Don’t be fooled by the scoreline, it wasn’t as close as all that. But what does it all mean?
Derby are really, really good
My over-riding impression of the game was that the Wanderers were outclassed, particularly in the first half. The gulf between the two sides was obvious. But does this mean that we were just rubbish? I don’t think so. I thought Derby were extremely impressive, and rightly so - this is a team that started with one of the Championship’s best players from last season, £7m signing Tom Lawrence, on the bench. They had Curtis Davies at the back, who stuck to Gary Madine like glue and didn;t let him win anything in the air, they had Tom Huddlestone sitting deep in midfield, and Andre Wisdom marauding down the right. Former Championship player for the season Matej Vydra missed the easiest chance of the game when clean through in the first half, and clever movement from David Nugent made both of his goals look easy. Sure, they’ve underperformed for years, but Gary Rowett seems to have got this Derby team really well drilled and organised, and I’ll be very surprised if they aren’t competing for automatic promotion by the end of the season based on Saturday’s performance. Which brings me on to the next point - what do we expect?
We can’t compete with these guys. It’s like being promoted to the premiership and expecting to get a result against Man United, Man City or Chelsea. It may happen every once in a while, but we can’t be too disheartened by a defeat like this against one of the top teams in the division. Just think about how many of their first team have played in the Premiership and looked half-decent, and how much money they have spent over the last few seasons. We can’t come close to that. Similarly, we made a few mistakes in the Leeds game and these were ruthlessly punished by a striker who has just been sold for £15m and will be starting every week in the premiership, who was the Championship top scorer last season. Getting points in games against the likes of Derby, Leeds, Wolves and Middlesbrough is a bonus, but we can’t expect anything. I’m just glad the scoreline was respectable and we had a go at them in the second half.
Gary Madine - thriving now he can play without pressure
I’ve always liked Gary Madine. Well, no, that’s not strictly true. I’ve always liked the idea of Gary Madine. The idea of a big strong bloke charging around with the number 14 on his back is something most Wanderers fans hold dear. The problem was that Big Gary struggled for a while with that level of expectation. I think he has quite fragile self-confidence - witness the events at Bramall Lane last season. I’m not sure how well he copes with pressure. Neil Lennon was never the manager to get the best out of a player like that, and I think it has taken him a long time to build his confidence back up since then. You could view being our only real option as Parky’s target man (apart from an old man who apparently played against us at Burnden Park) as a situation that could bring a lot of pressure with it, but I think being in this situation seems to have given the old Washing Machine a bit more freedom. He’s undroppable. He doesn’t have to worry about losing his place if he misses a chance, or having Lennon screaming at him in the dressing room, or the ignominy of being replaced by Emile Heskey. The way he calmly controlled the ball, took a touch, and slotted home towards the end of the game is something I never would have thought him capable of a couple of years ago, and long may his zen-like state continue.
Darren Pratley - in the firing line
While Big Gary may be relishing such a prominent and important role, our erstwhile captain really doesn’t appear to be enjoying being in a spotlight of his own. Pratley the pariah couldn’t do anything right in the eyes of most in the stadium on Saturday. For what it’s worth, I thought Jem Karacan had an absolute shocker of a game, and deserved his substitution more than Pratley, although most in the ground seemed shocked that Pratley was left on the pitch. I understand it, we’ve all seen him play badly over the years, but I think it’s got to the point now where most fans are ready to jump on any mistake he makes because it justifies the view that they came to the game with, that he is crap. He was getting stick from most of the people sat round me from kick off onwards. I’m not sure what the answer to it is - like it or not, do we really have any alternative but to play him? Nobody is going to buy him. He’s the captain. We didn’t actually have any other central midfielders on the bench. So I’m not sure how much the constant abuse really helps. Yeah, yeah, I know Derik can play the holding midfield role - but Parky obviously doesn’t rate him.
Our current formation also seemed to come for a lot of stick after the game. Our starting formation of 3 at the back, with 3 central midfielders, Morais and Taylor out wide and 2 up front, does make our play awfully predictable. There was no link between midfield and Gary Madine in the first half (missing Josh Vela a lot here), and so our only real creative outlet was Morais - unfortunately Gary Rowett had done his homework and had 2 men closing him down at all times, and we had no plan B. We reverted to launching long balls at Madine’s head, and Curtis Davies could mop those up all day long. The introduction of ALF, and later Buckley, in the second half created a link between midfield and attack, and our attacking play markedly improved (from non-existent to present).
Having said all that, I can see why Parky has set the team up like this early in the season. It’s a cautious, defensive way of playing, and designed so ship as few goals as possible. I think that’s why he seems to get so frustrated about mistakes after each match. He knows that the current pool of players is very limited, and he doesn’t have the option of bringing anybody else new in to freshen things up if morale is low. This is all about trying to preserve confidence, because we need these players to be feeling good, we have no alternative. Throwing caution to the wind at this stage could be disastrous. Playing 4-4-2 against teams like Derby would result in carnage. We’d be pumped 4 or 5 nil and the players wouldn’t recover. He needs to just keep the players’ heads above water, avoid any humiliations, and then switch to a more adventurous formation with 4 at the back after the first ten games when we have a few easier games at home.