The Rams Ladder: Derby’s most important players ranked

With half a dozen competitive games out the way this season, Phillip Cocu will have a better idea of how his Rams squad is shaping up, how signings are settling in, and where improvements need to be made.

In an updated, second instalment of our ‘Rams Ladder’ opinion series, guest blogger Simon Truckle ranks the current Derby squad in terms of importance. We know every player will have a role to play, but consider this our take on where Cocu’s men are right now.

1) David Marshall (New entry)

Number one in every sense, Marshall reminds me of ‘Big Dave’, the copper who plays between the sticks on my Sunday team. Commanding, reassuring and could probably turn a blind eye to a lock-in. Has done exactly what we asked for. Despite shipping 10 goals in the first five games he’s not really been at fault, apart from the opener against Luton if we are being picky.

He brings the sort of concentration levels and natural ability we were sorely missing last year and could be worth the 6-9 points that are the difference between mid-table and the playoffs.

2) Matt Clarke (+17)

Getting Clarkey back for another year was a bit of coup, and even more pleasing in that it was Leeds’ failure to convince Brighton to part with Ben White that made it happen. His heart stopping habit of performing drag-backs when last man is, you suspect, exactly what Cocu wants from his defence and Clarke has the ability to pull it off.

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This season he has been the Big Yellow taxi of the Derby defence, as, in the words of Joni Mitchell; ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’. After 15 minutes against Blackburn game we realised exactly what we have been missing. If he can continue the form of last season he can justify the whopping 17 place rise up the ladder.

3) Tom Lawrence (+4)

Tom rises four places to 3rd, which says a lot about the workrate he added to his natural ability last season The main criticism of Tom is his inability to get away with anything. You feel that if he decided to rob a house he’d go out wearing a striped jumper, a black mask and carry a bag with SWAG written on it. Subtle he isn’t, at least when it comes to the ‘dark arts’. Not for him the sly kick or gentle nudge, not when he can nut someone right in front of the ref.

Last season, at least until Sibbo showed up, he was pretty much our one creative spark. Hopefully having Jozwiak, Sibbo and Ibe in the mix he’s find the space and time to really turn it on.

4) Jason Knight (+1)

Tellingly, the only player to start all four games this season. Although clearly not a winger, he’s been arguably our best wide player and against Norwich, in what is his natural position he was immense in central midfield. He’s stated in interviews his idol is Roy Keane and he sees himself as a box to box midfielder. Knight has been a bit of a victim of our wealth of options in that position, but whisper it – he could just be the best of the bunch.

5) Martin Waghorn (+3)

With every passing day we fail to sign the heralded ‘9’ to replace CM9, Waggy’s importance rises. He’s up 3 from last year but another week or so and that could be higher – and he hasn’t actually kicked a ball this season.

At the time of writing he is the one physical presence we have up front and I expect to see him played down the middle this season. If he can lurk around in the box with Ibe and Joz feeding him from the wings and Sibbo behind, I fully expect him to better his goal tally of last year. He seems to perform best when reacting instinctively to chances in the box, and is a bit hopeless in a one-on-one with time to think about it. If we can tether him to a five-yard radius of the penalty spot he could save us from a Charlie Austin sized hole in our finances.

6) Krystian Bielik (+3)

With all the academy graduates coming through, it is easy to forget Bielik is only 22 and so we shouldn’t ask so much of him. Sod that though – I’m expecting him to have a stormer this year. Apart from his ability he is also a shape that I feel we have missed for years. We seem to constantly play against teams with long-legged rangey midfielders – Reading seemed to have about six of them – who stifle our game and stop us playing.

Having one of our own will complement the many neat and tidy midfielders we have and give us a much-needed physical presence in the centre of the park. I’m not sure how he will fit Rooney in – but the midfield that most excites me this season is a Bielik-Bird-Knight combo.

7) Kamil Jozwiak (New entry)

It’s a bit early to rate Joz, but for potential alone he has every right to complain about his position in the ladder. All he needs to do is combine Kinkladze’s flair with Johnny Russell’s work ethic and he’ll be flying up in no time – and initial signs are promising. Most Derby fans have been crying out for a winger that can take a man on, get to the byline and put a cross in. Literally the only time I can remember that happening recently was Reading away in Lampard’s first game, when Mason Bennett bombed down the right and crossed for Lawrence to score a brilliant header. Let’s take a second to re-read that sentence. Lawrence scored from a header.

If you ever questioned the value of crosses from a winger running at pace, the fact that even Lawrence can score from one highlights their importance. Our wingers tend to cut in and compress the play, but having wide men that stretch the pitch could be crucial to our season and Joz could be the man to do it. 

