Author: benjlfearn

Bouncebackability under McClaren

I couldn’t resist using the phrase ‘bouncebackability’ as the title for this blog entry, a term famously (or infamously) coined by Iain Dowie and promoted on Soccer AM. Derby County’s 3-0 victory against Brighton at the weekend not only underlined the obvious progress which has been established under Steve McClaren, but it emphasised to me how well we now respond to defeats.

 

Nigel Clough had many qualities as Derby County manager, and it was because of his hard work that McClaren had a promising platform to build upon last season. However, what irked many fans was how one defeat in the league often led the club into a downward spiral, with lengthy winless runs the norm. When Clough (eventually) stopped the rot, small winning streaks would often follow, but this meant slow progress in the league, as these wins were too often negated by the dearth of points that preceded them. Under McClaren, defeats are rare, and so too are winless runs.

 

Let’s look at some statistics as evidence. It wasn’t until McClaren’s 4th game in charge (excluding the Ipswich 4-4 game) that the Rams tasted defeat, and that was a respectable 2-1 loss away to QPR (don’t point out the irony). A week later, Derby crushed Sheffield Wednesday 3-0, the start of a run of 7 consecutive wins, with a draw and another win following that run. Derby lost 1-0 to Wigan on New Year’s Day, followed by a 2-0 FA Cup loss to Chelsea (once again, respectable). The following 4-1 away loss to Leicester on January 10th was arguably the worst it got under McClaren last season, but Derby didn’t lose again until March (to promotion rivals Burnley), with 17 points amassed in 7 games in the mean time.

 

After the Burnley loss, Derby lost to Millwall and drew to Bolton and Reading. Instead of giving in to old winless habits, Derby crushed bitter rivals Nottingham Forest 5-0 after this mini-crisis, and they only lost two more times in the league; the last of those defeats to Middlesbrough was followed by a run of 5 wins on the bounce. This rich vein of form was key to Derby’s impressive 6-2 aggregate win over Brighton in the Play-Off semi finals, even though the positive football on show came up short against QPR.

 

It’s not only the statistics that are encouraging, but the general optimism around the club. The defeat to Leeds United was frustrating, especially due to the nature of the rivalry, but I had little doubt in my mind that we would put that right the following week, and I think I can safely assume that many of my fellow Derby fans felt the same. The Brighton win was enjoyable, but it was also expected, whereas many games under Clough which had followed a defeat often had a hopeful feel to them. Credit where credit is due, I often expected us to win at home under Clough, but away from home, whoever the opposition, I was pessimistic.


The most crucial defeat to respond to was the Play-Off Final defeat in May. With Derby top after 20 games and 38 points, they are well on the way to epitomising the phrase ‘bouncebackability’.

A 27 year old winger from Leeds? That’ll be £11 million, please

Let’s be clear on this; football has had inflated price tags and wages for a long time now. I often shock non-football fans when I tell them that Derby County’s annual wage bill is above £10 million, despite not being a wealthy club (although they aren’t poor, either). However, in recent times transfer fees have, as Ron Burgundy would say, “escalated quickly”, and not always for players of true greatness. I’m looking at you, Ross McCormack.

 

How is the aforementioned player possibly worth £11 million to Leeds and new club Fulham? I’m not saying he’s a bad player, and 28 league goals last year shows how key he was to Leeds. However, he has never played in the Premier League, and whilst posting impressive goal returns in the 11/12 and 08/09 (for Cardiff) Championship seasons, he’s had very poor goal returns in other seasons to compensate; he only had 5 league goals in the 12/13 season. I’m sure Leeds fans will be sorry to lose him, especially with the turmoil of the new owner. However, they must also be laughing all the way to the bank on this one. Fulham may have substantial parachute payments, but they were punching above their weight in the Premier League for a long time, and aren’t exactly wealthy. In addition to this, they spent £12 million on Konstantinos Mitroglou in January; that’s a £23 million gamble on two players who haven’t played in the league that Fulham are trying to get back to.

