Within 25 minutes of the season opener, Town had been dismantled by a Tom Lawrence inspired Derby County and the balloon of optimism inflated by two relatively competent final Premier League performances and a positive pre-season was brutally popped.
Disjointed, sloppy in thought and deed and with little discernible commitment to a plan, the Terriers allowed Lawrence to dictate the whole game and his appreciation of space, timely passing and eagerness to be involved in everything the Rams were attempting contrasted starkly with the home midfield who appeared disinterested out of possession.
Lawrence earned two free kicks with bursts in to space, fired one just wide and one in to the wall, and revelled in the freedom given to him as no home player took responsibility to stem his glaringly obvious threat.
A good run by Diakhaby which ended with him taking an ill advised shot rather than find a better placed colleague and some decent work down the right by Hadergjonaj which invariably saw the Kosovan find the first defender with aimless crossing was the extent of Town’s threat.
As early as the first minute, Lawrence had a shot which appeared to strike Elphick on the hand, but Town’s new central defender was to hand the Welshman the opening goal with a weird attempt to direct the ball back to Grabara which hit his shoulder, then his head and forced the Liverpool loanee out of his area to try to clear with his head.
The attempt gained little purchase and fell to Lawrence who still had plenty to do to score the opener with a deft lob. Elphick’s lack of awareness of the danger his fluff had caused meant that he didn’t get back on the line quickly enough where he could have affected a simple clearance.
Within minutes, Lawrence struck again but in contrast to the freakish if well taken opener, his second was sublime. The initial danger was caused by a rushed Hadergjonaj attempted clearance, executed for no apparent reason, which was picked up by Derby to launch another attack on the fraying home side. Working the ball across the face of the penalty area, Bogle shaped to shoot but found Lawrence in a pocket of space. With quick feet, the game’s stand out player bamboozled a combination of Elphick and Hadergjonaj before hitting a superb finish past Grabara.
Derby fully deserved their lead and despite Town grabbing a life line before the break with an excellently taken Grant penalty – awarded for a foul on Bacuna, whose turn in the box was just about his only meaningful, positive contribution in the first half before going off injured in the second – their superiority should have seen them restore their 2 goal advantage only to be thwarted by a good save by Grabara and, to his credit, a significant block by Elphick and a similarly effective intervention by Kongolo. The last of these also injured Lawrence and rather muted his contribution for the remainder of the game.
With the midfield trio barely functioning during a first half which was both sobering and worrying, Town were fortunate to still be in a game dominated by a team of genuine threat and tight discipline.
A decent Pritchard effort which cleared the bar, an excellent couple of pacy bursts by Diakhaby and the Bacuna turn which brought the penalty were over shadowed by a dysfunctional overall performance directly contrasting with Derby’s shape, purpose and discipline.
The main threat was Hadergjonaj’s probing down the right, including one excellent turn to set himself free, but the threat disappeared with woeful final balls which hit the first defender with laser like precision. This was not about to improve in a better team performance in the second half.
After the break, Town had their best spell with an intense 15 minutes which brought chances and significantly more cohesion.
A Bacuna effort resulted in a corner which found its way to the back post and an unmarked Schindler. The captain’s shot was saved at close range by Roos to maintain the visitors’ lead.
A wild Pritchard effort following good work by Grant confirmed Town’s temporary dominance which ended with a fantastic half volley by Mooy which fizzed just wide. The Australian’s influence grew after a below par first half as Town established a tighter grip in the middle, perhaps as a result of Lawrence’s diminished threat.
An injury to Bacuna disrupted Town’s rhythm and energy; aside from one woeful attempted pass straight to a black shirt, he had looked better after the break and the game in general became scrappy following his departure.
Rarely emerging from their defensive shell, Derby were content for Town to have the ball, but launched one or two dangerous looking counter attacks including one which resulted in a painful collision between Kongolo and Grabara. On the whole, however, from the hour mark, niggly fouls and over officious refereeing blighted the flow of the game to the home team’s disadvantage.
All would have been forgotten, however, had Kachunga buried a glorious chance with 10 minutes to go. An otherwise rather out of sorts, and out of position, Kongolo swung a good cross in which fell to the second half substitute in space. His shot was snatched and quite horrible, sailing way over the bar.
The chance of rescuing a probably undeserved point vanished with the woeful effort.
Kongolo on the left had seen less of the ball than the over employed Hadergjonaj who covered lots of ground but remained cluelessly inaccurate with his deliveries, including one in to an area entirely bereft of colleagues.
Derby defended very well on the whole but their comfort was built on Town’s ponderous attacking, predictability and poor decision making in the final third; deficiencies which pre date Siewert but show little sign of improvement.
The big moments were overwhelmingly in the Rams’ favour but they had earned the three points with good organisation, a clearly identifiable plan and a first half hour dominated by Lawrence, supported by good movement around him.
Town have talent in the squad but aside from the 15 minutes after the break, they were unable to develop momentum and were telegraphing virtually every move to a comfortable opponent. That talent, which included a good but frustratingly unproductive performance from Pritchard, must be harnessed by Siewert in to a far more potent unit that was on display last night; Grant’s isolation cannot be allowed to persist and the over use of Hadergjonaj until he learns how to deliver in to the area must cease.
Elphick’s debut to forget – he improved after the break but couldn’t really decline – is unlikely to see him replaced but Siewert should make some brave choices for the next game, including moving Kongolo to centre half.
It is far, far too early to panic – Derby look a good, competent outfit – but the patience afforded to the team and the management last season is unlikely to last long. The next few weeks could be very challenging for Siewert and the games look far from straightforward.