Derby County may have not pulled up many trees in the EFL this season, but their talented batch of youngsters has been a shining light in an otherwise underwhelming campaign. 19-year-old midfielder Max Bird is one of those, and he’s put in some stellar performances since breaking into the team at the start of the calendar year. Since coming off the bench at Wigan Athletic on Boxing Day, Bird has played every minute in all but one of the Rams’ league matches.
It’s fair to say that Derby’s run of only three defeats in their last 14 games has obviously been inspired by the arrival of Wayne Rooney. However, the performances of Bird, his peers Jayden Bogle, Jason Knight and recently Louie Sibley have also been a huge part of the Rams’ change in fortunes. Manchester United legend Rooney even described Bird as Derby’s best player: high praise indeed.
In fact, he’s impressed so much that his former manager Frank Lampard reportedly wants to sign him for Chelsea. This tactical analysis scout report will analyse his Championship performances in the 2019/20 season.
His role in the team
The teenage sensation has usually been deployed in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He’s played alongside Wayne Rooney, Duane Holmes and Andrew Shinnie in that position. Here is how the Rams lined up in their last Championship clash, a 3-0 win over Blackburn.
Within these tactics, Bird’s job is to start off attacks by finding space deep and receiving the ball from the defenders. He uses his fantastic intelligence and ball-playing ability to play short forward passes into Derby’s attacking quartet. He does most of his work around the centre circle and often shuttles out wide to receive possession from the full-backs. You can see this from his heat map below.
In the example below, you can see Bird is willing to drop deep to get the ball off Derby’s goalkeeper. This allows them to play the ball out from the back with a playmaker who is constantly willing to show for the ball.
When the Rams’ defenders are on the ball, the 19-year-old never seems to be far away, offering a simple passing option. Sometimes young players can be a little bit nervous when playing the first few games of their career, but the way Bird plays exudes confidence. He always shows for the ball and never hides on the pitch. He demands the ball and looks to affect the game with a maturity way beyond his years. Many people within the Derby camp see him as future captain material: if the Rams can hold onto him.
Another important role he sometimes plays when Derby have possession at the back is to sit between the centre backs, as he is in the next example.
This creates a temporary back three and gives full-backs Craig Forsyth and Jayden Bogle the license to push forward and create overloads in wide areas. Bogle is a dangerous attacking weapon and his ability to overlap creates havoc in opposition defences.
As well as showing a constant willingness to get on the ball, Bird is an excellent passer who rarely gives it away. He has an excellent passing accuracy of 88.91%. His ability to play short, simple passes is key for Derby’s ball retention, and if an attack breaks down they can recycle possession through him.
The teenager plays a lot of short balls, but they’re often forward passes that penetrate the opposition. In the image below, he plays a crisp forward pass into the feet of Louie Sibley after dribbling past Ben Brereton.
This is an example of his ability to break opposition pressing lines. Blackburn Rovers are defending in a 4-4-2 formation. He’s skipped past the first pressing line, and the ball into Sibley penetrates the line of Rovers’ midfield four. Sibley is then able to run directly at Rovers’ defence.
The eye test suggests that he’s able to deliver forward passes with quality and the stats back that up. On average, he attempts 13.95 forward passes per 90 minutes. 78.19% of those are accurate, which is amongst the highest success rate out of all central midfielders in the league. It’s important to be mindful that he’s only played 1,213 minutes of football, so it’s a small sample size to judge him off. But the signs are extremely encouraging.
Bird is blessed with a great left foot and is capable of playing longer balls to switch the play. He’s played 22 horizontal long passes in the Championship this season, with a 100% success rate. Below is an example of his ability to play a cross-field pass.
He manages to pick out Wayne Rooney who is then able to run one on one with Fulham’s right-back. Bird prefers to play through the middle, but as you can see in the image, Fulham have crowded out the midfield area. Thankfully for Derby, their young talent has the passing range to take the opposition’s central players out of the game.
