Can Derby County finally get promoted?

As the English Championship completes its 21st match round, things are starting to take shape at both ends of the table. The prize for reaching the Premier League is now astronomical in terms of the money, as well as the prestige of playing in one of the best leagues in the world.

Watford, Bournemouth and Norwich have all shown that promoted teams are capable of holding their own in the top flight. Derby County have been pushing for promotion from the Championship for the past couple of years and been very unlucky not to make the jump.

After dominating the play-off final in Steve McClaren’s first season in charge they were beaten by an 89th minute goal. Last season they topped the table on 1st March, only for a combination of injuries to key players and the uncertainty surrounding McClaren’s position at the club saw them slip to 8th on the final day.

In the summer they appointed Paul Clement, unknown to some but coming with a good reputation following spells at Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid as coach/assistant to some of the best managers in the game.

They also spent a lot of money and by the time the transfer window shut they had signed:

  • Bradley Johnson (Norwich City, £6 million)
  • Tom Ince (Hull City, £4.75 million)
  • Jacob Butterfield (Huddersfield Town, £4 million)
  • Jason Shackell (Burnley, £3 million)
  • Andreas Weimann (Aston Villa, £2.75 million)

Chris Baird, Darren Bent, Alex Pearce (all free transfers) and Scott Carson (undisclosed) also joined in small fee/high wage deals.

Expectation was quite rightly very high but things did not go immediately according to plan. They failed to win their first 5 games of the season, drawing 4 and losing 1, and were also knocked out of the League Cup by Portsmouth.

However, since then they have lost only 1/16 games, winning 11, and sit well positioned in 3rd, just 2 points off the top. The top four in the Championship already seem to be pulling away from the pack and just 2 points separate them all, before a gap of 6 points to Burnley in 5th.

But do Derby have what it takes to finally get promoted?

I used StrataBet to investigate how their statistics looked this season, as well as where the turnaround in form had come from.

Some metrics make for obvious reading, such as Derby scoring the second most goals in the division (32) and conceding the second least (13). This looks very healthy, but using the Query Tool I looked deeper into Derby’s chance creation. Many clubs can do well for a short spell due to an unsustainable conversion rate but it’s hard to maintain this over a season.

When looking at the regularly used Shots On/Off Target metric Derby do not stand out. In terms of both Shots On Target For & Shots Off Target For they sit in the middle of the pack as shown in the tables below:

English-Championship-2015-16_Total-Shots-On-Target-(For).pngEnglish-Championship-2015-16_Total-Shots-Off-Target-(For)

This may lead us to believe that they should either be shooting more, or that a dip in the number of goals they score is coming.

However, at Stratagem we don’t just collect statistics on Shots On/Off Target. We collect in-depth data on the quality and situation of each chance, focusing primarily on what we call Great Chances, Good Chances and Attempts.

Derby are at the high end of creating Great Chances (3rd) and Good Chances (4th), while they also concede very few high quality chances – 3rd in Great Chances conceded/6th in Good Chances conceded.

We can work out a rough expected goals measure from all their chances created according to our average conversion rates. We would expect them to have scored around 33 goals and conceded 22, so they are ever so slightly under-scoring but doing much better than expected defensively. Perhaps this is where they will begin to slip?

In terms of style Derby are one of the teams who are most easy on the eye. Clement plays a passing and possession-based game, using pace in the wide areas to get behind the defence. They are versatile and can play direct up to Martin if they require and are also very dangerous on set pieces (scoring from one roughly every 3 games).

Key Entries (possession in the final 18 yards of the pitch) is one metric where Derby are well clear of the rest of the division. They have already achieved almost 10% more Key Entries than the team in 3rd, Brighton.

The table below gives a breakdown and there appears to be correlation between teams at the top end of the table having a higher number of Key Entries, something that makes sense:

English-Championship-2015-16_Total-Key-Entries-(For).png

The key teams to compare Derby to are their direct rivals – Middlesbrough, Brighton and Hull. The Matrix below gives an idea of how they rate compared to these teams:

Derby4

Each team is also given a statistical fair score, which we wrote about in our last blog. This shows that 3 of the top 4 are exactly where they “should” be, with Derby deserving to lead the table. Brighton are the only team in a position much better than could be expected.

Derby are on the right path. They are scoring at what appears to be a sustainable rate and though they are not conceding as many goals as we would expect, this could be down to a high quality back line.

They have already had a rough spell with injuries so will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last season and are hitting form at a good time of year, which should separate the teams with smaller squads.

As Brighton face Middlesbrough this weekend Derby will be hoping for the draw that could allow them to be top of the table at Christmas, provided they can beat Ipswich away. If they manage that, then maybe they can indeed get promoted this season.

Dave Willoughby