academy had come to an end. The most notable outgoings were Conor Sammon and Stephen Warnock, who headed to Hearts and Wigan Athletic respectively, few tears were shed for the pair, though wishes of good luck followed them on their new journeys.
Next came the first fees of the summer, Ryan Shotton and Raul Albentosa headed out – as expected – for a combined total of roughly £2m, good business from a Rams point of view for two players who were not expected to get anywhere near the first team. Then followed a period of quiet, the new Rams staff began their pre-season preparations and got to grips with the remaining players.
Upon returning from a pre-season tour in Portugal, Pearson made one of his most notable decisions – at that point – and gave Derby icon and folklore personality Jake Buxton a free transfer and the chance to follow Stephen Warnock to Wigan. A brave decision given his rapport with the fans, but many saw it as the correct move, given Buxton was unlikely to knock Jason Shackell or Richard Keogh out of the centre back spots. Buxton went with everyone’s best wishes and fond memories, but it was time to move on.
There then followed another period of quiet, with rumours abound and some fans getting restless about the lack of incomings into Derby’s still large squad. It took until late August for anymore notable transfer business, with the Rams signing Manchester Utd forward James Wilson on loan for the season, much to the delight of a Derby side who had started the season bereft of goals.
Things then started to heat up as the window drew closer, with the long awaited Pearson effect finally coming to the fore. After three previous attempts, academy product and long serving Jeff Hendrick was sold to Burnley for a club record £10m. The Rams then used this money to fund an £8m purchase of Matej Vydra from Watford, adding further pace to the club’s front line, just as fans had been crying out for.
However, it was on deadline day that Derby were at their most active, sending Lee Grant on loan to Stoke City, buying Ikechi Anya from Watford for £4m, sending 60+ goalscorer Chris Martin in a controversial loan-to-buy move to Fulham, and – perhaps the oddest deal of the window – taking on veteran goalkeeper Chris Weale to serve as 3rd choice behind Scott Carson and Jonathan Mitchell. A flurry of late business, but business that could transform Derby’s fortunes.
For the past few years, Derby heavily relied on variants of 4-3-3 largely centring around Chris Martin, with two wingers playing either side of him. This seemed to work well under Steve McClaren who had got the team playing fast, flowing football and tearing sides apart quickly. However, this soon went stagnant as teams became used to stopping this system and Derby lost the pace and tenacity they had shown in those honeymoon days during McClaren’s first reign.
Pearson seems determined to change that, lining up with 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2 during pre-season and into the first few games of the regular season, switching between Darren Bent and Chris Martin on how the situation called for it. However, neither managed to find the net and this seems to have been the point where Pearson gave up trying to change the squad’s suspected losing mentality and instead opted for new blood to fit the new system.
The signings of Anya, Wilson and Vydra clearly suggest Derby will be going for pace and drive in the new system, aiming to turn defences and force them to play deeper to counter the threat of Vydra and Wilson, thus leaving Derby’s midfield more space to dictate the play as they did in the first days of the McClaren era.
The Rams still possess a star studded midfield, despite having sold Hendrick – who, incidentally, was considered by many fans to be little more than 2nd choice at best – with Craig Bryson, Bradley Johnson, Will Hughes, Jacob Butterfield, Jamie Hanson and the soon to return George Thorne competing for the spots in centre midfield.
Add Anya, Tom Ince, Nick Blackman, Johnny Russell, Abdoul Camara and Max Lowe to the wide options and you have a fearsome base to build an attack on. Many of the above have been out of form recently, but a change of personalities and a bit of luck could get them all firing, meaning Vydra, Bent and Wilson could get the service they need to get the goals flowing again in the East Midlands.
Derby’s problem in recent years has been getting too flustered when the opposition press them high up the pitch, forcing the Rams to resort to playing keep ball and waiting for an opening, sometimes looking too scared to simply force the opening themselves.
This is always shown in high pressure games – such as against rivals Nottingham Forest or in matches against promotion rivals, notably Burnley and Middlesbrough – with the Rams often looking a shadow of themselves when faced with teams who will fight and scrap for every ball.
The pace injected into Derby’s attack should relieve some of this pressure, given teams will have to be wary of pressing too high in case they get caught on the counter attack, allowing the defence and particularly midfield to finally have a turn pressing the opposition, instead of either constantly chasing the game or desperately trying to keep the ball in their own half – something which so infuriated home crowds at the iPro.
The effect a bit of pace can have on Derby’s side has been evident this season. Abdoul Camara – somewhat absent since his move from Angers SC in January – tore Preston’s left-back to shreds during his substitute appearance at Deepdale during the Ram’s only victory of the season so far, Camara having a hand in the only and winning goal in the 87th minute.
It so impressed the travelling support that Camara almost instantly became a fan favourite, with many exclaiming that if he could be so impressive without being fully fit – he was still recovering from a groin injury – then he could be lethal once fully fit later in the season.
Pearson’s teams always seem to rely on pace and drive, the exact attributes that have deserted the Rams over recent campaigns. Hopefully for the Derby faithful, these signings will deliver such requirements to help this promotion push finally succeed and get the Rams back into the Premier League.
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