August review: Strong start but shambolic finish asks awkward questions

When Derby’s fixtures were released, there was a collective groan from fans and predictions we’d be relegation fodder by September. Phillip Cocu had been dealt a brutal start, we agreed we’d have to stick together and muddle through the best we could. However by the end of the month, two chaotic 3-0 pastings mean his honeymoon period is firmly over.

Early signs of the Cocu regime were promising – he got the inconsistent Tom Lawrence firing against Huddersfield, we had a new warrior centre back hero in Matt Clarke, and the youngsters appeared to slot straight in as we edged past Scunthorpe.

Fast forward five games though and Lawrence has reverted to type with several infuriating showings, Clarke is nowhere to be seen and the same youngsters are struggling with the physical demands of the division. So what’s gone wrong? And more importantly, how much of it is Cocu’s fault?

Paying the penalty

Football is always a game of ‘what ifs’, and most of them are pointless – but there are no excuses for missing penalties. If we’d converted all four spot kicks this month we’d be 10 places higher. Tom voiced concerns in an August podcast about Waghorn taking penalties – worries which turned out to be valid as he then missed another.

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Sky Sports pundits at the West Brom game suggested many teams lucky enough to get two penalties in one game should give the second one to a different player. We should’ve done the same. He’d already missed one, and Waggy’s strategy of keeping them low appears easy for keepers to telegraph.

Cocu catch-up

It’s easy to forget amid those last two shocking August defeats, the circumstances Cocu walked in to. Last season we scraped sixth on the final day thanks to a massive contribution from two loanees who are no longer here, and who are now tearing up the Premier League. They were never going to stay, and thanks to Lampard’s drawn-out departure, we had a tough job replacing them with anyone, let alone two players just as good.

Those circumstances aren’t Cocu’s fault. What has frustrated everyone is the contribution of the player Cocu recruited in Mount’s position, Kieran Dowell. No goals and one assist from six league starts isn’t close to what we wanted from a young midfielder with his reputation.

Huddersfield Town v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship - John Smith's Stadium

As Derby struggled towards the end of August, Dowell in particular appeared short on confidence and his play lacked urgency. Cocu, who challenged Dowell to do better before Brentford, lost patience too, replacing him after just 52 minutes. Dowell is one of many players to have started slowly – but he needs to make a big contribution soon or he can’t complain at losing his place.

Whether it’s lack of experience or lack of confidence, several glaring errors at both ends cost us badly this month – and Cocu can’t legislate for any of them. Waghorn should’ve scored all four pens. Scott Malone presented Bristol City with a crucial second goal gift. Max Lowe gave the ref a decision to make by going to ground against West Brom and conceding a penalty (even if it was a dive). These are all blunders by which just shouldn’t happen. We won’t drop gaffes as regularly as that throughout the whole season.

Stoke City v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship - bet365 Stadium

Let’s also consider this Derby side are way off how Cocu wants us to line up. Bielik is at centre back as he works up to full fitness – eventually he’ll slot in at CDM to give the labouring Huddlestone a much-needed break. That shift will also give Jason Knight a break.

We’re missing a defender who’s one of the best right backs in the league. Our most natural goalscorer still isn’t quite fully fit. Yes, the shambles at Brentford was alarming – but it should be a wake-up call and I’d be amazed if we give away goals as sloppy as those again this season. If we do, then yes – we do have a serious problem.

Hard lessons

So what did Cocu do wrong? To start with, he should’ve taken Forest more seriously. The Carabao Cup tie was our seventh out of eight games this month, but the team he put out was still too weak for both the opponents and the occasion.

He’s shown too much faith in Lee Buchanan at left back, who has promise but wasn’t ready for a local derby, let alone three games in a week. With Duane Holmes able to deputise at right back until Bogle’s return, I expect Max Lowe to slot in on his natural side, as he did in the second half at Brentford where we looked slightly more solid (even though the game was over).

Derby County v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship - Pride Park

Concentration levels and matchday mentality clearly weren’t there at Brentford – and Cocu has to carry the can for that one. He said his players showed ‘arrogance’ at Griffin Park, but just like against Forest, it’s the manager’s job to ensure the 11 players he picks are switched on, know their jobs, know the opposition threats and how to deal with them. All those fundamentals were lacking in our last two games this month.

There’s been chopping and changing too. Some tinkering is to be expected, but with players regularly getting hooked at half time, shapes varying from 352 to 433 to 4231, right now it’s genuinely hard to work out our best team or formation. The international break is a chance for us to regroup, look at what worked, scrap what didn’t, pick a set-up and stick to it.

Brentford v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship - Griffin Park

Any ‘Cocu Out’ shouts after six (SIX) games are quite clearly premature, over-dramatic and frankly ludicrous – they’re the impatient rantings of instant gratification keyboard warriors. Cocu’s job was always going to be a rebuild, and any rebuild takes time.

Some fans would have you believe we’re an unfixable, uninhabitable wreck with cracks everywhere. The truth is, right now Derby are more of a ‘fixer-upper’ – there are clear improvements needed, we all know what they are, but it has promise and the foundations are in place.

This month we also enjoyed:

  • Mason Mount and Harry Wilson both stepping up in the Premier League. It’s a shame it’s not with us, but we helped shape these great homegrown talents and they’re fulfilling their potential.
  • Non-Derby related, but Kasey Palmer appearing to ask now-full-time-pundit Gary Rowett, ‘Why didn’t you play me more at Derby?’ live on Sky Sports.

Goal of the Month:

Only two genuine contenders, but as it rounded off a slick team move, Tom Lawrence’s shuffle and left foot finish against Huddersfield wins it over Jack Marriott’s top corner rasper.

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