Derby County’s penultimate home game of 2016 against Birmingham represented the midpoint in their 2016-17 Championship season.
The Pearson Era
To many observers, Pearson brought the qualities to Pride Park that had been so glaringly missing in previous seasons: discipline, know-how and pragmatism. His achievements with Leicester – securing the east midlands club promotion in 2014 – ensured he arrived at Derby with the skill set required to allow the club to push for the Premier League. The fans were contented with his appointment.
The season began against Brighton, a promotion rival, in unspectacular fashion: a goalless draw. Pearson went with his trusted 4-4-2 formation. Derby were rigid and structured in their possession – the fluidity and fast attacking football that had become synonymous with the Rams was not evident. Instead, Brighton were contained, chances were restricted and risk-taking was seemingly discouraged by the management staff.
Subsequent performances were marred by similar tactics, only Derby began to concede and struggled to score. Derby stumbled to a 1-0 home victory over lowly Grimsby town and a 2-0 away defeat at Barnsley followed. Signs of improvement momentarily surfaced at Deepdale where Craig Forsyth netted a late winner.
However there was to be no Indian summer for Pearson. Derby succumbed to a dismal defeat at Burton Albion and the knives were being sharpened. Derby were seemingly void of ideas and creativity. There best players were bereft of confidence: madness in the transfer market followed. Hendrick was sold for £10 million and Martin was loaned to Fulham for a sizeable fee. Derby raided Watford for Matej Vydra in a club record fee and Ikechi Anya – understandable deals. Vydra had been successful in a Watford side that played with two forwards and Anya had the energy and pace to terrorise full backs and support his side defensively from a wide area.
The deals injected much needed optimism into the Derby faithful. However, their optimism quickly diminished. Derby fell to home defeats against Newcastle, Ipswich and Blackburn. Players lacked confidence and ideas: Pearson was not the right fit for Derby County. He inherited a squad used to playing a certain style of football – a style that had bought success. Small change had been needed and Pearson had tried to change too much.
A different approach was needed – Mel Morris yearned for the ‘Derby Way’ and there was only one man for the job in his eyes: Steve McClaren.
Return of the Mac
Even before McClaren’s appointment, Derby showed signs of improvement. An away victory at Cardiff was followed up with a creditable 1-1 draw at promotion chasing Reading. Both results were achieved by a 4-3-3 formation – hints of a return to the ‘Derby Way’ of old.
McClaren’s return was met by contrasting opinions from fans. Some welcomed his return – signs of how desperate it had become under Pearson – whilst others found it difficult to forget a man who had so obviously cheated on the Rams in his marriage with Newcastle.
His return to the east midlands brought with it indifferent results. A 1-0 win over Leeds, 0-0 draw with Brentford and a 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield. However, signs of improvement were evident. Derby had returned to his favoured 4-3-3 formation and they moved the ball from back to front with more purpose and speed. The results showed they were still struggling for goals however and McClaren acknowledge any turnabout in form and league position would take time and patience.
If McClaren’s start was unremarkable then the next nine games were anything but. 8 wins from 9 followed the Huddersfield defeat. Based on a solid defensive platform Derby kept seven clean sheets and raced up the table. 3-0 home victories over Rotherham and Forest, together with scoring three goals away at Wolves showed Derby were also beginning to find the free-scoring football synonymous with McClaren’s previous spell at the club.
However, it quickly became clear to Derby followers and onlookers that this Derby side was very different to the one that McClaren had moulded in his previous campaign. The arrivals of key backroom members – Powell and Phillips and the rise to prominence of Johnson and Pearce ensure Derby have experience and a spine capable of restricting any team in the Championship.
If Derby are to achieve promotion this season – then this spine will be crucial. Carson, Keogh, Pearce and Johnson have provided Derby with a foundation from which they have been able to build performances capable of achieving results. Clean sheets have enabled Derby to rely on the powers of Tom Ince, Darren Bent, Will Hughes and Johnny Russell to snatch victories in tight games. The Championship is based on fine margins. Make no mistake about it – for Derby to achieve promotion, defence will be key.
Written by Tom Straw