February 28, 2015; a date some Rams fans will not be able to forget in a hurry. Steve McClaren’s men were sitting pretty at the top of the table as they travelled to Craven Cottage, with over 4,000 Rams fans making the journey that day.
I was there in west London with family and friends as part of my eldest daughter’s birthday celebrations, and little did we know that game would be the beginning of the end of Derby’s season, as the Rams’ faithful had to endure a dismal 2-0 defeat. Only another two wins (both against what would be relegated teams) in their last 14 games meant the Rams didn’t even finish in the play-offs. The way the whole team, but especially the defence, capitulated in that period was both inexplicable and soul-destroying for any onlooking Derby fan, and we certainly hoped not to have to go through that again any time soon.
Jump forward to January 2, 2016 and the trip to the Riverside, a top of the table clash against Middlesbrough. First plays second and again the Rams fans were there in numbers. Derby, with one defeat in 19 games, were proving hard to beat and they were up against a very good Boro side who hardly concede at home. For 84 minutes things were looking good, until two late goals sunk the visitors.
Middlesbrough will go on to finish in the top-two and have a good chance of winning the league this season, but shouldn’t we be beating teams such as them at this point in the season if we have aspirations of doing the same? For the Rams, it brought a time to regroup and push on again. However, the following league games saw three poor performances against Reading, Birmingham and [the second half at] Burnley, once again resurfacing last season’s painful memories. Surely Derby couldn’t bottle it again?
In many ways, things are a lot different from last season. Many say last season’s collapse was due to McClaren’s inability to say no to the Newcastle job and the subsequent effect it had on the team. The lack of depth in the squad was also there for all to see, and losing top scorer Chris Martin to injury played a big part as well. And then there was the well-documented lack of a plan B, all of which contributed to our downfall.
This season however, we have a solid and settled management set up, and right from the top moving down it looks like everyone is moving in the right direction. Clement has already tried different formations, albeit with varying degrees of success. Finally, and possibly most crucially, we have strength in depth this season and quality in that depth as well.
Quite a few things do need to improve though if we have any chance of keeping up with the automatic promotion hopefuls. Martin needs to find his scoring touch, and although he can be very frustrating at times, I do feel as though he has been too isolated up front. He’s at his best when he’s got midfield runners for him to link up with, so is there any surprise that with Bryson and Hughes out injured this season, and Hendrick not getting a run of games in the team, he’s stopped scoring goals?
It’s also time for us to get that solidity back in defence that had been the basis of our early season form. Even when we were not our best in some games earlier on in the season, the fact that defensively we were solid meant that we would mostly get a result. The form of Tom Ince and Bradley Johnson has also been a worry, and although Ince has, overall, become a better player for the team as the season has progressed, he has struggled to get into some games and really be effective. Johnson was outstanding in his first ten games or so after his big-money move on deadline day last summer, but has really struggled of late and the general consensus is he should’ve been rested quite a few games ago.
The feeling from a lot of Rams fans this season is we just haven’t been moving the ball quickly enough when going forward. This is something that’s happened from game one and obviously the way Clement wants to play is with patient build-up. In fact, after the Preston match on Tuesday night, in his post-match interview, the former Real Madrid coach eluded to the fact that he would rather his team play a sideways ball if a positive forward ball isn’t on. The trademark of McClaren’s two(ish) seasons was the way his teams attacked with pace and had an ‘all-round zip’ to their play. Clement uses a more measured build-up and we suffer from that at times as we certainly have the players to hurt the opposition when running at them with pace.
There is certainly a lot for Paul Clement to think about over what will prove to be a crucial next few games, and with all due respect to our upcoming opponents, they should be very winnable games. We do need to get back on track and quick – I said a few weeks ago it would be a roller coaster and it’s certainly turning out that way. Are we derailing? It appears as though only time will tell.