Derby County is a team that never lacks young talents. With former Manchester United player Wayne Rooney in the team, young talents like Jason Knight and Max Bird perform better and better in the EFL Championship. As time goes by, they are doing better in all aspects, especially in playing out from the back.
Formation and System
In general, Derby County builds its philosophy on the base of 1-4-2-3-1 formation, which can be altered to 1-4-4-2 or 1-4-4-1-1 with one pivot sometimes. Up till now, they use 1-4-2-3-1 formation for 44.5% of all time, 1-4-4-2 for 17.4% and 4-4-1-1 for 12.5%.
Under this 1-4-2-3-1 formation, they try to employ short play approach with controlling the possession. They have 53% of possession per match. When they are in possession, they try to build out from the back using switching to the weak side for most of the time. In the weak side, there will be a lot of space for going forward. To achieve this, they try to use link players. The players on the weak side will serve as the target player. We will discuss more of this system later in the ‘Using link players’ part.
Nevertheless, they can still use direct long ball to find two strikers when using 4-4-2. This can create a 2v2 situation in the final third, along with some good quality of scoring chances. We will talk about this in ‘The long ball with 2 strikers’ part.
Team shape in playing out from the back
Under 1-4-2-3-1 system and their philosophy, they employ short play when playing out from the back. They try to keep possession under pressure and stretch the opponent’s line. Then they try to pick the free player on the weak side and exploit the gaps created to reach the next stage.
To achieve this, they mostly employ a 1-2-1 diamond shape in the central area in their own third. Only one pivot will drop to fill the tip of the diamond. It will be Bird or Rooney. What’s more, the fullbacks are conservative in this stage. They won’t get behind or parallel to the opponent’s midfield line. They position themselves in front of the opponent’s midfield line. Next is a picture of the team shape in the first stage to build out from the back, against 3 forwards as the reference point:
Using link players
Now I will illustrate the whole process of their building by using an example against 1-4-1-3-2’s pressing formation. In the first stage, the goalkeeper distributed the ball to one of the centre backs, keeping a diamond shape in the back, just as the picture is shown below:
When the ball is received by one of the centre-backs, Derby County will invite their opponent to press in one side. When the opponent clusters into one flank creating strong side, there will be a lot of space and a numerical advantage in the weak side. Now we look back to the example:
The left centre back invited the opponent’s striker to engage, and the whole team of Fulham moved to this side. And there was a lot of available space on the weak side. Then the pivot in the tip of the diamond dropped back and the left fullback also created space ready to receive the ball. They both opened their body and ready to pick the teammate in the weak side. In this stage, the pivot and the left fullback were the link players. They had the responsibility to link the ball to the players in the weak side, who are the final target players in this stage. When the ball goes to the target player, then it’s the trigger to go forward to the next stage. After knowing this, let’s continue to see what happened:
The left centre-back Matthew Clarke then picked the pivot Max Bird. Then Bird turned himself facing the weak side. With just two touches, he quickly passed the ball to the right centre back Curtis Davies. Notice here he passed the ball to Davies’s right foot accurately. When linking to the weak side players, it’s crucial to get the ball to the strong foot, or the foot that might get the play fast. This is because when using the weak side advantage, the timing is an important factor. If the ball is not passed to the right foot, the attacking may slow off, giving the opponent time to get back in a compact shape.
Thus Bird successfully transferred the ball to the weak side, buying time and space for his teammate. Then another thing we need to notice is that the full-back in the weak side was already in an advance position. This was to pre-support the upcoming switching to the weak side as an advance passing option:
Now we can see from the below image, that there was a 4v3 numerical advantage in this flank, along with space for penetrating. This was the trigger for the attacking to go into the next stage:
Apart from using fullback or pivot as link players, they can also use goalkeeper as the link player. The goalkeeper has the whole vision of the pitch and he also has the maximum passing angle. Let’s see an example of the goalkeeper being the link player:
As we can see from above, the opponent had already gathered in a strong side. That was the trigger for finding the target players on the weak side. Hence former Liverpool player Andre Wisdom started to look for link player to switch the play. When he was about to pass, he saw that Bird was being marked. Thus he chose to play to the goalkeeper:
Then the goalkeeper Ben Hamer used his right foot, taking the first touch to the left. This first touch was crucial since it allowed the goalkeeper to pass the ball the next touch, and boosted the play in switching. Then Hamer adjusted his body shape, taking the second touch as a long pass to the target player, the left fullback Craig Forsyth, who positioned behind his matchup:
The pass was fast enough that the opponent couldn’t chase it, but also soft enough that the fullback could take the first touch forward. The target player, the left fullback successfully received the ball behind his matchup, taking the ball forward using one touch. Then the play went into the next stage:
The long ball with 2 strikers
In building up from back in 1-4-2-3-1, Derby County mostly uses link players to target players as a dominate pattern. However, when using 1-4-4-2, they could also use long ball. Let’s take a look at an example:
You can see from above that the left fullback had the ball from his centre back. Then he was about to directly hit the ball down the final third to find the forward duo. This kind of action was permitted mainly due to a 2v2 in the central area of the opponent’s defensive line. You can see from the next picture:
In the central area of the defensive line, there was a 2v2 situation. Any numeral equality situation in the final third is favourable to the attacking side. Once the front player had the ball in possession, there would be a 2v2 against centre backs near the opponent’s goal, and the ball would also be away from own goal. So this was the first reason that they would try long ball as a solution when facing pressure in the back. What’s more, the players upfront also had the ability to run in behind the defensive line and win the aerial duel. Martyn Waghorn could win 53% of the aerial duels. Jack Marriott could access to the ball faster than the opponent in the run-in-behind situation, which would be like this:
Following the above scenario, Marriott accessed to the ball faster than his opponent in the box and successfully creating a 1v1 situation against the defender. Hence this is why Derby County could also use the long ball when playing 1-4-4-2.
Problems in playing out from the back
As I illustrate above, Derby County will mainly try to use the strong side to weak side switching play to create gaps for going forward. Nevertheless, this approach requires accurate passes. It’s crucial that when the link player passes to the target player, he passes to the outside foot of the target player. What’s more, the target player has to boost up the tempo of the play, or space will be blocked soon.
Sometimes Derby County’s players can’t complete the requirement of this approach, even not under pressure. In the build-up stage, the passing accuracy of the defensive line is not good enough, with only 70.8% accurate passes in this stage. Next is the example to show you what will normally go wrong in this stage:
Now the link player Forsyth, the left fullback was about to pick the target player in the weak side. However, the ball’s trajectory was not towards the target player’s outside foot. It bounced behind the target player. What’s more, the target player didn’t anticipate enough to touch the ball early. He let the ball cross through his body and ran behind chasing the free ball. Then this time the opponent successfully created the strong side again, like this:
In general, the tactics of playing out from the back can help the team progress the play. However, some details should be emphasized more to the players like the first touch and the right foot to pass to. With time goes by, we will expect to see them perform better and better in this phase of play.