How Derby County’s superb defence could help them pull off ‘the Great Escape’ – tactical analysis
On September 22, just under three weeks ago, Derby County entered into administration following financial turmoil and were handed a twelve-point deduction by the English Football League.
The mood around the club seemed dark and dismal, and hope had been lost among a lot of the fans who have already begun mentally preparing for life in League One next season.
However, the catastrophic mishandling of the club from the hierarchy has certainly not affected the desire of the players on the pitch to grind out results as the Rams are fighting for their lives still.
Heading into this current international break, Derby are sitting rock bottom of the Championship due to the points deduction but have the joint-best defensive record in the division.
While Rooney’s side have scored just seven times so far in the league, they have conceded just eight goals in eleven matches and are battling for their lives to stay in the Championship.
Having such an impressive defensive record could be hugely instrumental towards the club’s survival this season if they are to have any hope of staying up and making ‘the Great Escape’.
This article will be a tactical analysis of Derby County from this season under Wayne Rooney in the form of a team scout report. It will be an analysis of the team with a focus on their tactics out of possession in the main three defensive phases – high block, mid-block, and low block – which has led to such a solid defensive record.
Lineup, formations, and summer recruitment
The 4-2-3-1 has been Derby’s most utilised formation in all official competitions thus far in the 2021 campaign. Rooney has deployed the system in 49 percent of the Rams’ matches.
The 4-4-2 is the second most used formation by Derby with 14 percent with the 3-4-1-2 in third place.
Derby avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth last season with a final day draw with Darren Moore’s Sheffield Wednesday who were subsequently relegated.
In the 2020/21 campaign, Rooney’s side were conceding 1.26 goals per game on average. This season, Derby have conceded merely 0.67 goals per game. While it is a smaller sample size – with the former spanning across an entire season – it is still extremely impressive just how drastic the numbers have reduced.
Towards the back end of the previous season, Derby were playing with Manchester United’s Teden Mengi and former Liverpool and Norwich City defender Andre Wisdom for the most part while Matt Clarke and George Edmundson would be rotated too.
In the summer, Rooney needed to sort out the team’s backline and so the experienced Phil Jagielka was brought into the club alongside another experienced player in Richard Stearman. Curtis Davies has returned from his long spell on the side-line too, so Derby’s defence is now full of quality.
This is typically how Rooney has set his side up so far this season:
Further up the pitch, Rooney made some really important acquisitions too bringing in Ravel Morrison to the club in what was a very controversial signing given the player’s previous history. However, Morrison has been wonderful for Derby, playing as a number ‘10’ for the most part but dropping into deeper areas during the build-up phase to progress play up the pitch.
Sam Baldock was also brought to Pride Park on a free transfer from Reading. 29-year-old goalkeeper Ryan Allsop was signed too as a backup goalkeeper.
From these five new transfers, Derby did not pay a single penny on transfer fees. With the four outfield players, Rooney managed to bring in some very hard-working, experienced, but high-quality players to suit his system.
With energetic central midfielders such as Jason Knight and Louie Sibley playing on the right and the defensively solid double-pivot of Graeme Shinnie and Max Bird, flanked by Nathan Byrne and Craig Forsyth, Rooney has assembled a very tactically proficient and disciplined side out of possession that has contributed greatly to Derby’s wonderful defensive record.
Derby are very reliant on their defensive structure to get results. Rooney wants his team to be exciting and progressive in possession, often building their way from the back. However, the manager is not afraid to cede possession to the opposition.
The Rams have averaged the second-lowest possession in the Championship so far this season with 44.4 percent. Only Blackburn Rovers have averaged less.
The team’s defensive style can be seen through the contrast in the number of interceptions and defensive duels won so far in the league.
Derby are competing in 60.39 defensive duels per 90, winning 59.9 percent. More impressively, the Rams are averaging 41.97 interceptions per 90 which is the fourth-highest.
However, Derby’s Passes allowed Per Defensive Action on average this season is 12.18. This is the fourth-highest PPDA in the league, essentially meaning that Derby allows the fourth-highest number of passes from the opponent before making a defensive action.
When the opposition has the ball in the build-up phase and the Rams are pressing high, their intention is to close the passing option to the pivot player and force the team in possession wide.
This is primarily done in the team’s general 4-2-3-1 formation, but the principle applies to all of their defensive structures.
Here is Derby’s set-up in a high defensive block from a recent game against Reading in the league. Reading are playing out from the back with split central defenders to the side of the goalkeeper with a double-pivot behind Derby’s first line of pressure.
Rooney has deployed a 4-2-3-1 but it looks like a 4-3-1-2 in this instance due to the positioning of Lawrence who has come inside to press the centre-back on his side. Baldock has taken the other central defender.
Morrison is sitting behind Lawrence and Baldock, playing zonally against the double-pivot while the pair ahead of him are applying a cover shadow to block the passing lanes from the centre-backs to the double-pivot.
When the opposition goalkeeper players the ball to one of his central defenders, the press is initiated and the objective for the first line of pressure is to angle their run in order to force the defender wide instead of allowing them to play centrally.
From there, the fullback for the team in possession will be pressed by the winger.
The idea from here is to try and win back possession of the ball in these wide areas using the touchline as an extra defender, but also to prevent any inside passing lanes for easy progression for the opponent.
This is often done by both marking tightly and being aggressive towards players that are dropping towards the ball but also by applying cover shadows to certain players, blocking the ball supply into them.
