There wasn’t exactly a mood of optimism ahead of the game, given the recent form of us and them. And it’s not exactly laughs and cheers following it, as the supporters’ lack of belief seemed to be echoed on the pitch. There was no shortage of effort and commitment, just a feeling that we didn’t believe we would score and a lack of conviction, of belief that this was a game we could win. It was encapsulated in the first 30 minutes, as Derby offered nothing; we controlled the play, dominated possession, but seemed to be happy to be in the game, scared of what Derby might be able to do as and when they started to play, and reluctant to try to turn dominance into a match-winning position. If anything we ended up paying the price for that period, conceding an unfortunate and undeserved goal but thereafter seldom looking as if we could get back on level terms, let alone win.
With Jackson unavailable, Sir Chris opted for a 4-5-1, with Green given a start on the right, Stewart on the left, and Prichard playing in the hole behind Kermorgant. Might not have seemed progressive playing at home, but we thought we were up against a good side, certainly a confident one, and when the manager calls for a siege mentality ahead of the game you aren’t exactly primed for an all-out attacking formation.
We can’t say the set-up really worked in that first half-hour, but with Stephens winning tackles, Green involved, and Cousins tidying up behind we were on top, not least because whatever weapons Derby may have were being kept in reserve. You felt that at some moment they would show what they can do, but that didn’t happen. Instead it was something of a phoney war, with us probing but not really threatening – and them doing neither. There were good runs, a couple of free kicks in decent positions (the first of which Green either overhit or forced their keeper to tip over, depending on your interpretation, and the second clearly underhit), and moments when something might have happened. Kermorgant couldn’t make the most of one incident in the box, then didn’t get enough on an effort from outside the box with their keeper out of position.
What was missing was the invention to carve out a real chance, with Pitchard not effective and Stewart this time flattering to deceive, looking for free-kicks which never were and howling at the injustice of it all – in contrast to Kermorgant, who was manhandled all afternoon only to see another weak referee fail to provide any protection (more of that later). It wasn’t that the ref made awful decisions, he just failed to see what was going on, the shoves, the cynical fouls when Derby were out of position. Not awful, just weak and inadequate (with no assistance from linesmen that pretended to see nothing and said nothing).
The ref was to play an important role in the moment that we feared might come. After half an hour a challenge outside the box was a possible foul but the ref allowed play to continue, only to bring things back for a free kick when the move came to nothing. I actually think that’s fair, as long as it’s consistently applied (more of that later). The shot from the free kick was harmless but took a wicked deflection which left Alnwick stranded. Derby found themselves 1-0 up in a game in which they had barely broken sweat.
4-5-1 is fine when you are on even terms or ahead, but when you fall behind the drawbacks become quickly apparent. Derby saw out the remainder of the first half by knocking it around and attempting very little. They didn’t have to. I doubt they could believe their luck; certainly it was a body blow for us, one which undermined our entire approach but also served to underline the fact that we had failed to make our dominance in the first 30 minutes count.
We needed to start the second half well and hopefully get back into things. And soon into it Green played in Wilson overlapping. His cross was played in towards Kermorgant, who was shoved out of the way by their defender. The ball actually broke to Stephens (I think) around the edge of the box but he put the shot just wide of the post. Now what was wrong with giving the penalty, just as advantage had been played for their free kick? Clearly the ref hadn’t seen the shove on Kermorgant, but it was right in line of sight for the linesman. To nobody’s surprise, he indicated nothing.
In a game of few chances it was another turning point. Thereafter Derby did threaten a few times as we ran out of ideas, perhaps waiting for what seemed to be an inevitable change of formation. It was a tough call for Powell at 0-1 as an equaliser would have changed the entire picture, whereas a second goal for them and subsequent changes would have been criticised for coming too late. And that nearly happened as Derby did finally create something, with a well-worked move ending with the ball squared to a guy inside the box in space, only for his shot to come back off the bar. If that had gone in the mood would have become truly gloomy.
