Is the future bleak for Phillip Cocu at Derby County or is there hope on the horizon?

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 09 November 2020, 14:46

Derby manager Phillip Cocu missed Saturday’s game through self-isolation; he is wished a full and healthy recovery.

The Rams’ on-field woes, though, cannot be ignored, after a 2-0 home defeat to Barnsley under Liam Rosenior’s interim guidance.

EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton looks at the story for Cocu and Derby, why the East Midlanders are struggling and how they can turn things around.

Support for Cocu last season

Derby underperformed last season, but at no point did the majority wane in their support for Cocu.

There was an acknowledgement that, after such a heavy reliance in 2018-19 on the individual quality of loanees – specifically Fikayo Tomori’s athletic defending, Mason Mount’s energetic creativity and Harry Wilson’s goal threat from outside the box – it would be hard to sustain a Play-Off push.

The antics of Tom Lawrence, Richard Keogh and Mason Bennett certainly did not help the club either and that was entirely out of Cocu’s hands.

Derby dropped as low as 18th after a 1-1 draw at Wigan on Boxing Day, which kept them winless away after the opening day.

Even then, natives were very patient, considering the likes of Paul Clement and Steve McClaren were dismissed with better records on paper.

Fans understood that the club was scaling back whilst looking to embrace a more youth-centred strategy and that it would take time – most felt Cocu had the credentials to lead this long-term project.

Faith in the Dutchman was vindicated to some extent, last term, with good post-Christmas form leading to a 10th-placed finish.

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Derby are rock-bottom of the Championship table

Talented squad

While Derby are in transition, they should certainly be getting far better results than we are seeing this year, with just one win to their name in 11.

In Matt Clarke, the Rams possess arguably the best left-footed centre-back in the division, while deep-lying midfielder Max Bird recycles play well with the rare gift of being equally adept with either foot.

Jason Knight is ferocious in the press, Louis Sibley won many plaudits for his creative impact last season, Tom Lawrence and Martyn Waghorn are established as good Championship players while even the most casual football fan knows of Wayne Rooney’s quality.

In fact, if we go through Derby’s squad player for player, it’s easy to talk ourselves into thinking that each one is good at this level – and yet, the team, collectively, is bottom of the league.

Unsuited personnel

Naming unsuited personnel as a factor behind Derby’s struggles might, in some ways, seem contradictory with the above.

Goalkeeper David Marshall and centre-back Curtis Davies, however, are not especially comfortable playing out from the back, as we saw on Saturday.

Marshall has enjoyed the best form of his career for direct Celtic, Cardiff and Wigan sides, while for Davies, it has come under Chris Hughton, Steve Bruce and Gary Rowett.

Neither player prides themselves on excellent distribution and, with both at 35, they will never be any better at playing out from the back than they are at the moment.

Krystian Bielik’s return means Cocu now has somebody who could come in for Davies if seen as a centre-back rather than a holding midfielder, but Kelle Roos – better with his feet than Marshall - was so error-prone last season that he is perceived as too big a risk.

Imbalanced attack

In 2013-14 and 2014-15, Derby scored 84 and 85 goals and had Johnny Russell cutting in from the right of the front three onto his left foot.

In 2015-16 and 2016-17, they scored 66 and 54 goals with Tom Ince doing that job and in 2018-19, they scored 69 goals with Wilson.

A continuation of Derby’s current attacking form would see them score just 21 goals and one wonders whether that is partly because they do not have a left-footed attacking player.

Russell, Ince and Wilson, albeit to differing levels of efficiency, all changed the direction of play with their left-footed instincts.

Much was made of the importance of Lawrence and Kamil Jozwiak returning from injury recently, but the problem with the trio they form with Martyn Waghorn is all three are right-footed.

Lawrence and Jozwiak are good players individually, but both like to occupy the left channels and cut inside onto their right foot.

This means that when Jozwiak starts on the right, he will drift to the other side in hope of playing his natural game, but two players trying to do the same thing massively disrupts the equilibrium of Derby’s attacking play.

The fact the Rams have left themselves with a dearth of left-footed attacking options reflects badly on the recruitment team and those who have been constructing this squad, a process Cocu may not have been directly involved in.

The best solution now may be to hand more starts to left-footed Morgan Whittaker, who is currently starring for England Under-20s, in the absence of proven alternatives.

Louis Sibley is also left-footed and, now back fit, will help the team with a more prominent role in midfield.

Chris Martin absence hurts like heaven

As if to compound Derby’s woes, Chris Martin has had a fantastic start to life at Bristol City.

The physical front-man might only have scored once for City but, more importantly, he has registered four assists.

Most of those set-ups involve Martin holding the ball up against centre-backs in the penalty area, then laying it off with a deft touch for somebody else – often poacher Nahki Wells - to finish.

Martin’s literal and figurative strength when playing back to goal is another quality missing in this Derby squad.

Waghorn, so often deployed on the right last season with license to break into goalscoring areas, has been entrusted with leading the line.

The former Ipswich and Leicester man, though, like to play on the shoulder of the last defender, facing goal for much of the game.

Martin is the glue that brings out the goalscoring potential in others, whereas Waghorn tends to look for his own goalscoring opportunities.

Wayne Rooney has also been used up top at times, but leading the line is not a job that comes naturally to him; the 35-year-old struggles to hold off defenders when attacked and has no pace to maximize transitional opportunities, so his technical qualities may be far better served in a deeper role.

Left-back liabilities

Craig Forsyth has not been a great Championship left-back for six years.

That might sound harsh on the Scot, who can be an intelligent operator, has been a model pro and been part of plans for eight different managers since his stellar 2013-14 campaign.

Derby’s possession-based style of play, however, requires a left-back who can provide pace, thrust and width.

Forsyth cannot attack individualistically; if he ever hits the byline, it’s through neat combination play involving at least one teammate.

This means that opposing teams can afford to condense the play down Derby’s right flank and double up on their key attacking players, safe in the knowledge that if they hit a diagonal to Forsyth, the ball will only be recycled back into central areas.

Forsyth’s decline has seen teenage talent Lee Buchanan handed more of a chance and while he offers something going forward, he is also inexperienced and therefore prone to errors.

Omar Richards, Xavi Quintilla, Diego Rico and Jay Dasilva are all left-backs capable of contributing in both defensive and offensive phases of play – and they are all playing for top six Championship sides.

Derby need somebody in that category. 

Can Cocu turn things around?

Abu Dhabi royal Sheikh Kaled is on the verge of completing a takeover of Derby and a change of ownership often means a change of manager.

Baring a remarkable run of form, it must be said things look bleak for Cocu.

The team in place may not be one the 50-year-old would have chosen and there are areas – an old-school keeper and defender, no senior left-footed forwards and the absence of a reliable focal point – that make the squad grotesquely imbalanced.

Equally, Derby have players of a high-calibre individually and certainly should not be bottom of the Championship, for which Cocu must take a slice of the blame.

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