Here, the Swansea defender has no option to play to where there is not a great risk of a turnover of possession and so if forced to turn back and play to the nearest centre-back.
This is where Derby feast. In football, a team can use a backwards pass to apply pressure on the receiving player and force them into a mistake higher up the pitch.
This is done by a defending player angling their pressing run to cut off the ball-far side of the pitch to prevent the ball from being played over to the opposite side of the pitch. The idea is to keep the in-possession team in the condensed area of the pitch as it’s easier to defend against.
Medium-level defensive block
Derby’s principles in a medium-level defensive block are ultimately the same as their high-block objectives. It depends on the formation on the day, but Rooney’s men tend to sit in a 4-4-2 defensive block in this phase, but the principles remain constant even if Derby are utilising a back three system.
Derby cedes possession to the opposition’s central defenders in this phase and look to sit compact and narrow, looking to deny any possible central passing lanes. The double-pivot and the team’s first line of pressure must work in unison.
The first line of pressure’s job is to apply a cover shadow to any players behind them. However, if the team in possession somehow does manage to play the ball into this area, the nearest pivot player must close them down quickly.
The wingers must also remain close to the double-pivot to cut off any passes into the channel between themselves and the nearest central midfielder.
Here is an example of Derby sitting in a very compact 4-4-2 mid-block in a recent game against Swansea City. Russel Martin’s side have positioned three players behind Derby’s midfield line to act as progressive passing options, but the defending team’s midfield have maintained very close connections to deny any access to these advanced players.
The front two – who are the Rams’ first line of pressure – are allowing Swansea’s centre-backs to have the ball, ensuring that the passing lane to the Swans’ single pivot is cut off.
If the opponent does manage to break through the first line of pressure into the double-pivot, the primary responsibility for the nearest pivot player will be to step out and close the ball-carrier down.
Again, like the high block, Derby’s objective is to force Swansea out wide where they can utilise the touchline as an extra defender, limiting the ball-carrier’s options in possession.
Here is an example of a simple turnover of possession from Derby in a recent league match against West Bromwich Albion. The Rams were sitting in a 5-2-3 medium-level block and the left-winger angled his run to force the centre-back to play out wide where Derby could go man-to-man and force a turnover providing they won their defensive duels.
There was also a midfielder nearby to support in case this did not work.
This is a data visualisation that portrays all of Derby County’s recoveries from their previous game against Swansea. As can be easily interpreted, quite a lot were on the flanks, proving that this is the approach Rooney’s side takes when defending in a compact block.
If it’s not possible to win the ball back, Derby will try to contain the opposition out wide and force them to play backwards where they will then push up and press to force the ball-carrier into making an error.
Here, in Derby’s 4-4-2 mid-block, all of the central passing lanes have been cut off for Reading and the ball-carrier is being pressurised by the left-back from behind. The player in possession passes it back to the nearest centre-back triggering the press of Derby’s centre-forward.
As can be seen from the above image, the Derby players’ body orientation shows that they want to contain the ball-carrier and prevent him from playing inside by dropping off and allowing him to play back to his central defender which is when they push up the pitch to press and try and force a turnover.
The pressure is applied by Derby and the centre-back goes long, putting it out of play, although a free-kick is eventually awarded for an aggressive challenge on him.
Derby’s principles do not alter much at all in the low block phase compared to the high and low block phase.
When the Rams are sitting in a deep defensive block, the objective is to, once again, force the opponent wide, but now they have the added factor of needing to stop crosses into the box.
On average, in all competitions so far this season, Derby have conceded 20.31 crosses per 90 and have allowed 25.62 penalty box entries per 90. In the Championship, Rooney’s side have conceded 12.36 shots per 90 which is the third-highest in the division.
However, what is even more interesting is that Derby have the seventh-lowest expected goals per shot rate in the league. The Rams are conceding an xG per shot of just 0.107 so even though they are allowing quite a lot of shots from the opponent, they are from lower percentage areas and are mainly ineffective. Derby have conceded just 11 shots inside the six-yard box in 11 matches so far this season, one per game.
In terms of defending the goal, the Rams hold their line at the edge of the box in their low block for as long as possible.
As already stated, Derby stay compact between the lines to deny central progression and force the opposition out wide.
When in this position, the defensive block shifts across, the fullback pushes out to close down the opponent’s wide player and the midfield line try to plug gaps in the backline, tracking runners and ensuring that there is no space for the team in possession to carve them open with a through ball.
From this situation out wide, the objective is to stop crosses, block any central passing options, and force the opponent backwards.
Here, Swansea have the ball out wide with the wingback. Derby’s right-back pushes out to close him down and the nearest centre-back does not move over to plug the gap. Instead, the right-winger, Knight – who is capable of playing in a central position – drops and tracks the run of Swansea’s left central defender who made a halfspace run.
The Swans are forced backwards to recycle possession as there is no forward passing option, no central option, and the ball-carrier is being pressurised. This is a perfect example of Derby’s defensive low block working in unison as it almost always does.
Wayne Rooney is Manchester United and England’s all-time top goalscorer but is coaching Derby to be so well-drilled and tactically disciplined from a defensive standpoint which is a credit to the 35-year-old and his coaching staff which also includes another English international, Liam Rosenior.
There is still a long way to go in the season but if the Rams are to be relegated, they certainly will not go down without a fight and their imperious, dogged and robust defensive tactics could be what helps Derby avoid the drop and pull off what would be one of the greatest escapes in English football history.