 

I agreed with a statement by a friend recently that Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million move to Real Madrid in 2009 was a catalyst for recent inflation in the transfer market. Zinedine Zidane’s record move (also to Real Madrid) in 2001 was untouched for 8 years, yet with Kaka and Ronaldo the world record was broken twice in one year (2009). Just four years later, Gareth Bale’s move to (you guessed it) Real Madrid broke the record again, but in the meantime numerous transfers have exceeded Zidane’s £45.6 million landmark. If spending £80 million on a player is ever justified (and I don’t think it is, but let’s stick to the football context), Ronaldo was certainly worth it in 2009. However, are we seriously suggesting that Gareth Bale was the best player in the world last year? He’s a great talent, and I rate him very highly, but I would argue that he’s not even in the top 5. The problem is, other clubs with great players now look at these fees as benchmarks for valuation demands. It looks like Liverpool will get £75 million for the disgraced Luis Suarez. Suarez is a phenomenal player, but we have seen in just one year his price tag nearly double from the £40 million offer from Arsenal in 2013. I would argue that price tags such as Bale’s have played a part in this. You can see the thought processes; if Tottenham, without the treasure of Champions League football, can demand £80 million+ for their talismanic player, why can’t Liverpool?

 

This brings me back to an original point I made about players who aren’t worth the inflated fees. These crazy money moves aren’t restricted to top European clubs. Take the inspiration for the title of this blog, Conor Sammon (need I say more? He cost £1.2 million!). I argued until I was blue in the face that Wilfried Zaha was nowhere near good enough to warrant a £15 million move from Crystal Palace to Manchester United in 2013 (remember that Palace were in the Championship at the time), and to be fair my Crystal Palace-supporting co-host Kris agreed with me. This is where football can make hypocrites of all of us. As a Derby County fan, I’m guilty of making similar conclusions; if Zaha was worth £15 million, how much is Will Hughes worth? Granted, that’s just the opinion of one fan. However, I’m confident that the decision makers at Derby County will be thinking along similar lines, and why shouldn’t they? Fans and board members alike will see how other clubs are claiming big bucks for their best players, and in turn they will want what’s financially best for their clubs. Before Craig Bryson signed a new deal with Derby, my brother told me that he’d take £2 million for him. I disagreed strongly, and whilst I did state his importance to the team as a key reason, it wasn’t long before I compared Bryson to similar or lesser players who went for more money, and in turn noted that we should ask for more money. Most of us are guilty of this.

 

What’s the solution? Caps on transfer spending and wages are obvious answers, but FIFA and UEFA will never have the guts to implement them. It remains to be seen how effective Financial Fair Play will be, but teams such as PSG have treated it with contempt so far; they paid £50 million for David Luiz (ask yourself whether he is worth that!) and allegedly bid £60 million for Eden Hazard after being fined £20 million by FFP. Inflated transfer fees are an endemic problem in the game, and we could spend hours listing hundreds of players who haven’t justified the fees spent. It’s a vicious cycle, caught between clubs wanting what’s best financially in light of other clubs placing ludicrous valuations on players. No wonder many people are disillusioned with the modern game.

 

We may laugh and say that it’s just how football is, but imagine a similar approach in other walks of life. Think of concerns over a housing bubble at the moment, for example. I do fear that, one day, there will be an almighty Wall Street Crash-style collapse in the footballing world, and it’s not hard to see why. We’ve come a long way since Alf Common first broke the world record fee when he moved from Sunderland to Middlesbrough in 1905. The fee? £1,000.

Winning football matches or playing attractive football? Attractive football, every time

As I start, I know that I’ll be in a minority with this viewpoint, and open to ridicule. Who wants to lose with dignity when you can win with bruises? Nevertheless, I firmly believe that attractive and entertaining football should always be the priority.

 

On my football radio talk show which I host with Smoked Sammon creator Kris Coombes, the excellent question in the title was put to us by Jake Buckley. I knew that I’d be up against it when Kris and guests Alex Harman and Tom Lilley unanimously said “results” with haste. My housemate listening to the show said that he groaned when hearing this, correctly predicting my contrary view. The charge levelled at me is that football is a results business. I agree, but it’s also an entertainment business. The escalating and extortionate cost of attending football matches is clear for all to see; why would people want to pay good money to watch teams lump the ball in the air? Do you part with large sums of money to see David Silva or Jonathan Walters? Brian Clough got it right when he said “Any idiot can coach a group of players to kick the ball as hard and high as possible and then gallop after it…give me time and I could train a monkey to do it”. You wouldn’t go to a musical festival to see bands focusing all of their efforts on making sure that every note is played correctly (the football equivalent is ‘playing to percentages’); you want to see and hear verve, noise and excitement.

 

Football fans are a loyal bunch. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that teams should play the most negative football on the presumption that fans will keep coming back for more; this same premise means that clubs often charge ridiculous amounts for tickets and replica shirts, knowing that fans (however disgruntled) will cough up. Stadiums are prone to losing supporters if the style of football is dreary; a smattering of die-hard loyalists won’t make up the financial difference. Sky Sports know this all too well; is Stoke v Crystal Palace going to be televised over Liverpool v Swansea? Of course the bigger teams get more coverage, but the point still stands. Football fans want to see a good game and leave the ground feeling they’ve got their money’s worth; they don’t want to be massaging a sore neck from looking skywards for most of the game.

