Leeds United and Derby County meet for the 115th time on Saturday afternoon.
The showdown at Elland Road will be the first meeting since their incredible play-off game in which then Rams boss Frank Lampard masterminded a stunning 4-2 victory.
He’s since departed, with Phillip Cocu succeeding the Chelsea manager, but the bad blood – with its origins tracing back to ‘spygate’ – remains. Leeds’ charismatic head coach Marcelo Bielsa found himself in hot water after sending a member of his staff to observe Derby outside their training ground before a meeting in January 2019.
This revelation – naturally – infuriated Lampard, who ultimately got revenge. However, after the opening seven fixtures of this season, the two sides couldn’t be in more contrasting form. The Peacocks sit atop of the Championship table whilst Derby are perilously close to the bottom.
This game represents an opportunity for Leeds to send a statement and Bielsa, who enjoys problem-solving, will have already dedicated the last few days to plotting Cocu’s downfall. But how could he get one over the already under-pressure Dutchman?
Since their opening win at Huddersfield Town (1-2) it’s been one struggle after another for Cocu, who is still finding his feet in one of Europe’s most demanding leagues.
To be explicit, they’ve collected just four points from the next 18 available, whilst suffering two defeats in the process against Bristol City (2-1) and Brentford (3-0) meaning they find themselves seven points behind pacesetters Leeds.
💬 | Marcelo on Derby: “Cocu is a manager with a lot of prestige, he has a link with ball possession, creative play, and dynamic. With a new manager, adaptation needs time. Their play does not reflect the table.” pic.twitter.com/bSm6YzYgcV
— Leeds United (@LUFC) September 19, 2019
It was a case of shooting oneself in the foot last term for Leeds, who are desperate to end their Premier League exile.The three-time English champions have now spent 15 years outside the big time and there were moments last season where it felt they were soon to be returning but that was they hit the wall and went from leaders to mere play-off contenders.
Any lingering disappoint has dissipated. Bielsa has since reaffirmed his commitment to the cause and claimed five wins from their opening seven games. This disparity between the sides gives Leeds the psychological advantage, meaning this could be one occasion where they sit back and see if the pressure envelopes their foes.
It goes without saying the midfield is football’s engine room. Here the outcome of a match is decided. Dominate the centre and you are halfway to victory. Of course, there are exceptional circumstances, but more or less this is a tried and tested principle.
Derby head to West Yorkshire with a small headache. Cocu, who has nominally deployed a 4-2-3-1 shape, opted for a double pivot of Tom Huddlestone and Krystian Bielik in their recent 1-1 home draw against Cardiff City and could very well start them in front of Derby’s defence.
This could be problematic when facing Leeds’ very own electric midfield which could feature Mateusz Klich and Jamie Shackleton, both of whom possess an energy that has the potential to overwhelm the Huddlestone-Bielik axis. By controlling the tempo, Derby – who have yet to show a Plan B or C – are likely to stare another poor result in the face.
“For me, he is a complete player,” Bielsa enthused. He could have been talking about many of the incredible world-class players he’s fielded down a near three decade managerial career.
But that was a recent quote regarding Arsenal loanee Eddie Nketiah, who has started life at Elland Road on a strong footing. Heading into this weekend, the 20-year-old England Under-21 marksman has bagged two goals across four appearances; making all of this more impressive is the fact he’s only played 78 minutes, leaving him averaging a goal every 39 minutes.
Given his raw pace, which could trouble Derby’s central defence – Richard Keogh and Matt Clarke – there’s a good shout for the Londoner to make his first start having not been called upon earlier than the 60th minute to date. But being a pragmatic soul, Bielsa could retain him to stretch a tiring Rams side late on, though one could ask why not seek to settle the game early?
From the Derby XI that started against Cardiff last time out no fewer than five of them – Kelle Roos, Keogh, Scott Malone, Duane Holmes and Tom Lawrence – started in that incredible 4-2 win at Leeds last season, with Huddlestone and Jack Marriott coming off the bench.
Conspicuous by their absence are Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, all of whom are now Premier League footballers. Tomori and Mount, initially on loan from Chelsea, have followed Lampard back to Stamford Bridge while Liverpool youngster Wilson is learning at the feet of Eddie Howe at Bournemouth.
To say the Rams are missing them is an understatement. Wilson was their top scorer last season with 16 goals whilst Mount, their No.10, chipped in by registering nine strikes. In their place Marriott and Holmes have taken those spots respectively, but they are yet to make sure their predecessors are forgotten.
As for Tomori’s successor, Cocu has largely opted for 22-year-old Clarke who is currently on a season-long loan from Brighton & Hove Albion. Him and Keogh have so far kept one clean sheet across five appearances together. In the same amount of first games last season the Tomori-Keogh axis helped Derby keep three.
Home is where the heart is?
This weekend’s fixture will be Leeds’ fourth home league game of the season. Elland Road, which should be a challenge for their opponents, has been anything but. Nottingham Forest (1-1) and Swansea City (0-1) have so far left with a result whilst Brentford (1-0) narrowly tasted defeat leaving Bielsa’s men sitting 17th in the league’s home table.
However, this isn’t a recent trend, across their last six home matches in the Championship they’ve won just the once which should give Derby a shred of confidence. It’s a different world on the road.
Leeds have won their last five on the bounce; registering 11 goals whilst conceding just the once. In the same number of past games at home they’ve bagged five goals whilst shipping in seven times.