Well, that’s a bit more like it, isn’t it Rams fans?
Granted we only came away with a point in a game we dominated for large parts, and the visitors’ goal, courtesy of a massive deflection from Tony Watt’s effort, was fortunate in the extreme, but the team and (with a couple of exceptions) the players looked back to their old selves. Whilst the result was disappointing, I think you’d struggle to find many sane Rams fans who were not buoyed by the much improved performance, especially after the limp League Cup exit to Portsmouth in mid-week.
I’m a big fan of 4-3-3. I still feel it is the formation which gets the best performances out of our best players. The likes of Chris Martin, George Thorne, Tom Ince and Will Hughes all seem to know and thrive in a system which plays to their individual strengths. The tinkering with formations and personnel in pre-season was wholly justified in giving us the options we sorely lacked last campaign, but I was beginning to worry that the set up which had generally served us so well during the last two years had been discarded due to the strong whiff of McClaren it carried. The old adage about babies and bath water was playing on my mind somewhat, so there was a huge sense of relief when I heard the team news and saw how we were setting up.
As a big advocate of building from the back, I was also pleased to see such experienced and solid personnel in defence. Chris Baird, Richard Keogh and Jason Shackell all have a wealth of know-how and have captained for long periods in the past, and Forsyth looked back to his best, spending a good portion of the match camped out on the left wing, high up the pitch. We seem to have regained the balance we had with Andre Wisdom, with Baird staying back and he, Keogh and Shackell all moving 10 yards to the left when Forsyth galloped forward in order to provide a back three. The former Watford man looked to have rediscovered the freedom and confidence he had in the 13/14 season and he was a dangerous outlet throughout.
As far as Keogh is concerned, I think the best compliment I can pay him is that I hardly noticed him at all throughout the match. There was a distinct lack of nervousness from him and he seemed to have the tall, imposing Simon Makienok in his back pocket for 90 minutes. It may well be that removing the burden of the captaincy will let him concentrate on his own game, but I also feel the simple act of surrounding him with experienced and reliable players will have helped hugely. He didn’t have to worry about Cyrus Christie’s naive positioning, nor Ryan Shotton’s habit of racing out to meet an on-rushing attacker thus leaving a gaping hole behind him. If we can keep a settled defence for the majority of the season, I think we’ll see a whole new side to Keogh.
In midfield, there seem to be insufficient superlatives to lavish upon George Thorne. The man is in a different class to anyone else, and I found myself transfixed by him for large parts of the game. Time seems to slow down when he receives the ball and the bloke near me mentioned that he though the Charlton players were giving him too much time. I disagree. I think George makes that time himself by the simple act of finding space. He plays a simple ball and then immediately finds a pocket of empty grass to move into. He then demands the ball again, and lays it off. Pass, move, receive, pass. All the while, his movement is creating pockets of space for other players to occupy and only when he thinks the time is right does he unleash the killer ball. His pass completion statistics for the afternoon were stunning, with 110 passes at an accuracy of 97% which is quite phenomenal whichever way you slice it. He has patience, vision and accuracy and it is imperative that we keep him fit this season.
Alongside him, Jamie Hanson made his league bow and more than held his own. Having only previously seen him play in the middle of defence for the U21s, I am impressed at how he is adapting to a role further forward. His tenacity and hunger for the ball are a breath of fresh air, and he can’t half ping a pass either. An afternoon of high-energy play took its toll on his young legs and he was substituted towards the end to a fully deserved standing ovation. He must now be firmly established in the first team squad and, if he can keep up this sort of performance he’ll be some player (told you so)
On the other side of things, Jeff Hendrick looked a little sluggish. He sometimes takes a while to get going in games, but he appeared off the pace and his reactions were sometimes slow in goal scoring positions. His one decent effort was cleared off the line, but aside from that it wasn’t his best day at the office sadly. Not terrible, just half a yard slow to everything.
Up top, Chris Martin was obviously relishing being the focal point again and he took his goal well. Tom Ince was double-marked whenever he had the ball, but looked much more dangerous cutting in from wide areas. A few neat little tricks to get round defenders were reminders that he’s truly one of those “something-out-of-nothing” players, and even when he’s not playing at 100%, the fact that he occupies so much of the opposition’s efforts means that simply giving him the ball opens up space for others. He’s obviously been identified as our number one threat by opposing teams so he’ll probably have to adapt his game to avoid being marked out of things, but he’s got the talent at his disposal, no doubt. On the other flank, Johnny Russell, like Hendrick, wasn’t quite on his game. He’s been the stand-out player in pre-season but today there was lots of endeavour and sadly not much coming off for him. He’s a confidence player though, so a run of games and a goal or two and I’m sure he’ll be flying.
Some were questioning why Darren Bent, the definition of a fox-in-the-box striker, was not brought on when we were pushing for a winner. It’s a valid point, but I feel that the only thing lacking was the finishing. We were creating plenty of chances and moving the ball around well, we just needed to be a little more clinical. It’s obvious to say that Bent would have provided that had he been brought on, but as we’ve seen in the past he struggles in a 4-3-3. By bringing him on, I think we would’ve had to adapt the formation and style of play as well, to the detriment of everything else that we were doing so well. If 95% of things that you’re doing are working, do you risk disrupting that on the off chance that you can improve the 5% that is missing, or do you keep plugging away and hope that the players on the pitch can find find that extra bit of quality? It’s a tough call for sure, and I think I would’ve done as Clement did and left Bent on the bench.
So, overall a positive afternoon despite the result. The players looked more comfortable, the gaping hole between midfield and attack which was evident in Wednesday’s 4-2-3-1 set up had been addressed, and the long balls which came with it were banished. Martin was back amongst the goals (his first at the iPro since January, incredibly), Jamie Hanson showed that our academy can still produce some real quality, and George Thorne gave me even more reasons to name my first-born after him.
Derby County 1 – 1 Charlton Athletic
Derby County: Martin (’68)
Charlton Athletic: Watt (’48)
Carson, Baird, Keogh, Shackell, Forsyth; Thorne, Hendrick, Hanson (Christie ’87); Ince, Russell (Weimann ’67), Martin
Subs: Grant, Christie, Dawkins, Bent, Weimann, Shotton, Warnock
Pope, Solly, Diarra, Bauer, Fox, Berg Gudmundsson (Ba ’92), Kashi, Cousins, Ceballos (Bergdich ’61), Watt, Makienok (Jackson ’88)
Subs: Jackson, Sarr, Ghoochannejhad, Ahearne-Grant, Bergdich, Ba, Mitov