 

Pragmatism has to play a part. I perfectly understand teams who are battling for survival towards the end of the season grinding out results more; fans do demand this, and I accept this. The same is true for teams battling for silverware; I remember Man City towards the end of the 11/12 season favouring a more cautious approach, having blitzed teams earlier in the year. However, over the course of a season, attractive football should be a priority. People may sneer back that if you’re not winning, it’s irrelevant. However, this isn’t good for the long term; take Derby County as an example. In the 06/07 promotion season we were the masters of grinding out 1-0 wins, and didn’t play the greatest football. I confess that I was one of the many who didn’t care one bit about the football we played; I was chuffed to see us winning so many games, and sure enough we beat West Brom 1-0 in the play-off final (despite being outclassed for most of it). The 07/08 Premier League season? You know the rest. A tiny bit of consolation would have been if we had given it an honest go at playing nice football, and to go down with a few plaudits. Instead, the football was dreadful, and fans certainly didn’t feel ‘entertained’. Long ball football can bring quick fix results, but at best you’ll reach a point where you stagnate in mid-table (Stoke), and at worst you’ll have the sight of Claude Davis trying to find Kenny Miller with a hopeless punt up field.

 

Who says you need stacks of cash to play football in an entertaining way? Through steady progress and footballing continuity, Swansea City under Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup built up ‘Swanselona’ from League 1 to the Premier League and a League Cup win, gaining plenty of admirers along the way. The Championship is fast developing as a good footballing league; I would argue that the vast majority of teams who get promoted from it are teams capable of good football, and who at the very least don’t rely solely on the route one approach. A positive approach can reinvigorate a team so much. Nigel Clough did strive for good football at Derby County, and we often saw good footballing performances. However, he too was culpable for resorting to negative tactics. Steve McClaren took over with the Rams in 14th place, and with a change of formation (from a lopsided 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1) and a more positive approach they are (at the time of writing) in 3rd place.

 

Ultimately, it’s hard to deny that none of the very top teams play long ball football. Granted, the likes of Jose Mourinho favour a counter-attacking and restrictive approach, and this can pay dividends. Nevertheless, Mourinho’s teams still play football on the floor, and utilise this with some incredibly talented players. Furthermore, he can still be outperformed by more positive sides; who can forget Barcelona’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2010? Or Dortmund’s thrashing of Real Madrid in the Champions League last season? I hate the stereotype of the British game; even playing football at an amateur level I still hear cries of “put it in the mixer” and “gerrit in”. The national side has all too often prided itself on a direct, physical approach; Jack Wilshere (a little too proudly) notes “we have to remember what we are…we tackle hard, are tough on the pitch… you think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and tackle hard”. What’s been the reward? Years of dreadful failure, but (contrary to belief) not underachievement; our technical limitations are obvious. Gus Poyet got it right when he noted that in Britain we all too often praise defenders if they can boot it clear, and wingers if they’re fast, without asking questions such as “can they pass it? Do they have a good touch?” You could have Usain Bolt on the wing, but if he can’t cross or pass the ball, how is he any use, even if he beats the full-back?

Attractive football is vital because it entertains the fans, but rather than be in conflict with results I think attractive football ultimately brings results. The best technical sides, ultimately, win the top prizes. Tactical nous and flexibility play a part, and the best teams don’t always win, but they mostly win. Teams lower down the divisions can be rewarded too if they have the confidence and conviction to carry out attractive football; Gus Poyet turned Brighton from being a League 1 relegation threatened team of long ball hoofers to a slick passing outfit competing for promotion to the Premier League. Football is a results business; attractive football more often than not brings those results. As fans, we deserve good football.

No longer making plans for Nigel

As overused as this cliche is, it is nevertheless the end of an era. It seems a lifetime ago since Nigel Clough took over in January 2009, watching his new employers defeat Manchester United 1-0 in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. His remit was to keep the club up, after the utterly disastrous spell under Paul Jewell, and he achieved that aim. His next task was to reduce the wage bill whilst producing a competitive team, and he did that too. An emphasis on youth was also placed, and the Rams (with the setback in 10/11 an exception) began to climb the table. However, it would appear that the 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Was his sacking right?