8) Jordon Ibe (New entry)

Ibe barely in the top ten? Someone is going to look very silly in January and I’m pretty sure it will be me. If he is true to his word and is returning a better player than the 2014 version, he’s going to tear up this league, let alone this ladder.

The only doubts are his lack of football over the last year or so, but if he can re-find his way and love of the game it is going to be one hell of show. Early indications look good, the fact that he really wanted to come here says a lot, as I imagine he was not short of offers. Getting him on a free could be the steal of the season.

9) Wayne Rooney (-8)

Wazza’s drop of 8 places is as much to do with his fitness as it is a bit of a question about his leadership. He has clearly been a little off the pace in our opening games, a back injury and very little pre-season has seen to that. As an aside, we are happy to confirm that the rumours that he hurt his back in a wrestling match with Jamie Vardy while Rebekah and Colleen stood at the side shouting ‘Fight, fight, fight’ are wide of the mark.

It is sometimes the little things in a game that you pick up on, and during his first few games you could see him pulling players around to defend throw-ins, while in the first games this season pretty much every opposition throw was unopposed as he stood off watching. Wazza showed his class in the closing stages against Norwich, ofcourse – but we’ve definitely seen the best and worst of Wayne this season.

10) Nathan Byrne (New entry)

Jayden who? A new entry into the ladder, Nathan Byrne was a very untypical Derby signing of recent years. We needed a right back to replace Bogle, so we bought one. And a very good one too it seems.

Byrne has been excellent and his sliding goal-line clearance at Carrow Road did as much to secure victory as Rooney’s free kick. At 28 he is in his prime – a rare thing for this Derby squad, which has been a bit polarised between the early 20s brigade and the over 30s.

11) Mike Te Wierik (New entry)

Dutch Mike is very much the proof of the point made at the top of this article. By not playing he became a world beater. I for one was expecting the elegance of Igor, the positional play of Paul McGrath and the spirit of Keogh. Turns out he’s got Keoghs elegance, Paul McGrath’s knees and Igor is nowhere to be seen.

After the opening three games he’s lucky to be 11th but, to be charitable, it’s early days and he could come good. After all, Igor’s debut was a 5-1 drubbing at Tranmere so you never know. Perhaps he just needs to get a decent pair of insoles.

12) Max Bird (-10)

A drop of 10 places for Derby County’s Michael Carrick. Absolute scenes as some might say. One of those unsung heroes who keeps the game ticking and dictates the tempo, except we sing about him quite a lot, or at least we would if we were allowed.

When England’s best player of the last generation hands you the armband you know you’re doing something right. His drop to 12th may seem harsh and is mainly due to his slow start, in which he has not quite seemed himself. Once his trademark metronomic passing and rangey runs forward return, he’ll no doubt have a big say in the outcome of Derby’s season.

13) Louie Sibley (-10)

And more scenes, another controversial entry with a drop of 10 places, Sibbo could be said to a be victim of his own success. After four goals – including the goal of the season – in his first two starts there’s only one direction it was likely to go. The signings of Jozwiak and Ibe could be the making of him this season, as he needs someone to take the attention of defenders away.

If you looked at our line ups for the first few games as an opposition manager he was pretty much our only creative spark, hence defences focussed on nullifying his threat. Get Ibe, Joz and Tom back in the side and Sibbo could find the time and space to wreak havoc.

14) Duane Holmes (-8)

When fit and firing Dwayne is our Corporal Jones – strenuously making the point that opponents ‘don’t like it up em’. Cocu’s preferred style of play is though the thirds, and having someone in midfield who can take a pass off a defender, turn and carry the ball 20 yards up the pitch makes such a difference.

We see a lot of teams sitting comfortably behind the ball, watching Derby pass from side to side in front of them and having someone direct, running at speed towards them makes them come over all Private Godfrey. Like Jason Knight, he has been something of a victim of our previously imbalanced squad. We’ve had wingers, lots of midfielders and as a result Duane often found himself on the wing which is not his natural position.

15) George Evans (+3)

The thing about Evans that I can’t get out of my mind is that Frank Lampard, one of the best midfielders the country has ever produced, played with him at Man City and off the back of that experience went out and bought him. I get managers being wrong about players they have watched but Frank didn’t just watch him, he played with him, in training, every day, for, well for a while.

Is there a player in there? I suspect there is and his versatility could be very useful this year. His confidence on the ball suits a back three and he can also do a job as a defensive midfielder which is why we see him storming three places up the ladder to a lofty 15th .

