Derby have picked up 10 points from the 15 available since the restart and though they lost to West Brom on Wednesday, are still right in the play-off mix with four to play. What have you made of the past few weeks?
They’ve been quietly impressive. After lockdown, I don’t think anyone knew quite what to expect because they had been playing pretty well before it and they were gradually clicking after a ridiculous season in terms of their off-field antics. They had a nice blend of youth and experience; obviously Wayne Rooney was leading the pack but 18-year-old Louie Sibley scored a brilliant goal against Blackburn, Max Bird was beginning to assert his dominance in midfield and they picked up where they left off. Three crucial wins gave them a squeak at the play-offs, beating Millwall, Reading and Preston, before a draw against Nottingham Forest. The youngsters have settled back in, they’ve been playing some nice football and have kept things relatively secure at the back. That was all tested on Wednesday night when they came up against a very good West Brom side and defensively they looked a little bit suspect. But, on the whole, most Derby fans will be pretty pleased with what they’ve seen post-lockdown because it’s given them hope of reaching the play-offs, which was a pipe dream six months ago.
It’s fair to say Phillip Cocu’s first few months didn’t set the world on fire, but since Christmas there’s been a marked improvement. How much credit can Wayne Rooney take for that?
I think it’s impossible to understate the impact that Rooney has had and, while if you ask a lot of people inside Derby they’ll obviously point to other factors, you can’t really praise him enough because the stats tell their own story. Before Christmas, Derby were really struggling; Rooney turns up and they rocket up the table. I’m not sure how he’s done it but I think the biggest compliment we can pay him is that the standards of everybody else have risen because of his presence - he demands the highest level from everyone. When he first came in, we thought he was semi-joking when he suggested he could get the team towards the play-off places, given that Derby were 17th and five points off the relegation zone. I don’t think anyone took him that seriously but you can just see the class that he has, even for his age. People though he wasn’t going to be able to adapt to the Championship because it’s a much quicker league than the MLS but, as they say, class is permanent. His passing range is still excellent, his set-pieces have been pin-point and he’s been able to control games sitting in the middle of the park. It’s that moment of quality that he’s capable of that can win games for Derby.
Tom Lawrence, Martyn Waghorn and Louie Sibley have all been shown red cards over the past few weeks. Would you say there’s any reason for the lapse in discipline?
It’s a strange one, this, because you wouldn’t say Derby are a particularly aggressive or ‘dirty’ team. They’ve got a Dutch manager who is all about total football and playing the ‘right’ way and they don’t have individuals that you’d necessarily associate with red cards. If you break each one day, there are mitigating circumstances for each one. They are definitely appealing against Sibley’s red card from Wednesday and could easily win that appeal, though you never know with the FA because very few are overturned. He’s renowned in the youth academy for having a little bit of a hot head and a temperament, so we were waiting for the moment he’d get sent off, but I don’t think we thought it would come in the circumstances that it did because it did look quite tame. Waghorn was frustrated in the local derby against Nottingham Forest and, again, not the sort of player you’d associate with a rash tackle. They were 1-0 down at the time against their big rivals, frustration boils over, Waghorn goes over the top and that was that.
Lawrence’s is probably the one you look at and shake your head, because it happened at the end of the game. Derby were very, very unhappy with him because they’d won the game and he probably should have just left the pitch. If someone is winding you up then smile at them, show the score on your fingers - do anything, just don’t get involved. If it was going to be anyone, it was going to be him, with 11 yellow cards and a red, which is a lot for an attacking player. They were all very needless in their circumstances, but I don’t think it’s a wider disciplinary issue, they were just isolated cases.
Which player should Brentford be keeping an eye on at Pride Park this weekend?
It depends who plays because Derby have a few injury problems. I’ve already spoken about Rooney, so I’m going to say his midfield partner Max Bird, who took the captain’s armband for the final few minutes against West Brom. They rate him incredibly highly because he’s a very good midfielder and, if we were to liken him to anyone, he’s got a bit of Michael Carrick about him in that he keeps the play moving, his passing range is very good and he rarely gives the ball away. We’d seen glimpses of him previously but he burst onto the scene in January but stamped his authority on the team and has been a mainstay in the side since then. It took us by surprise because he was quite a slight player at the start of the season, but by January he’d bulked up and looked physically much better. With Wayne Rooney, he’s kept that midfield ticking over and is the metronome that keeps things moving.
How is Phillip Cocu likely to set up his side?
He’s pretty secure with his 4-2-3-1, though every now and then that does change to a 4-3-3, but he will certainly go with one up front and that will be Chris Martin. Lawrence is back from suspension and will play on one of the wings, Bird and Rooney will sit as the two and then it’s all about juggling the wingers he has, though he doesn’t have too many options at the moment. Derby are a possession-based team who play out from the back but as teams who also do this will appreciate, it doesn’t always work and fans watching will always get palpitations when goalkeeper plays it to right-back, right-back to goalkeeper, to centre-back to right-back but it’s the way Cocu likes to play. They rely on Martin holding the ball up as the focal point and it’s a very Dutch way of playing; at PSV, he had big target men who get the ball and feed off to the wingers. Derby, at their best, move the ball quickly, with Rooney finding the pockets in which to operate. If they can find that sort of form they will profit, but they struggle when teams press them at the back.
What’s your score prediction for Saturday’s game?
I think Derby will react but I just can’t see them beating what looks like an incredibly well-drilled Brentford team with a potent strikeforce. I think it will be close, but I’d be inclined to say 2-1 to Brentford.
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