Renowned as the season’s ‘bottle jobs’, often have the infamous ‘It’s happening again’ chants rang around Pride Park stadium. Derby’s demise has been perceived, by many, as the laughing stock of the Championship. But what is it that lies behind this spineless stigma?
Well, for starters, Derby’s lineups in 2013-14 and 2015-16 that last reached the play-off places have lacked any sense of experience or ‘big game players’—the team was instead packed full of young potential. Will Hughes, Tom Ince, Chris Martin, Patrick Bamford, Jeff Hendrick, Craig Bryson and Richard Keogh were all inexperienced players that for all their quality, couldn’t handle the big occasion.
Queens Park Rangers in the 2013-14 season were a perfect example of a team that didn’t necessarily have the best footballing squad but instead possessed absolute professionals of the game. Players such as Robert Green, Richard Dunne, Clint Hill, Joey Barton, and of course Bobby Zamora were all part of the promotion winning side.
That, according to many, was supposed to be Derby County this season. Their squad had changed to a much older, yet experienced side. Scott Carson, Curtis Davies, Joe Ledley, Tom Huddlestone, Cameron Jerome and Matej Vydra all knew the feeling of the dizzy heights of the Premier League. These players were brought in to address the abundance of nerves that shook Derby to the very core every season.
Subsequently, not a lot has changed. Second to none, or nothing can quite literally be the term used to describe Derby County in seasons gone by. In four of their last five seasons Derby have, at some stage, maintained a place in the automatic promotion places. Slipping from second to fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh is a decline they know all too well.
The season often takes its toll on Derby on the turn of the new year. Second at Christmas, Derby had slipped into fourth by the end of January. And by March, out of the play-offs. With experienced heads comes very old legs and Derby have found that out the hard way. Energy began to diminish in the heart of midfield and teams would often come to Pride Park and simply out-run the Rams. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the aging players would run out of steam in the second half of the campaign.
Players like Huddlestone and Ledley have become so experienced and such professionals by playing their own way and doing it for as long as they have been in the game. This undoubtedly reduces flexibility in the squad. Derby as a club, season after season seem to find a particular formation that works for three games straight and then use it for the remainder of a very long campaign. From 2013-2016, Derby were resolute to a 4-3-3 formation. Unpredictability was lost.
This season, Gary Rowett switched to 4-2-3-1 for all but the last five matches of the season when he favored a more unconventional 5-2-2-1. This switch was undoubtedly part of the reason why Derby were able to clinch the play-offs.
But again, in this season’s play-off contention, after one game with the new formation in the first leg, Fulham by the second leg seemed to know exactly how Derby would play. Pass for pass and switch for switch, the Fulham players must have felt they were re-living the same game as they did in the first leg. This, in turn, gave them a considerable advantage.
Derby are a side set up to counter attack. This style worked most successfully in their 2013-14 season when other Championship sides least expected Derby to be a top side. Since then, teams are more aware of Derby and have been less likely to come out and attack the Rams. Patient teams, like Fulham, are the kryptonite of Derby County. Since becoming a Championship powerhouse Derby have failed to adapt their play and use their opposition’s fear against them. They have not built on their success as highlighted by their position in the table.