My first reaction was mixed. Prior to Clough’s sacking, I had said to my sister not long after the Forest defeat that “I’m becoming more sceptical of Clough”. Be careful what you wish for. I feel no joy or optimism over this decision. Inconsistency has blighted the 13/14 campaign already, but prior to the City Ground result the Rams had the best away record in the league, with form at Pride Park the Achilles heel. On reflection, I feel that he should have been given at least until January, if not the end of the season. I’ve said recently that I wouldn’t mind finishing outside of the play-offs this season, provided that the play-off challenge was there, and was consistent. That’s looked unlikely so far this season, but are seasons made and broken in September?

Let’s evaluate Clough’s reign. He achieved his initial remit, and whilst the progress since has been relatively slow, it has been tangible and visible. Paul Jewell (and Billy Davies to an extent) littered Derby with far too many first team players, leaving Clough with essentially a bureaucratic as well as coaching role. I’ve spoken more in depth about Clough’s tactics in a previous post, but to surmise he has always tried to implement a passing style at Pride Park. For someone derided as ‘non-league Nigel’ by some, we played far better football under Clough’s reign than many of his predecessors, with George Burley probably the last manager to provide attractive football. His financial constraints have been clear for all to see, and in my opinion Clough’s good signings far outweighed his bad ones. When backed with larger sums for individual players, he has more often than not provided good value; think Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell and Richard Keogh, with Conor Sammon possibly the only expensive flop (although the jury is still out to a degree). When Clough detractors have gleefully pointed out his worst deals, they have often been either freebies (Lee Hendrie, Lee Croft, David Martin) or low cost signings (Chris Maguire, Chris Porter).

My main frustration with Clough was his stubbornness. Too often a substitution would be left late in a game, when changes were urgently needed. Michael Jacobs, a talented if raw winger who can play the Jamie Ward role has frequently been left in the cold due to his poor record at tracking back. Players would be signed and initially praised, only to be quickly frozen out at will. Formations would come and ago, with a clear lack of width (4-4-2 shapes would often involve central midfielders on the wing), and players often shoehorned into position (such as Craig Bryson on the left wing during the 12/13 season, or Jeff Hendrick on the right this season). Clough’s public blasting of players often got on the nerves of the supporters, such as this harsh view on Tomasz Cywka (a Clough signing): “So he can go back to Wigan or wherever he came from, I am not really bothered, until he learns the game”. A Clough team, ultimately, would be immensely hard working and dedicated, but with a lack of flair to unlock the tightest of defences. It became a little tiresome to reach the halfway point of a season with the mantra “let’s build for next season”.

However, it was refreshing to have a manager who clearly cared for the club. Cynics will say that it’s a results business, but what’s wrong with a bit of heart in the game? I of course want every manager of Derby County to succeed, but never more so than with Clough. I longed for the sight of Nigel holding aloft the Championship trophy (or play-off trophy; they both entail promotion), doing his family proud. Robbie Savage tweeted that Clough was a man “who put the club before himself”, and it’s hard to disagree with that. He clearly loved the club, and gave his all for the cause. His tenure was littered with quality signings; Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell, Craig Bryson, Jamie Ward and Richard Keogh to list a few. Furthermore, whilst the work of academy coaches should never be overlooked, Clough put the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes into the first team; the latter in particular has the world at his feet. Clough never once directly moaned about the financial constraints, and on their day his teams could be a match for anyone in the league. Championship clubs may be sceptical, but League 1 and 2 clubs could certainly do a lot worse than Nigel.

September was too early to sack Clough. Pessimism has infiltrated Pride Park recently, but he could have turned it around. Perhaps a promotion challenge was just beyond him, but an improvement on 10th from last season was not beyond the realms of possibility. Buoyed by the cash of Will Hughes’ potential sale next year, who knows what Clough could have done with some money finally at his disposal? The alternative looks bleak, which I have often said to Clough-haters. Tony Pulis, seriously? We have methodically and carefully built up a passing game at Derby; why throw that away at one stroke with a rash appointment? I’d love to see where Will Hughes would fit into a Tony Pulis team. Jamie Ward and Craig Bryson would be considered too small. The long ball approach is archaic and ultimately ineffective; even Stoke tired of Pulis eventually despite his promotion exploits. The next manager has to be a significant improvement, and someone who can buy into the ethos on passing football and a strong academy. Of the available options, my best case scenario would be Gus Poyet, but that is extremely unlikely.

