Ryan Conway, Derby County Correspondent for The Athletic, previews Barnsley’s trip to the Midlands - here’s the view from the opposition camp.
The Reds made it five games unbeaten in the Sky Bet Championship after a 0-0 draw at high-flying Swansea City last Sunday and Gerhard Struber’s side will be looking to turn that one point into three on Thursday to start 2020 with a bang.
As for Derby, their narrow 2-1 win over Charlton Athletic on Monday saw them pick up their first victory in eight matches, after a difficult run of form for Philip Cocu’s men had seen them fall to 17th in the standings.
A double for teenage midfielder Jason Knight secured three points for the Rams at Pride Park after Krystian Bielik was sent off early in the game for a straight red card following a tackle on Charlton’s Conor Gallagher.
Lyle Taylor’s penalty in the 83rd minute set up a nervy finish, but the Rams were able to hold out for a much-needed win on home soil.
Speaking to Ryan Conway this week, he praised the performance of young midfielder Knight, who has impressed at Pride Park this season.
He said: “Jason Knight has been outstanding without a shadow of a doubt. He made his debut against West Brom in August and was good but lacked a bit of positional discipline and got a bit lost at times.
“I don't think anybody expected him to grow the way he has done and that performance against Charlton was magnificent. He's intelligent, a hard worker, comfortable in tight spaces, makes good runs. And at 18 it's remarkable how mature he is.”
Despite top displays from players like Knight, it’s been a challenging start for Phillip Cocu in his first season in English football following a summer move from Turkish side Fenerbahçe.
The Dutchman replaced the well-liked Frank Lampard at Pride Park after he returned to the Premier League to manage his beloved Chelsea.
After Lampard came a whisker away from promotion following a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa in the playoff final at Wembley, it was hoped Cocu could repeat the same success of last season, but take Derby one step further into the Premier League
However, after starting the season as one of the favourites for automatic promotion, it’s been a rather underwhelming campaign for Cocu and his team so far, as he tries to adapt his tactics to suit the style of the English game.
“It's been a very disappointing first half of the season,” added Conway.
“They had a spell where they won five on the bounce at home, registering four clean sheets in a row in that time and things were looking up.
“The last six weeks has really taken the shine off the apple, but the Charlton performance has hopefully given them renewed vigour. If we're grading like it's school, then I'd have given them a D for now.
“I think Cocu has struggled at times to impart his methods for a number of factors: injuries, qualities of the players and also he's got a bit cute at times with his selections.
“However, it's clear he wants to build from the back with the ball on the deck and use a striker who runs off the defender's last shoulder into space in behind.
“He likes his defensive line high and wants his full-backs to overlap the wingers. He likes to have a deep midfielder who can pull the strings with a good passing range, too.”
The 49-year-old has implemented a number of formations for Derby over the course of campaign but has recently stuck with 4-2-3-1 as the way to go in the Championship.
Conway expects Cocu to continue in the same fashion, following their victory over Charlton last time out.
“They've deployed quite a few different systems over the course of the season but more recently have reverted back to their 4-2-3-1 formation. I'd expect them to continue with that.
“They'll want to go forward in the same manner and maybe Cocu won't upset the balance of the team too much. He'll have to bring in somebody for Krystian Bielik (maybe Rooney and drop Holmes deeper) but I'd expect the same XI barring him and for them to approach it in the same way they did against Charlton.”
The last time Derby and Barnsley met in the league was back in October, as the two sides played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Oakwell.
Cauley Woodrow’s last-gasp equaliser in the fourth minute of added time, shattered Derby hearts, as the Reds were able to salvage a point on a cold midweek evening.
However, Conway believes it could be a different encounter this time around, given the form of both of these sides.
He added: “It's a tough one because Derby's win against Charlton really made you take notice of how this team can play. If they reproduce that performance, then they should fancy their chances - the added Wayne Rooney factor helps that too. But I wouldn't sleep on Barnsley at all, they've shown good form over the last month and Conor Chaplin is playing really well, Derby could be in trouble if he's at it.
“Derby's biggest weakness is their creativity. Generally, they've been poor at crafting chances. They need new wingers I believe and if they have an off day then Barnsley won't have to score many to beat them. Harsh but that's the truth.
“The fans have been disgruntled at times not only by the results but the manner of some of them. And you can't really blame them. Going away and getting beaten 3-0 consistently is going to irritate your fanbase. But I think most are understanding that this season is about consolidating and retooling to get ready for another crack at the playoffs.
“I'm going 2-1 Derby. I think they'll have enough, especially if Rooney plays and they replicate their performance from the previous game. But given the way Barnsley are getting results right now I wouldn't be surprised if the spoils are shared.”