The changes did come, with Church and Harriott replacing Green and Pritchard, who hadn’t been able to rise above nuisance value in a role which doesn’t play to his strengths. The surprise was that Harriott didn’t seem to be operating wide right but instead played more centrally. If anything that compressed the space, with Derby packing that area and Harriott often finding himself running into a swarm of defenders.
Our second real moment of the game was to be the final turning point. After a set piece Kermorgant looked up and curled the ball towards the far post where Morrison rose. From a yard or two out it seemed he only had to get a good connection on the ball and it was in. He didn’t manage to do so. That was to be the final opportunity, given that the referee was never going to give Kermorgant anything, even when he was grabbed around the neck in the box. When Kermit finally was awarded a free kick, in a nothing position, he presumably said something to the ref to pick up a yellow. Whatever he said, in French or English, was presumably appropriate.
The final, desperate, change saw Sordell come on for Wilson. Don’t ask me what the formation was after that, but it didn’t matter as shortly after Derby scored a second. A poor pass put Morrison under pressure in the absence of Wilson and his clearance only found one of their guys, who did something and the ball ended up in our net. It really didn’t matter as this was another home game in which the chances of us scoring were small indeed.
A word for our visitors? I seemed to have upset some Leeds fans recently when I labelled them scum for the antics of their players on the pitch, the sustained cynicism, professionalism if you like. Fouls to break up play, dives, rolling around in agony, mixed with the sort of shoves that these days you see at every set piece in the Premiership. The word was probably a bit emotive, born out of frustration after we’d lost a game we shouldn’t have. Derby weren’t as bad, but not by much; and I don’t know what the term is for one notch above (neither am I going to suggest that we should have won today; to do that you have to create more). The common denominator is weak refs who fail to see – or are happy to ignore – what is going on. As long as we have such officials, I guess these tactics will continue to be embraced by some teams.
We’re left with another dispiriting home defeat. What was also worrying was signs of bickering on the pitch at the death. The dressing room is presumably an unhappy place at the moment, for good reason (and with the takeover seemingly having fallen through, ending thoughts for now at least of January purchases, the fans aren’t exactly happy either). There’s work to be done to improve confidence and belief as we now have a run of fixtures which need to produce points.
Alnwick – 7/10. No chance with either goal and not a great deal to do otherwise.
Wilson – 7/10. Overlapped well enough, no defensive errors.
Wiggins – 7/10. Capable, and what I liked was his efforts to get forward when the chips were down.
Morrison – 7/10. The defence wasn’t the problem today; we conceded a deflected free-kick and a goal which didn’t matter when we had made changes that left us short at the back. And I’m not going to dock him a point for not converting that cross, even though I can’t help thinking he should have done.
Dervite – 7/10. Same for him.
Green – 6/10. Was involved and put in some decent crosses (even though I think he didn’t get the two first-half free kicks right), but no decisive contribution.
Cousins – 6/10. Once again neat and tidy, provided effective cover in front of the defence, but no more.
Stephens – 7/10. His robust tackling was a factor in our domination of the first 30 minutes, but he too didn’t make a decisive contribution – and put the shot wide early in the second half.
Stewart – 5/10. He got rave reviews from the Yeovil game and I’m a fan of his, as he makes things happen. But today he was anonymous when we needed a match-winner. Seemed miffed at not getting first-half free-kicks and complaining instead of getting on with things.
Pritchard – 5/10. Very tough for him today, the game passed him by as he was asked to do a job that doesn’t seem to suit him.
Kermorgant – 6/10. Things didn’t run for Kermit today. Tempted to give him an extra mark for whatever he called the ref; on that scale I would have seen red.
Subs – Church (5/10; failed to have an impact when he came on); Harriott (5/10; ran into cul de sacs, presumably having been told not to play out wide); Sordell (no mark as he was again only on when the game was up, but there do seem to be concerns about his attitude).