Had we finished below 10th this season, I may have called for Clough to go. However, the board’s pandering to a consistent and long-term approach looks pathetic with this decision. September is too early, and this looks all too much like a knee-jerk reaction. The board have a lot of questions to answer; Clough has been a convenient shield for their lack of investment. Had Clough had another year or two, perhaps we finally would have exploded a la Burton in 2009, with everything clicking into place. Thanks for everything Nigel. You kept us up, cleared the deadwood, reduced the wage bill, gave youth a chance and brought some entertainment back to Pride Park, even if it was often in patches. More importantly, you gave a damn about the club. On and off the pitch, the next guy has big shoes to fill.

Clough’s highlights:

-Derby’s 3-2 victory (after being 2-0 down) over Nottingham Forest in 2009, their first at the City Ground since 1971

-Four consecutive victories at the start of the 11/12 season; Derby’s best start for 106 years

-Down to 10 men and 1-0 down after one minute, Derby beat Forest 2-1 away in September 2011; they make it a league double in March 2012 with a Jake Buxton effort in a 1-0 win

Clough’s low points: 

-A 4-1 home defeat to Scunthorpe in January 2010; the first time his position was seriously called into question

-A 5-2 away feat at Nottingham Forest in December 2010. Need I say more?

-The 10/11 season. Fluid football in a 4-2-3-1 formation was later undone, and a strong promotion battle quickly regressed into a relegation dogfight and a 19th place finish

Best signings:

-Shaun Barker

-John Brayford

-Craig Bryson

Worst signings:

-Lee Croft

-Chris Maguire

-Nathan Tyson

Let’s finish with a quote from Brian, which sums up the current situation: “If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well”.

Ibrahimovic is a great player, but it doesn’t excuse him from being a role model

This is a bit off topic, but I think it may implicitly highlight the more down to earth nature of the Football League!

 

Before I start what could develop into a lengthy rant, let me establish the facts; Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a cracking player. His fourth goal against England last year would have been enough to secure his legacy, but that would be to discredit his achievements at some of Europe’s biggest clubs; Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. He’s won numerous titles and accolades along the way, and at the age of 31 he scored 35 goals in 46 games last year for Paris Saint-Germain, along with 11 assists. He should be celebrated for his undoubted ability, but he should also be castigated for his often callous attitude to the game.

 

I know that I’ll be in a minority here. Many football fans take to Ibrahimovic’s ‘colourful’ outbursts as a hilarious form of laddish banter, and find him an entertaining source for quotes. The headline “Zlatan Ibrahimovic announces he is donating his entire salary to Zlatan Ibrahimovic” may raise chortles, but are we really going to pat him on the back for saying “the children of Paris are not leading Ligue 1 in goals this season. I am”? I find it hard for Ibrahimovic to be endeared to me in this time of economic hardship when he adds “if anything, the children of Paris should be giving me even more money for having the privilege of being in the same city as my incredible quality”. 80% of football fans will probably laugh at this ‘Zlaritible donation’, but I doubt they would if they lost their job, or indeed if a primma donna was to blatantly dive and win a penalty at their team’s expense; the hypocrisy is ludicrous.

 

Not only has Ibrahimovic been boastful about his financial gain and conspicuous consumption (he is said to earn some 14 million euros a year), but he has had utter contempt for one of the game’s great managers; Pep Guardiola. In a published autobiography called ‘I am Zlatan’, Ibrahimovic labels Guardiola (the winner of 3 La Liga titles, 2 Copa del Reys, 2 Champions League titles, 3 Supercopa de Espanas, 2 UEFA Super Cups and 2 FIFA Club World Cups in his managerial career alone) a “spineless coward”, before going on to add this curious anecdote: “None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys”. Surely not! Footballers acting modestly? “The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. Everyone did as they were told”. Fans across the country rightly lament the often arrogant nature of the modern footballer, yet will they agree with Ibrahimovic’s thesis? Ibrahimovic can’t really contest the way that Barcelona has been run over the years, which has brought the Catalans magnificent success; the episode highlights the heavily individualised nature of the towering Swede.

 

People will rightly say that there are plenty of other footballers guilty of heavily inflated egos.  Pierre van Hooijdonk may not immediately spring to memory for some, but he supposedly said that Celtic’s £7,000 a week offer “might be good enough for the homeless…but not for an international striker”. I’ve picked Ibrahimovic out in this piece because he is such an outrageous example. He also hasn’t always been value for money; when Inter received around £40 million plus Samuel Eto’o for Ibrahimovic from Barcelona in 2009, who do you think got the better deal? Barcelona sold him for around £20 million a year later to AC Milan. Ibrahimovic obviously had little control over what was paid for him, but if we are to take his earlier quotes with PSG as gospel then he was worth every penny.

