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Opinion: The cost-free key to solving Derby County’s midfield conundrum

Derby County may look like an improved outfit to the naked eye in comparison to their attempts of last season considering their league position.

But despite sitting 4th in the League One table, there is an underlying factor that has left Derby County supporters underwhelmed.

Derby County’s form over the past couple of months has been excellent, in fact they sit top of the form table if you take their last 14 games into account. However, there is still unrest amongst the Derby faithful when it comes to the performances of Paul Warne’s side.

The forward department is seemingly fine, with both Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and James Collins sitting on 20 goal contributions in all competitions for the season already. The Rams’ defence has been one of the best in the league too, led by the indispensable centre-back partnership of Eiran Cashin and Curtis Nelson, with just Portsmouth, Bolton Wanderers and Stevenage currently bettering their record.

The midfield, however, has come under scrutiny. Often being bypassed this season, it is a problem area for Derby County which needs a solution, and that solution should not cost a penny.

Against relegation-threatened Cheltenham Town on Saturday afternoon, the Rams found themselves 1-0 down on home soil just before the hour mark. A triple substitution was being readied by Warne just as Max Bird hit the back of the net with a sweet-strike to level things. The equaliser did not affect the Derby boss’ decision to change personnel, and off came Conor Hourihane. Two of the three players to be introduced were fellow midfielders Liam Thompson and Tyrese Fornah, leaving Bird to drop into a deeper role and pull the strings.

This was effectively the turning point.

derby county boss paul warne
Image courtesy of: ANDREW COULDRIDGE/REUTERS.

Despite registering five goals and seven assists this season, Hourihane has come under fire from Rams fans as of late, so much so that ironic cheers could be heard as his number went up on the board to signal the end of his contribution against the Robins at the weekend. A concerning and arguably harsh sound to hear for any club captain.

The tactical switch worked though, as with Bird being given the license to dictate play with the fresh legs of Thompson and Fornah ahead of him, Derby began to take full control of the encounter. Cheltenham struggled to regain any grasp on the game that they previously held, and the Rams subsequently took the lead in the 81st minute through top scorer Collins to secure a vital three points in the League One promotion race.

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, Opinion: The cost-free key to solving Derby County’s midfield conundrum

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Could Hourihane be dropped?

Thompson has been a breath of fresh air for Warne’s men since returning from injury, so his involvement could be key to giving Hourihane a rest. In turn, that would be trusting Bird to fill the role of midfield orchestrator, which he is seemingly more than capable of fulfilling.

It may be too soon for Fornah to start the next encounter having only just returned from illness himself. But, with Louie Sibley also capable of filling the central midfield role and youngsters Darren Robinson and Adebayo Fapetu on the fringes, now could be the time to let Bird shine in that deeper role and with some youthful energy in front of him.

There is no doubt that Hourihane’s experience could still prove crucial this campaign, and his quality does shine through on occasion, he is the captain after all. He offers an experience that no other Derby County midfielder can and his dual threat of goals and assists has seen him play an influential role on numerous occasions. He likely will have similar displays in his locker over the remainder of the season too.

However, with the Irishman’s contract set to expire this summer it may not hurt to start experimenting with a starting XI that excludes him.

All eyes will be peeled for the team news that hits feeds at 2pm this upcoming Saturday when the Rams will visit Charlton Athletic in hopes of back-to-back league wins. After the turning point against Cheltenham Town, time will tell if Warne opts for this different system from the start or if he sticks by Hourihane.

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