The first 45 minutes on Saturday was some of the best football that I have seen us play under Nigel Pearson, pressing and playing with pace. It was an enjoyable half but having missed some really good opportunities to put the game to bed, the final knockings of the game had the nerves jangling and it was a relief to hear the final whistle.
I was really surprised to learn after the game that Derby County had more than 66 per cent possession in that first half, arguably our best half of people this season and yet we hardly had the ball. Of course, statistics can be misleading but I doubt many games are won with so little of the ball.
There weren’t any surprises in Nige’s starting line-up; Rob Atkinson was the obvious choice to replace Nathan Baker following his head injury at Sheffield United and after an impactful substitute appearance, I expected Antoine Semenyo to come in with Ayman Benarous dropping to the bench.
Wayne Rooney wants his Derby team to play out from the back, but they didn’t look too adept at it and City were quick to close the space down early and press the Rams.
With Andi Weimann sitting just in front of Han-Noah Massengo and Tyreeq Bakinson, it gave us more energy in the press, and we appeared to be playing with more of an intention of keeping the ball on the ground. I have talked at length about the hoof-ball of recent weeks and the constant long balls out from Dan Bentley, that wasn’t on show as much.
We played the ball into Chris Martin’s feet more and the former Derby striker was able to hold the ball up and play in runners. I know Martin isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he is a good footballer and far more effective with the ball on the ground. In Semenyo we had a powerful forward with pace, and he was a constant threat for the experienced Rams centre-back duo, Curtis Davies and Phil Jagielka.
With the players that we have, playing three at the back is our most effective formation, reverting to a five when defending with Alex Scott and Callum O’Dowda dropping back in.
It was a fairly comfortable afternoon for the defence, I can’t actually recall Dan Bentley having to make a save. O’Dowda broke the lines on a number of occasions, coming from left to right and again showed the value of pace in the side.
City were able to capitalise on their attacking intent and took the lead through Scott on 17 minutes. Semenyo received the ball on the turn and drove at Derby, he was tackled and the ball broke to Weimann who failed to control it and the ball was deflected across to the onrushing Scott who finished with a left-footed shot from right on the edge of the area.
On first viewing live, I thought it was a straightforward finish but having watched it back, Scott’s supporting run and then technique and execution was spot on. Pearson spoke afterwards about the formation and how when one of the wing-backs breaks forward, it’s important that the other one is on the opposite side and the goal was case in point.
It should have been two not longer after, O’Dowda made another of those left to right, out to in runs which was spotted by Scott who played a lovely ball down the channel. O’Dowda broke into the box and picked out Martin perfectly on the penalty spot.
The veteran controlled the pass but could only drag his shot horribly wide. It was a poor miss, Martin going for the defended side of the goal when anything the other side would surely have doubled the lead.
There was almost a carbon copy opportunity for Semenyo following a fine run and pass from Weimann, but Antoine could only fire high and wide.
I think most City fans will have been pleased with the first-half, a huge improvement in the abject display we witnessed in Sheffield last weekend. Massengo was much more like the player we have seen so often this season and there was also a more disciplined display from Tyreeq Bakinson.
I felt Martin had his best game for quite some time and him and Semenyo worked well together.
Defensively we looked sound. Atkinson had his work cut out against the quick Festy Ebosele but he recovered well on a number of occasions to snuff out the danger. Tomas Kalas was commanding throughout, and Zak Vyner also did well but still had lapses in concentration, which he needs to cut out if he wants to maintain a place in the side. We restricted Derby to very little.
After the game Rams boss Rooney talked of not recognising his team in that first-half and that he would have changed all 11 at the break if he had been able to. His side did improve in the second-half, following a change of shape and a couple of subs but they didn’t really threaten.
We sadly couldn’t keep up the same levels of intensity and bad habits resurfaced with poor decision-making, wasteful possession and hurried defending. Pearson kicked and headed every ball from the sidelines and demonstrated just how important it is for him to be that visible presence rather than being sat in the stand.
The manager let Dan Bentley and Nahki Wells know just how he felt with a couple of passages of play from them, which is no bad thing.
There were green shoots in the first-half, but it should have been a comfortable afternoon and we have to manage the game better when on the ball, a constant theme across our season. Let’s be positive it was three points and a deserved three points and keeps us away from the danger zone.
Our 3 Peaps In a Podcast Bonus show ratings make for much better reading this week. Dan Bentley 6, Alex Scott 8 *MotM, Zak Vyner 6, Tomas Kalas 8, Rob Atkinson 7, Callum O’Dowda 7, Tyreeq Bakinson 6, Han-Noah Massengo 7, Andi Weimann 6, Chris Martin 7, Antoine Semenyo 7. For Nige it was a 6. It was good to see the Manager on the sidelines as I have said, and that first-half was definitely a step in the right direction.