 

It’s a crying shame that we can’t just discuss a player’s ability on the pitch, and I’m aware that I’m prone to calls of hypocrisy, but quotes of Ibrahimovic’s capacity inevitably draw this kind of derision. I wouldn’t mind at all acting like a schoolboy if I was earning over £200,000 a week, especially if it was to do a hobby. Every footballer is a role model, and should act so accordingly. As a world class player, Ibrahimovic is in the spotlight, and whilst his remarks may be entertaining, they act as a symbolic smack in the face in an ever escalating financial bubble for football fans. Would it really cost much for Ibrahimovic to be just a little more modest? Zlatan is a remarkable player, but there are players better than him that are capable of toning down the arrogance. He’d do well to remember the words of former Ipswich chairman John Cobbold (Sir Bobby Robson’s former boss): “you have to love the game more than the prize. The game is more important than the prize because without the game, there is no prize anyway”.

 

Tactics talk: Derby County

I cannot profess to have the knowledge of a Jonathan Wilson when it comes to football formations, but having watched Derby County for many years, I think I can contribute to the tactical discourse.

 

Since his appointment in January 2009, it’s fair to say that Nigel Clough has, generally, been a 4-4-2 man, although he isn’t as rigid or stubborn with his formations as people think. At the start of the 09/10 season (his first full season as Derby boss), he started the season encouraging passing and width in a 4-5-1 formation, with energetic midfielders Paul Green and Stephen Pearson (don’t laugh) pushing on whilst Robbie Savage sat back in the centre of midfield, with Gary Teale and Lee Croft filling the wide areas. Furthermore, influenced by backroom coach Johnny Metgod’s native Netherlands team at the 2010 World Cup, the 10/11 season began with a 4-2-3-1 fluid passing system. Nevertheless, ‘started’ and ‘began’ should be highlighted here; when results have gone awry, Clough inevitably shifts back to a 4-4-2 approach. This formation reversal has had mixed results; results generally picked up when Kris Commons played off Rob Hulse in the 09/10 season, but despite successive defeats mid-season 10/11, a return to 4-4-2 didn’t really reignite the season.

 

I admit bias here, as I’m not a fan of 4-4-2. We’ve seen at international level the weakness of it; ask England at the 2010 World Cup against Germany. None of the top teams, at club or international level, play it anymore, and 4-4-2 proponents will often find their teams simply outnumbered and overrun in midfield. I don’t wish to appear too harsh on Nigel Clough; he has a positive footballing philosophy, and wants his teams to play attractive, attacking football. However, this approach is often sacrificed for ‘solidity’ in Clough’s case, so his creeds aren’t always borne out for people to see; it is very common for central midfielders to be shifted to the wing (think Paul Green, Stephen Pearson, Ben Davies and Paul Coutts, to name a few).

 

Turning to the present, Clough has the (happy) dilemma of accommodating three quality central midfielders in Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick and the rising star of Will Hughes. In the 12/13 season, Clough was not averse to playing all three, but too often Bryson was placed uncomfortably on the left wing, somehow trying to tuck into a 4-4-2. Coutts, who started the season brilliantly, faded, and played out of position. With Michael Jacobs arguably the only natural winger in the team, the starting XI often looked lopsided. However, 4-3-3 looks to be the likely scenario for next year, with this team the likely outcome (with current players as of 01/07/13):

————————————Grant——————————————-

 

Brayford————Keogh—————Buxton—————Forsyth

     ————Hendrick——–Hughes———–Bryson

 

            Russell—————Sammon————-Ward

 

In this formation, Russell and Ward could provide the width, whilst providing licence to drift in and capitalise on their flair abilities. The hard-working nature of the pair should take care of tracking back, and John Brayford’s over-lapping prowess is plain for all to see (with Craig Forsyth hopefully doing the same job on the left). Hughes could sit deep and use his burgeoning abilities to retain possession and start counter attacks, with Hendrick and Bryson pushing on and doing the box-to-box work. As a Plan-B (or even Plan-A), Hughes could push further forward into more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, playing in the trequartista role and threading through killer balls in the final third. Whilst dividing fans at the best of times, Sammon’s pressing and hard running could create space for Russell and Ward (and maybe even Hughes). Michael Jacobs is more than capable of filling in for the Russell or Ward role in the front three, with Paul Coutts and Ben Davies other candidates in a more solid approach. Should injury inevitably hit the first choice midfield three, I’d like to see Coutts and Davies coming in to their more natural roles; they’re not at the standard of Hendrick or Bryson, but they typify the hard-working approach which Clough demands. Injury to Will Hughes would be more problematic, but I’d like to see Jacobs coming into the side and play off the striker in a 4-2-3-1 shape in that scenario; he excelled in the role around January time in 2013 in a 4-4-1-1 preference.