16) Graham Shinnie (-3)

All good teams need an underrated player. Think Nobby Stiles, Didier Deschamp and, er Daryll Powell. Put Shinnie in front of our defence and we look 100% more secure. A common criticism of Derby, probably since the Billy Davies era, is that we are too nice to play against. Shinnie seems to be the antidote to that.

His all action, aggressive, in your face style feels like exactly what we need right now. It doesn’t do any harm that he is also capable of scoring the occasional thunderbastard volley and I for one thoroughly enjoy playing Shinnie Yellow Card Bingo every time he plays. It’s only the return of Bielik that sees him so low in the ladder.

17) Jack Marriott (-2)

Is there anyone reading this who doesn’t hope that the next ladder sees Jack has jumped 217 places to top rather than sliding two to 17th? Sadly, I don’t think it is likely unless we radically change the way we play and I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the time this goes live, he is no longer a Derby player. You could say Jack has a lot of luck – just none of it very good.

Every time he seems to be getting there a big bloke comes and knacks him. Luton away, he scores, he is back, we are going to win, oh, a big bloke has just kicked him and off he goes. Again. Just a run of five games or so with him fit, is it too much to ask? Probably.

18) Morgan Whittaker (-4)

The scout that signed up Ravel Morrison for Man Utd said he did so before he had touched a ball. He could tell by the way he ran that he was a player – and there is something about the way Morgan glides past players that bodes well for the future. He is getting better with each game and was unlucky not to score from a belting shot against Norwich.

He might need to spend more time on the weights to become the real deal, as he does get outmuscled, but that will come as he develops. Given our relentless failure to sign a centre forward at the time of writing he could leap up the ladder before Christmas.

19) Andre Wisdom (-8)

It might be controversial, but I think Derby were the 6th best team * in the division last season. We were worse than Leeds, WBA, Fulham, Bentford and, through gritted teeth, Forest. But that’s it. I am firmly convinced we were better than the likes of Cardiff, Preston et al and I think Wisdom’s absence was a massive part of our falling away at the end. He was magnificent in the games up to the horrific knife attack he suffered.

The opposition had clearly identified that Clarke brought the ball out from the back and ensured that the only out-ball was to Andre, then scratched their heads as he Beckenbauered his way up the pitch to start our attacks. This season he seems to have had a (quite understandable) hangover from that incident but, I can see him getting better and better as the season unfolds and getting back towards to at least the 11th place he held last year.

*I’m not saying we would have gone up, we’d have got gubbed by any of the teams on that list in the playoffs.

20) Curtis Davies (+2)

Curtis, Curtis, Curtis. I’m going to stick my neck out and call it – future manager of Derby County. When not involved you can see how much he cares and I’ll always love him and Waggy for being in with the Derby fans at Leeds in the play-off. Sometimes football gets over-complicated and in more innocent days (one for the teenagers here) Peter Reids’ instructions when playing for England were; ‘get the ball and pass it to Glen Hoddle’.

Curtis falls into that mould. Head it kick it, give it to someone who can pass. As an organiser, vocal presence and out and out defender he could find himself invaluable in a back three. He’s also dead handy to bring on to see out the last 10 minutes of the game and he rises two places for his performance at Norwich alone.

21) Lee Buchanan (New entry)

If I was Mel, I would love Lee Buchanan and be shouting ‘It’s working!’ every time he steps on he pitch. All that investment in the academy is for exactly this situation – develop a player, sell him to a Premier League club, bring in a like-for-like replacement from the academy, repeat.

Lee has hit the ground running this season and in a novel twist on the old classic cliché, is surprisingly good in the air for a small man. I like the fact that he appears a bit hunched, almost like his body shape is designed to tackle, and he seems tailor made for the wing back role in Cocu’s back three formation. Very likely to romp up the ladder as the season progresses.

22) Kelle Roos (+1)

Derby’s Dutch deputy isn’t likely to see much first team action this season, having failed to claim the keeper’s shirt as his own last season and with international stopper David Marshall now firmly No.1. Credit to Roos for his penalty heroics against Barrow, but we’re not out the League Cup anyway, meaning he won’t be getting a runout unless Marshall is either suspended, injured, has a ‘mare (unlikely) or it’s the FA Cup.

23) Craig Forsyth (-7)

Craig Forsyth is the caravan holiday in Wales competing against the all-inclusive Lanzarote hotel with water park. There’s nothing wrong with him and we’ve had some of our best times there, but somehow he lacks the glamour, the sunshine and the novelty we all crave.

Another player – like Roos – who clearly looks second choice in their position , but could yet have a crucial role to play. With Malone and Lowe gone he is now our only recognised back-up left back and, if we didn’t have one, exactly the sort of player I’d like to see us get. An older, experienced defensive minded player who is good in the air to help develop and mentor the rising starlets. 

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