Another string to the midfield maestro’s bow is being able to deliver crosses into the box. He’s recently started taking corners and free-kicks from wide positions for Phillip Cocu’s men, and he’s proven that he can deliver a quality ball from open play. In the image below, Bird sets up a goal by finding Jason Knight with an inch-perfect cross.
Bird has a knack of consistently delivering all types of quality passes. That range coupled with his undying desire to get on the ball makes him an attractive option for Premier League clubs.
Dribbling and off the ball movement
This analysis will now focus on Max Bird’s ability to carry the ball, and his movement out of possession to create dribbling opportunities.
Although the Rams’ academy product mainly prefers to pass the ball forward, he is capable of driving with the ball at his feet. Again, this comes down to the confidence he has in his own ability: he’s not afraid to try and beat a man and carry the ball forward. When he does break forward with the ball, he’ll wait until he’s drawn out a defender before slipping through a well-weighted through ball into the path of one of his teammates. Bird has a dribble success rate of 60%.
Below are two images from Derby’s win over Blackburn. He’s received the ball in his own half and has driven into space instead of trying to find a pass.
He had five Blackburn players around him, but they were unable to get the ball off him. He takes advantage of the defence backing off, fakes to go left and comes inside, before picking the right moment to simple through ball into the path of Martyn Waghorn.
This shows that Bird can break the opponent’s pressing lines by carrying the ball, but then he has the composure and presence of mind to pick out a teammate in the final third.
Below is a similar example from the same game. He starts off in his initial deep position, encouraging the Blackburn man to press him high. His opponent does this, but Bird sees he’s vacated the space behind him so makes a darting forward run.
He takes the ball forward and sees Waghorn making a run across the defender’s blindside. The 19-year-old then slots the ball into his path and Waghorn takes a touch round the keeper, agonisingly hitting the inside of the post with his finish.
Bird is far from the most physically imposing player, and he’s quite passive. You won’t see him charging around the pitch making crunching challenges. In fact, he averages 0.07 tackles per 90 minutes. However, his excellent positional sense and intelligence more than make up for this. Bird takes up excellent positions where he’s able to shield the defence by blocking central passing lanes. He’s then in a position to intercept the ball and break up opposition attacks.
His position in the image above is important, as he’s blocking a potential passing lane for Stewart Downing. Instead of playing a vertical pass that would penetrate Derby’s midfield, he’s forced to play the ball wide.
Below is an example of how he positions himself cleverly and doesn’t rush towards the player in possession.Blackburn have a three on three situation developing, but instead of rushing towards that, he stays central. Therefore, he’s in a good position to shuttle across and help his teammates out wide if needed. Also, if the Rovers player decides to find a man in the centre of the pitch, he’s close enough to be able to put pressure on whoever receives possession. Many players of his age could be a bit more susceptible to getting sucked in towards the ball. But Bird is aware that he needs to fill the space in the middle as well.
In the final image below, we see how he’s able to sniff danger quickly and win a defensive duel.
Blackburn’s Adam Armstrong has the ball near the byline, and the youngster sees that Sam Gallagher has created a couple of yards of space for himself in the area. Before Armstrong can pull the ball back to his teammate, Bird runs in front of Gallagher and gets to the ball first, only conceding a corner. Bird has won 66.67% of his defensive duels this season, and it’s his knack of thinking quicker than his opponents that allows him to protect the Rams’ rearguard.
Derby’s hottest prospect already looks like a very good Championship holding midfielder, even at the age of just 19. Bird is a good passer who is able to help the Rams keep possession and build attacks by constantly showing for the ball. Derby fans are lucky to have the pleasure of witnessing an academy prospect coming into the team and making such an impact. Even for neutrals, he’s a joy to watch.
It’s little wonder why Bird has been linked with Chelsea. He’s in the embryonic stages of his career, but the early signs are showing that he could develop into a top Premier League midfielder.
And who knows, will he go on to play for England? It’s very early to say, but he is the kind of midfielder the Three Lions have been lacking for years. If he continues in the same vein, he may be an option that Gareth Southgate will want to pursue in a few years.