As Town’s mini revival came to a predictable end, the close score line may appear to reflect a tight, perhaps even unfortunate defeat. But it actually masks the fact that a talented Derby side should have left with a far more comprehensive victory; which they would have done but for the excellence of Steer, who made a succession of very good saves.
With only a single score separating the sides, despite a wide gulf in class, the keeper’s heroics may even have rescued an underserved point as time ran out and Derby felt comfortable enough to let Town come on to them more, possibly encouraged by the preceding evidence that a mismatched forward pair carried barely no threat.
In fact, disturbingly, the Rams played large parts of the game seemingly in second gear and while most of the home team worked hard, the ease of passing and moving of the visitors contrasted sharply with Town’s lack of fluency, propensity for launching long balls to the much maligned Miller and an absence of guile.
After a poor but winning performance in midweek, no changes were made to the starting eleven and this was Chris Powell’s big mistake. We were to be regularly overrun in midfield or forced in to allowing Derby space and time in front of us – fine against a limited MK Dons team but fundamentally flawed against one of the best squads in the division.
With the Miller/Wells combination showing no signs of working and, worse, Wells being asked to play in areas of the pitch where he is barely competent, the answer was surely to either bring Billings in to the middle – oh, how we could have done with Hogg – or replace Wells with Paterson who can be trusted in possession outside the area?
Of course, Powell would then have been taken to task for playing one up front at home (and these reports have done that in the past), but with limited options – Miller is, after all, supposed to be third choice – and a dearth of goals from the current incumbents, a chance for someone else to try and shine was missed on the altar of the adage about not changing a winning team.
The orthodoxy of 4-4-2 creates exponential problems, particularly with our personnel. At the risk of going all Lawrenson, the system needs to change quite regularly within a game to 4-4-1-1, and Wells is utterly incapable of fulfilling his part in this – he is a goalscorer, not an auxiliary midfield player. This, in turn, pushes us too far back and coping against a 3 man midfield with 2 central midfielders becomes extraordinarily difficult, no matter how much work Whitehead puts in to compensate.
Despite a couple of early corners, Town were soon on the back foot but the visitors were being fairly comfortably contained until a fortuitous opener rewarded them for being the more expansive team. A cross from the right was headed out to Russell whose mishit shot squirmed through to Martin and he slotted home with some ease. Town’s appeals for offside were, rightly, dismissed.
Shortly after going behind, Town lost the services of Scannell and his replacement Carayol started very brightly, delivering 3 decent crosses in a short space of time, the last of which created an unlikely equaliser as Miller’s effort was pushed on to the underside of the bar by Carson only for Bunn to clip in.
After a great save by Steer who acrobatically tipped over a close range Shackell header from a corner, Town finished the half quite strongly but weak shots from Huws, Wells and Davidson undermined some decent preceding play.
Although it was a little bit of a stretch to believe that Town deserved to be level at half time, the first half performance had been dogged if uninspiring and should have been the right platform to take more initiative in the second period.
Unfortunately, the second half started badly, and the problem of Wells came in to sharp focus as he lost the ball very easily a third of the way up the pitch leading to a Derby corner. While Butterfield’s delivery was cleared by Lynch, it fell to George Thorne who took one touch then smashed an unstoppable shot in to the top corner.
It was a high quality strike, though Huws may have done better to close down the space, and his slight hesitation rather summed up another fairly anonymous performance from the man who had transformed our season with his goals in his early games.
Town themselves had a good chance from a corner which found Cranie unmarked, but he could only head straight at the keeper.
With Derby playing within themselves, Town couldn’t take the initiative. Long balls became far too frequent, though they did get down the sides from time to time and Bunn, in particular, found some joy taking on the visitors’ defence without ever being able to create chances. On the other side, Carayol’s impact had faded badly and his languid style became increasingly frustrating (on the plus side, he did offer better defensive support than previously evident).
Jed Steer then came in to his own with good stops from Russell, Christie and Martin, with the last one being an excellent block from the Rams’ marauding centre forward made possible by a slightly poor touch giving him the opportunity to decisively smother the shot.
The save seemed to galvanise Town from their hitherto plodding performance and the introduction of Paterson – for Bunn; a pretty unfathomable decision given Wells’ travails – added more spark to their forward play.
Despite their quality and superiority, Derby started to display some nervousness by trying to slow and see out the game with minor time wasting and Town responded by, finally, throwing caution to the wind. Paterson fired narrowly wide and looked disappointed at the effort while another chance fell for Davidson to spoon over.
Even Steer got in on the late flurry of action, going up for a corner and getting his head to it (in time honoured fashion, Derby then broke away and with Steer stranded took a shot from distance which didn’t have the power to get past the covering, no surprise here, Whitehead)
Of course, it was all too little, too late and the visitors (surely Premiership bound after several years of massive investment) deservedly took the points.
Defeat against a club who can assemble a side with Darren Bent on the bench, multi million pound players across the pitch and an injured roster which would grace any other team in the division is neither shameful nor indicative of the rest of the season, but it was difficult not to believe that a smarter team selection would have increased our competitiveness.
After a decent points haul in recent weeks, it doesn’t take much to stir underlying disquiet at how the club is dealing with the challenges of a difficult division. Some of this ignores the financial disparities which seem to widen every year, but there is little romance in survival and when the club hasn’t addressed the problem of an injury prone and occasionally brainless first choice striker, they bring unnecessary grief down on themselves.
It took Chris Powell too long to recognise that the consistently excellent Cranie was a far better right back option than Smith and he seems to be in denial over the Miller/Wells pairing – maybe the difficult looking trips to Burnley and Reading will finally break up the failed combination in favour of incorporating Paterson; we shall see.
It will also be interesting to see what Powell does with Huws. His form has dipped alarmingly – Whitehead is covering a lot of his sins – and it maybe that an extra man in midfield could free him up to play further forward.
With most fellow strugglers unable to win over the weekend (and Charlton fell to another heavy home defeat and sacked their manager), there was no immediate harm done but, again, it is not much consolation when we are constantly looking over our shoulders to get relief from poorer rivals.