The financial rewards of promotion to England’s top flight are far greater now than they have ever been. It was reported in the media that the 2017 Play-Off Final would be worth over £290 million over the following three seasons, so it’s unsurprising that owners of Sky Bet Championship clubs are now more desperate than ever to reach the Premier League.
In this regard, Derby County are no different. Over the past five seasons the club has always been touted as potential promotion candidates when the season kicks off in August. Significant money has been invested in the playing squad and several high profile managers have been hired and subsequently fired as the club has ultimately been unable to perform consistently enough across the 46 games to get promoted.
That being said, this campaign has a notably different feel for the East Midlands club. They currently occupy the second automatic promotion place, and whilst it would be extremely difficult for them to catch high-flying Wolverhampton Wanderers, their current form would suggest that they are more than capable of securing second spot, finally achieving their goal of returning to the top flight for the first time since that fateful record-breaking 2007/2008 Premier League campaign.
The real question that requires attention is ‘what has changed’? What has changed at a club that have repeatedly fallen short towards the back-end of the season? First and foremost, much of the credit must be given to the leadership of manager Gary Rowett and his backroom team.
The decision to sack Rowett from his post as Birmingham City manager in December 2016 was met with significant criticism, and the club’s fortunes since have certainly proved that the new owners undoubtedly got it wrong in relieving him of his duties.
Gary Rowett was sacked as Birmingham manager with the club sat in 7th place (© insideibrox.co.uk)
Despite this, Rowett’s impressive record at Birmingham City was no guarantee for Mel Morris that he was the man to get The Rams promoted. However, Rowett, who was recently awarded the Sky Bet Championship Manager of the Month Award for December, is quickly throwing the ‘poisoned chalice’ tag long synonymous with the Derby job out of the window – but how has been able to do this?
The key to Derby County’s success this season is rooted in the organisational discipline that the management team have instilled into the squad. Getting out of the Sky Bet Championship is now an exceedingly difficult task, and the competitive nature of the league dictates that a pragmatic approach is often required to achieve results. This is something that Rowett has effectively embraced.
The key to this approach has been ensuring that the squad has a solid shape, making them extremely difficult to break down and ultimately beat. Operating in the 4-2-3-1 formation, the side are incredibly well drilled and they occupy the defensive spaces extremely efficiently without the ball, which gives opposition teams very few opportunities to create chances and score goals.
As part of this, there is an understanding that they will not always be able to dominate games, and that in some cases they may be limited to chances on the counter-attack. Such a pragmatic approach is rarely adopted by top Sky Bet Championship clubs, but, in using it first during his Birmingham City tenure, and now at Derby County, Rowett has proven that pragmatism can be used to great effect at both ends of the division.
Whilst the superior organisation and shape that Rowett has drilled into the squad has built the foundations for their promotion push, such success would not be possible without an effective recruitment policy and a well-balanced squad.
The summer transfer window was vital for Derby County, particularly after losing key players Tom Ince and Will Hughes. Adequately replacing this pair and further additions were essential. The club were successfully able to do this. Exciting winger Tom Lawrence who enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at Ipswich Town last season was signed from Leicester City for £4.95 million, and the club opted for experience in midfield with the additions of former academy graduate Tom Huddlestone, and free agent Joe Ledley. Opting for experience in the middle of the park has proved a great success for Derby County, particularly in the form of Ledley, whose performances have made it hard to believe that he was a free agent throughout the summer window.
Similarly, Curtis Davies has proven to be another key addition. The centre-back has amassed 205 Championship appearances to date. He certainly knows the league and is undoubtedly a good communicator at the back, which has aided Rowett in his attempts to ensure that the side is defensively solid.
Matěj Vydra has bagged an impressive 15 goals in the league this season (© Nathan Stirk / Getty Images)
Finally, Matěj Vydra’s return to form must be acknowledged. The Czech international burst onto the scene in the 2012/13 season, scoring 20 goals during a loan spell at Watford in the Championship. In the following seasons, however, the striker struggled and was not able to emulate this success.
Nigel Pearson signed Vydra for Derby County in August 2016 for a club-record fee, reportedly worth in excess of £8 million. However, in his first season at the club he would only manage 5 goals from 33 appearances. In a recent interview, Steve McLaren noted his frustration at being unable to get Vydra firing during his second tenure as manager, suggesting that the striker struggled to prosper as a lone centre forward.
Under Rowett, Vydra’s fortunes have improved significantly. Rowett has shown confidence in Vydra by handing him the number 10 role in behind the striker. This slight change in positioning has been a revelation for Vydra and the club. The Czech has racked up 16 goals and 3 assists, making him the Championship’s joint top scorer. His goals but also his link up with the wingers and either David Nugent or Sam Winnall in front of him have made the side a potent force on the counter-attack, and if he can continue in the same vein for the rest of the season then he has a significant chance of firing Derby to the Premier League.
Ultimately, Derby County have never been better placed to give themselves a shot at promotion back to the top flight. It is certainly true that there are still lots of points to play for, and ensuring the squad remain professional and focussed is now the key task for Gary Rowett and his backroom staff.
That being said, Rowett has already proved his ability to get results at Burton Albion, Birmingham City and now Derby County and regardless of the outcome of the club’s season it is likely that the Bromsgrove-born manager will be coaching in the top flight very soon.
He’s built a squad that has the right balance between both youth and experience and attack and defence. On the pitch their defensive organisation is supreme and their ability to punish ill-disciplined sides on the counter-attack is often ruthlessly efficient. There is certainly plenty of work still to be done to hold off the assault of Cardiff City and Aston Villa. However, if they are able to approach each game in the same manner they have done for the first half of the season, then Derby County will be very difficult to catch in the race for promotion to England’s top flight.
By George Roberts