Rams back to winning ways on the road playing 4-4-2
As goalless draws go, Derby’s 0-0 at Preston North End was something special.
Not just because both teams missed glorious chances and hit the woodwork. Not just because there were plenty of committed challenges and counter-attacking in an end-to-end encounter. Not just because it meant that the Rams had gone unbeaten for three games for the first time all season. And not just because we saw centre forward Chris Porter on the pitch for the first time since March.
All this was great, but best of all was the fact that Derby played 4-4-2 and had a right go at the home team. In a half-full stadium, it was often hard to tell who was home and who was away. Yes, we could have lost – Callum Davidson hit the inside of the post and PNE had their share of chances – but unlike the Swansea game, where we played 4-5-1 and tried unsuccesfully to hang on for a draw, we could have won it ourselves.
Nigel Clough then kept faith with 4-4-2 for Saturday’s trip to Watford. The result? Our first away win of the season, 1-0 thanks to Porter’s brave, late, headed goal – and the mother of all monkeys finally slain.
On the surface, there’s a bizarre disparity between Derby’s top-six standard home form and bottom-three level away form; but when you look at the fixtures involved, things become slightly clearer. Away from home, the Rams have played all the teams placed from third to seventh in the league, drawing two and losing three. That leaves four other games to be accounted for – defeat at Ipswich came at a time when we were missing a whole team’s worth of injured players, while we lost narrowly at Crystal Palace and Scunthorpe and were poor at Middlesbrough.
Now let’s look at the home form. Of our six wins, five have come against teams currently below Derby in the league – Reading, Coventry, Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth and Peterborough. We’ve slipped up three times at home – disappointingly against Barnsley, 1-0 against Sheffield United and 4-2, following a display of attacking verve from QPR. Our only home draw was an excellent effort against West Brom.
All told, we’ve played six of the top ten away and five of the bottom eight at home, so I feel it’s likely that over the season, the form will even out. There are plenty of winnable games to come, both home and away and whilst I hope we continue to do so well at Pride Park, I also believe we will start to pick up more points on our travels – especially if we continue to play with two strikers.
The green shoots of recovery after our iffy start are cause for optimism, but these positive signs were threatened after the draw with West Brom, as reports surfaced that the club would be selling players in January to balance the books. This was followed by press speculation that striker Rob Hulse would be sold to Wolves, with the mercurial forward Kris Commons en route to Birmingham City. These reports confused and unsettled supporters, who had previously been told that the club’s debt had already been cut to a manageable level and were hoping to see the squad strengthened next month.
The management have not stated that offers for these players would be unwelcome, but have reassured fans that there is no need to raise money – with the caveat that the wage bill, which has dropped from around £15m to £11m since last season, will be cut again to around £10m next season. So it follows that Hulse and Commons are available, at the right price, but that most of the money raised would be available for recruiting replacements.
To be fair, we’ve managed without Commons for most of the season anyway – injuries have limited him to just five starts. Hulse is a different matter. His goals kept the Rams in this division last season and he is our leading scorer against this season.
So, despite Porter’s goalscoring return from injury, it would be a worry if big Rob left. Reportedly, had he moved to Boro in August, he would have been replaced by the inexperienced Wolves striker Sam Vokes. After his Derby move fell through, Vokes went to Leeds instead, but has hardly set League One on fire, scoring just one goal in nine games for the Damned United so far.
The cost-cutting started this week, with the early release of the injury-plagued Giles Barnes.
Barnes is well known as an exceptionally talented attacking midfielder, with levels of technique and creativity rare in an Englishman. His ability is unquestioned, but ever since Billy Davies brought him back prematurely from injury to play a part in the pyrrhic success of the 2006/07 play-off campaign, Barnes has barely featured.
He was given a second crack at the Premier League by Fulham, where he spent the tail end of last season on loan, but a proposed transfer fell through when the player succumbed to injury yet again.
Nobody saw Barnes as part of the long-term future of the club – he had made it clear, after all, that he didn’t – but most fans at least hoped we would get a decent fee for him. All we can do now, however, is thank him for some great moments and wish him well. Speedy recovery and all the best, Giles – as long as you don’t sign for Notts Forest!
On the plus side, Stephen Pearson signed a new two-year contract this week. Pearo’s pace and drive from midfield have made a real difference this season and he is starting to forge an excellent partnership with veteran Robbie Savage. The duos differing strengths compliment each other very well – Savage sits deep and breaks up play, allowing the Scot to go forward – and as long as he can keep clear of injury (the shortish contract reflects the fact that he has struggled), Pearo can be a key part of the Rams set-up for seasons to come.