Derby County lack sparkle in dour goalless draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers
WHAT has become clear in this, a season of edging forwards, is that Derby County have to be close to their best to win matches in the Championship.
At times, they were well short of their best in Saturday's clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers, a goalless draw that will not live long in the memory and has probably been forgotten by many already.
Missing from their play was the energy and spark seen in most home matches this season.
They did not create enough nor did they test visiting goalkeeper Carl Ikeme enough and so a team that have scored an average of two goals per game in their 16 League fixtures at Pride Park drew a rare blank in front of their own fans.
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Ikeme's one real save of note came in the seventh minute of time added on at the end of the game.
Jamie Ward, with four goals in his previous four League outings, had one last opportunity to make it five in five and become the first Derby player to achieve the feat for 15 years since Italian forward Francesco Baiano did so in 1997.
Ward drove his free kick hard and low through a crowded box but Ikeme watched it all the way and dropped sharply to his left to save.
The save was all the more impressive because Ikeme held on to the ball when many keepers these days seem keen, almost content, to push the ball away.
If a team fail to hit the right notes, then the next best thing is to take a point, as Derby did.
Positives from the goalless draw for them came in the shape of a clean sheet, the promise shown by 19-year-old left-back Michael Hoganson on his first senior start and in seeing a young side with an average age of 23 compete against a physically bigger side who are scrapping for survival.
Wolves are desperate to avoid a second successive relegation after falling out of the Premier League last season. Strugglers become battlers at this stage of a season and so the contest was always likely to be one of attrition.
Nigel Clough felt a draw was a fair result. Wolves boss Dean Saunders, a big favourite as a Rams player, believes with more of a cutting edge his side should have won.
They will need to find more confidence and conviction in attack if they are win games, especially on the road. Wolves are now without a win in 10 matches and Saunders without a victory in six since taking the job.
His team became only the second side in the League this season to stop Derby scoring at Pride Park but they did not trouble Adam Legzdins too much.
His two saves of note saw him keep out strikes from Jamie O'Hara in the opening few minutes and Bakary Sako 10 minutes after the break.
Wolves started strongly and there were concerns for Derby and their patched-up defence.
But what the back four lacked in years, they made up for in character.
John Brayford, on his 100th League start for the club, had to again fill in at centre-back in the absence of so many injured central defenders.
Brayford's exemplary approach remains the same wherever he is asked to play. He produced a handful of important headers and blocks as the Rams kept the visitors out in those opening 15 or 20 minutes.
His partner at the heart of the back four, skipper Richard Keogh, was also solid.
Derby improved once Will Hughes started to see more of the ball but Ikeme dealt comfortably with tame efforts from Ward and Craig Bryson.
When Brayford plays centre-back, Derby miss his link-up with Paul Coutts down the right and therefore the team's attacking play is not as fluent.
Twenty-year-old Kieron Freeman made only his fourth start at right-back and tried to get forward when possible. He also kept Sako quiet in the first half.
O'Hara's volley dipped narrowly wide but the lack of a cutting edge bemoaned by Saunders was there to see. Kevin Doyle looks out of sorts, a pale shadow of the striker seen in the past.
Half chances came and went for both teams in the second half.
For Wolves, Danny Batth blazed a shot over, Sako's fizzing low drive was pushed away by Legzdins and David Edwards' header looped beyond the far post.
For Derby, Hughes and Conor Sammon fired over, a Sammon header flashed just wide and substitute Michael Jacobs, on for the injured Hughes, ventured into the area only to see his attempted low centre blocked by Kaspars Gorkss, who defended manfully throughout his debut.
Gorkss has joined Wolves on loan from Reading and could prove a valuable addition in their fight to stay up.
Jacobs, still only 21, has his good moments but he can also frustrate. He did, however, liven things up in his half an hour or so on the pitch.
Eight of the 18 players on duty for Derby on Saturday are 21 or under. They are still learning their trade and so performances such as this should not come as a surprise.
Derby started with a 4-4-2 shape and had little joy in the first half. They switched to a 4-5-1 in the second half and improved to an extent.
By moving Ward out to the left and with Jacobs on the right they started to stretch Wolves' compact defence. This also allowed Bryson to come in from the left to his accustomed central midfield role, where he is immediately looked at home.
The switch did not pay off in terms of turning one point into three but Derby did threaten more than they had in the opening 45 minutes.
A failure to master the basics when it came to control, passing or the final shot or centre let them down at times. In truth, it was a poor game and one low on quality, while some of the decisions by the referee left both camps puzzled.
It was not really Derby's day but they plugged away and made sure they emerged with something, in this case a point.