Duffers' Derby Diaries: Intriguing schedule will truly test Derby County's mettle
As weeks go, this one is up there with the toughest Derby County are likely to face this season.
I’m writing this on the eve of the trip to West Bromwich Albion, the second in a trio of league games that saw the Rams face Sheffield United last weekend and will end with a visit to current leaders Middlesbrough on Saturday.
All three of those opponents have led the Sky Bet Championship over the last week or so.
Add into the mix a Carabao Cup clash at Chelsea next Wednesday and it equates to an intriguing run of games.
Whether this week will be looked back at as being a defining one in the season remains to be seen. Given the amount of football played in the Championship, it’s hard to argue the results gained by the Rams will have too much of a say in the final standings, but it’s true to say losing all three would be, or would have been, a huge psychological blow.
That won’t happen, of course, as the Blades were dispatched in style on Saturday to get the run of games off to a flyer. Like most others at Pride Park, I’d barely got comfortable in my seat in the press box before Craig Bryson scored the opener inside 20 seconds, which set the tone for a cracking game that showed the Rams are every bit promotion challengers at this stage, particularly in the way they largely stood firm at the back as much as anything else - the Blades’ equaliser aside.
By the time you read this, the result of the West Brom game may well be known but there’s no doubt it will be a very different and much tougher challenge, as will the Boro’ game on Saturday.
It’s been interesting to see how Frank Lampard’s approach to team selection has played out over the season so far.
His favoured formation has raised few eyebrows, even if it’s made it tougher to accommodate the numerous strikers the Rams have at their disposal. Using Martyn Waghorn in a wider role has seen mixed results and Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson are really the best options there I think, but the recent form of Jack Marriott has propelled him to the front of the queue when it comes to the central striking berth. He’s now showing that the progression from League One football to the Championship is one he was capable of making seamlessly.
The midfield two of Bryson and Mason Mount have pretty much picked themselves up to now with both of them having been outstanding, although Bryson is likely to miss the West Brom trip so it will be interesting to see how the Rams cope without his workrate and, more recently, eye for goal.
It’s been no surprise Lampard has been keen to deploy the likes of Tom Huddlestone and Bradley Johnson to sit behind Mount and Bryson. As a player, Lampard benefited so much from having players like Claude Makalele sitting behind him and, on the flip side, struggled to make as much impact when playing for England when quite often he didn’t have that more defensive support. Doing so at Derby has in particular allowed Mount, a player very much in Lampard’s mould, to flourish in the final third.
Huddlestone is my preferred choice as on his day he is as good as anyone in the division and offers greater protection to the back four. I’ve not seen enough of George Evans to comment on whether he could be a better option once he’s fit.
Defensively, Jayden Bogle continues to impress on the right and although in recent weeks he’s lacked as much of the spark he showed in his opening games, he’s clearly a talent and the best option in that position.
Craig Forsyth had a great game against Sheffield United and will be hoping to stave off the challenge of Scott Malone to maintain his first choice status.
Centrally, Richard Keogh has settled after a shaky start, while Fikayo Tomori has been superb, which makes it all the more of a poser for Lampard now that Curtis Davies is back in action. I anticipate Lampard will stick with Keogh and Tomori for the forseeable future but I’d like to see how Davies and Tomori work together.
This run of games will no doubt answer many questions as to just which direction the Rams players are heading both in a collective and individual sense.