 

I think the XI listed above could provide attractive and attacking football for the 13/14 season, promising football which we saw in parts last year. I’d like Clough to stick to his guns with a 4-3-3 outlook, but when results haven’t gone well he has often been under pressure to “stick another striker on” and “be more positive”. However, “one up front” doesn’t have to be negative; it’s the approach that counts. When on the front foot, as many as 4 or 5 players can be attacking in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, whilst there’s nothing positive about playing 4-4-2 against the likes of Brighton when you’ll lose the possession as well as the numeric battle. Nevertheless, when the inevitable “4-4-2 chants” emerge, it won’t be difficult for Ward or Russell to partner Sammon up front, with the other switching to the left wing and Jacobs (ideally), Davies or Coutts coming on to fill the right-wing slot.

 

For a 4-2-3-1 to work next year, a bit of flair is needed for the trequartista role. If Hughes isn’t playing there, then additional signings are required. Chris Martin could play there, as could Johnny Russell and Jamie Ward, but in these instances it’d be hard not to see a cloaked 4-4-2. I’ll put my tin hat on and say that yet another free transfer from Nottingham Forest could work in the shape of Lewis McGugan, but it is unlikely to happen for financial and tribal reasons. I’d dearly love another season-long loan for Alberto Bueno or even Arturo Lupoli, but again I cannot see these signings happening. Chris Burke would have been a great signing to solve the dearth of wingers in the side, but he recently extended his contract at Birmingham City, although they may still be tempted to sell in their financial state. However, having signed Lee Grant, Chris Martin, Johnny Russell and Craig Forsyth (for an outlay of just under £1 million), Clough’s stance seems to be that only a centre back will be added now to the ranks, with an optimistic punt for Richard Dunne mooted. However, an addition of flair in the mould of an Alberto Bueno would greatly complement the hard-working philosophy which is firmly instilled, but money is tight without selling Will Hughes or John Brayford (and I hope they won’t sell them).

Whatever the formation that Clough chooses, there’s a buzz of optimism around Pride Park for the upcoming season. Whatever my personal preferences, Clough can shut me up and keep me contented by grabbing three points on a regular basis.

East Midlands Battle: The 2013/14 race for promotion

Throughout the course of the 2012/13 season, it’s reasonable to suggest that the three East Midlands teams were all at one stage within the promotion mix. Nottingham Forest missed out on the play-offs by 1 point, Leicester City succumbed to a brutal counter-attack deep into injury time in their play-off second leg, whilst Derby County were a case in point of just how tight the Championship is, finishing 10th with 7 points from both relegation and 6th place. In this blog piece, I’ll evaluate each team and their chances of promotion in what is fast becoming one of the best leagues in the world (no hyperbole intended).

Derby County

In some ways progression, in other ways more of the same. 10th spot is manager Nigel Clough’s highest league finish as Derby manager, and the general consensus amongst the coaching staff and Rams fans is that performances have improved since the 11/12 season’s 12th place finish. However, it is once again an extremely poor showing away from home which has cost Derby a concerted promotion challenge. Whilst winning 12 games at home (their best home record since the 06/07 promotion season), just 4 wins away equated to the third worst away record in the whole division; as Derby manager Clough has never won more than 7 games away from home in a season.

Derby fans still clamour for a Billy Sharp-style 20 goal a season striker, yet only Crystal Palace and Leicester City have scored more league goals at home this season. The statistics speak for themselves with regard to where Derby need to improve next season; 22 goals scored and 40 conceded on the road. Investment has been tight under Clough’s reign, with the now longest-serving manager in the Championship forced to sell Jason Shackell last season in order to finance moves for Player of the Year Richard Keogh and Michael Jacobs, but quality signings at centre-back, right wing and up front, along with the retention of key players such as John Brayford and Will Hughes, should make Derby strong contenders for the play-offs.

12/13 Player of the Year: Richard Keogh

12/13 Top goalscorer: Jamie Ward (12)

My 13/14 prediction: 11th. Significant investment of around £2-3 million could make a world of difference, but consistently poor away form in a fiercely competitive league has cost Derby moving up the table in the past, and if it is not addressed it is unlikely that next season will be much different.

One to watch: Will Hughes. The 17 year old chalked up a run of 37 consecutive appearances before injury in February halted his progress. Hughes was lauded not just for his mature displays but his flair, technique and skill, leading to rumours that Barcelona were preparing a dossier on him. Recently linked with a £10 million move to Manchester City, Hughes will be crucial both to Derby’s style of play and their promotion chances next season

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXLmFpGa4BM

Nottingham Forest

Until Blackburn Rovers quickly took their mantle, Nottingham Forest were widely understood to be adhering to the Roman Abramovich model of managerial relations. After an impressive 4-2 Boxing Day win over Leeds United and just 1 point shy of the play-offs, Forest dispensed with Sean O’Driscoll’s services, curiously appointing Alex McLeish as his replacement. One month later, and McLeish quit after the Forest board had vetoed the transfer of Peterborough midfielder George Boyd after the play had apparently “failed an eye test”. Briefly a laughing stock, the appointment of former manager Billy Davies lead to an immediate upturn in fortunes, with Forest winning 6 games on the bounce and undefeated in 10 matches before a 3-0 defeat to Cardiff.

A last minute 3-2 defeat to play-off rivals Leicester City on the final game of the season (coupled with results elsewhere) meant that Forest finished 8th and 1 point outside of the play-offs. With the 11/12 season’s terrible showing aside, the Reds have been chasing promotion since 2009, finishing in the play-off spots in the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons. Significant investment is likely in the summer (with large portions of the squad on loan), although Forest’s wealthy owners may well be conscious of incoming Financial Fair Play regulations. Davies has developed somewhat of a habit of taking teams into the play-offs (with varying sizes of resources), doing the feat twice each with Preston and Forest, along with gaining promotion with Derby; it would be foolish to bet against them contending next season. Formidable home form in conjunction with ‘solid’ if unspectacular away form has always been a prominent feature of Davies’ track record, but will his abrasive personality and relations with board members (which lead in part to his sacking in 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/13644012) end in tears once again?

12/13 Player of the Year: Chris Cohen

12/13 Top goalscorer: Billy Sharp (11)

My 13/14 prediction: 6th. Despite often suffering from a poor start and a limping end to the season, Davies has developed a winning habit at most of the teams he has managed, regularly chalking up impressive strings of victories on the bounce. A talented squad with more investment to come should see Forest challenging once again.

One to watch: Adlene Guedioura. Known for his play-making abilities and an eye for spectacular goals, Guedioura is popular amongst the Forest faithful. With Premier League pedigree for Wolverhampton Wanderers, his performances within a talented Forest midfield will be crucial to any promotion push next season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VV05u_XqHOY

 

 

Leicester City

Leicester City’s season epitomised the topsy-turvy nature of the Championship. Second place in the league in late January, they recorded just 1 win in 12 before  clinching 6th spot on goal difference after a dramatic late 3-2 victory away at Nottingham Forest on the last day of the season. With Nigel Pearson back as manager, Leicester have at times this season been renowned for their solidity as well as impressive attacking displays. Like Forest, they have aimed for the Premier League since 2009 where they finished an impressive 5th in their first season after promotion from League 1. In between significant investment, play-off disappointment and high profile management (think Sven-Goran Eriksson), they have somewhat found their way again.

Leading 1-0 going into the second leg of their play-off match against Watford, their traumatic defeat has been well documented: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foznsHb39oY Yet more managerial upheaval will not help, with Nigel Pearson’s second tenure in charge rumoured to be under threat. The King Power Stadium remains a fortress (13 home wins this season and 46 goals), but with 6 wins away Leicester won 1 fewer on the road than relegated Peterborough and Wolves, highlighting room for improvement. Leicester also need to avoid the dreadful end to this season, which arguably sapped them of the kind of momentum which has benefitted the likes of Blackpool in recent years going into play-off campaigns.

12/13 Player of the Year: Wes Morgan

12/13 Top goalscorer: Nugent (16)

My 13/14 prediction: 8th. With strong teams coming down from the Premier League and up from League 1, Leicester’s promotion credentials are by no means assured. Sacking Pearson could lead to instability, and they will need to hope that Wood and Nugent can fire on a regular basis again. Expect them to challenge, but fall just short again in a competitive league.

One to watch: Chris Wood. Something of a footballing nomad despite aged just 21, Wood notched an impressive 11 goals in 19 Championship games on loan for Millwall before a permanent switch to the Foxes, where he scored 6 goals in his first 3 games before finishing the season on 11 goals. With a misfiring forward line to the end of the season, a return to the kind of form which lead to Wood’s signature for Leicester will be key next season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UGINIDs6SQ